From refugees to entrepreneurs: Cousins and PSU business students launch brand inspired by their heritage, empower others to do the same

Jospin Mugisha and Japhety Ngabireyimana

For Portland State University business students and cousins Jospin Mugisha and Japhety Ngabireyimana, growing up in a Tanzania refugee camp instilled a dream for them: to become business owners and provide a better life for their families.

At only 19 and 21 years old, Mugisha and Ngabireyimana are already on the road to achieving their dreams. They launched their first brand, an apparel company called bproud, in April and have plans for a second marketing and design business this fall.

“I went into business because I wanted to figure out a way to create wealth within my family,” said Mugisha. “I’ve seen what the bottom looks like and I don’t want to be there anymore.”

The cousins agreed that for them, the way to achieve this would be through being strong business owners. And they hope to help others coming from similar backgrounds.

“One of our biggest dreams is to also give back in terms of mentorship,” said Ngabireyimana. “We want to be able to pass on the baton of knowledge to other youth of color.” 

Life in a refugee camp

Originally from Burundi, Africa, Mugisha and Ngabireyimana’s families were forced to flee in their early childhood due to civil war. They landed in a refugee camp that had high crime, violence and poor living conditions.

“Compared to life in America, living in a refugee camp was so much harder,” said Mugisha. “We didn’t have running water. The bathrooms were in sheds far from the house. We showered in tubs using buckets and poured the water over our heads. We would be robbed three to four times a year.” 

The final straw was a violent robbery and beating in 2007 that left Mugisha’s pregnant mother in the hospital. The attack caused her to give birth to his younger brother prematurely.

 “My family said, ‘If we don’t get out of here, we’re going to die,’” Mugisha said.

While his mother and infant brother were recovering in the hospital, the family decided to seek asylum in the United States.

Challenges continue in Oregon

Mugisha’s family settled in Beaverton. Soon after, Ngabireyimana’s family moved to Portland when he was eight years old. 

Unfortunately, they faced another unforeseen battle here: continued poverty, discrimination and racism.

“Japhety got the chance to live in Portland with more Black people, but I lived in Beaverton and grew up with mostly White people,” said Mugisha. “It was really hard because I was always the only Black person in the classroom. Nobody could relate to what I was going through.”

Mugisha and Ngabireyimana had no formal education in the refugee camp and didn’t know English. In Oregon, they started attending school full time with students who had several years of education under their belts.

“There would be times when I would be sitting in the back of the classroom and know the answer to a question, but I wouldn’t be able to say anything because I couldn’t speak English yet,” said Mugisha. “Math was universal, so I knew the answers, but I couldn’t say them out loud.”

Mugisha and Ngabireyimana were bullied brutally by fellow classmates, on everything from their accents to the clothes they wore, to their struggles growing up in poverty and civil war.

The bullying led them to want to lose any trace of their culture. They stopped embracing their heritage, worked to remove their accents and did anything they could to look like their mostly White peers.

Learning to “bproud”

After graduating high school, Mugisha and Ngabireyimana decided to pursue business degrees and chose The School of Business at PSU. By the time they enrolled, Mugisha and Ngabireyimana were stronger and more self-confident.  They wanted to fully embrace their heritage and help others feel confident in themselves, too.

In the years leading up to enrolling at PSU, Mugisha and Ngabireyimana were already paving their paths to becoming business owners. 

Since his teenage years, Mugisha developed his passion and eye for graphic design, freelancing for years as a side job.  Ngabireyimana cultivated his skills in marketing through managing the website and social media platforms for his family’s business, Happiness Family Farm.

The two decided to join forces and start a business together, realizing the compatibility of their unique skill sets.  They named their business “bproud.”

“I had a lot of support from my professors in the creation of bproud,” said Ngabireyimana. “I pitched my idea to them, got feedback, and they helped me in learning how to make bproud into a successful business.”

Both majoring in marketing, Mugisha and Ngabireyimana feel that networking and support from The School of Business community has helped them in launching their brand. 

“Our classmates also have given us a lot of support,” Ngabireyimana added. “They would message us during class and tell us they like our designs and what our brand stands for.”

The cousins created bproud to inspire people to be proud of their race, gender, sexuality and beliefs. 

“Most people don’t realize it, but the ‘b’ in our brand name stands for Black-owned. We decided to have it be a different color than the rest of the name to stand out,” Mugisha says, who designed the logo. “It’s these little details that make a difference to us.”

In less than three months since launch, the cousins are almost sold out of their first line of products. They are planning a summer line featuring t-shirts and shorts.

“If you have a passion, you can find something within it and build a business. It’s never too late,”  said Mugisha. “As long as you have a drive and a good idea, you can put that plan into action. That’s what I love most about business.”

Giving back

Success to them isn’t about the number of shirts they sell — it’s to build a community of people who are inspired to be their truest selves and live happier lives.

The cousins are already finding ways to give back to their community and to help empower Black youth who are interested in business.

“Through a local community program called I Am M.O.R.E., we were given the opportunity to create a class based on our own experiences in business,” said Mugisha. 

Starting this summer, Mugisha and Ngabireyimana begin teaching Black students about business topics such as building a brand, entrepreneurship, financial literacy and taxes.

Mugisha and Ngabireyimana say that the most important part of the class is to teach youth of color how to be self-employed business owners, rather than just employees.

“We noticed there are a lot of people who have our same drive and energy. They just don’t have the same knowledge or opportunities,” said Mugisha.

“There is a person in our I Am M.O.R.E. program who says, ‘Build your foundation from rocks instead of sand.’ So that’s our goal,” said Mugisha. “Building everything from a strong base so we can continue to build off of it and to grow our business.”