Immigrant owners face added hurdles to business survival

Préstamo, قرض, 贷款, ссуда, ऋण, le prêt, ण.

Each word translates to “loan” from the most common non-English languages spoken in Cleveland. If you own a small business, applying for emergency relief and seeking strategic guidance during the pandemic has been difficult; imagine if the laws and applications were not written in your first language.

This reality exists for hundreds of business owners in Cleveland who speak English as a second language. Few culturally competent resources exist, many small businesses are unbanked (and cannot take advantage of relief), and opaque terms in lending prevail. Immigrant-owned businesses are also more likely to operate in sectors especially vulnerable to disruption by COVID-19.

“Comprising 16% of all business owners, immigrants were majority owners of 22% of businesses in higher-risk industries in 2016. The principal reason for this is their entrepreneurship in accommodation and food services, an industry in which immigrants own 33% of businesses,” the Pew Research Center explained in April. These businesses may also have smaller cash reserves.

The lack of concern for small businesses in the recovery exacerbated challenges for new immigrants. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the Paycheck Protection Program did not target areas with a higher share of business closures or hours cut. The cap on non-payroll expenses and failure to prioritize deeply affected industries exhausted the program quickly.

Given the immense impact of international-born residents of Cleveland — today and throughout history — how might our community support business owners whose first language is not English? Here are a few recommendations.

1. Takeout Tuesdays: Scan Global Cleveland’s map of immigrant-owned restaurants and the Hispanic Business Center’s list of businesses providing takeout or delivery for one (or more!) to patronize each week. Ordering or dining in is an excellent way to help sustain small businesses that are less likely to receive a lifeline from the federal government. Consider posting on social media after ordering to help the businesses market themselves.

2. Culturally competent tools and resources: Have you considered your audience and their linguistic needs? Providing materials on how to start a business in multiple languages is critical. Organizations should consider publishing their surveys and applications in several different languages. In addition, they can hire experienced translators to ensure idiomatic communication with entrepreneurs. Immigrants contribute disproportionately to entrepreneurship: it is critical to our region’s success that language is not a barrier.

3. Create and promote alternative financing vehicles: Lending Circles, KIVA and Honeycomb Credit are a few tools that do not rely on traditional banking structures but still provide access to capital. Another concept is Islamic banking — a culturally distinct system of investing that requires borrowers to return a share of profits rather than paying interest. Greater Cleveland does not have such a bank, and many business owners travel to Michigan for services.

Xenophobia has spread as fast as COVID-19.

With rising hate crimes, plummeting sales at Chinese restaurants, and federal attempts to freeze immigration, today is a critical time to show solidarity with our international community.

Such efforts are directly related to the country’s rising consciousness of the need for racial justice after the murder of George Floyd. Police violence also impacts immigrants of color — albeit in different ways than Black Americans — especially those that are economically marginalized. Cleveland has always been a globalized city and celebrating that fact has never been more important.

Hall, senior vice president of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, wrote this on behalf of GCP’s Equity & Inclusion Team.

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