FARGO — As the community of color has grown in the Fargo-Moorhead area, so too has the number of residents of color involved in the area's business community.
Fargo-Moorhead's professionals of color work across a broad range of industries and professions, and many own businesses themselves.
In honor of Black History Month, The Forum set out to tell the stories of some of the professionals of color who are helping to lead the growth of the region's business community.
Though this is by no means a comprehensive list, we are always seeking to highlight the business leaders impacting our community. If you know of a business leader or owner of color worthy of recognition, email email@example.com.
Tony Andrews and Akua Hutchison, The Spice Grille
Husband and wife duo Tony Andrews and Akua Hutchison own and operate The Spice Grille, a Ghanaian and Afro-Carribean restaurant in downtown Moorhead.
Both Andrews and Hutchison moved to the United States, with Andrews living in Atlanta and Hutchison living in Philadelphia, before the two relocated to Moorhead to start a ministry.
Still, Hutchison’s passion for cooking remained, and the two started The Spice Grille four years ago, a restaurant among the first of its kind in the area.
Andrews said the couple faced early challenges integrating in Moorhead, a much smaller city than they were used to. “I know that, being a small town, everybody thinks they know each other,” Andrews said. “When you are unknown, you have to build your credibility before people open up to you.”
The same was true when it came to encouraging people to try their restaurant. “People have difficulties trying something new, and those are the challenges we have to face,” he said. “Trying to introduce ourselves and have people give feedback on what they think.”
Andrews, a member of the Moorhead Business Association, recalled attending meetings and realizing he was the only Black person in attendance. “You go into the meetings and you realize you are very outstanding because you are the only Black person in there,” he said. “There is some prestige that comes from it.”
He said the move to Moorhead has been worth the struggles though, because it allowed them to realize their dream. “We are able to see our dreams come true, our dreams of having a restaurant come true,” he said. “We came into this area with nothing and somehow we’ve been able to start our restaurant and it’s still going.”
It also allows Andrews to be a model for others. “Especially for the community that I come from, it gives the projection that you can also do it.”
Wil Dort, Skill Cutz Barbershop and Salon
Originally from Haiti, Wil Dort moved to North Dakota in 1997 before opening Skill Cutz in 2008.
In between, however, Dort spent time in jail for using and selling drugs.
Convicted of two Class A felonies, Dort would have faced an uphill battle in any job interview. “With my background, having two Class A felonies on my record, there’s no way that when I got out of jail that I was able to get a decent job to support myself and my future family,” he said.
Fortunately, Dort drew inspiration from his uncles in Haiti, whom he watched cut hair at a young age. “It captured my imagination, knowing that you can transform an individual,” he said.
Dort eventually became the first Black licensed barber in North Dakota, filling a gaping hole in the community. “I’m very fortunate to start out here. When I started out cutting hair, there was nowhere that you could get ethnic hair done in North Dakota,” he said. Some clients, he said, even made the three-and-a-half hour drive to the Twin Cities for a haircut.
Now, he said, the community is happy to see Dort fill the void. “I get a lot of love from people from North Dakota and especially Fargo, they’ve supported me a lot in all my years here,” Dort said. “If I started anywhere else, I don’t know if I would be as successful as I am today.”
Still, Dort said he faces a major challenge: trying to diversify. While he’s popular among Black residents, he wants anyone who needs a haircut to drop in. “I don’t want to be known as a Black barbershop,” he remarked. “It’s a barbershop. We serve everybody. We know how to cut white, Black or anywhere in between.”
Ultimately, Dort is striving to be a positive representative for his family, the Black community and his state. “I’m making sure that I always put my best foot forward and make my family proud and do right by the community,” he said. “I lived on the other side for a long time, and I want to make sure that I’m doing those things.”
Lamar Hill, Four Elements Therapy
Being in North Dakota’s foster care system from the age of three inspired Lamar Hill, a licensed social worker on both sides of the Red River, to work in the behavioral and mental health field.
Hill, who has both a Black and Native American background, opened Four Elements Therapy in January 2020 and is in the process of growing his practice.
Hill’s mother, who was from the Fort Berthold reservation, suffered from mental health and substance abuse issues, which ultimately resulted in Hill being raised by a white family in central North Dakota. His development in foster care and his mother’s issues drew him to the mental health field, he explained.
Having earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Mary and his master’s degree from the University of Minnesota, Hill also wanted to give back to his community. “I felt like I was called to do (this),” he said. “To be in a situation where I can and should give back, be a voice and a beacon for others is something that I felt like I was put here to do.”
Hill settled in Moorhead because Minnesota is one of the most progressive states in terms of allocating funding for the field, he said. He’s looking forward to “rattling those cages” around “old, in-place systems of practice.”
As a developing business, Hill said he faces difficulties establishing himself in the area. “The hardest thing, maybe it is because I’m a minority or just maybe because I’m somebody new in the community, is there are systems of service providers in place in the community,” he said. “Some are big, some are small, some are private, but there are definitely older, much more established systems of operation in play that make it hard to get in and disrupt some of that.”
Still, as a Black man in the therapy field and a product of the foster care system, Hill takes pride in his business. “It is a point of pride because based off of the numbers, I’m kind of a minority within a minority,” he said.
As his own boss, he also relishes the chance to be a model for his daughters.
Despite the obstacles surrounding the development of his upstart practice, Hill is aiming to become a key fixture among the area’s behavioral and mental health service providers. “If I do what’s in my heart, what’s ethical and what I need to do — and I do it well — some of those barriers will actually start to come down,” he said.
Trevor Mathew, Choice Bank
Trevor Mathew, a financial technology data developer for Choice Bank, is also the current chairman of the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo Chamber of Commerce’s Professionals of Color program.
The Professionals of Color program, Mathew said, hosts monthly networking events for individuals of color to create a support system, find resources and “get a sense of belonging.” The program also has discussion groups based on books or podcasts and invites leaders of color to give presentations.
According to Mathew, whose father is from India and whose mother is white, the Professionals of Color program helps remove some of the hurdles professionals face whether or not they are new to the community. “There are a lot of professionals of color that come into the community or are even born here who don’t have that sense of belonging or that support network and they don’t stay,” he said. “They come into the community and they’re motivated, really smart, hard-working people who just don’t stay because they don’t feel like they have a sense of belonging.”
Mathew said the group also provides resources for businesses to address and explore issues surrounding diversity in the workplace. “Professionals of Color is important both for helping to create that sense of belonging for people of color, but also for advocating for representation within businesses,” he said.
Thomas Jefferson, State Farm
A native of Columbia, S.C., Thomas Jefferson grew up in a predominantly Black environment. After moving to Fargo in 1978 to study in North Dakota State University’s coatings and polymers program, he became the first Black State Farm agent in North Dakota and South Dakota, a distinction he still holds.
It wasn’t the first time, however, Jefferson said he was “like a fly in buttermilk.” After a stint in the Army, Jefferson worked in Germany, where he was the only African-American at a Munich-based company of 1,100 employees.
Upon arriving in Fargo, Jefferson began establishing himself in the community through his work with the YMCA, NDSU’s Upward Bound program, as well as meeting parents and coaching junior high school sports. “The white community, they accept you based on how you carry yourself more than anything else, I think, and whether you’re a part of the community,” he said.
After being recruited by State Farm, he began as a “scratch agent,” meaning he had to build his agency entirely on his own. “Building my business, it was a struggle initially, but having a profile in the community gave me an opportunity to meet a lot of people and grow this business,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson has also worked with the Chamber’s Professionals of Color program, serving as the group's first chairman. The goal of the program, he said, is “not counting heads, but making heads count.”
With 33 years in the industry under his belt and worlds of international experience to draw from, Jefferson said he feels he deserves his place. “I don’t see myself as a Black agent, I see myself as a person of the world,” he said. “I don’t take a minority position, I take the position that I am worthy to be here.”