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Immigrants help grow Massachusetts economy

Officials pledge continued support for immigrant businesses

Martin Desmarais
Immigrants help grow Massachusetts economy
Denzil Mohammed (left), director of public education at the Immigrant Learning Center, and Alvaro Lima, director of research at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, take part in a Q&A with the attendees of the Engaging Immigrant Entrepreneurs & Small Business Owners Forum. (Photo: Martin Desmarais)

Speaking at the Engaging Immigrant Entrepreneurs & Small Business Owners Forum, held on Nov. 13 at Bunker Hill Community College, Massachusetts Assistant Secretary of Business Development Nam Pham pledged the state’s support to the immigrant business community. His words echoed the sentiment of the event — immigrant entrepreneurs are helping grow the state’s economy and it is imperative to help them continue to do so.

“We know that immigrants — it doesn’t matter if that person has a Ph.D. or has no college degree — that person, that immigrant can be a very good business person that can create jobs, that can make our community better. Our job is to ensure that we foster an environment to support that,” Pham said. “We will do all we can to make Massachusetts a much better place for all of us — all immigrants and non-immigrants alike.”

Pham, who recently joined Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration after serving as CEO of the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development and has 20 years of commercial banking experience, pointed out that the state has set a new urban agenda which is aiming to boost the economy of the areas where many immigrants initial settle and start businesses.

Author: Martin DesmaraisKarleen Porcena, program officer for Boston Local Initiatives Support Corp., speaks at the forum.

The state already has shelled out $2 million dollars to community development corporations around Massachusetts, many that focus on urban areas which hold the potential for much economic advancement.

Pham also touts the governor’s efforts to eliminate the overload of regulations that small businesses face to get started, which has oft been cited as crippling and discouraging to inner-city businesses in particular.

“Right now on our books there are more than 2,200 regulations and we are reviewing every single one of them. Hopefully in about three or four months we will cut them in half, so we can create an environment that is friendlier to small businesses,” he said.

Pham emphasized that immigrants have exactly what it takes to be successful entrepreneurs — to be risk takers, self-starters and innovators — because they showed these traits in the decision to move to a new country.

While he conceded that many immigrant entrepreneurs often start with small businesses, he cautioned against assuming this equates to having a small impact.

“Every big thing starts with a small idea. Every big company once was a small company and every small company was started by one person who asked a question about an idea: What if?” Pham said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of business we engage in, whether it is high tech or whether it is typical business. With the spirit of entrepreneurship we can do a lot of good for ourselves and our community.”

Pham isn’t just giving lip service to people who already believe immigrant entrepreneurs are a crucial component of Massachusetts’ economic future — statistics support this thinking. According to the Immigration Policy Center, 17.5 percent of the Massachusetts’ business owners are immigrants, and their businesses generated $2.8 billion in income for the state.

The organizers of the Engaging Immigrant Entrepreneurs & Small Business Owners Forum, Powerful Pathways, Bunker Hill Community College’s Entrepreneurship Center and City Awake, are saying that there needs to be better service to meet the needs of the immigrant business community.

The forum was attended by about 50 representatives of small business service agencies, Main Streets programs, financial institutions, chambers of commerce, community development corporations and immigrant assistance programs. The participants sought insight on how to better connect with immigrant entrepreneurs.

The forum examined the ways in which data and policy could assist the development of the immigrant business economy, as well as highlighted new programs and initiatives targeted toward this goal.

Author: Martin DesmaraisAlberto Calvo, president of Stop & Compare Supermarkets, spoke at the Engaging Immigrant Entrepreneurs & Small Business Owners Forum on Nov. 13 at Bunker Hill Community College.

Speakers included Alberto Calvo, president of Stop & Compare Supermarkets; Alvaro Lima, director of research at the Boston Redevelopment Authority; Alexa Marin, Economic Justice Fellow for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights; Denzil Mohammed, director of public education at the Immigrant Learning Center; Karleen Porcena, program officer for Boston Local Initiatives Support Corp.; and José Luis Rojas Villareal, community group manager at Mass Growth Capital Corp.

The BRA’s Lima said his organization is examining the data on immigrant businesses to assess the challenges and limitations that keep them from growing and highlight the things that make them successful. The hope is to create a development model that can better ensure these businesses can transition from startup to mid-size companies.

“We defined enabling facts that will help this transition and more importantly we are developing measures for us to help you do that,” Lima said.

The Immigrant Learning Center’s Mohammed shared data that highlights the success immigrant entrepreneurs have had — immigrants are twice as likely to start a business, for example — and said this data can be used to back efforts to get more support for the immigrant business community.

“They are revitalizing our neighborhoods. They are creating jobs and they are innovating,” he said.

Calvo, president of Stop and Compare Supermarkets, which has locations in Chelsea and Lynn and has grown based on its ability to connect with and serve immigrant communities, shared a cautionary tale of his business’ attempt to expand to Providence, R.I., in 2011, a venture that failed.

For Calvo, the market research suggested that Providence had what his supermarket needed to succeed — a growing immigrant population and few ethnic food stores to compete against — but the distance from other company locations and management personal, as well as misjudged demand for products doomed Stop and Compare’s move to the market.

“Growth is difficult and risky. Do your homework first and evaluate your options,” Calvo advised.