A heroine and her story

Downtown JC immigrant feted by White House

Alfa Demmellash’s personal experience of coming to America is what informs her to this day. She emigrated to the U.S. from her native Ethiopia in 1992 at the age of 13, joining her mother already living in Boston, Mass.
Her mother worked as a waitress by day and a seamstress by night. It was the money saved from her mother’s hard work that had helped bring her to this country. But her mother encountered problems trying to expand her seamstress business.
“She always said, ‘I can’t write a business plan, so I can’t really go after these resources,’ and that was a really big catalyst for me,” Demmellash said.
So Demmellash, who now lives in downtown Jersey City with husband Alex Forrester (son of former gubernatorial candidate Doug Forrester), founded Rising Tide Capital. The Jersey City-based non-profit has worked with budding entrepreneurs since 2004 to help them become actual business owners.
Through their Community Business Academy, a 10-week, $850 course, individuals, many of whom who are low-income and minority, receive training and resources to create economic opportunities for themselves and their community. The academy takes place four times a year and the students are sponsored by a local corporation.
For her efforts, Demmellash has been selected as one of the CNN Heroes of 2009. She is one of about 40, and in September CNN will select the final 10 to be honored at a gala broadcast in the late fall.
CNN Heroes is their search for “people driven to exceptional achievement in service to others.” The Heroes are selected based on a nomination by someone in their community.

Shocked and honored

Demmellash, 29, said she was “shocked” when she found out she had been selected. But she was also thankful for the attention.
“I think Alex and I are most excited that it will bring more attention to this type of work that we and others in our field are doing,” Demmellash said.
Forrester said he was “very proud” of his wife and of all the people involved in forming and maintaining Rising Tide Capital.
“Alfa and I do not see this as just acknowledgement of our work, but also of the entrepreneurs we are helping, who are our heroes because they are creating the jobs in the community,” Forrester said.


Demmellash was honored by President Barack Obama at a June 30 event.

And if being honored by CNN was not enough, Demmellash was one of the honorees at a June 30 event at the White House, where President Barack Obama hailed innovative non-profit community programs.

A modest hero

Demmellash helped her mom in her seamstress work in Boston. The work ethic and the lessons she learned paid off when she got to Harvard University.
“My mother came to this country and was able to use her skills to be able to sustain the family,” Demmellash said. “So I was definitely deeply interested in her business activities and making her more productive and more successful.”
It was at Harvard that she met Forrester. They had many discussions about gaps in resources for poor and low-income persons who needed capital to start their own businesses.
“The main issue was that anytime that we went to a resource center, they focused so much on having a fully written business plan,” Demmellash said.
It was the influence of people such as Demmellash’s mom and others that led to high praise from an esteemed admirer.
“So far, Rising Tide has helped 250 business owners in the state of New Jersey. So imagine if they could help 500 or 1,000 or more all across America,” President Obama said at the June 30 event.
For its 2008 Heroes, CNN received over 4,000 nominations from 75 countries. The finalist for 2009 will be announced this fall.
A video interview segment with Demmellash for CNN Heroes is airing currently at http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cnn.heroes/
For more about Rising Tide Capital, visit: www.risingtidecapital.org.
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at rkaulessar@hudsonrreporter.com.

© 2000, Newspaper Media Group