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United Way of Lancaster County


African immigrant entrepreneurs thriving in Lancaster

Musa Mmugambi plans to earn his real estate brokerage license. (Photo: Provided)

Musa Mmugambi plans to earn his real estate brokerage license. (Photo: Provided)
Musa Mmugambi plans to earn his real estate brokerage license. (Photo: Provided)

Ron Mukuria

(Editor's Note: This article was researched and written by Ron Mukuria as part of the Refugee Youth Journalism Project.)

Musa Mmugambi has just started the process of earning his brokerage license.

Mmugambi, an immigrant from Kenya who is in his late 40s, is a part-time independent real estate agent at the Younger Realty Group. He ventured into this field as a part-time job three years ago.

Mmugambi's example shows the dynamic entrepreneurial spirit that immigrants and refugees bring to Lancaster County.

The 4.9% of Lancaster County residents who are foreign-born contributed $1.3 billion dollars to local GDP in 2014, according to a study by the New American Economy and the Lancaster Chamber — equal to $1.8 billion today.

In 2017, the BBC reported that Lancaster County settles more refugees per capita than any other part of the U.S.

“They don't just start business and do work, but they tend to start businesses and do work that is different than everyone else does,” said Adam Ozimek, a Lancaster-based economist.

“It creates variety. It's one of the under-appreciated outcomes,” he said.

More variety is a good thing, making the region more attractive to tourism and giving people the opportunity to connect with different cultures.

From homebuyer to home seller

In Mmugambi’s case, one of the things that drove his interest in real estate was the experience of buying his first house ten and a half years ago.

“I had saved up some money, almost $40,000,” he said, “and I was ready to buy a house, only to be told that I don’t have credit. … I didn’t understand what credit is.”

He thought that so long as someone had the money for a down payment, they were good.

He now hopes to earn his brokerage license within three years. Currently, he is a full-time chemistry teacher at McCaskey High School, where he has taught for the past 17 years.

He plans to make real estate his full-time job when he retires from teaching.

Mbatia Kuria (Photo: Provided)
Mbatia Kuria (Photo: Provided)

Mbatia Kuria

Mbatia Kuria, 50, a Kenyan immigrant who is a local business owner, said people don’t become rich by working regular jobs, but by going into business for themselves.

“It’s in business that improvement in the people’s welfare comes,” he said. “You make your millions in business. If a community wants to develop and improve its economic lot, then more and more members need to go into business.”

Kuria is the managing partner or chief operating officer at Gifted Hands Home Health Care, a role he took over in 2017.

Gifted Hands is a small company with 20 to 30 employees. Kuria, together with some friends who were in the healthcare industry, formed it back in April 2015.

The group ventured on to this new business without any outside guidance, so it took them time to learn how to run it. It also took time for it to become profitable.

That’s not unusual, according to Melisa Baez, chief program officer at Assets, a local nonprofit organization that helps small business owners.

“The biggest downfall for new businesses is the financial piece,” Baez said.

Assets helps women and minority entrepreneurs plan, grow and improve their businesses. It focuses on business models, leadership and finances and has helped launch 214 businesses and support 1,191 female-owned businesses.

Baez encouraged entrepreneurs to plan thoroughly, keep learning and to take advantage of resources through Assets and other organizations.

Degrees often don't transfer

Kuria earned a bachelor’s degree in commerce at the University of Nairobi and was an assistant credit manager in Kenya. But, as is the case for many immigrants, the education he acquired back in Kenya did not transfer over when he settled in Lancaster in March 2008.

“The American system isn’t receptive to education acquired elsewhere,” he said.

In order to work at a bank, he earned an associate’s degree in accounting at HACC in 2009.

He worked some odd jobs to keep up with the expenses. In March of 2020, he earned his master degree in business entrepreneurship.

Kuria warns others who are looking into a venture in the healthcare industry that they shouldn’t enter merely because another fellow immigrant joined. Like most businesses, the first three to five years are for learning and growing. It might take awhile before one starts to see any profit being made.

The company’s goals are to continue to grow and expand and to buy a building.

When it does, Kuria hopes to start a business incubator in part of the space, especially focused on immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs.