What's it like to be an immigrant business owner in Northeast Indiana?

What does the American Dream mean to you? For some, it means starting a business and blazing their own trail.

No doubt it takes a combination of grit, focus, and determination—and these immigrant entrepreneurs in Fort Wayne are showing they have what it takes to rise above obstacles and succeed.

David Loya 

David Loya and familyFrom: Democratic Republic of Congo

David Loya owns and operates TSHIRTTORRENTK, through which he makes and sells custom t-shirts and novelty tees in different colors and styles printed on ultra-soft material.

A self-taught artist, Loya says the business’ namesake is a reference to a Bible verse in which the prophet Elijah prays for God to send rain, and he delivers a “torrent,” if you will. The K refers to his son’s first initial. 

Speaking of faith, Loya came to this country about 10 years ago from the Democratic Republic of Congo not knowing what lay ahead for him. Like many immigrants, he was seeking a better life for himself, he says.

One challenge he overcame was feeling confident speaking English. (He grew up speaking French in his homeland.) Upon coming to the United States in his 30s, he had to navigate a new language and country at the same time.

Over time, he gained more confidence in his language abilities with help from an ESL class in Fort Wayne.

In retrospect, Loya says it helps to be humble when you’re learning a new language and acclimating to a new culture. 

“Talk to people in a way that you don’t feel embarrassed being corrected, and that will improve your language skills,” he says. “When you mingle with people, that’s how you can improve. Participating in and then learning a language; I believe, in that approach.”

A self-described positive person by nature, Loya has realized his vision of starting a side hustle in his free time while working a full-time job at Accu-Label. TSHIRTTORRENTK really took off after he completed the Build Institute program through SEED Fort Wayne, which launched in 2018.

“I went to that class, and it helped me a lot, especially with making more sales,” he says. “With Andie Hines-Lagemann as my coach, I’m trying to work hard at marketing, to take this business to the next level.”

So what's next for Loya? He says currently he’s running the business out of his garage, and he’d like to have a brick-and-mortar location. 

He credits his success thus far with being resourceful and having an open mind. He learned the necessary technical skills to print t-shirts on YouTube and picked up basic design knowledge via Udemy.com. In other words, when there’s a will there’s a way—a point he stresses to fellow immigrants.

“If you have an idea, write it down, he says. “Then seek out a resource like SEED, and they will help you figure out how to make it happen.”

Yan Wall

Yan WallFrom: China
Business: Guardian Machine Protection

Yan Wall came to the United States from China to settle in her husband David’s hometown about a decade ago. Although she studied elementary education in her homeland, she took a different career path upon coming to the U.S.

With David’s encouragement, she enrolled in classes at Purdue University Fort Wayne and earned a degree in finance. That led her to working as a CFO in the manufacturing industry in a role that afforded her some agency in helping companies work smarter to enjoy a bigger bottom line. 

Over the years, she observed one common pain point that was costing companies a lot of unnecessary time, money, and frustration: Avoiding routine machine maintenance.

“In keeping machines running, the response is reactive most of the time,” Wall says. “This costs businesses more money than if they took care of the machine before and prevented those problems from happening. So we started thinking, what can we do that’s better for the industry and can also benefit us? So that's the essence of Guardian Machine Protection.”

Guardian Machine Protection offers preventative machine maintenance plans on a monthly schedule and serves several facilities within a 60-mile radius of Fort Wayne.

Wall, who also went through the Build Institute, hopes to scale the operation. She believes that making more connections in the northeast Indiana community will help her cause. However, it doesn't come without challenges.

“I think there are a lot of networking groups in the area, but few manufacturing-focused ones,” she says. “As we’re dealing with manufacturing clients, I think this is a type of group that needs to be further developed.”

Another observation is cultural, in nature. For example, she says communication in Asia is not as open as it is in the United States. That affects how quickly a business relationship will develop. It was a bit of a transition for her to embrace a different approach when she entered the business world here.

“We need a lot of time to know a person and establish a relationship first before we do anything together," she explains. “But in Western culture, we’re more open and give people the opportunity to communicate.”

Nicolina Cirino

From: Italy
Bellezza Nails & Skin Care by Nicolina

Nicolina Cirino owns Bellezza Nails & Skin Care by Nicolina.

Like many immigrants, Nicolina Cirino came here for a better life—or more accurately, her parents brought her here from southern Italy as a teenager with that in mind. They moved to the East Coast, and she lived there until about 20 years ago when she moved to Indiana for her husband's job.

Around that time, she decided to make a career change and go back to school for aesthetics. She worked for a local salon before deciding to go out on her own in a suite off East State Boulevard. Over the years, her business has grown, mostly through word of mouth and programs like SEED Fort Wayne. But one move, in particular, has helped her find her niche.

"I took a course at the North American School of Podology," she explains. "I wanted to take care of my clients and give them something more than a quick manicure and pedicure."

This education has allowed Cirino to better cater to aging clients who may suffer from conditions like diabetes. She says it's gratifying when a client gets out of the chair and is beaming because they look and feel better after some pampering.

While she is grateful for her success thus far, she says it hasn't come without challenges. For one, the language barrier has been difficult. Sometimes people can't understand what she's trying to say or don't always return phone calls, she says.

Nevertheless, her attitude remains persistent.

"It makes me want to work harder to overcome challenges," Cirino says. "It makes me a stronger person."

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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