Susan C. Pearce is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Research Associate with the Center for Diversity and Inequality Research at East Carolina University.
Elizabeth Clifford is Associate Professor of Sociology at Towson University, where she is also Director of American Studies and Coordinator of the Baltimore Immigration Summit.
Reena Tandon teaches South Asian Studies at University of Toronto and has been affiliated with Ryerson University to teach at School of Social Work and to integrate Curricular Service Learning in the Faculty of Arts.
When we hear the words “Thai restaurant owner,” how many people picture a man? Today, however, more and more immigrant women are taking up such entrepreneurial endeavors. A handful of years ago, young entrepreneur Luck Pongsamart found a Los Angeles restaurant about to close down, cobbled her savings and bought the business, and is now successfully running Bangkok Corner in a Los Angeles strip mall.
Our new report, “Our American Immigrant Entrepreneurs: the Women,” is adapted from one chapter of our book, Immigration and Women: Understanding the American Experience published this year by New York University Press. The book tells the story of immigration as lived by women who migrated to the United States as adults. They represent 148 different countries.
Who started that nail salon on your block? Or that law firm around the corner? There is a strong chance that it was a woman. Indian-born Sheela Murthy founded a successful immigration law firm in Baltimore that employs more than 70 individuals, most native-born.
There were several things we learned in this study: The reasons for their startups mirror those we learn about men’s startups: they feel frozen out of a conventional workplace, whether due to language barriers, racism, lack of certification in our system, or other reasons. And for women, they may have encountered sexism as well. There’s also the “dream” that immigrants came to our country to follow, the fact that immigrants are risk-takers, and other motivations.
But we also heard stories that many may not expect of immigrant women entrepreneurs: they didn’t start as shadows of their husbands’ companies. At least 3 of them hired their husbands as employees after they got the business off the ground.
One of challenges that these women faced was the continuation of that stereotype of the man as the lead pioneer in immigration and of the man as the entrepreneur-which did hindered their access to resources needed for start-up and success. Immigration law firm owner Sheela Murthy tells the story of sitting down with a broker in her office to discuss investments, and he kept asking repeatedly, “Who really owns this business?” in a lobby with her name clearly embossed across the glass entrance-as she kept trying to assure him that she does.
And yet, these immigrants are creating jobs for the foreign-born and the native-born, creating their own job, and generating capital that is flowing into the economy in many ways-through tax revenues, consumption, payment to venders, and start-up capital for other spinoffs from these businesses.
In this report and in our book, we equally emphasize these women’s nonmaterial contributions. Many are providing training for the next generation, supporting charities and activism through their volunteer hours and funds, and anchoring communities. One of the more fascinating discoveries was the work of community activist Sandra Romero in Los Angeles; although she is not an immigrant herself, it was in large part through her training of newer immigrants to sell tamales through rolling carts that a dangerous, drug-infested public park-McArthur Park-got reclaimed for the community.
We need the media, politicians, and the general public to help counter the stereotype of both: the foreign-born as a drain on the economy, and the entrepreneur as always male.