Study: Immigrant Entrepreneurs Boost Economy
TONY COX, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox, in for Farai Chideya.
More immigrant entrepreneurs around the country are giving a bigger boost to local economies - so says a new national study just released by the Center for an Urban Future in New York. The study shows that foreign-born entrepreneurs started greater share of new businesses than native-born residents.
Still, people like Jonathan Bowles say local and federal government should do more to start and keep those companies going. Mr. Bowles oversaw the study. And earlier, he joined me from our NPR bureau in New York.
Mr. JONATHAN BOWLES (Director, Center for an Urban Future): We spent a lot of time looking at census data, Labor Department data. And we found that immigrants have been creating a significant share of new jobs in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Boston. Just to give you one example: in New York City, there was an increase of about 9 percent overall in the number of new businesses in the last 10 years.
But there was a 55 percent increase in Flushing - an area that has majority of businesses owned by immigrants. In a lot of other immigrant neighborhoods like Sunset Park, there was a 47 percent increase in the number of businesses. Jackson Heights had a double-digit increase in businesses, Brighton Beach - a lot of the traditional neighborhoods, ethnic neighborhoods where you see a very many immigrant-owned businesses. You had job and business increases that far surpassed the citywide average.
COX: Let's define terms - that might be helpful for the audience, I know it will be for me because when you say immigrant, we need to sort of figure out who we are talking about. Because in one sense, all American businesses are immigrant businesses. You know what I mean?
Mr. BOWLES: That's absolutely correct. It's a great question, and we try to be very conservative, actually, with our definition. You know, people have different ideas of what immigrant means. And we, for the purposes of our report, we only used first generation immigrants - actually, people that were born outside of this country.
COX: Now what areas of business are we seeing the most growth? For example, are we talking about retail or service or IT or manufacturing or some other combination?
Mr. BOWLES: Well, I think it's really a broad range of industries these days. It's gotten beyond just a handful of mom and pops in the retail or restaurant services business. It's gotten into health care, food manufacturing. It's been a real fast-growing area for so many ethnic products. We've seen growth in the transportation sector. In New York City, for instance, people might be aware of the Chinatown bus lines that got started serving New York and Boston from New York, have now branched down into so many other cities. IT and biotechnology has been an area where we've seen an incredible growth of immigrant businesses.
But it really crosses the spectrum. I think immigrants are generally starting companies in areas where they require relatively low levels of capitalization. So you don't yet see a lot of immigrant-run businesses in financial services -investment banks, for instance - because those are multibillion-dollar businesses. Immigrants tend to stick - start smaller and grow from there.
COX: I'd like to have a sense of, if you know, where these immigrants are coming from. For example, is there a country or a region that is producing, you know, more of these entrepreneurs?
Mr. BOWLES: Well, you know, we're clear on our study that there's no monolithic immigrant. There's different rates in self-employment from different countries of origin, and within countries of origin based on what your background was. You know, if you have a history of entrepreneurship in the country you were from, if you have higher levels of capital that you come in with, if you have a little higher levels of education, you tend to bring - you're more apt to be an entrepreneur in this country.
But we found high levels of self-employment and immigrants starting businesses across the board. In New York City, for instance, the rate of self-employment -people starting their own business - for the native-born population, for everybody born in this country that lives in New York City was about 7 and a half percent. For those that were foreign born in New York City, it was just under 10 percent.
And within immigrant groups, it ranged from everything from Syrians - people that they were originally born in Syria, which had a self-employment rate of about 27 percent. Other countries with high self-employment rates included Iran, Colombia, Argentina, the Dominican Republic. The list really goes on. Really, no part of the world had low self-employment rates.
COX: Talk for a moment, if you can, about places like the Caribbean or the continent of Africa in terms of how those immigrants who are here are faring with their business ventures.
Mr. BOWLES: In Staten Island right now - Staten Island, New York - the Liberian community coming out of Africa with a civil war, and the - really, the destruction that's happened there, there's been a lot of refugees and immigrants, and they've started a number of businesses out there. We have some examples in our study. In the Caribbean, we've got some amazingly successful Jamaican immigrants in this city.
People like Lowell Hawthorne, who started the Golden Krust Bakery - a small bakery in the Bronx that's turned into a really nationally-known franchise of retail outlets, restaurants, and he manufactures Caribbean beef patties. Also, the Guyanese population in New York City has been pretty entrepreneurial, and they've really helped transformed the neighborhood of Richmond Hill in New York into something that really didn't have a lot of business activity about 10 years ago. But today, Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill is really vibrant, and now attracts shoppers from outside of New York City - people from throughout the region and throughout the country come to Richmond Hill to buy various products.
COX: How much government and private sector support is there for these businesses at the city, state and federal levels?
Mr. BOWLES: That's a great question. I think it's really been lacking. What we documented here is that there's a lot of these activity going on right now within immigrant entrepreneurs. They have become a real engine for the economies of these cities. But local governments and even local nonprofits like chambers of commerce and business organizations really haven't done enough to integrate these businesses and these business owners into their overall economic development strategies.
And a lot of the programs that do exist for helping small businesses really haven't trickled down to helping or connecting with immigrant communities. And we hope that this changes in the years ahead, because, you know, a lot of these cities really need new sources of job growth. Large corporations are increasingly decentralizing their operations out of cities. They're outsourcing jobs overseas. A lot of them are merging and just not choosing to grow in these cities. And immigrant entrepreneurs represent one opportunity for growth in the years ahead, but they need to be nurtured.
COX: Recent unemployment figures show that blacks are still higher than everyone else - although there was a slight improvement in January - while Latinos inched upward. Given the success of these immigrant entrepreneurs, is that success coming at anyone's expense? And if so, who might that be?
Mr. BOWLES: You know, I really don't think so, that it's coming at anyone's expense. I think that we've gone to the real transformation in our economy where manufacturing jobs - really, across the board - but especially in these cities have really shown tremendous decline in recent years.
And hopefully in the years ahead, we can figure out how to get some of these small and medium-sized businesses up to large businesses where they can employ more people - not just immigrants, but really everybody. At the same time, you know, I think the strategies of entrepreneurship is something that we need to explore for, you know, everyone. From what we've seen, African-Americans have relatively lower levels of self-employment right now. There's a lot of reasons for that, but I think that local governments ought not to just be looking at immigrant entrepreneurs, but looking to really nurture entrepreneurs of all types. And that includes the African-American community in a lot of these cities.
COX: Jonathan, thank you so very much.
Mr. BOWLES: Thank you.
COX: Jonathan Bowles is director of the Center for an Urban Future - a nonprofit think tank in New York City.
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