Immigrants chasing their business dreams

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 13, 2012 - 11:30 PM

11% of metro area small-business owners are immigrants.

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Ngawang Dakpa owns Tibet Arts and Gifts in the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis. He came to the United States from India in the 1990s

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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It's a few minutes before noon on Wednesday at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis, and customers already are lined up outside Pham's Deli.

Owner Trung Pham has been serving pho, bubble tea and other delicacies from his native Vietnam to a diverse clientele for six years. He made the switch to owning his own business after 20 years of working in the insurance industry. "My wife and I always wanted to open a business," he said.

He's not the only immigrant with such a dream. More than one in six small-business owners in the United States is an immigrant, according to a report released Thursday by the New York-based Fiscal Policy Institute's Immigration Research Initiative. The study offers a snapshot of the growing number of immigrant-owned businesses nationwide and in select metro areas, including the Twin Cities.

Overall, there are 900,000 immigrant business owners nationwide, accounting for 18 percent of the 4.9 million small-business owners. In the Twin Cities, immigrants make up 11 percent of all small-business owners.

As more immigrants have moved to the Twin Cities in the past 20 years, many have started businesses. In 1990, there were 1,500 immigrant business owners operating locally; today there are 6,700.

"Immigrants are somewhat more likely than U.S.-born people to be business owners, but they're not super-entrepreneurs," said David Dyssegaard Kallick, senior fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute and chief author of the study.

The report relied on two main sources of data: the 2007 Survey of Business Owners and the 2010 American Community Survey.

Among its other findings:

• In general, immigrants from the Middle East, Asia and southern Europe have the highest rates of business ownership nationally.

• Immigrant women are more likely than U.S.-born women to own a business.

• The majority of immigrant business owners nationwide lack college degrees.

Mike Temali, president and CEO of the Neighborhood Development Center, said he isn't surprised to hear that so many immigrants own businesses.

"If you look at streets like Lake Street and University Avenue, if you look at Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis, Payne Avenue on the East Side and Cesar Chavez on the West Side [of St. Paul], those streets have been literally revitalized to a significant extent in the last 20 years by recent immigrant entrepreneurs," he said.

The characteristics of immigrants, in general, make them highly suitable to taking on the challenges of owning a business, Temali suggested.

"Who immigrants tend to be and what they carry with them, both as assets and as barriers, it's not surprising," he said. "Because on the asset side, they've already proven their entrepreneurialism by immigrating, either because they have to as refugees or because they want to for schooling or economic opportunity. They, by definition, have gone through incredible hurdles and processes and delays to land here. ... But then the barriers they face when they land here include obvious stuff, like languages. That really prevents them from getting onto a career ladder."

The Neighborhood Development Center, a St. Paul nonprofit group, has helped train roughly 4,000 low-income people to start businesses. About 20 percent of those trained have actually done so, and 40 percent of those it has trained have been immigrants.

'We try everything'

Ngawang Dakpa sells dresses, jewelry, scarves at his store, Tibet Arts & Gifts at the Midtown Global Market. He was among the early waves of Tibetan immigrants who resettled in Minnesota in the early 1990s.

A former auditor for the Tibetan government in exile in India, he moved to Minnesota and started selling Tibetan items at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. Soon, he opened kiosks at local shopping malls before moving to Midtown about six years ago.

For Gigi Asres, the chance to be her own boss motivated her to open a salon. The Ethiopian native opened Gigi's Braid Factory, also in the Midtown Global Market, two years ago.

She wasn't surprised to learn about the Fiscal Policy Institute's findings that immigrant women are more likely to own a business than their U.S.-born peers.

"We come to America and we see everything's open to us," she said. "So we try everything."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

  • related content

  • Gigi Asres owns Gigi’s Braid Factory in Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market. She came to the United States from Ethiopia in 1999.

  • Trung Pham, owner of Pham’s Deli, came to the United States at age 8 and had worked in the insurance industry for 20 years.

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