Mercado mentality

Midtown Global Market businesswomen share their stories

Top to bottom: Mary Kumar, Sharon Richards-Noel, Sibban Johnson
Top to bottom: Mary Kumar, Sharon Richards-Noel, Sibban Johnson

“A lot of the vendors come from cultures with a mercado mentality and are used to the idea of collective work. This business model is comfortable for them,” said Atum Azzahir, chair of the Midtown Global Market board and founder and executive director of the Cultural Wellness Center. The nonprofit center fosters economic development and cross-cultural understanding in the Phillips and Powderhorn neighborhoods of Minneapolis, where the Midtown Global Market (MGM) sits.

“The market is an attractive environment for women business owners because it’s neighborly, friendly and offers a chance at consensus style decision-making,” Azzahir said.

“The vendors who are involved with it now are grassroots people, small business owners, and many of them are first-time business owners,” Azzahir said. “They are very much a part of the economic machine in this neighborhood.”

MGM is full of small business owners from several countries selling international foods, trinkets galore, and hand-made wares. They are women business owners who have stories to tell.

‘My ambition is to flourish’
Women like Mary Kumar. Kumar owns Geetanjoli’s Sari Fashion, a clothing boutique located in the heart of the market just off the central plaza, an open space filled with tables, chairs and a stage for local musicians and dancers. Kumar sells saris, scarves and more from her market space. “All of the clothes I sell are handmade and hand stitched,” she said, pulling an intricately embroidered tunic top from a stand. Not only that, but all of the clothes in her stall were sewn by Kumar’s employees. “Three years ago I opened a factory in India. It is just eight machines,” she said.

Eight machines might not sound like a lot, but for the women who work in Kumar’s factory, which is located in a small town outside of New Delhi, those machines are a lifeline. The factory sits across the street from the local school. Women are able to get their children to class in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. Should a child become ill, there is space inside the factory for him or her to pass the day while mom continues to work. “I am a woman advocate,” Kumar said, “and I believe we can share what we have with others. I feel so good knowing I am helping women in India and women here, too.

“Seventeen years ago when I came to Minnesota, I was like an outcast. There were no Indians, but now we are on every corner,” she said. “I like the diversity here in the market,” she added. “I wish I could get bigger and hire more people,” she said. “My ambition is to flourish.”

Kumar is not alone in her ambition.

‘I like to consider people’s health’
Sharon Richards-Noel has infused her MGM small business with spirituality. Her food booth and catering company, West Indies Soul Food, is dedicated to the memory of her oldest son, who died in a car crash several years ago. His framed photograph hangs centered above the front counter. “I miss him,” Richards-Noel said, “but I had fun with him while he was here. I love him and I keep him with me wherever I go.” The loss of her son was a crushing blow as she’d long hoped he would join her in the restaurant business. Since his death, she’s had to scale back her hopes for two locations.

“The restaurant business isn’t easy. It’s really tough, but I love cooking, I love meeting people, and I love the sense of doing my own thing,” said Richards-Noel, who’s been doing her own thing since she moved to Minnesota from Trinidad at the age of 19. “Trinidad isn’t Jamaica and it isn’t Tahiti,” she said. “Trinidad is a very cosmopolitan island. It is diverse [and] that’s what I was hoping to find here at the market,” she said.

“This is a Caribbean restaurant and I try to offer a little bit from a lot of places,” Richards-Noel said. Her focus is on healthful eating. “I like to consider people’s health,” she said. “I don’t cook with chicken skin. When I make oxtail soup, I boil the oxtail the night before and in the morning, skim off all the fat. It’s an extra step, but as long as I know that the people eating my food are healthy, I’m good with that.”

I wanted more diversity’
At the opposite side of the market, Sibban Johnson runs Café Finspang with her friend, Maj-Britt Syse. They’ve known each other since they were young girls together in Finspang, Sweden. “We’ve known each other since we were 7 years old. We lived across the street from each other,” Johnson said. “I like running a business with my friend because I know that when we have disagreements or get angry, we will always have our history to pull us through.”

Part of that shared history is an interest in clowning. “I went to clown school in Sweden and in the U.S. Maj-Britt did, too,” Johnson said, admitting that clown school isn’t the most common of pursuits.

“Sometimes I wonder if there was something in the stars above Finspang. So many of us turned out to be artistic people.” These days, however, Johnson isn’t doing much clowning or art. She’s concentrating instead on growing her business.

Since opening Café Finspang in 2006 when the market opened its doors, she and Syse have been able to expand their booth space to sell not just Swedish pastries but Scandinavian trinkets and sweaters as well. Johnson is proud of the business she’s built here in Minnesota, and she’s especially proud of its MGM location. “One of the reasons I stayed in Minnesota is because I wanted more diversity,” she said; she made her first visit to Minneapolis in 1977 and was living here full time by 1990. “The main reason I was excited about this project was that it was always supposed to be a place where people of diversity would come,” she said.

If You Go:
Midtown Global Market
2929 Chicago Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55407