This DACAmented entrepreneur uses his immigrant experience to uplift minority businesses

Recently, an intimate family portrait made the rounds across several media outlets, from Eater Detroit to The Detroit News. In the photograph, Mamba Hamissi feeds his wife and business partner, Nadia Nijimbere, a bite of home-cooked Burundian food. Both smile radiantly, perched on the edge of a black leather couch in their Detroit home. 

It's representative of the warm and welcoming atmosphere of Baobab Fare, the couple's up-and-coming business. Expected to open in the spring, Baobab Fare will be a restaurant, marketplace, and juice bar, selling an array of food and products from East Africa. It also has the distinct mission of serving as a safe haven for immigrants, refugees, and indigent survivors of persecution, providing employment opportunities and a chance to contribute to Detroit.

Similar photographs to the one taken in Nijimbere and Hamissi's home are all across Baobab Fare's social media, depicting comfort food, Detroit pride, and the family behind the business. 

These are the types of moments photographer, social entrepreneur, and Detroiter, Juan Carlos Dueweke-Perez, captures. With just a snapshot, an entire narrative begins to unravel.

The man behind the camera is the founder and owner of Featherstone Moments, a trilingual and immigrant-owned marketing agency seeking equity for minority communities. Beyond the inbound digital marketing services Featherstone Moments provides, including strategy, social media execution, public relations, and website design, the agency strives to "help people who are also helping people." 

As an immigrant and person of color himself, Dueweke-Perez understands where his clients are coming from and meets them where they are. He taps into empathy, leveraging his skillset to share the unique stories and perspectives of those he works with, like Hamissi and Nijimbere of Baobab Fare and others. Sometimes this happens through a single photograph.  

"When you see that kind of picture, you know it's Juan Carlos," Hamissi says.  

A tale of two cities

Dueweke-Perez's entrepreneurial journey began at 11 years old, selling cheesecakes with his parents in Southwest Detroit. After school, he'd make the cheesecakes with his mom and then drive around with his dad to sell them door-to-door. 

"I sort of became the face of the cheesecake selling business in Southwest Detroit," he says. 

Dueweke-Perez's family moved to the United States in 1999 from Guadalajara, Mexico when he was 9 years old. He found stark differences between the two cities. In Guadalajara, the houses were close together. In Detroit, they were divided. He remembers the walkways that separated one house from the next on Livernois Avenue. 

"It was parallel to the way that I felt," he says. 

Although Southwest Detroit had a significant immigrant community at the time, as it still does, this wasn't the same as being someone from the area who spoke English and grew up there. But with the company of those like him — brown, immigrant, and undocumented — he found community in Southwest. 

In 2013, Dueweke-Perez received his DACA approval and began working at Starbucks, where he fostered relationships with customers, hoping to one day open up a coffee shop of his own. He served a custom drink called the Featherstone — a soy latte with Chamomile and Earl Gray tea with a little bit of vanilla syrup — to those he emotionally connected with. 

Juan Carlos Dueweke-Perez
"It was sort of the divider between people who were not good for me and the people who were," he says. 

Around this time, things were tough for Dueweke-Perez. He was working three jobs, caring for his children as a single dad, and barely getting any sleep. In 2015, he recalls being at a point where he had to make a decision between working at Starbucks or starting his own business.

And so, in July 2015, with $200 in the bank and rent due, he took a leap. 

"It sounds really romanticized. It was not," he says. "It was really bad. I had a few failures and slowly started taking on more work." 

Similar to the cheesecake business, he began knocking on doors. This time, it wasn't houses but instead businesses he knew needed help with services he could provide. With his photography experience and training from ProsperUS Detroit in tow, Featherstone Moments was born. 

Lifting up minority businesses

Along with Dueweke-Perez, Featherstone Moments is operated by three other team members, including Joanna Dueweke-Perez, his wife, Nadia Batayeh, and Maurizio Rosas Dominguez. They noticed a disparity in the ratio of minorities to minority-owned businesses in the city. Featherstone Moments seeks to change that by helping minorities attain resources and capital oftentimes made unavailable to them. 

In 2017, Baobab Fare won the $50,000 grand prize in a Hatch Detroit contest. Hamissi feels that that Baobab Fare and Featherstone Moments won as a team. The marketing agency provided critical digital media, PR, communications, and marketing guidance, connecting with Detroiters at a time when Hamissi didn't know many people in the city. 

Being immigrants — Hamissi, an asylum seeker, Dueweke-Perez, a DACA recipient — fathers, and Detroiters, they connected on a level beyond just business. Featherstone Moments is dedicated to the notion that minority businesses ought to lift up one another and build together.
"I saw a guy who looked like me," Hamissi says. "Not in skin color, no. But the pain, the interior, the passion, the future, the past, looked exactly like mine. And he was willing to help me and he was willing to push me."

Another project on Dueweke-Perez's docket is Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week, which is an opportunity to bring attention to and celebrate the area's diverse array of Latin-American cuisine. 

The first Restaurant Week took place in October of last year during Hispanic Heritage Month. In the midst of rapid neighborhood development, the 10-day promotion was an effort to resist erasure and empower the existing individuals and businesses in the area, some of whom have been operating for over 40 yaers. 

Co-organizer Monica Echeverri Casarez says that the mission behind the initiative is to make sure that the folks who've already been in Southwest for decades have a seat at the tables of communication.

"Let's do something that will bring some high profile to the existing places, get some attention on them, and help empower them to be spokespersons for their culture, their food, their restaurants," she says.

Southwest Detroit is often generalized as "Mexicantown," but this ignores the vast diversity of the area. To challenge this narrative, Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week demonstrates the immense cultural nuances woven into the community. 

Cooking beef tongue at Carniceria Guadalajara
Participating restaurants in 2018 represented regional Mexican, Caribbean, Central, and South American fare. From Guatemalan fried chicken at Pollo Chapin, prepared with a special blend of spices, to seafood from the coast of Mexico, each restaurant brought something unique to the table, in terms of taste, history, culture, and more. The smaller restaurants, many of which were family owned, saw between 20 to 50 unique visitors during Restaurant Week 2018. In total, there were about around 1,000 participants. 

Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week 2019 will take place from Oct. 4 to 13. Casarez would like participants to visit even more businesses, including bakeries and sweet shops in the area. They're also working to ease barriers like language or parking that prevent attendees from attending in the first place.

Dueweke-Perez says that, aside from the outside traction and media attention the event has drawn, some people learned about new restaurants of their own ethnic background. 

"I think that is possibly the biggest thing for us," he says. "We are definitely doing it to retain power, to retain wealth. But we wanted to make sure that it wasn't to invite gentrification. It was also to welcome the neighborhood into itself." 

This article is part of "Detroit Innovation," a series highlighting community-led projects that are improving the vitality of neighborhoods in Detroit, while recognizing the potential of residents to work with partners to solve the most pressing challenges facing their communities.

The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.

Photos by Nick Hagen
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Read more articles by Nushrat Rahman.

Nushrat Rahman is a Detroit-based freelance writer and contributor to The Edit, a New York Times newsletter. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter.