When Tashitaa Tufaa first arrived in Minneapolis from Ethiopia in 1992, he remembers craning his head skyward in disbelief. Looking up at the tallest skyscraper he had ever seen, he began counting the stories until he couldn’t count anymore. Eventually, he found out the building had 55 floors.
It was a long way from Negele Arsi district in the Oromia region of Ethiopia where he grew up. As a child, he worked alongside his 13 siblings on the family farm.
Now he’d have to do other types of work. He thought he had a fluent command of English that would open doors in the job market.
“But I found out that I didn't after I came to Minneapolis,” he said.
So he began as a dishwasher at the Hilton Hotel, earning $5.65 an hour. Eventually, he held as many as three jobs at once, including ones at manufacturing companies and another as a security guard.
The small paychecks of those days are long gone for Tufaa, who is now president of a successful bus company.
Each day, Metropolitan Transportation Network carries more than 15,000 children to schools, field trips and other destinations in Minneapolis and other Minnesota cities. The multimillion-dollar transportation company has more than 300 employees and recently moved to a new, larger operations center.
WATCH: From Dishwasher to Millionaire, Ethiopian Refugee Achieves American Dream
'I do not believe in giving up'
The road to success hasn’t been easy, but Tufaa believes his experience shows that for those willing to work hard, anything is possible.
“I do not believe in giving up,” he told VOA.
Tufaa came to the U.S. as a refugee. He had been a school teacher in Ethiopia and was also active in politics. Following the fall of Ethiopia’s communist Derg regime in 1991, he helped campaign for the Oromo Liberation Front in his native Oromia region.
When his party withdrew from the transitional government after a fallout with the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, Tufaa no longer felt safe in the country and decided to leave.
“I was a political asylee. I didn't like or agree with the Ethiopian government,” he said.
While working his menial jobs in the U.S. he also earned his master’s degree in political science and international relations from the University of Minnesota. After obtaining the degree, he worked for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.
Dishwashing and factory work were not enough to provide for his family, so he took an evening and weekend job as a shuttle driver, transporting senior citizens and people with disabilities to and from work.
“As a result I fell in love with transportation and I call myself an addicted driver,” he said with a chuckle.
He left his city job after a conflict with a supervisor and began driving taxis. But other drivers complained that he worked long hours and favored shorter trips to avoid long queues at the airport.
Eventually the taxi company fired him and, with no other options, he decided to strike out on his own.
“To do a business, you need to face a challenge. You can't start business if there is luxury,” Tufaa said.
Starting with one van
After sketching out their idea for a transportation company in 2003, Tufaa and his brother began delivering handwritten letters to public school districts seeking contracts. He started with his wife’s single minivan transporting homeless children.
Tufaa — who had once aspired to be a diplomat — says his negotiation and bargaining skills paid off. Their service was rated as excellent by public school districts and the business grew.
The business has steadily grown and now includes a fleet of nearly 300 buses and vans that take children to schools across the state. In 2012 Tufaa was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Metropolitan Economic Development Association in Minneapolis.
Since the beginning, Tufaa says, he prioritized the safety and punctuality of the children his company serves.
“I will not accept for my kids to arrive in school one minute late,” the father of five said. “I make sure that is the case for all the children we serve.”
Minnesota has long, snowy winters. Although buses typically drop off kids and leave, MTN pays its drivers to wait until the children get inside their homes or are met by an adult.
Employees marvel at his ability to grow the business without sacrificing his values.
“When I joined everything all I was hearing was, ‘We want to be more like a family,’” said Charles Marks, an assistant transportation manager at the company. “We kept that tradition and that makes the drivers come back every year. I always keep an empty chair next to my desk for anyone who wants to come and talk.”
Tufaa believes in building and empowering communities to be self-sufficient. He is active in the local Oromo community.
Estimated at 40,000 by the Minnesota Historical Society, Minnesota is home to the largest Oromo population outside of Ethiopia in the U.S.
Tufaa advises and mentors employees interested in starting their own business. In fact, since 2012, three former employees have started their own successful transportation companies.
“The greatest gift I think you can give people like you is that it can be done and I feel like I've done that,” Tufaa said.
This, he says, is a lesson for all African immigrants pursuing their American dream.
“When a person is free, you can do anything,” he said. “So appreciate what you have, work so very hard, and get rid of the wrong pride we have back home that if you have a college degree you have to be in a professional line [of work] and you can't dig the potatoes or do the dishes. Work is work and go out there and do what is available. Be proud of it.”