Tajik entrepreneurs visit Milwaukee

Women business owners find common ties

The entrepreneurs explore the Milwaukee Public Market.

Tajikistan has existed as a country since just 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved. The young nation then went through five years of civil war, ending in 1997.

In the past 10 years, though, the central Asian country has been able to form its identity and grow its economy, including through entrepreneurship.

Sattorova Shakhida and Rezeda Ismatova are among those entrepreneurs.

Shakhida in 1998 formed her retail business, Ortho Shoes Salon, which sells orthopedic and comfortable shoes out of a shop in the mall in downtown Dushanbe, the capital city of Tajikistan. Ismatova, also from Dushanbe, began her enterprise, Korean Cosmetics, in 2013. She imports and sells Korean cosmetics via e-commerce.

Both women saw a need in the market, and have found success as a result.

Ismatova and Shakhida were part of a group of four female entrepreneurs from Tajikistan who visited Milwaukee this week as part of a three-week international business program. They met with several businesses, including Third Ward marketing firm Kane Communications Group.

Each company represented by the entrepreneurs had something distinct about it that helped it get selected for the trip, Ismatova said through an interpreter. She pointed out successful women entrepreneurs are relatively rare in Tajikistan.

A lawyer by training, Ismatova quit that job to start her own company. She had been doing legal work for a Chinese company that bought Korean cosmetics, which is where she got the idea.

Shakhida faces some of the same problems as U.S. store owners as consumers shift their shopping online, she said through an interpreter, and Ortho Shoes Salon has been doing more Facebook marketing. But shoes need to be tried on before they are purchased, she said.

Neither Shakhida nor Ismatova had been to the U.S. before, and they were grateful for the opportunity to learn about the culture and business in Milwaukee, Shakhida said. Every day they learn new cultural and business lessons.

The entrepreneurs hoped to gain not just cultural understanding and business education, but also assistance in growing their businesses, they said. Shakhida hoped to get a long-term, low-interest loan or grant funding. And Ismatova was looking for a partner to help her import her cosmetics to the U.S. – but she has lots of plans to continue growing in Tajikistan to begin with, she said.

The International Institute of Wisconsin hosted the women through the U.S. Department of State’s professional exchange program, International Visitors Leadership Program. The entrepreneurs, with the help of two interpreters, visited the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp., the City of Milwaukee Office of Small Business Development, and small businesses including Kane, clothing manufacturer BelaBela, tour company Gothic Milwaukee, food truck The Gouda Girls, In Tandem Theatre and Tenth Street Gallery, Native American retail shop Kepis & Dream Catchers and formalwear retail shop Nikavonni’s.

The visitors were nominated and vetted by U.S. Embassy personnel and received J-1 visas for their three-week U.S. tour. They are one of 17 groups comprising 130 foreigners that will visit Wisconsin through the program this year, said Debra Revolinski, international program coordinator for the IIW.

“They are emerging leaders within their government or within the private or commercial sector, as well as scholars,” Revolinski said.

Among the goals of this particular program are to offer examples of women entrepreneurs and the societal barriers and assistance they encounter; show the importance of non-governmental and grassroots organizations in supporting the development of women-owned businesses; and examine different business models supporting women in business, including micro-lending and multi-level marketing.

At Kane Communications Group, owner Kimberly Kane discussed her decision to found the business in 2013 and the efforts she and her staff have put into growing and differentiating it. The entrepreneurs asked about marketing strategy, market research, social media targeting and other topics. The group found commonalities faced by woman business owners in the U.S. and in Tajikistan.

After their meeting, Kane employees and the entrepreneurs went across the street to the Milwaukee Public Market and had some fun exploring. Ismatova took a picture with her American doppelganger and ordered coffee from Anodyne, and they all took a group picture near the novelty T-shirts.

For the next two weeks of their tour, the group will also visit an East Coast and a West Coast city to get a feel for different regions of the U.S.

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Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.

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