FEDERAL WAY, Wash.-Running an adult family home in South King County is a long way from handling HR issues at the largest bank in Kenya, but Catherine Kamau says the StartZone program at Highline College helped her realize an opportunity of a lifetime: owning her own business.
StartZone helps South King County residents achieve financial self-sufficiency by providing accessible and affordable training, advising and resources to build small businesses that are bankable, profitable and sustainable in the local economy.
“I am realizing a dream,” said Kamau, the 60-year-old owner of Ami Adult Family Home in Federal Way, which opened in 2017. Kamau recently bought a second home in the area and expects that after renovations are complete she’ll be open to new residents in 2020.
As a small business owner, she’s using many of the skills and expertise she developed as an HR professional, she said, and she’s building a business she is passionate about. “I am so happy that I am able to provide a home to people who might not have another place to go,” she said.
When Kamau first immigrated to the U.S. in 2008, she spent about seven years trying to find meaningful work that utilized her MBA in human resources management from the University of Nairobi. Despite her two decades of experience in leadership positions, she said, being an immigrant and an older woman worked against her in corporate America.
By 2015 she was back to providing in-home care to elderly adults, work she had often done on the side since moving to the U.S. “To care for our elderly is a cultural trait in my community,” she said. She appreciated the extra income and enjoyed the feeling of satisfaction from helping others.
“I am a people person,” she said.
When Kamau had encountered professional obstacles in the past, she had usually returned to school to get additional certifications or training. True to form, Kamau decided to lean in to caregiving and she enrolled in a certified nursing assistant (CNA) program at Highline College, and she also enrolled in a course for people who want to own their own adult family home.
At the same time, she began meeting with Phon Sivongxay, a business advisor with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Highline College. Sivongxay worked with Kamau to build out her business model and develop a financial forecast to package the request for funding. Highline College Business Development Program houses two economic development programs; StartZone Microenterprise program serving low to moderate-income households and the immigrant community & the Washington Small Business Development Center.
Sivongxay has been a StartZone business development advisor for nearly a dozen years, including the last two with the Washington SBDC. Sivongxay assists clients with all aspects of business advising and has recently become more involved with the adult family home community. She has helped three clients secure grants and/or loans to purchase adult family homes that have opened in the past year.
“Catherine was realistic and understood that starting her own business was going to be challenge because of financial constraints,” Sivongxay said, “but she was not going to give up on her dream.” With Kamau’s background in human resources, she was able to work through the various licensing requirements and certifications she needed to operate an adult family home, but getting a loan to buy her first home was a challenge.
Even while putting together a business plan and working on the loan application with Sivongxay, Kamau was working six and seven days a week to save money for the down payment. Through it all, she said, Sivongxay provided information and resources, as well as encouragement. “I must say, Phon was very, very helpful,” she said.
“Highline College StartZone and the Washington SBDC have provided technical assistance and continued support that have allowed me start and manage my business,” she said. “I want to express my gratitude and emphasize how important these programs are to the immigrant community.”
by Hope B. Tinney, Washington Small Business Development Center
For more information about the Washington SBDC go to https://wsbdc.org/
For more information about Highline StartZone go to https://startzone.highline.edu/