Lidia Antonio, left, and Vanessa Bunga are shown outside the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center on Thursday. Both women, who are asylum seekers originally from Angola, are candidates for the center’s new entrepreneurial leadership institute for women. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Vanessa Bunga earned a master’s degree in Angola and worked for more than a decade as an engineer. She and her husband owned their own consulting company.

But when her family fled the country out of fear of political persecution, she found herself at the Quality Inn in South Portland without a work permit and unsure how to rebuild her career in her new home.

“For now, I don’t know my way,” said Bunga.

Bunga is a candidate for a new entrepreneurial leadership program that is expected to launch this spring at the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center. The nonprofit recently learned it would receive $619,000 from the federal government to start and operate “Women Lead.”

The program will prepare women and girls to pursue professional goals and small business ownership through mentorships, educational programming, English classes, and assistance with marketing and finance.

“It directs us where we need to complete our goals,” said Bunga.


Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, said the program is an investment in the future workforce of Maine. It will not be tailored to one particular career but will help women achieve their unique professional goals. That could mean offering workshops on digital literacy or resume writing or connecting participants with mentors in their desired fields. It could also mean granting a forgivable loan to a woman who wants to start her own business, or helping with childcare costs so she can attend classes.

Jalali said some of the funding will go toward hiring staff, and that it could serve 25 to 45 women.

“We’re not going to duplicate services,” said Jalali. “We’re going to connect the dots.”

Jalali said the program will help women and girls realize professional goals, but he also wants to reach out to women who are underemployed in jobs far below the professional qualifications they achieved in their former countries.

“We feel that immigrant women have been ignored and invisible,” he said. “If immigrants, in general, are invisible in the larger community, then immigrant women are doubly so.”

Lidia Antonio, right, and Vanessa Bunga outside of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center on Thursday. Both women, who are asylum seekers originally from Angola, are candidates for the center’s new entrepreneurial leadership institute for women which is being created after they were awarded a federally funded grant. Bunga was an engineer back in Angola and hopes to go back to school here in Maine so she can be on her way to an engineering career here and Antonio wants to become a nurse. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

The money will come from the annual federal appropriations bill. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who supported this project for funding, said in a written statement that the program will improve the representation of immigrant women in the workforce.


“This new program, specifically aims to help address the inequities between men and women by tailoring entrepreneurial, leadership, and job training programs for women in a safe, supportive environment,” said Pingree. “Supported by the federal funding I advocated for in the government funding bill, Women Lead will make a difference in the lives of immigrant women and girls, as well as Maine’s workforce and community, for years to come.”

The center has already identified a dozen women who could be the first participants in the program, including Lidia Antonio. She has known since she was a child that she wants to be a nurse.

“I want to help people,” she said.

Antonio, 26, came to Maine from Angola in February. She has been taking English classes at the center and often guides others through their lessons as well. She is waiting for a work permit, a process that can be lengthy and unpredictable. The program would help her navigate the educational and professional requirements to get into nursing, and she is particularly interested in finding a hospital nurse who could mentor her over time.

“That person has the experience,” she said. “Little by little, I can ask more questions.”

Bunga, 36, has been in Maine for a little more than a year. She has two young children, and their family has moved from the hotel to an apartment where she feels more at home.

She is also still waiting for her work permit and plans to complete manufacturing training through Fedcap Inc., a workforce development program. She worked as an environmental quality and safety engineer in Angola, and she said she would need to continue her education and narrow her specialty to work as an engineer in the United States. She hopes the center’s new program will help her figure out her next steps.

“My dream is to open a big company here,” she said.

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