Bhutanese Refugee Becomes Serial Entrepreneur in Saint Paul
Date: September 15, 2021
Owner of Groceries & Nepali Kitchen
When Tilak Pokwal was 14 years old, his Nepali family fled their home in Bhutan amidst a wave of ethnic cleansing. Tilak spent the next 18 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, leaving only to get a college education in Kathmandu, and later to support his nine siblings by working as a phone-support agent for U.S. financial organizations.
At that job, Tilak started chatting with a bank customer from Minnesota, who told him how welcoming the Midwest was. “I spent the next few years dreaming of one day traveling to Minnesota,” Tilak laughs.
When the U.S. began accepting Bhutanese refugees, that dream became a reality. In 2010, after a lengthy vetting process, Tilak and his family started a new life in Saint Paul. The Minnesota Council of Churches provided support and helped them land on their feet. “It was hard work, but everyone really was just as welcoming as I’d expected,” Tilak says.
Tilak first worked as a medical interpreter, helping local hospitals and clinics to treat Bhutanese and Nepali patients. Later, he helped run a nonprofit group called Bhutanese Community Organizers of Minnesota, helping thousands of other refugees to find employment, get legal assistance, and access health and elder-care services. He also spent two years working as a reserve police officer. “I’m always looking for ways to give back,” he explains.
After gaining U.S. citizenship in 2017, Tilak became a serial entrepreneur, drawing on his experience helping others to navigate the process of registering a business. “There’s lots of support for entrepreneurs,” he says. “You can go to any city office and they’ll help you figure out the paperwork or solve the problems you’re having.”
First, Tilak became a realtor; then he opened Vision Home Healthcare, which now serves dozens of patients and has 33 employees in the Saint Paul area. Next, he opened a small grocery store, then added a Nepali restaurant to create Groceries & Nepali Kitchen. “I grew up without any opportunities, so now I’m putting as many different things on my plate as possible,” Tilak says.
Business was tough during the pandemic, but Tilak is already bouncing back and plans to open his fourth business — a restaurant called Taste of Bhutan, in downtown Saint Paul — in coming weeks. “I grew up stateless, stuck behind a fence in a refugee camp,” Tilak says. “Today, I’m a proud U.S. citizen, and I want to keep working to repay everything this country and this community have given me.”