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Immigrant Women Succeed as Entrepreneurs

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September 2006
Immigrant Women Succeed as Entrepreneurs

In a suburban strip mall near Baltimore, an intimate two-story emporium is full of restaurants and small shops. Among these are a Korean dressmaking shop, a cosmetic counter, a bridal dress shop, and an Asian carryout restaurant—all owned and operated by Asian women. A few miles north of this center, a woman from India runs a highly successful law firm with a national clientele. These women are representative of the "new" immigration since the 1960s—those hailing mostly from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Many were born and raised in societies where options for women's employment and public participation are much more limited than in the United States. Success stories of immigrant women entrepreneurs are found across the country as increasing numbers of women make their marks in the business world, breaking barriers along with stereotypes.

Yolanda Zambrano, a Colombian immigrant in Massachusetts, bought a $100,000-per-year travel reservations office and in ten years developed it into a $5 million travel agency. Nikki Olyaim moved to the US from Iran at age 17 and went on to found Innovision Technologies, an IT consulting firm in Detroit. In 1999, her firm received a ranking of 195 on the Inc. 500 list of fastest growing privately held companies in the country. As these examples illustrate, immigrant women are swiftly moving beyond their roles as small store owners and unpaid workers in their husbands' businesses.

"Immigrants" and "entrepreneurs" are words often uttered in the same breath. Every census taken in the United States since 1880 has reported a higher level of self-employment among immigrants than among the native-born. Among the many reasons for this entrepreneurial spirit is that the immigrant is likely to have many of the same qualities as the entrepreneur, such as a willingness to take risks. One female entrepreneur explained, "For the immigrant woman, it is an even greater risk to leave one's home and culture." Many immigrants start businesses after a discouraging experience in the traditional labor market, where they confront language barriers, low wages, racial or ethnic discrimination, and sometimes exploitation. And clearly, a strong entrepreneurial trend is growing among immigrant women. In 1990, 294,164 immigrant women were self-employed, and by 2000 the number had grown to 563,814– a 190 percent increase in the last ten years.

This trend represents hope and progress for both the US and the home countries of these immigrants. Immigrant women are known for sending a larger portion of their wage earnings to their home countries than men. This prompts some Third World governments to create formal programs to encourage women to emigrate. Also, women and immigrants are known for their higher levels of giving to their communities than men and the native-born. Women of all ethnicities who have a high net financial worth are known for generous philanthropic giving. More than half of high net-worth women business owners and executives contribute more than $25,000 annually to charity. Fashion designer Yolanda Voss regularly organizes fashion shows for local charities and offers classes for budding fashion designers. A Baltimore restaurant owner gives annually to a dental school for impoverished people in the city. One female entrepreneur, whose business is not yet turning a profit, nevertheless is known for responding to requests for small donations.

Entrepreneurship among women is on the rise worldwide, due in part to the many micro-enterprise and micro-lending programs now available. This increases the likelihood that new immigrant women will arrive in the United States with some entrepreneurial experience, giving them a head start. Thus there is reason to expect that the numbers of immigrant women entrepreneurs in the United States will continue to rise and that their economic contributions will continue to be of benefit not only to themselves, but to the entire U.S. economy and society.


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