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'Counting on Immigration,' Part 2

WBUR's series on immigration continues this morning. Yesterday, we looked at the growing wave of newcomers to Massachusetts, and how they've helped the number of immigrants in the labor force double over the last 15 years.

A relatively high proportion of them are starting their own businesses. But economists say far too many immigrant-run companies are falling well short of their potential.

And that means Massachusetts is missing out on the jobs and economic growth that could be at hand, as WBUR's Curt Nickisch reports in today's installment of "Counting on Immigration."

TEXT OF STORY

CURT NICKISCH: Jay's Market nudges Route 24 in Randolph, and it's a convenient place for a convenience store. People in town and commuters who bisect this Boston suburb pull off the highway onto the gravel parking lot. They push into the buzz of refrigerators and the narrow rows of shelves neatly crammed with groceries, newspapers and strips of lottery stubs.

SOUND OF STORE WITH DOOR'S BELL JINGLING

KRUTI NAIK: Twenty dollar ticket? All my blessings!

NICKISCH: Behind the counter, Kruti Naik's long black hair and bindhi reveal her Indian heritage, while the New England Patriots T-shirt she's wearing proclaims her new home of almost 30 years. She and her husband bought Jay's Market ten years ago.

NAIK: It's hard work, very hard work. We don't go on vacations. It's seven days a week. We are open 365 days, holidays and everything. So, it's not easy. That's all I have to say!

NICKISCH: Tens of thousands of legal immigrants like Naik run their own businesses in Massachusetts. No one knows the exact number, not even Marcia Hohn. She heads research for the advocacy group, the Immigrant Learning Center, and says you can get an idea of the statewide scale from regional surveys.

MARCIA HOHN: There are eight thousand small businesses — immigrant businesses — in Boston alone that provide more than $5.5 billion in annual sales and employ 37,000 people. So that's of tremendous economic value.

NICKISCH: The value is only getting bigger. Census data indicate immigrants are starting companies at a faster rate than the rest of the population. So as immigrants change the social landscape of towns like Randolph, they're also building a new economic one, stringing roads like Route 24 with commercial services.

SOUND OF PASSING CARS

NICKISCH: And that's just fine with resident Peter O'Kane. The 68-year-old son of a Scottish immigrant is filling his car at a Randolph gas station owned by a Lebanese immigrant. O'Kane runs a newspaper distribution business in the town, and says about 90 percent of the shops he serves are run by immigrants.

PETER O'KANE: They're wonderful people to do business with. You know, you go in every Monday, and you give them the bill, and they pay the bill. It isn't — I'm not mailing a bill anywheres, to North Carolina, or to Virginia, to a main office somewheres. And it's the best part of our business, too. Dealing with those people.

NICKISCH: But economists say it would be a better deal for everybody if more immigrant entrepreneurs lived up to their potential.

STEVE ADAMS: Their firms are operating at about half the rate that the rest of the privately owned companies are in Massachusetts, on average.

NICKISCH: Steve Adams heads a regional research arm of the US Small Business Administration. He says immigrant businesses generally have lower revenue and fewer employees.

ADAMS: Some people say well they're just weak companies. From my perspective that's a real opportunity for the state, and especially these cities that have these immigrant entrepreneurs, because if they can close that gap: the revenue gap and the employment gap, they're going to add a lot of wealth and employment and income to the Massachusetts economy.

NICKISCH: And Adams says the business knowledge to do that is out there — it's really no secret, he says, how to develop a marginal corner shop into a bigger, more successful store.

ADAMS: That's a mechanical issue more or less. But there's no place for someone who's running a bodega right now to go get expertise that he can afford or she can afford, to help advise or how to do that right now.

NICKISCH: Besides developing existing businesses, Adams says the Commonwealth should do more to help immigrants starting businesses, so more of them get off the ground in the first place.

SOUND OF BROOM ON CONCRETE FLOOR

NICKISCH: Inside Top Motors car repair in Randolph, Jose Rodriguez is sweeping up antifreeze that spilled from an overheated car. The Puerto Rican immigrant's a mechanic here, and a failed small business owner. He tried to start his own performance auto shop a few years ago.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ: Oh yeah, I work seven days, like a mule, like a mule, amigo! Yes, seven days.

NICKISCH: But you're smiling.

RODRIGUEZ: Oh yeah, yeah, that was good, that was good. It's a very good memory my friend.

NICKISCH: It's a good memory that could have been a good business. But Rodriguez had to learn everything on his own: how to negotiate with suppliers, how to pay into workers comp and taxes, billing and financing — and all that in his second language. He did a lot of things wrong.

GONZALEZ: From the beginning, I don't know how to, if I have to talk to someone, I don't know about the right people to talk about it. So bottom line is, I just tried to do it by myself!

NICKISCH: He tried, and failed. Esther Schlorholtz has seen this all too many times before. She's a vice-president at Boston Private Bank and Trust, which has not financed as many immigrant small businesses as she would like. Where it's worked the best, she says, is in communities that tailor business assistance programs to immigrants:

ESTHER SCHLORHOLTZ: They really need that counseling. Otherwise they will get denied, and sadly they will. They really need that help to get a stage where they're at the appropriate level.

NICKISCH: One place immigrant-run businesses are thriving: the state's high tech sectors. A recent survey concludes that a quarter of Massachusetts biotech companies have at least one immigrant founder.

SOUND OF BEEPING AND CLICKING GLASS

NICKISCH: In the Cambridge lab of Addgene, Melina Fan is scanning slender glass vials. Inside the vials are specialized bacteria carrying rings of engineered DNA, which Fan says are critical in biotech research.

MELINA FAN: We have a few that are really popular, I'd say the stem cell factors, the Yamanaka factors are very popular right now.

NICKISCH: Addgene is basically a repository. Labs send what they engineer to be stored in super cold freezers. Other labs order the ones they want, and Addgene ships those out.

BENJI CHEN: We are a research support service, basically. We help scientists do better research, and that's our goal!

NICKISCH: That's Benji Chen, Melina's husband. He's a Chinese immigrant who designed the computer system to process the thousands of samples. Addgene is growing fast, and Chen credits its success to fewer business barriers for immigrants in science and computers. Immigrants have become accepted in those fields over time. Plus, Chen says, everyone speaks the same language in a way.

CHEN: Being immigrants doesn't — I don't think it hurts and I don't think it helps. It's almost just agnostic.

FAN: I don't feel like people care at all. I don't feel like that's a question that ever enters their mind: are you an immigrant? They care more about the organization, the company, and the service it provides, rather than where you're from.

NICKISCH: Where being an immigrant poses no barrier to being an entrepreneur, is where their businesses are flourishing.

Each community around the Commonwealth can take a lesson from that, says Steve Adams of the Small Business Administration.

ADAMS: The communities that win in economic development in Massachusetts will be the ones that figure out how to be welcoming to immigrant entrepreneurs. By giving them rules and regulations in their native tongue. Or by offering business assistance in their native tongue, or in other ways to help them feel welcome in the community.

NICKISCH: Adams says how well communities do that, will determine how much the Commonwealth gains from its changing population.

For WBUR, I'm Curt Nickisch.

Our series, "Counting on Immigration," was produced by WBUR's Anna Bensted and George Hicks. WBUR's Jesse Costa and Angel Kozeli created and collaborated on our special web site for the series. You can connect to that on the link below.

This program aired on November 13, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Curt Nickisch Twitter Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.

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