Reporting, writing and photos by Abbey Marshall
Sima Arshadi recalls the days growing up in Tehran that she spent with her mother, sculpting flowers that would never die.
The technique — hours of mixing together the perfect concoction of ingredients for clay, molding and shaping cold porcelain into an iris or a rose, delicately painting details — was a Persian art form Sima cherished from a young age.
Since moving to Akron in 2016, after years spent in Turkey as a refugee escaping religious persecution, Sima has shared both Turkish and Iranian cultures with her neighbors in North Hill. She sits at her kitchen table with friends over fresh-brewed saffron tea, bakes coconut-stuffed shirini nargili cookies for neighbors and posts photos on social media of her hyper-realistic flowers.
Sima sold her art in Iran for weddings, birthdays and holiday celebrations. Now, she wants to take her passion for baking and art to the next professional level, but she doesn’t yet have the capital or the know-how to start her own business in the United States.
North Akron Community Development Corporation is launching a boutique to help Sima and other North Hill residents do just that.
After much success with their first endeavor, a pop-up restaurant with a new rotating chef from the neighborhood each week, NACDC decided to launch a shop next door for artists to showcase their work.
Like NoHi, NoTique will serve as a test-run for entrepreneurs who are curious about opening a permanent storefront. In addition to making and displaying their artwork, vendors will be paid in shifts to check out customers to get the full experience of working with point-of-sale systems.
“We want to provide for both budding and established entrepreneurs,” says Justin Chenault, NACDC’s operating director. “We do have some vendors who have established Etsy pages, but aren’t selling their goods in North Hill. We also have some vendors who have never done this before and want to figure out how this works in hopes of having their own business someday.”
The shop, located at 772 North Main St, will open on Nov. 27 and feature about 15 different vendors from North Hill selling everything from candles to jewelry to baked goods. The model is similar to that of Northside Marketplace in Downtown Akron, where sellers pay a rental fee for square footage to display their items, though NACDC Executive Director Katie Beck says NoTique is “more accessible” with lower cost to the artist.
After two stints at NoHi, where Sima’s “Persian Taste” menu garnered lots of customers urging her to open her own restaurant, she is excited to give Akronites another taste of her culture, this time through her artwork. She plans to sell her cold porcelain flowers and funky minimalist earrings, as well as an assortment of Turkish and Iranian cookies with gluten-free and sugar-free options.
“I hope I can make money to provide for my life and for my son, but I also want to help and give away money for the refugee people,” says Sima. “When I left Turkey for the U.S., [other refugees] were crying because they would miss me. I promised them I would help them someday. I was there; I know they have a hard time.”
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Sima usually works as an interpreter at the International Institute of Akron, though work is slim with fewer refugees and immigrants coming to Akron during the COVID-19 pandemic. She says the earnings from NoTique will be a huge help to her family and future business plans of owning her own restaurant and shop. She also hopes to meet customers who will support her future endeavors.
“When you’re making art, you put your love inside,” she says. “When someone is wearing my jewelry, they love it. When I’m seeing their happy face, that makes me happy.”
Though the vendors will rotate quarterly, Katie emphasized the importance of supporting businesses that had been marginalized, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve seen data and research showing women-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses have not gotten as much financial support during the pandemic,” she says. “Our commitment to support those groups aligns with our overall mission as an organization to provide racial and economic equity.”
North Hill is home to a robust immigrant and refugee population, as well as many longtime Black residents. NACDC’s goal is to bolster and empower those immigrants and residents of the neighborhood through economic development and programs like the NoTique.
“People can be limited in their vision because they don’t see people like them succeeding,” Justin says. “We want to be intentional about providing pathways to success. People in our community need to see what it looks like to succeed.”
NACDC is developing programming in tandem with the launch of the shop that will teach potential business owners fundamentals, such as how to take inventory and get a vendor’s license.
“We really want to be a launching pad to help these minority and women entrepreneurs get off the ground,” Justin says. “We definitely want to uplift our community and the culture within our community. We want to show them their products and culture and goods have value, not just within North Hill, but within the city, county and Ohio at large.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.