My People’s Market comes to SE Portland with an even bigger event to spotlight BIPOC businesses

Nearly five years after starting his artisanal coffee company, Khupsamlian “Sam” Khaute has become an embodiment of the American dream.

The immigrant-turned-entrepreneur founded Diaspora Coffee and Chai, a specialty coffee company, after a fortuitous opportunity to work at a local coffee shop led him to fall in love with great craft coffee and find community through Portland’s bean culture. The experience gave him the idea of starting a multi-dimensional coffee shop that also provides a space for refugees and immigrants to gain first-job experience in a new homeland.

Fast forward to 2022, Khaute is looking to open a new brick-and-mortar shop and hopes to soon see his products on New Seasons Market shelves. He credits community and city-led efforts like My People’s Market to get where he is today.

Backed by Prosper Portland and Travel Portland, the event is one of the city’s largest marketplaces celebrating business entrepreneurs of color and it will be coming back to town this June. The market’s success led Mayor Ted Wheeler to propose allocating $250,000 to the city’s economic development arm to explore the possibility of finding a long-term location for My People’s Market.

Khaute said the market gives local vendors an opportunity to showcase their ideas and creations, as well as attract new customers.

“My People’s Market is like the highlight of the year,” said Khaute. “It’s a way for people like me to network with other businesses and get inspired by hearing other people’s stories. For me, it’s an opportunity to share my vision and my mission, as well as hear other people’s visions and passions.”

Amanda Park is a program manager at Prosper Portland and one of the masterminds behind My People’s Market. She’d always dreamt of creating a space to promote Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) businesses and culture in Portland. Yet, Park noticed a lack of visibility of BIPOC-owned businesses in the city. As a result, she helped create Mercatus, an online directory of BIPOC-owned businesses, services, and programs across the state.

“We really wanted to find a way to support more business owners of color, benefiting from a vibrant tourism ecosystem and industry,” Park said.

And that’s what she’s building in the ninth incarnation of My People’s Market, which sources all its vendors from the Mercatus program. The first was in the fall of 2017 at the Redd East Event Space in the heart of Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District. It was an experimental event, she said, that served as the physical incarnation of the Mercatus program. Today, the market is part of a series of events hosted by Prosper Portland’s Inclusive Business Resource.

“It was a success, and a lot of people started bugging us about how we’ve got to do this every weekend, every month,” Park said, citing the significant outpouring of encouragement for the market’s success. “Folks saw how important it was to have a space that was welcoming for our diverse communities in Portland.”

Organizers say events like My People’s Market serve as an incubator for new and aspiring business owners who are still figuring out how much to charge for items, the vagaries of market insurance and government regulation.

“There are folks that will sort of start their business at the market,” Park said. “Or they’ll have an idea and go to the market to gauge whether people will want what they plan to sell, and they’ll go from there.”

Khaute said the community support created by events like My People’s Market serve as his “North Star.”

Growing up in northeast India, Khaute had never imagined starting a coffee company nor did he know he would one day move to the United States. But fate intervened when he met and fell in love with an American woman while teaching English in Vietnam.

After settling with his wife in her hometown of Portland in 2013, Khaute had a hard time finding a job with no work experience in this country. After months of searching, a fellow Iranian refugee who owned a cafe offered him a job and took him under his wing.

“Working at a coffee shop as a new immigrant was overwhelming because I had to learn a lot of new things, but it helped me get new skills and it taught me how to socialize,” Khaute said. He said he didn’t know anything about coffee or even the difference between a bagel and a donut. But before he knew it, he fell in love with the coffee industry and became obsessed with coffee.

Four years later, in 2017, Khaute founded Diaspora Coffee and Chai, which would serve as a space to not only sell his coffee and chai creations, but also serve as a training program for immigrants and refugees. But he had a big barrier: He lacked business experience and connections.

That’s where Prosper Portland and its programs like Mercatus came in.

“Prosper Portland has been instrumental in growing my business as far as helping revamp my website and providing us with experts and events like My People’s Market, which help us network,” Khaute said, adding that events like People’s Market have exposed his business to bigger companies that he thinks would have never known Diaspora Coffee and Chai ever existed.

“For example, I haven’t had my product in grocery stores but [My People’s Market] has made it possible to be known by like New Seasons Market and big players in the chai industry, like Oregon Chai,” he said. “The person who started [Oregon Chai] was a huge encouragement to me and she gave me very specific advice and comments on how to improve my products.”

In addition to burgeoning entrepreneurs, the market also features veteran business owners and some with brick-and-mortar locations. Park said those businesses have also found a lot of value in being part of the market.

That’s the case with Wambui Machua, the founder and owner of Spice of Africa, a Portland-based African restaurant she started 14 years ago to introduce the area to traditional Kenyan cuisine. She said she’s a part of Prosper Portland’s Mercatus program and has been involved with My People’s Market since the event’s inception.

Machua said the event makes it affordable and accessible for small businesses like hers to become a part of other markets and events. She said My People’s Market has been instrumental in helping her network and collaborate with other BIPOC business owners and artists. For example, she said the program helped her find a photographer, whose work has helped her business elevate its marketing and social media presence.

She said it especially helped when My People’s Market returned last year with a three-day in-person event amid the ongoing pandemic. Not too long before the event, she’d had to close down her restaurant’s first brick-and-mortar outpost inside the Morrison Market off Southeast 10th Street that she had opened just a month before the pandemic hit.

“During COVID-19, the market was really, really helpful for us,” she said. “We were able to grow our sales again to help us survive the COVID-19 years.”

Machua said she has since opened Spice of Africa at the Eastport Food Carts off of Southeast 82nd Avenue and a booth at the Portland State University Saturday Farmers Market every weekend.

Success stories like Machua and Khaute are examples of what My People’s Market hoped to create.

“I think that over the last five years, what we’ve seen is that the community of vendors that participate in the market have taken ownership of the market,” Park said. She said she hopes today’s vendors and the communities they’ve created will “drive the vision and the future of the market.”

Park said she’s excited to find a permanent home for My People’s Market, as well as to increase the frequency of the events.

My People’s Market will be held from June 3 to 5 at the Workshop Blocks, 1125 SE Water Ave., and will feature around 140 vendors selling apparel and accessories, home goods, art, books and food, as well as live music performances.

A full list of all the participating vendors and live performance schedule can be found at the event’s website.

UPDATE: This story was corrected to note the market’s location in Southeast Portland.