When Christine Uwimbabazi came to the United States from her home country of Rwanda in 2000, she didn’t plan to open a small business. Instead, she came for college.
Christine enrolled at LaRoche University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Six years later, she married Reverien Mfizi, one of her classmates. The two had gone to the same high school in Rwanda, and with their undergraduate diplomas in hand, their next move was to Buffalo, New York, where Reverien had been accepted to a graduate program.
Over the 10 years that followed, Reverien completed a PhD in political science, he and Christine had three children, and she took a job in customer service. Still, it was difficult to make ends meet, and the couple wanted something more — they wanted to be financially independent.
“As immigrants and students,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had a hard time. But at the end of the day, nobody’s going to take care of your family for you.”
In 2017, during a summer free from his academic teaching requirements, Reverien decided to work as a driver for a non-emergency medical transportation service company. Seeing that there was a “huge shortage” of wheelchair vans capable of shuttling patients to and from regional medical centers, hospitals, and doctors’ offices, Reverien convinced Christine to take a week off from her full-time job to give driving a try.
She loved it, so much so that the two decided to start their own company: Prime Care Transportation. They applied to be a NYS-licensed Medicaid transportation provider. While they were waiting to be approved, Christine got her Class C driver’s license and took a job as a service manager at a local mechanic’s shop so that she could learn more about vehicle maintenance. However, once the couple was given the green light to begin operations in March of 2018, Christine left the garage to drive full time.
In the beginning, she drove during the day, and when Reverien got home from school, he’d drive at night. As Christine says, the two started from scratch, but with each new client, contract, van, and employee, Prime Care Transportation began to grow.
“We are risk-takers, and we needed a change in our life,” Christine said. “We needed to be able to support our kids, so we just did it. It’s the African way: you try it, and if it doesn’t work, oh well. If it works, then you continue. We knew that there was a need, and if we took the right approach, we knew people would come. At the end of the day, I wasn’t going to let myself fail.”
Reliable Roadside Assistance
Christine’s can’t-fail attitude and people-first approach translated into rapid growth; however, she and Reverien still needed help — both financial and non-financial.
That’s when she connected with Pursuit Community Finance, an Albany-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that serves minority- and women-owned businesses across New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. CNote partners with CDFIs like Pursuit in communities across the country, investing dollars into local small businesses and empowering entrepreneurs like Christine.
Christine had previously heard about Pursuit from one of her friends who’s also a small business owner in Buffalo, and in 2019, Christine decided to enter a pitch competition hosted by the CDFI. She ended up walking away the winner. Christine received a $1,000 check, but more importantly, she walked away with a new relationship.
“We were growing and trying to expand into different remote counties,” Christine said. “The problem was funding to get more vans and to hire more drivers, but we also didn’t know if we were losing or gaining money each month. We were working in the dark. Pursuit helped us to find a CPA who could help us balance the ins and outs. After that, we could plan.”
Pursuit also provided Christine with someone to help her improve her company’s marketing and social media strategies, as well as a human relations consultant who helped her draft an employee handbook. Additionally, this past March, Prime Care Transportation received a $32,000 loan from Pursuit to cover the costs of business insurance, operations, and payroll.
As much as she’s grateful for the money, Christine is arguably more thankful for how much Pursuit continues to care about the success and growth of her business.
“I don’t have the right credit score to go to a bank,” she said. “But what bank does what Pursuit does? They come to me and ask: ‘How are you doing? How is business? How can we help?’ These are things no bank will do. It’s one thing to give money, but Pursuit gives peace of mind. I don’t just have someone who gave me a loan. I have a friend.”
Christine says that the personal connection she feels with Pursuit has injected more stability into her business, and the CDFI’s on-the-ground presence and ability to connect dots in the community has paid major dividends for both her and Prime Care Transportation.
Rerouting for the Road Ahead
Despite all of the business support she’d received from Pursuit, Christine and Reverien’s business has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the slowdown of non-urgent medical care and surgeries, as well as a shift to telemedicine, Prime Care Transportation went from having 22 vehicles on the road to six, and Christine had to cut her team of drivers in half, to 11. Although those numbers are higher than they were a couple of months ago, when only Christine, Reverien, and two other drivers were working, Christine doesn’t think that business will return to normal anytime soon.
According to her, that’s okay. She’s finding the silver lining.
“COVID is the biggest challenge we’ve had,” Christine said. “But it’s given me an opportunity to focus on marketing, and it’s given me a break to step back and to rethink and to reevaluate what we can do in the future, because our market is not going to be the same.”
The lull created by the global pandemic has also given Christine some time to reflect on how far she and her small business have come in such a short period of time. She need only look out the window to be reminded of Prime Care Transportation’s very first ride. The van she used to shuttle her inaugural client to the medical center is parked out front, broken down and unfixable. Christine can’t bring herself to part with it — there’s too much emotion wrapped up in it.
“To even still be in business itself is a good thing,” she said, “but I’ll never forget the first day. We make such a difference in peoples’ lives. We are more than drivers. We make people feel comfortable and safe and cared for, and if we don’t transport these people, then the doctors won’t be able to do their jobs, and these people won’t get their blood cleaned or their shots or their surgeries. We’re part of the circle. We complete each other.”
It’s that focus on the big picture that’s driving Christine forward.
“I’m scared about what will happen tomorrow,” she said. “I don’t have money, and I don’t have connections. The only thing I have is me, working hard, and showing that I can do the best I can for other people. If we’re going to outcompete all the other companies out there, then we’ll beat them with tenderness.”
- Prime Care Transportation
- Pursuit Community Finance: An Albany-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that serves minority- and women-owned businesses across New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.
- CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like Pursuit Community Finance, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.