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Helping Immigrants Start a Business - 2002-04-17

English Feature #7-33701 Broadcast May 15, 2000

In today's segment of New American Voices you'll hear about a local program designed to help immigrants to the United States who wish to become entrepreneurs.

The brightly colored yellow and green flyers can be found in many public buildings in the Washington metropolitan area, including on tables in local public libraries. The large black print catches your eye. "Do you want to own your own business?" "Loans." "Training." "Learn the elements of running a business."

"Elements of running a business are things such as marketing, how to know who your customers are, where your customers are, how to get them to come and purchase your product or your service from you, things like bookkeeping and financial management - just basic skills like that."

Caroline Hayash is the director of the program advertised in those bright flyers, the Micro-enterprise Development Program offered by a non-profit, private organization called ECDC, the Ethiopian Community Development Council. The program, originally established in 1984 to serve an influx of Ethiopian refugees coming into the Washington area, is now available to immigrants or refugees of any ethnic background who want to start - or in some cases expand - a business of their own.

"What we find is that a lot of our clients, they often have industry skill or experience. For example we have women that are tailors or someone that's an auto mechanic and knows that skill very well. But what we often find is that those individuals don't necessarily know how to run a business, they don't have actual business management skills. And we try to emphasize to these individuals that running the business, or the business management part of it, is just as important as knowing how to provide the service to their customers."

Group training is conducted in English, although some classes are held in Spanish, and translation services can be available for other languages. As promised in the flyers, the program also provides loans to people who wish to start or expand their business but have no capital or credit to speak of.

"We have what they call a micro-loan program where we loan up to 25 thousand dollars per business. Immigrants - and we particularly concentrate on low to moderate income individuals - really don't have access to capital through the traditional sources, like banks. They usually have either no credit or not very strong credit. So we have sort of found a way to work around those kinds of criteria."

When granting loans to people with little capital and business experience, what are the characteristics that Caroline Hayash and the people who work with her look for?

"Well, we look for who we think is going to be successful, because that's what we're really looking at. Since these people don't have any traditionally creditworthy characteristics, when we ask who's going to be successful we look for tenacity, someone who works hard, and I think we also look for what we call an entrepreneurial quality, the ability to sort of sense how to negotiate your way through these various business negotiations."

Each year about 600 to 700 people avail themselves of the ECDC business training program - which is one of several in the Washington area. The program is free. Funding comes from a variety of sources, including some government agencies, state and local county governments, and private organizations and corporations. As to the kinds of businesses that immigrants who take advantage of this program are most likely to be:

"Mostly service businesses, because of the nature of the area. We have some retail and wholesale businesses that are products based, but mostly it's anything from basic services such as car repair and cleaning services and transportation services like taxis, couriers, truckers, to more, sort of, what I guess you would call luxury items, like we have a pet day care center and pet care business, we have several hair and nail salons, for example, so it's a wide variety."

The busy ECDC center notwithstanding, there is currently some debate in this country as to whether the traditional image of the immigrant entrepreneur is accurate. There are those who say the positive impact of immigrant businesses on the community has been greatly exaggerated. Next week in this program we'll bring you two opposing views on this subject.