The payrolls of Asian-owned businesses in Massachusetts grew from $1.2 billion to nearly $4 billion over the 18-year period ending in 2020, according to a new report that gathers information from national and local sources.
The revenue growth at Asian-owned American firms in the state outpaced the average growth of all other firms in the state between 2002 and 2017, Nicole Filler, a program coordinator and research associate at UMass Boston's Institute for Asian American Studies, said during a virtual briefing Wednesday.
The research brief was released by the Asian Business Empowerment Council and the Asian Community Fund at the Boston Foundation. A broader research effort is underway over the coming year, the foundation said, to more granularly analyze the AAPI business community and provide recommendations to support growth and success.
Filler highlighted census data that point to "considerable explosive growth" in the volume of Asian-owned firms in Massachusetts, which increased their number of employees by 150% from 2002 to 2020. That's a jump from 37,193 employees to 92,844, an increase that far exceeds hiring at Black- and Latino-owned businesses.
Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies, attributed the business growth to the immigrant roots among Asian Americans who are more likely to start their own firms than individuals born in the United States. Asian Americans are on track to be the largest immigrant group in Massachusetts and the nation, said Watanabe, who noted nearly 70% of all Asian Americans are foreign-born.
"They tend to percolate and move towards starting their own businesses after many of them tried to make it in the mainstream economy and sometimes come away with bad experiences and so forth, and they move towards self-employment," Watanabe said during the briefing. "The No. 1 source of growth of the economy in Massachusetts is the immigrants who are coming into the state of Massachusetts."
Asian American entrepreneurs are concentrated in service industries, including scientific and technical services like consulting and accounting, as well as personal care such as nail salons, barber shops and dry cleaning, Filler said, citing data from the 2017-2021 American Community Survey.
But a quarter of Asian small business owners — defined as having up to 500 employees — say business conditions are "bad," compared to 15% of overall small business owners in the state, according to 2022 data from the MassINC Polling Group.
Filler said their primary concerns revolve around rising operating costs due to inflation. Asian-owned businesses are also more likely to report difficulty finding qualified and reliable employees, compared to their white, Black and Latinx counterparts, MassINC data show.
Asian-owned businesses were less likely than other non-white businesses to receive technical assistance and coaching due to a lack of familiarity with resources and programs. But owners said they would find it "useful" to receive help accessing grant funding and low-interest loans, plus finding new revenue sources.
Secretary of Economic Development Yvonne Hao said the report reflects themes she often discusses with her children, namely that Asian Americans can appear visible and invisible at the same time. Asian Americans can't hide their identities, such as their physical appearance and cultural backgrounds, Hao said at the briefing.
"Sometimes we're invisible also, and so when we think about getting access to programs, getting priorities around support and funding, I think there's oftentimes a stereotype where, 'Oh Asian Americans, you're doing fine, you're doing great, you don't need any help,'" Hao, who described herself as a child of immigrants, said. "Small businesses are a stepping stone for many people to get into the workforce. They're hugely important, especially for immigrants, minorities and women to actually build wealth."
Asian-owned businesses are also far less likely to have business contracts with anchor institutions — such as large businesses, colleges, larger nonprofits and foundations — "that are likely to sustain businesses for a longer period of time," Filler said.
Family funding, rather than mainstream capital sources, was at the foundation of 18 Vietnamese businesses in Boston's Field Corner, Watanabe said as he mentioned a separate prior study.
"This is often true of these businesses that they often don't have relationships with major mainstream banks, which is fine up until a particular point," said Watanabe, who described the dynamic as impeding Asian-owned businesses from getting their "fair share" of COVID-19 relief funds.
Watanabe said business must build the capacity, including language skills, to form relationships with anchor institutions — or to change the policies "which are biased against individuals who are largely foreign-born or don't have the sort of cultural or language capabilities to access these sorts of funds."
Outreach and language equity is needed to connect business owners with resources, said Q.J. Shi, director of the Asian Business Empowerment Council.
"So many people are tied up in survival mode and the day-to-day operations of their businesses, and they don't have the time to figure out where to start," Shi said. "So how can we get resource providers to do targeted outreach and actually meet with these businesses and meet the community where they are?"