Op-ed: It pays to invest in entrepreneurial immigrants

The United States, and New York City in particular, has historically been a haven for immigrants, especially ones with an entrepreneurial bent. The trend continues to this day, with an even more diverse group of people opening small businesses in pursuit of the American dream.

I have devoted most of my life to advocacy for Hispanic small businesses, leading the local Hispanic chamber of commerce and going on to become head of a national advocacy group. My grandfather, who moved here from Puerto Rico, vividly showed me the way by opening a successful bodega and then founding the first association of bodegas in New York City. I got to see how the entrepreneurial spirit could lift immigrants—and their children and grandchildren—to a better life.

What I have learned in a life advocating for minority businesses was how my own family’s experience was mirrored by a wide range of diverse immigrant groups—each gravitating toward different business opportunities. The Puerto Rican bodega became a magnet for others. It transformed into the Dominican bodega. And then the Yemeni bodega joined in the immigrant chorus. Those groups came to New York to improve their lives.

Many Dominican bodega owners bootstrapped their success, and eventually took over much of the New York City supermarket business, especially in poor neighborhoods. They were not alone, as Chinese and Korean grocers sprouted up, catering to their own communities’ needs while enticing other New Yorkers eager for a taste of those cultures.

The same is true for African food distributors and retailers, who have started to gain traction in New York. And we can’t forget the contribution of the Koreans who invented the green grocer/salad bar retail niche, often in neighborhoods where fresh fruits and vegetables were hard to find.

The food business is attractive to immigrants, but they also have branched out to other sectors. The Vietnamese dominate the nail salon business, for instance, while Sikhs and Haitians are found disproportionately among newsstand operators and taxi medallion owners.

As I grew into becoming a more influential small-business and immigrant leader, I began to realize that many strivers were not being afforded the same opportunities that majority-owned businesses were being given when it came to government procurement. So I helped lead the fight to expand minority/immigrant business access to government contracts—work that has made headway but remains unfinished.

My decades-long dedication to advocacy has led me to my current change of direction: right into an entrepreneurship of my own as the founder of the Hispanic Buying Group. It’s a minority-owned group that identifies producers in Latin America, especially from economically and socially distressed areas, and creates business trade opportunities in partnership with U.S.-based minority chambers of commerce and minority buying groups.

Our coalition, made up of representatives from the most important Hispanic trade groups in New York, is welcoming this month the National Association of First Ladies, a Colombian group of wives and partners that promotes economic development for women displaced by conflict and war.

The vision of the coalition is to create a trade bridge between Latin America and the United States, to give opportunities to minority-owned businesses in the United States while creating economic development opportunities in Latin America.

If we are successful, we will—by creating business opportunities—help to tamp down the push of migrants from impoverished countries into the United States. Strengthening the indigenous Latin American business climate would be a win for all immigrants, as well as those who choose to stay behind and build their own success story at home.

Frank Garcia is the former chairman of the National Association of Latino State Chambers and founder of the Hispanic Buying Group