Her American dream
Sometimes, when Ada Torrado unlocks the door of the bakery that bears her name - Ada's Creations - she thinks about how far she has come since leaving the Dominican Republic and immigrating to Providence, R.I., with three small children.Skip to next paragraph
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Unable to continue her 13-year career in Dominican banking because she spoke little English, she settled for a menial job in a jewelry factory. But after two years, realizing that Providence had no Spanish bakery, she began making Latin desserts to sell and eventually opened a bakery. In the process, she joined the ranks of immigrant women entrepreneurs, one of the fastest-growing groups of business owners in the United States. "I have more and more customers," Ms. Torrado says, her voice lilting on the phone. "My dream is coming true."
In 2000, 8 percent of employed immigrant women were business owners, compared with 6 percent of employed native-born women, according to a report from the Immigration Policy Center in Washington. The largest group - 41 percent - comes from Latin America and the Caribbean. Thirty percent come from Asia and the Pacific Islands.
"The fact that more women than men are immigrating to the US tells me that they're looking for opportunities," says Susan Pearce, director of Global Women of Baltimore and author of the report. "There are more women who would appreciate the opportunity to own a business."
Those businesses, mostly in service industries, range from one-person home-based enterprises to firms bringing in millions of dollars. Many employ family members and others from their country, as well as native-born Americans. In addition to contributing to the local economy, the jobs they create enable some workers to send money to relatives back home.
Many immigrants cluster in so-called "enclave economies." Koreans often open dry-cleaning establishments, greengrocers, or nail salons. There are even associations of nail salons for Koreans, says Bonnie Wong, president of Asian Women in Business. Indians tend to start technology companies. Chinese women might open a restaurant or a gift shop. Some Latinas operate beauty shops or run child-care and elder-care centers. Those with more education might choose computer services, says Velma Montoya, president of the National Council of Hispanic Women.
Whatever the ethnic group, these enclave economies "have ways of helping each other out," Ms. Wong says. "If you can speak your own language and have a network that's been established, it makes it easier."
Many women are motivated to become their own boss after discouraging experiences in the conventional labor force.
After graduating from college in her native Ghana, Esther Armstrong taught English literature and language. But when she came to Baltimore in 1980, her education and excellent English failed to open any doors. "Nobody asked, nobody cared that I had a college degree," Ms. Armstrong says. To support herself and her 3-year-old daughter, she cleaned houses, cleaned dog kennels, and cared for children.
A typing course in an adult education program enabled her to land a clerical job. That led to a position with FedEx, where she spent 18 years. In her spare time, she began importing clothes by a designer in Ghana in 1994. She sold them at flea markets on weekends and from a modest upstairs shop. "It was kind of hidden, but the rent was right," she says.
Now, after retiring early from FedEx, she's devoted to her business, Sankofa African and World Bazaar. In January she moved to a 1,200-square-foot space in a strip mall. Her lines include native American jewelry, clothing, and pottery, as well as furniture from Indonesia and India.
"The dream is kind of coming together," Armstrong says. "It's working exactly the way I wanted it to. People from all walks of life, all colors, come in. Many are just browsing, but it's a beginning."