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Twin Cities: A Supportive Environment for Immigrant Entrepreneurs

Written by Amanda Maher

Minnesota’s Twin Cities are proactively working to support an already robust immigrant entrepreneur community. Immigrant family-owned businesses are common on Main Street and bring vitality to downtrodden commercial districts.

The opportunity to launch one’s own business is fueled largely by “opportunity centers” geared towards immigrant entrepreneurs. These opportunity centers are springing up throughout the region, providing low-cost and low-risk space as entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground.

Hmong refugees from Laos and Cambodia, in particular, have found a home in the Twin Cities. St. Paul’s Hmongtown Marketplace is a bustling hub for Hmong entrepreneurs. In 2004, a former lumber yard was converted into a more formal indoor-outdoor market that provides 200 inexpensive stalls for entrepreneurs to sell their products and services; another 150 vendors sell goods outdoors when weather allows.

Like many inner city business owners, Hmong entrepreneurs often have trouble accessing capital to start or grow their businesses. This challenge is exacerbated in the immigrant community, many members of which “don’t have credit records [that would] make banks comfortable,” noted Toua Xiong, the Marketplace owner. As such, Xiong has intentionally integrated office space for law, tax and accounting professionals who can help the entrepreneurs navigate the many complex hurdles to creating a successful business.

Despite the growth of Hmongtown Marketplace, demand for similar space appeared to remain high. Six Hmong investors came together to test that theory. They conducted a feasibility study to determine whether St. Paul could support a second Hmong market—specifically, one on St. Paul’s East Side. “I think the overall demographics showed that we had a big enough community on the East Side to make this work,” said Alex Vang, one of the investors. “We wanted this to be a one-stop shop for everything people would need.”

The investors studied Asian markets throughout the country to understand key determinants of success. In 2010, they put their concept in motion by opening an indoor market dubbed “Hmong Village.” The dull brick exterior of this former warehouse masks the vibrancy of shops inside. Vendors sell cookware, DVDs, clothing and groceries. The smells of sticky rice, egg rolls and pho fill the air. With rents as low as $500 per month, it’s perhaps no surprise that the building was 100 percent leased within just a few weeks. Today, more than 320 retailers, restaurateurs and service providers call the 108,000 square foot shopping center home, of which more than 90 percent consider themselves start-up companies.

Another indicator of the immigrant community’s entrepreneurial spirit: the entire Hmong Village project was completed without using public funding.

The importance of immigrant entrepreneurs to St. Paul—and to the broader Midwest economy—has not gone unnoticed. As reported in a study conducted by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs: “The Midwest cannot hope to keep up with other regions or international competitors without a vital entrepreneurial sector…Immigrants, risk takers by nature, are unusually successful entrepreneurs, more than twice as likely as native-born Americans to start their own firms.” .

Minneapolis has responded by launching the “Hello Neighbor” initiative, an outreach program designed to welcome and connect with immigrants and refugees as they relocate to the city. The Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) in St. Paul provides technical assistance to small business owners in eight ethnic and low-income neighborhoods in Minnesota. NDC has provided training to 4,250 entrepreneurs and $10 million in small business financing over the past two decades. The region is seeing exponential growth in other public- and private-sector business support networks, such as incubators and networking events – many of which are specifically targeted toward the immigrant community.

Launching a new business venture is no easy task, for anyone. It’s even harder when you’re a newcomer to a neighborhood and still learning the language and culture. The Twin Cities show that providing a strong, supportive foundation for immigrant entrepreneurs will allow them to grow within the “opportunity centers” and then thrive along Main Street. It’s a win-win proposition: as these entrepreneurs realize personal success, they are also breathing new life into the region’s commercial corridors.

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