A Commentary: Immigrant and Refugee Entrepreneurs

March 31, 2006
By  Eileen Wolfington

Emina Rahmanovic, owner of Mina's Beauty Salon in St. Louis, received technical assistance from the International Institute's Business Links program when she decided to start her business.

The world of entrepreneurship is filled with tragic events and glorious achievements with varying degrees of success and failure. Some people struggle throughout their life toward small business success while others hit a successful venture almost immediately. Immigrants, especially refugees, have much higher success rates than others. Perhaps one of the reasons is their strong will to survive.

Often, employment is out of the question due to language, cultural and religious barriers. Consequently, they enter the world of entrepreneurship, even though they may be unfamiliar with the mechanics of starting a business in mainstream USA. According to a report from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo., immigrants become entrepreneurs at a rate 30 percent higher than native-born Americans.


Immigrants tend to be risk-takers. They have a strong sense of self-reliance. If an individual decides to start a business, family members usually play a role in the business, either as an employee or as a partner. It is not unusual for them to work 16 hours a day, including weekends.

Most, especially new arrivals or those who have been here less than two years, do not rely on financial institutions or government programs to start their first business. They do not necessarily seek business development advice. If they need financing, they rely on family members and friends who have confidence in their success.

Immigrants have a solid sense of autonomy and confidence. They become very connected to their community. Owners with successful startups become more venturesome, and they may become involved in more business transactions. For example, they may access a formal banking institution to buy new equipment, remodel their building or expand into a new business. Sometimes, they may even consider purchasing commercial property. Unfortunately, there continues to be a disconnect between this population and the assistance programs that are available to them.

Morees and Luna Alyatim, owners of Page Auto Sales in St. Louis, received technical assistance from the International Institute when they started their business. Through the institute's Business Links program, they learned about writing a business plan and loan packaging.


Some immigrants and refugees are simply not aware of the services available to them unless they are associated with a refugee resettlement agency or other type of social service agency that offers small business development. And, the service providers need to be aware of the subtle discrimination against certain groups and view it as a challenge for minority entrepreneurs.

While some potential entrepreneurs held professional positions in their home country or perhaps owned their own businesses, it may be difficult for them to join established business associations in this country because of language and cultural barriers. Traditional business and service associations might think of creative ways to forge relationships with immigrant businesses. It takes time, but if an association familiarizes itself with a foreign language and culture, it increases comfort and trust for both groups.

Immigrant entrepreneurs must be seen as fulfilling critical roles in the economic and social lives of the neighborhood. A community can help by working to eliminate change-resistant ways. They can integrate the police force, zone a special district to showcase immigrant businesses and capitalize on the demographic changes.

Additional barriers to using support and credit programs may include a lack of education and overly complex paperwork and documentation. New arrivals start with little or no resources. Many immigrants work hard to reach financial stability. Their success pays off once they are able to open their own business or invest in real estate.

Neighborhood Impact

Immigrant small-scale businesses are often located in low-income, urban neigh-borhoods. So how have immigrant businesses made an impact in strengthening the sense of community?

These entrepreneurs support the vibrancy of older urban areas through their presence and investment in revitalization projects. Immigrants provide needed goods and services, often for distinct ethnic niches. They strengthen the economic base of the neighborhood by rehabilitating houses and commercial real estate. New Americans also have a positive impact on the city's population retention and add diversity to the community.

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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