A Picture Worth A Thousand Words

Hamline Midway mural tells the story of overcoming challenges

By Bruce Corrie

Approximately 20 years ago, on the way to Hamline University's library, Freweini Sium felt so unsafe in the neighborhood that she took a bus on the short stretch on University Avenue. Today, however, she walks the neighborhood without hesitation, because today, Sium owns the block. 

Sium moved to America from Ethiopia, looking to follow her dream of becoming successful and independent. Although she began her journey to success studying to be an electrical engineer, opportunity turned her into an entrepreneur. Someone showed her the building on the corner of University and Snelling, which extends almost the entire block, and after much deliberation, she bought it with the help of her father. Over the years, through hard work, numerous setbacks and sheer determination, she has transformed the run-down building into a vibrant address that now houses more than 20 small businesses. 

Listening to the tremendous challenges Sium faced securing capital to renovate the business one is struck by the question: Do minority female entrepreneurs pay a higher premium for access to capital? Banks and nonprofits told her they didn’t fund real estate yet were known to have given loans to other businesses, and she paid a high premium for some short-term loans. Finally, after being rejected by area banks, she secured a loan from Vision Bank with the help of Mohamed Amin, a social entrepreneur. 

Sium also faced the challenges of operating a business. When she couldn’t find someone to run her beauty salon, she went to school and earned the credentials to do so herself. Now she operates a thriving business and is a sought-after stylist. 

While visiting Los Angeles, Sium came across a unique ethnic mall and wanted to bring the concept to Minnesota. Thus began her next big challenge of creating AJ International Mall. Her vision for the mall is to have a mix of complementary businesses that can do business with each other. Fifteen of the 17 mini stores currently in the mall are occupied by businesses from different cultures, and sell products such as clothing or cell phones, or offer services such as henna tattoos. The two new challenges she’s now working on are how to market the retail stores so that they can be profitable and how to address parking issues, so customers have a pleasant shopping experience. But like the challenges she’s encountered before, she is facing them straight on.

The building Sium owns is part of the Hamline Midway Murals initiative — a public art project that pairs immigrant business owners with artists to create a “gallery” of murals that tell the stories of the Little Africa Business and Cultural District. The mural that adorns the exterior of her building embodies the spirit of Sium and provides a warm, vibrant welcome to people entering Snelling Avenue.

The mural’s — and Sium’s — message to Minnesota is this: Dream big, work hard and keep your eye on the prize. Success will come in beautiful, vibrant ways.