For many immigrants in Grand Rapids, coming to the United States is a chance at a better life and opportunities. Martha PeeWee and her family, who moved to West Michigan from Liberia, have been able to successfully achieve their dreams of entrepreneurship by opening up Martha's International Market. This endeavor was made possible thanks to the willingness of her community to share a breadth of knowledge, experience and connections.
From its inception as a country, the United States has been dubbed “a nation of immigrants.” According to the U.S. Census
, there were approximately 40 million foreign-born individuals living in the United States in 2013, which accounts for about 13 percent of the total population. Each of these 40 million individuals has a story, a journey, a mixed cultural identity. Often times, being here means missing the familiar smells of the spices filling the air, and the way the carefully prepared meals brought a sense of security and certainty. Many grapple with the tension of missing their home countries and the desire to make a life in a new country. Sparked by this tension and dreams of entrepreneurship, Martha PeeWee has brought a taste of her home, the West African country of Liberia, to the south side of Grand Rapids with Martha’s International Market
Originally, PeeWee, her husband John, and their four children moved to the United States in September of 1997. She shares how living in Liberia was hard. Growing up, she was one of 12 children born to her parents, and resources were limited. She explains that Liberia is not a developed country, and many people there work hard while only seeing a paycheck once per month. She and her husband owned what she refers to as a “coke shop,” similar to a convenience store in the U.S. Even then, it was difficult to make ends meet.
PeeWee shares that her brother-in-law moved to the U.S. many years before she and her family did, and attended Calvin College. He eventually became a pastor and petitioned for PeeWee and her family to come to the United States. She recalls that they were approved, and 11 of her immediate and extended family members boarded a plane and headed to this country.
She explains how she mad mixed emotions of excitement and nervousness, saying, “I didn’t know what to expect.” She was unsure of what her new home would look like, how school would be for her children, and how to prepare herself for the change. While most of her husband’s family lived in the United States, PeeWee was leaving much of her family behind, including her parents and siblings. At the time, she was unsure when she would return.
After her arrival, PeeWee began working as a nurse’s aide at a local retirement home. She worked 12 hour days while at this job, and eventually this deteriorated her back.
As a woman of strong faith, PeeWee remembers lying in bed one day asking, “God, how can I improve my life?” In a dreamlike state, she heard a voice saying, “You need to make a business” and “sell food.”
Despite having this direction, she remembers asking herself how she would ever do this. “I lived paycheck to paycheck," she says.
One day, after paying all of her bills, PeeWee had $200 dollars left over. She vividly recalls that she accidentally left this money at a store, and when she returned to find it, she felt as though God was telling her to use the money to open up her own business.
Soon after, PeeWee and her husband, John, traveled to Canada to visit her father-in-law. There, she saw fish for sale that is sold as it is typically in Liberia. She used the leftover $200 dollars to purchase the fish. She returned to the United States and sold the fish to her friends at a higher price. She states that she saved the earnings and soon used it to buy other foods native to her country that were hard to buy locally, such as meats and seasonings.
She and her husband traveled to Canada, Minnesota, and Chicago, where the international markets are more diverse, to purchase these foods and subsequently sell them in the Grand Rapids area. On her days off from her day job, PeeWee would sell to her friends or stop at African braiding shops to sell her merchandise. She was connected to the large African community in the area, many of whom came as refugees through resettlement agencies and others through family connections.
She recalls keeping many of the products in several freezers in her home’s basement and jokes how the electricity bill for those months skyrocketed. She knew she had to expand.
After looking at various spaces to rent out, on Aug. 1, 2009, PeeWee finally settled on renting out the space located at 2917 Eastern Ave. She shares that, initially, it was very difficult, as she kept her full-time job and ran the store when she was not working.
“It was a really difficult time in my life, as I was only getting two to four hours of sleep per night,” says PeeWee.
However, she says that she saw how people were excited about her store. She saw the happiness of her fellow immigrants when they saw food in her store from their home country.
“At first, we only had one aisle of products, most of which came from Africa,” PeeWee explains.
As the business expanded, she began to add products from such countries as Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Honduras. While she is more familiar with African products, she states that she would like to continue to add products from many different countries outside of Africa as well.
Seeing others happy motivated PeeWee to continue to grow her store by purchasing her property and diversifying the products that she sells.
“I did not have much experience in business and was unsure of how to keep moving forward,” explains PeeWee.
In this moment of uncertainty, PeeWee shares receiving direction from God.
“I found out about these classes for business owners at Madison Square Christian Reformed Church," says PeeWee.
The classes were being offered through Partners Worldwide
, a community organization providing entrepreneurs with training, mentoring, access to capital and advocacy tools.
Craig Klamer was one of the instructors for the classes, and in May of 2016 he became PeeWee’s business mentor. Klamer holds an MBA and has more than 35 years of experience in the business world, including time in retail and merchandising.
Klamer retired from the business world approximately two years ago, and he states that he "wanted to get involved with mentoring.” He learned about Partners Worldwide through his daughter, who works for the organization in Asia.
Describing her as an “industrious and faith-filled” woman, Klamer shares how PeeWee’s store was running very well and was well organized. However, as is the case with many other small business owners, she needed guidance in the business aspect of her store. PeeWee and her husband wanted to buy their store’s property in hopes of expanding. Klamer sought to ensure the PeeWees had the necessary tools in place to be successful.
“I helped them organize their financial history, develop financial projections and prepare them for interviews with financial institutions to request a loan,” Klamer says.
To help with the real estate paperwork, Klamer shared his connections with PeeWee, and after five months of working together they were approved for a loan and were able to buy the property.
Currently, the PeeWees rent out extra space to a tenant but hope to eventually expand their business.
“I want to continue to work with Martha and John to help them reach their goals,” says Klamer.
Martha and John PeeWee are not the only small business owners with whom Klamer has worked. During the time Klamer has been involved with Partners Worldwide, he has been a mentor to six others.
“Often people want to start a business, but they do not always fully understand their consumer base,” explains Kamer.
Klamer suggests to anyone looking to start a business that they should put their plans in writing, “with statements of what you intend [to do] and how." Additionally, they should analyze their consumer base by asking themselves, “Is this the right place and time [for the business]?”
Partners Worldwide allows mentors and mentees to have a very flexible relationship depending on the needs of the mentee and the availability of the mentor. Some meet once, and others meet on a continual basis. All mentors in the Grand Rapids area also meet once per month to discuss the needs of community. Additionally, they hold a “Pitch Night” where local entrepreneurs can pitch their business ideas and receive feedback.
To date, Martha’s International Market has been successful. She sells products from several African, Asian, Caribbean, and Latin American countries. On a regular day, customers who have traveled multiple hours will visit her store in hopes of finding products from their home country. “They come from all over,” she says, including places such as Kalamazoo, Holland, Mackinaw City, Lansing, and the surrounding Grand Rapids area. PeeWee explains how blessed she feels, and how thankful she is for the help that Klamer and his family have provided her, including that of transportation, guidance, and emotional support.
“I am very blessed," PeeWee says.
Born in Canoga Park, California, Lizette Orozco grew up in a bilingual and bicultural environment in the Burton Heights neighborhood of Grand Rapids. After receiving her Bachelor's degree from Grand Valley State University, Orozco dedicates her time to unite families and children as an adoption specialist. When she's not busy with work she enjoys spending her time traveling and marveling at earth's wonders. Orozco can be contacted at [email protected].
On The Ground GR
On The Ground GR is a new Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found along South Division Avenue that touch the Garfield Park and Burton Heights neighborhoods. You can read all the On The Ground articles published to date here.
Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.
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