ECHO Collective, which stands for Empowering Communities through Her Opportunities, is connecting immigrant and refugee women with life-changing opportunities.
The organization was founded in August 2020 by Nebraska native Kelly Ross. Prior to founding the organization, she worked and volunteered for various Lincoln organizations serving the immigrant and refugee population including Southeast Community College, El Centro de las Américas, Lutheran Family Services, and Lincoln Literacy.
After listening to the stories of people that were starting new in America – specifically the Lincoln area – Ross developed a passion for helping these individuals overcome the unique barriers they face. She launched ECHO Collective with a strategic goal in mind: to give refugee and immigrant women the opportunities they need to grow personally and forge cross-cultural relationships while giving them the tools they need to establish a successful business.
“Through working in the community, I became friends with many women who were born outside of the USA and moved here as adults,” Ross explained. “I noticed significant barriers that were prohibiting them from enjoying the same opportunities that I have.
“Their primary barriers to entrepreneurship were English language acquisition, understanding applicable laws and regulations and finding a supportive community. Through our programs, we provide education at an intermediate English level, sometimes using interpreters, to ensure that women can pursue a better life without waiting years to develop an advanced level of English. We present information on following guidelines, rules, and laws in a way that’s easy to understand, and our community is well-known in the area to provide enriching and stable support.”
On average, ECHO Collective serves about 40 entrepreneurs and 35 artisans each year. There are 11 community members that serve on the board of directors, and in the organization’s first year of operation, it raised $25,000 from individuals who believed in ECHO’s mission. Now, it is about to finish its third fiscal year with a budget of $165,000, which is comprised primarily of individual donors and grants.
The organization’s flagship program, The Refinery, focuses on equipping women who want to be entrepreneurs or already own a business, with the confidence and tools they need to thrive. In this program, ECHO Collective selects a cohort of women to attend a four-month intensive business education course and participate in a community-driven learning environment. The team looks specifically for women who are still learning English, own a business, or have an idea for one, and were born outside of the United States. In addition, ECHO offers refined coaching, which is one-on-one personalized business coaching for refugee and immigrant women-owned businesses.
ECHO Collective provides educational and enrichment opportunities in the textile arts, like sewing, knitting, textile weaving and bead weaving. For example, the Afghan Maker Circle began in April 2022 through a partnership with the Asian Community and Cultural Center and provides Afghan women a safe and nurturing space to use their existing skills to create items for their new homes in Lincoln. ECHO Collective provides materials and equipment to sew, embroider, weave, knit and crochet.
Another example is ECHO Collective’s launch of a bead weaving class in partnership with the Textiles, Manufacturing & Fashion Design department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dr. Claire Nicholas helped create the program and Venn Jemkur provides weaving expertise and continued instruction to its female participants.
Changing the World
It is evident that ECHO Collective is not just transforming Nebraska’s small business landscape, but it’s also helping change the world – one woman at a time.
“We are all looking for somewhere to belong and ways to make meaning out of life,” Ross shared. “Our programs enable self-sufficiency and capability while building a social infrastructure to make space for the refugee and immigrant women who seek our support. ECHO Collective helps them as entrepreneurs and artisans, but we also motivate and inspire better relationships in all other areas of their lives – as wives, mothers, daughters, and friends.”
Looking ahead, the organization is marking its third year of business this August. The team will host a birthday party celebration that’s open to the public, featuring family-friendly activities, a market supported by Refinery entrepreneurs, food trucks, and more.
“ECHO Collective’s strength lies in community building,” Ross said. “After the graduates finish our programs, they continue to play an important role in our community by planning events, mentoring others, and offering peer support. This ensures a tremendous, long-lasting impact by instilling and fostering the feelings of welcome and belonging, which contribute to a happier life and greater sense of well-being.”