November 12, 2018
City of Immigrants

Helping immigrant businesses: Foreign-born entrepreneurs aren't as familiar with their available resources

Photo | Grant Welker
Rosy and Marcos Reynoso, owners of Rosy's Beauty Salon.

When the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and the city of Worcester held a focus group for immigrant businesses this summer, they found many foreign-born entrepreneurs weren't as connected as they could be to resources and had a hard time navigating the agencies available to help them.

"It's a big part of the business community in our region," said Karen Pelletier, the chamber's director of education and workforce development. "It's definitely something that we need to continue to be thoughtful about as a community."

To help the immigrant community start companies, the city's business development office has people who speak Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese and Italian. For other languages, the city partners with Worcester nonprofit Ascentria Care Alliance for real-time interpretation services and document translation. A business startup guide, with suggestions for business planning and lists of incentive programs and necessary permits, is available in Spanish and Vietnamese in the city clerk's office, where new businesses file business certificates.

The state agency MassHire works with the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts to help people start restaurants or other food-related businesses and with English-language service providers for those who don't speak it as a native language.

Immigrants "often come with a wealth of skills and experience that they could use to create a successful business if given some help navigating the process," said Jeffrey Turgeon, the executive director for MassHire in Worcester.

Help should be more in-depth

For all the efforts made by the city and its partners, there is still much more that could be done, said Ramon Borges-Mendez, an associate professor of community development and planning at Clark University in Worcester.

Borges-Mendez, who has worked closely with immigrant-run businesses in Worcester, said conversations between immigrant business owners and business groups can be too superficial, leaving an impression there isn't enough genuine concern with nurturing the immigrant business community.

Marcos Reynoso, a co-owner of Rosy's Beauty Salon in Main South and native of the Dominican Republic, said he has found city code enforcement workers to be rude and too demanding when they stop by the shop.

For a city of its size, Worcester should have, say, more Indian restaurants, authentic bagel shops or places to grab fresh pasta, Borges-Mendez said.

Immigrant-run shops, he said, could fill more storefronts if they had better access to capital, for example. Many aren't able to attend networking events, he said, because they spend nearly all of their time with their business.

"Here in the city, that conversation is very cosmetic," Borges-Mendez said.

Willing to explore options

Of 24 respondents to a confidential survey of Worcester businesses operated by foreign-born residents conducted by the WRRB in collaboration with the WBJ, four said their experience with city officials in opening a business was "very easy." Eight said it was "somewhat easy," and five said it was "somewhat difficult."

Of the respondents, half said the Worcester community was "very supportive" or "somewhat supportive" of their business. Of the remainder, four respondents answered to each of the following: "neutral," "somewhat unsupportive" and "very unsupportive."

Immigrant business owners interviewed by the Worcester Business Journal were generally pleased with the ease of doing business in the city.

"The process has gotten so much easier and knowing what is required helps as well," said Khalil Yatim, a native of Sierra Leone a co-owner with two brothers of the Yatco gas station chain in Worcester.

Oriola Koci, an owner with her husband, Enton Mehillaj, of the Worcester restaurants Livia's Dish and Altea's Eatery – both native to Albania – said she found city officials to be easily reachable and ready to help with questions.

"When we have had to deal with them about issues and concerns, they seem to be will to explore all options and helpful," she said.

City Manager Edward Augustus said creating opportunities for all is a core tenet of the city's economic agenda.

"Foreign-born individuals add tremendous value to the Worcester economy," he said.

Pelletier acknowledged while the outreach is there in a city with more than 700 foreign-born businesss owners, more needs to be done by the chamber of commerce and others to help support and keep such businesses growing.

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