Thriving Local Business Finds Office Space at Plaza 122
John Haines of Mercy Corps Northwest says “This is a great startup of Somali cab drivers, PDX Yellow Cab, who work out of Plaza 122, a commercial property Mercy Corps Northwest purchased and revitalized to sell to neighbor investors in a community investment trust. Great things are happening in East Portland. Find out more about the Community Investments Trust and read about one of the new tenants below.
For 13 years, Dawood Ghedi paid whether he worked or not. Every Friday, he had to give cab companies $630 to secure a car for the following week.
Ghedi drove cabs seven days a week, he said, 12 to 14 hours a day. He bought his own gasoline and health insurance. He never earned a vacation day or sick time. A 2012 City of Portland survey of 250 drivers found he wasn’t the only one. Most Somali drivers Ghedi knew were working the same long hours for very little money. “We were in a bad situation,” Ghedi said. “But we have families. We have to work. I can’t make it if I don’t do 12 hours a day.”
Ghedi and nearly three dozen other Portland cab drivers quit Friday morning. Saturday afternoon, they launched their own company. PDX Yellow Cab was four years in the making, the first major Somali-owned business to open in Portland.
“We’ve been struggling,” Ghedi said. “We have 20 years, 15 years driving in this city. Today, we are owners. Today, we are free.”
For years, Portland officials allowed a limited number of vehicles to be used as cabs. They doled out permits to companies — 135 each to Radio and Broadway, 19 to Rose City — who then leased the permits out to drivers for a weekly fee.
The city didn’t limit the number of people who could be drivers, so companies had more drivers than it had permits. If Ghedi took time off one week, another driver would step up to pay the permit. Ghedi, then, would go to the back of the line.
Even working nearly 100 hours a week, Ghedi said he barely broke even. About five years ago, he and other Somalis began talking.
Before 2010, Somalis in Portland didn’t work together. The Somali civil war pitted tribe against tribe. That unrest came with refugees to the United States.
Then, a 19-year-old Somali attempted to detonate a fake car bomb at downtown Portland’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Mohamed Mohamud’s arrest shook the community. The tribes — Benadir and Bantu — no longer mattered. In Oregon, they were all Somali.
They formed a group, the Somali American Council of Oregon, and began plotting out goals to help Somalis here. At an early meeting, they surveyed the room. Nearly every man drove a taxi. Nearly every man paid someone else $600 a week for the opportunity to work.
If they owned a cab company, they reasoned, they wouldn’t have to pay the fee. They could work fewer hours, see their wives and kids more. They could give their teenage sons the one thing that would steer them away from trouble — hope.
“The ultimate American dream is ownership,” said Musse Olol, the president of the new council.
They began trying in 2012 to create their own company. But a driver couldn’t just start a company because he wanted to. City regulators couldn’t take permits away from the city’s existing cab companies. And between 1998 and 2012, the city had added no new taxi permits.
Still, Ghedi filed an application with the city’s private for-hire transportation board of review. Then he and three dozen Somali men waited. And waited.
“Sometimes I would see him, and his eyes would be so red from driving 12, 14 hours then working to build this company,” Olol said.
Last year, Uber brought more competition but also a blessing. In December, after an eight-month pilot project, the Portland City Council voted to allow the ride-sharing app to operate in Portland. The council also agreed to eliminate the permit limits. PDX Yellow Company could finally open.
Their application approved, Ghedi and 34 others worked to buy the cars, paint them yellow and run them through inspections. They rented an office space in East Portland and set up a dispatch system. They recruited others, even men who held other jobs, to share the cost of attorneys and insurance.
Abdulkadir Salad works full-time as an interpreter but will spend his evenings driving now, he said.
“This was a big dream of all of the community members,” Salad said. “Taxi drivers who were suffering from low pay for a long time, they made it.”
The competition wrought by Uber and Lyft will make success harder, Salad said. And the PDX Yellow Cab drivers still have a few kinks to work out. Though an inspector approved all their cars last week, they now need to secure permission to pick passengers up at the airport.
But the first victory was won, so they celebrated Saturday, pumping loud Somali tunes across an East Portland parking lot. As the sun set, men took turns giving speeches.
“We have one company now. We need to see more,” said Abdirahman Abdulle, the president of the Al-Noor Islamic Center. “We want to see small industries. We want to be a part of this community.”
Ghedi will manage the new company. From now on, he will work five days a week, eight hours a day. He will take lunch breaks, eat dinner with his wife and college-aged kids. He looked out at the audience and smiled. Life was about to get better for everyone.
“You can go to the city tonight,” he told his fellow cab drivers. “You can make money tonight. Just go out, make money and take your freedom.”
— Casey Parks