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Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit works to foster ‘forest’ of diverse businesses in Iowa


via Immigrant Entrepreneurs on Facebook

Whether for personal reasons or compelled by political, social, cultural, economic or environmental circumstances, the act of immigration is disorienting. Entrepreneurship, for its part, is a dense forest that can discourage and even neutralize the most experienced hunters, if attempted without a guide who has mastered the environment.

Entrepreneurship is a complex and involved process for native-born citizens, and much more so for immigrants. This is why the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit (IES) was created: to highlight businesses and immigrants who shine through entrepreneurship, and, as their website states, to “help immigrant business owners or immigrants who want to begin business fearlessly learn and enthusiastically thrive for a better tomorrow.”

IES is a guide that helps immigrant business owners to find their way in this dense forest which is entrepreneurship in the U.S., especially in Iowa, to reach the summit.

Since its creation in 2008, board co-chair Ying Sa and the IES leadership have annually brought more than 1,000 business owners of diverse backgrounds together to share, learn and celebrate the immigrant entrepreneurship experience and the contributions they make, collectively and individually, to the community. Their National Summit, which is taking place on Nov. 20 this year, is the highlight of their annual events, typically drawing in attendees from over 40 countries of origin.

In 2015, Andrew Wainer, the senior immigration policy analyst for Washington, D.C. faith-based nonprofit Bread for the World Institute, wrote a briefing paper titled, “Harnessing Immigrant Small Entrepreneurship for Economic Growth.” In it, he cited four elements constituting the “challenges to small immigrant entrepreneurship”: “access to financing, business education and skills, culture and language, and the immigration status.”

To these challenges, let’s add racism, xenophobia and of course the COVID-19 pandemic, which has become a major difficulty that will have an impact for a long period to come. COVID-19 has caused unforeseen devastation for entrepreneurship in all kinds of business, as well as for the entire economy.

A concrete example: WAWA Caribbean Restaurant in Cedar Rapids, owned by Wadeline LaFortune. LaFortune is a spouse, mother of four boys — and a determined immigrant entrepreneur in her 30s, without a diploma.

“I never wanted to be a doctor or lawyer, that was my parents’ desire to see me in these kinds of fields,” LaFortune said. “My passion has always been about food; that is something that I loved to do.”

LaFortune is the owner and the visionary of her business, managing all administration needs, contracts and relationships with customers and partners. And she is the master of the kitchen. Her husband, Wilberson Hyppolite, is everywhere: in the kitchen, serving, welcoming the customers, encouraging her and taking charge when she is absent. Three to four people help them in the kitchen, and her children are always ready to help when they are free.

At the beginning of this year, she saw all of her requests for financing to start her business rejected by banks because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Banks did not want to take any risk. She had to invest out of pocket, with the help of her husband, to start her business. Yet she is moving forward, despite difficulty in accessing financing, lack of formal business education and constraints of the COVID-19. These are common among the struggles immigrants have to face to start their businesses. But they’re just a small difficulty among so many others that IES has helped to solve many times.

In 2019, two entrepreneur migrants, Julien Duhautois and Uzir Thapa, co-founded Tennis Line Call, a startup for an app “that will detect whether or not a tennis ball has gone out of bounds.” They serve as CEO and Chief App Officer Technical, respectively. The app will be in beta soon for iOS, and they expect it to be released for Android in 2022.

The same year they founded their startup, Duhautois was invited to IES by a friend.

“Inspiration and empathy surrounded me during my first experience with IES,” Duhautois said, “because of all the knowledge and the stories of all the migrants who have succeeded their business in the United States.”

In 2020, Duhautois won $5,000 at an IES pitch competition, created to help support immigrant entrepreneurs and to highlight and promote their businesses.

“Winning or not …, participating is a huge opportunity for any immigrant business owner,” Duhautois said. “Any attendant may have created an opportunity for a potential investment or customer.”

In 2017, Claudia Schabel, another winner and president of Schabel Solutions DEI consulting firm, had the same experience. “You’ll gain so much from the experience, just like I did,” she said.

Throughout its history, “IES has helped more than 1,600 immigrant entrepreneurs to start their business and thrive,” Sa said. “IES can help much more when you are committed to spending time and to be learning and to look forward to other IES events. IES events, (whether the series of virtual or in-person held throughout the year across the region or the culminating national summit) draw energy, not just knowledge.”

IES was created by professional immigrant entrepreneurs to solve an existing problem, which was a growing demand for help in the community in Des Moines by immigrants and minority business owners with tax and business issues. Sa, an IES founding Board member and a CEO at Community CPA, noticed the need and has worked with others to uplift the immigrant community.

In June, IES awarded recipients in Minnesota in a virtual event, including Tong C. Thao, who received the Immigrant Champion Award, and Dr. Bruce Corrie who received the Immigrant Spirit Award. The Summit had Steve Simon, Secretary of State of Minnesota, as one of the speakers.

Through networking, experience and knowledge sharing, IES has faced and solved the sorts of challenges cited above, from racism and xenophobia to even something as unforeseeable as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Immigration opponents may ask such questions as, “What is the interest of the United States to support an organization highly devoted to immigrants in particular instead of non-immigrant American citizens first?” and “what is the purpose of IES to support immigrant entrepreneur owners?”

via Immigrant Entrepreneurs on Facebook

A part of the answer can be found in point seven of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s office’s New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants (adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in 2016), which states that: “large movements of refugees and migrants have political, economic, social, developmental, humanitarian and human rights ramifications, which cross all borders.”

Another part can be found in Simon’s speech in June, in which he enthusiastically demonstrated the developmental ramification of that point.

“Numbers and facts reveal the success story of immigrants around the United States,” he told the virtual IES Minnesota attendees. “Indeed, there was a study released in 2019 by the Center for American Entrepreneurship that found that 43 percent of Fortune 500 companies and 557 percent of the top five companies in America were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants.”

He went on to cite additional studies showing that 51 percent of U.S. startups valued at $1 billion or more have at least one immigrant founder, and approximately 25 percent of high-tech firms are founded by immigrants. “The bulk of economic research,” he explained, “shows that immigration has led to faster overall growth and a better standard of living for everyone. Not just a few. It raises the tide for all Americans, native-born or not … Immigration is the key to the national economic survival, and to a thriving economy.”

It must be said that this development can be reached only if immigration is promoted and well managed. IES has played a significant role in contributing to this development. However, many immigrant entrepreneurs are not known yet. Many others have started, but are not able to reach the next level. Some others do not know where to begin or are scared to start. And there are many victims of those entrepreneurs who do not want to open the knowledge of their craft to new arrivals.

“When one of our community members is doing a successful business, you see others are following suit,” Sa said. “I don’t call that competition, I call that forest. You cannot be a tree, blossom and big. You have to be in the forest. And IES is creating that forest for all of us.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 300.


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