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Pittsburghs New Immigrants: Two Kenyan Women Pave Their Way in Pittsburgh

In Kenya, May Lebo and Lavender Wachira never would have met, let alone become business partners. They were from different ethnic groups, different social classes and different parts of the country.

But in Pittsburgh, where they attended school, the two Kenyan immigrants were free to team up as entrepreneurs, launch their own cleaning business and plan together for future business endeavors.

Like many recent immigrants, they came to Pittsburgh as students and stayed on work visas to capitalize on the economic freedoms of the U.S. -- freedoms perhaps best seen by contrast.

"In Kenya, in high school you take an exam that determines the rest of your life," Ms. Wachira said.

"Whatever you went to school for is what you work in," Ms. Lebo added. "You cannot be anything else. But here, you can be anything."

Ms. Lebo, 34, is a self-described farm girl from Kitale, an agricultural center. She studied TV journalism at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication and worked in TV communications and other media roles for seven years.

Her business partner, Ms. Wachira, 28, grew up in Nairobi, Kenyas capital. The daughter of a college professor, she was inspired by then-president Mwai Kibaki to follow his educational path and study economics at the University of Nairobi.

Though they didnt attend school at the same time, the two women came to the U.S. as Point Park University international graduate students in the business program. They met through a common friend, and their business relationship kindled after Ms. Wachira graduated from Point Park and became frustrated with her job prospects.

"After school, I was at a point where Im looking for a job, and the jobs that I was getting werent exactly paying what I felt a masters degree should get me," Ms. Wachira said, adding that, with her education, she thought she should be earning a minimum of $50,000 a year.

"I thought, these people wouldnt hire me for what I felt I should get paid, so maybe I should start my own thing."

Thats when she approached Ms. Lebo with the idea to start a business together.

After proposing and analyzing several business models, they started MayLav Elite Cleaning, an eco-friendly commercial, residential and party cleaning business.

They applied for counseling from Pittsburghs SCORE program, a nonprofit that mentors new small businesses, and from immigration supporters such as Mike Dawida, executive director of Scenic Pittsburgh and a former Allegheny County commissioner, state representative and senator.

"I have four grandparents who came from four different countries, and I think immigration has saved the country time and time again," Mr. Dawida said.

Their 1-year-old business employs five workers, and they expect to hire more as they grow. Although they dream of branching out to other, similar cities and pushing into new areas of business, they dont see themselves leaving Pittsburgh anytime soon. Ms. Wachiras family has moved here, and Ms. Lebo prefers Pittsburghs urban and rural blend to the relentless bustle of New York City, where she once lived.

"Pittsburgh is not too fast, not too slow," Ms. Lebo said. "Its just the perfect balance for me."

Their advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is best expressed in a common Swahili saying.

"Tembea uone mengi," they said. "Traveling opens up your mind." - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



Mon, 11/23/2009 - 00:16

Encouraging. I have been frustrated for a few years now trying to get the perfect partner to start a small biz with but your story kinda recharges me. Go power knows no limits!


Mon, 11/23/2009 - 00:16

Guest, trust me it is difficult to get someone to start a bus......... if you are not on the same level. However, if it is something you really want to do maybe I would encourage you to set it up alone and don't loose HOPE. Hope keeps us alive


Mon, 11/23/2009 - 00:16

Good job gals, go for it! But some small correction for Ms Lebo's statement that in Kenya, careerwise, you can only pursue what you studied in school. This is very very far from the truth. Fact is that due to a tougher jobs environment, the hustling culture is far more entrenched in Kenya than in the US. There are tens of thousands of Kenyan graduates pursuing other careers in small biz not related to their original academic-based careers. If life throws lemons at you, you make lemonade!


Mon, 11/23/2009 - 00:16

congrats girls. May you were never the girl to sit back and let things take their flow, you were always a mover right from when i knew you back in high school. wish you all the best and keep shining, endeleeni kulenga Juu!


Mon, 11/23/2009 - 00:16

Ka mtu

Huge difference between couple and partners. Google the difference and stop mixing issues for the heck of it.


Mon, 11/23/2009 - 00:16

It's just a cleaning business. Let's not get all giddy because some university graduates from Kenya opened a janitorial service in the States. How did they even get featured? Relatives?

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