When I first started building a business here in America, people frequently suggested I seek financial contributions from “family and friends.” That’s a wonderful idea in theory, but if you’re an immigrant from a developing country or you lack an affluent social network, it’s useless advice.
I’m the founder of Jus Chill, a company that makes snacks from a nutrient-dense, sustainably farmed superfood called breadfruit. I came here for college from Jamaica eleven years ago and was able to launch my business with savings from years of working as a product designer. But many immigrants don’t have those resources or face barriers that make the journey incredibly difficult.
It’s a shame, given that entrepreneurism is often an integral part of the immigrant spirit. When you arrive in a new country, you come hungry, eager to build and make your mark. In 2019, immigrant entrepreneurs were nearly 22 percent of all business owners in the country, despite making up only 13.6 percent of the population, according to the New American Economy research and advocacy group. Here in Colorado, 35,000 immigrant business owners employ 100,000 people.
That’s a significant contribution, but we could be doing much more. So I was excited to see Governor Jared Polis recently sign a bill establishing an Office of New Americans (ONA). Housed inside the Department of Labor and Employment, the office would support a spectrum of immigrant services, including small-business development. Since details have not yet been released, I’m hoping the new office will prioritize these important resources:
Offer access to capital
Immigrants don’t have the credit history to apply for bank loans or might not be familiar with American financial services. Without enough seed money, they’re more likely to limit their ambitions. I’d like to see the ONA work with community organizations to offer low-interest loans or startup grants — as well as specialized lending models for immigrants who aren’t comfortable paying interest on traditional loans. This would more easily help businesses get off the ground and allow them to expand to meet consumer demand.
Help them build networks
I came here to study mechanical engineering and worked for seven years before launching my business. That allowed me to develop social and professional communities. I know how to research networking events or sign up for the right webinar online. But many new arrivals, especially those with limited English, aren’t so connected. The ONA could create a database or message board to help immigrant entrepreneurs seek advice and support each other, connect with founders in the same industry, and trade recommendations for business services, such as advertising and accounting
Turn immigrant entrepreneurs into teachers
After living in the United States for more than a decade, and working in industries from dust and fume collection, to equipment manufacturing, to medical device design, I’ve learned how businesses operate. But many immigrants need concrete instruction in how to develop a business plan, write a profit-and-loss statement and market a product. Our state’s Small Business Administration already offers much of this, but it isn’t designed to address immigrants’ unique concerns and challenges. That’s why I’d tap successful immigrant business owners to teach these workshops. We need people who understand the nuances of their community and can act as true mentors and role models.
Starting a company is a lonely road for anyone, but it’s especially tough when you’re a newcomer without local or industry knowledge. A great product isn’t always enough. You need support and community. I’m counting on the new office to be a force in creating this essential ecosystem. By doing so, we set immigrants up to succeed. And we’re sending a critical message: Colorado values our contributions. Our state welcomes you.
Javion Blake is the founder of the breadfruit snack company Jus Chill. He’s also a member of Colorado Business Coalition for Immigration Solutions and an advisory boardmember at World Trade.
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