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.

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."

For many budding entrepreneurs, the road to success is paved with obstacles. Leading the list of challenges is money. "Most people don't have start-up capital," says Wong, and it is rare for an immigrant to get a bank loan. "Any money comes from family rather than from loans. Lots of times it's not a real loan that you pay back with interest. There's no schedule. It's an equity loan. People are helping each other out, pooling their money so one person in the family can succeed." Without that support system, she adds, it is difficult to start a business.

From Iran to US

A native of Iran, Sepi Asefnia came to the US in 1978 without her parents to finish high school. After the revolution in Iran in 1979, she decided to stay. Later, with two BS degrees in engineering, she worked at the North Carolina Department of Transportation for 11 years. After four years in the private sector, she started her own firm, Sepi Engineering, using the equity in her house as start-up capital. She employs 45 people.

"Part of being an entrepreneur is being brave," says Ms. Asefnia, of Raleigh, N.C. "You're so excited about your idea, your vision, that the obstacles are not the main things you focus on. Looking back, if I had known what I know now, I would be a lot more hesitant and conservative about starting a business with the small capital I had."

Although it was more difficult to start from scratch, she says, "I look at everything as a challenge, and don't assume everything is going to be easy."

She remembers seeing entrepreneurs when she was younger and assuming they were not scared. "I thought, they have some amazing ability, some magic about them," she says. "Now I realize they had sleepless nights too, worrying about payroll, worrying about finances. It's not that I never had any nervousness. Everybody has that. You just have to get over it."

Other challenges include language barriers and ethnic bias. These women must also learn about rules, regulations, and licenses, Ms. Pearce says.

Whatever the business, hard work is a keystone. "Immigrants coming here want to succeed so badly, " Wong says. "They spend incredible hours working. Their motivation is incredible."

As Torrado's catering business outgrew her home, she obtained a small loan with help from her husband. She moved first to a small storefront, and later to her current location in a once- abandoned building, which houses her bakery and restaurant. Her workday begins at 8 a.m. and stretches to 11 p.m. or even midnight. "I do not feel tired because I love my job," Torrado says. Her four children also help.

That dedication is paying off. Soon Torrado plans to open a second-floor function room for parties, wedding receptions, and meetings, primarily for the Hispanic community.

Sportswear savvy

Some women bring business skills with them from their own country. Before Winnie Lung immigrated to New York in 1985, she learned about the apparel business in Hong Kong. By day she worked for a manufacturer; in the evening she studied at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. In 1998 in New York, she started her own business, Icicle, wholesaling women's sportswear. She has eight employees, all Asians, and does $5 million worth of business a year.

"Being an Asian woman, it was pretty tough to start," Ms. Lung recalls. "But since I've been doing this a while, you realize what is your advantage: the skill we have. There are a lot of challenges, but a lot of the time you feel a lot of satisfaction, too. Especially if you know the goods are doing well, you think, whatever I did is going to a lot of women consumers. That's encouraging for us."

For women with limited English and inadequate funding, a cooperative can be a path out of poverty. In Boston, Cooperative Economics for Women has helped dozens of low-income women start their own businesses based on cooperative ownership. These include child-care services, catering, and cleaning.

"From the immigrant point of view, this is an amazing country," Asefnia says. "The opportunities are fabulous. There should be more done for women, encouraging them to get out there in leadership roles and be entrepreneurs."

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