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Start Summit at Northeastern’s Portland campus focuses on inclusivity and welcoming new entrepreneurs to Maine

 The two-day event brought together faculty, staff, community partners and new Maine residents to brainstorm business ideas that can help people who moved from other countries.

Three people speaking to each other and gesturing at the Start Summit.
Dozens of people gathered at Northeastern University’s Portland campus for a Start Summit dedicated to creating community and business ideas to help new Mainers. Courtesy photo

Clarence Zulu lived in South Africa for over 30 years before moving to Portland, Maine.

Luckily for Zulu, the family housing him while he goes through the asylum process helped him adjust. They walked him through the process of getting a driver’s license, opening a bank account and enrolling in adult education courses. 

But settling in a new country can still be difficult.

When the family heard that Northeastern University’s Portland campus was hosting a business summit focused on helping people who’ve just immigrated to the state, they recommended Zulu attend. After all, he was an entrepreneur in South Africa.

Zulu used his own experiences at the Start Summit to help pitch an idea for an app that’s a “one-stop shop” for new Mainers, connecting them with local resources. He walked away from the summit with more than just an idea for a new business, but with hope for himself as a “new Mainer.”

“As Africans, we have this preconceived notion of America and how perfect it is,” Zulu said. “The whole process was a major culture shock.”

There were issues that he didn’t anticipate, he said.

“The whole summit was a wonderful experience, because I got to actually hear testimonials from people who have gone through what I’ve gone through and have made a success of their life,” Zulu said. “To be around people that are like-minded, that are very friendly, and that showed a lot of empathy and sympathy to my situation helped me, just gave me hope.”

Over the last few years, there have been more people like Zulu moving to Maine from outside the United States, according to data from the Office of Maine Refugee Services.

With this in mind, Northeastern partnered with the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center to host a two-day Start Summit focused on inclusivity for people who’ve relocated to Maine from outside the United States. 

People sitting at tables at an event in Portland.
Dozens of people gathered at Northeastern University’s Portland campus for a Start Summit dedicated to creating community and business ideas to help new Mainers who came here from other countries. Courtesy photo

The goal was to bring together members of the community to brainstorm new entrepreneurial ideas that can help welcome these “new Mainers” to their new country and state.

“The theme for this Start Summit is part of a larger picture of what’s going on here in Maine,” said Terra Dunham, entrepreneurship program manager at Northeastern’s Roux Institute on the Portland campus. “It was a great way of integrating different groups on campus.”

The event attracted community members representing 21 countries. They kicked off the weekend with a discussion by Santiago Zindel, director of the Founder Residency Program at the Roux, about challenges people who’ve moved to Maine face. The next day, 29 people joined the startup portion of the event, featuring workshops on entrepreneurship and pitching a business.

Both new Mainers from other countries and people more familiar with the area joined the summit, resulting in six startup pitches to help immigrants new to the area.

One team pitched an idea for a credit card for new Mainers to build credit. Another included a platform to connect new Mainers to business owners to find work. And another proposed a platform where new Mainers could find community support, economic opportunities and resources.

“I was heartened by the general sense of inclusivity and respect with which the teams tackled the issues,” said Stella Hernandez, business hub director for the Greater Portland Welcome Center. “That’s a first step to good solutions in my mind. I was just so excited to hear the ideas they came up with in their solutions. I’d love to see some of them really happen (and was), so impressed by the Roux students who participated — just the coolest folks.”

The weekend was enlightening not only for newcomers, but also people from Maine. Jomkit Jujaroen was born in Thailand, but grew up in the Portland area and recently moved back. His team pitched an idea for a platform that connects Mainers looking for employment with employers, drawing on his perspective plus those of the new Mainers he met.

“I tried to draw some inspiration from things in my own life,” he said. “My family owns a restaurant and keeping the front room staffed can be a challenge. My idea was centered on new Mainers who need employment and small business owners who need workers.”

Miranda Shinn, a graduate student studying project management at the Portland campus, was part of the team that proposed an app to connect new Mainers with interpreter services.

“Hearing about other people and their stories that brought them to Maine was really intriguing,” Shinn said. “Hearing the struggles and triumphs was very nice because you really got to see someone else’s way of life. … It was very interesting and humbling to hear the stories and be able to contribute in a way that seems like we’re moving the needle forward in terms of bringing great talent here to that state of Maine.”