3 Lessons We Can All Learn from AAPI Entrepreneurs

Lisa Ling is a journalist I’ve admired since her early days hosting Channel One News back in the nineties. Lately, her social media feed has highlighted the horrific attacks on AAPI small business owners. This demographic of individuals provides an incredible benefit to our economy and daily lives but has lived in fear at the hand of racism and misinformation.

In response, my company Hello Alice has spent Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month listening to the stories of AAPI small business owners far and wide. We know by now that every small business has struggled over the last year  — you can learn about the challenges of LGBTQ+, Hispanic, veteran, Black, and woman entrepreneurs throughout the pandemic and their bright futures still ahead. But the challenges of AAPI are unique, and I think that we can all benefit from a closer look at how they’ve navigated the last year.

Our team has gathered numbers and testimonials to help us grasp who AAPI owners are and what challenges they face. In partnership with ACE NextGen, Welcome to Chinatown, the Global Entrepreneurship Network, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), this latest impact report analyzes data from more than 17,000 AAPI small business owners. Jillian Fortin, a Hello Alice product manager, also moderated a town hall featuring Courtney Pong of ACE NextGen, Vic Lee of Welcome to Chinatown, Kham S. Moua of SEARAC, and Alvin Shen of Best Coast Burritos that served as a sounding board for AAPI owners to share their experiences and resources that have helped them thrive.

Reflecting on both initiatives, here are a few lessons I think we can all learn from AAPI owners.

  1. Different Communities Need Different Approaches

The pandemic taught us that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for entrepreneurs. Using the Paycheck Protection Program as an example, Welcome to Chinatown Co-Founder Vic Lee explained in the Town Hall that many AAPI owners were shut out from federal aid, with the Center for Responsible Lending finding that 75% of Asian-owned businesses unable to qualify for PPP loans through a mainstream bank or credit union. Lee added that language barriers, lack of internet access, and cultural stigma further limited access to PPP funding.

Welcome to Chinatown decided to deploy volunteers who went door to door in the neighborhood with paper applications translated into multiple languages. Lee said the response rates were significantly higher when application resources were tailored to the needs of this specific community. These insights informed her organization’s Longevity Fund, which offers grants to small businesses in Manhattan’s Chinatown on a monthly basis. “We could have developed this program that at the end wasn’t going to serve their needs,” said Lee, but involving the community has helped dozens of Chinatown businesses keep their doors open.

This holds lessons for small business advocates everywhere. Like other New Majority demographics, AAPI owners told Hello Alice that their number one business challenge is raising capital. Lee’s examples show why we must always engage as many stakeholders as possible when designing funding programs. If we know more about the specific needs of various owners, we can ensure that everyone is able to access the resources necessary to launch and grow their businesses.

  1. It Pays to Invest in Your Community

As one of the few women of color to run a venue in Boston, CSz Boston owner Courtney Pong went into the pandemic unsure of how she and her improv comedy space would make it out on the other side. But she tapped into her local community and asked for help. With the assistance of programs like the SBA’s Shuttered Venue Operator Grant and a pivot to offering virtual improv classes to corporate clients, CSz Boston has survived.

The experience further led Pong to invest in her community and become a board member for ACE NextGen, a nonprofit serving millennial AAPI entrepreneurs. “We are still firmly here,” she said of her business. “I’m walking out of it being more engaged in my own community in Boston.”

We have heard so many stories of government aid falling short for business owners. As Pong demonstrates, our neighbors are often more than willing to lend a hand and make up the difference!

Some of the most exciting data we collected captures the ways AAPI owners make a positive impact with their business. Whether it’s paying living wages, creating jobs in their communities, or donating to nonprofit organizations, AAPI owners told us that they intentionally share their success with their whole communities.

This has been especially true during the pandemic. In the town hall, Alvin Shen of Best Coast Burritos in Emeryville, Calif., told about how he decided to rally the community to give back to first responders during the early lockdowns. Shen was able to raise $20,000 over three months that allowed him to feed nurses, EMTs, and other frontline workers. Meanwhile, this effort helped him keep employees to make the food, bought him time to figure out how to adapt his restaurant to a new reality, and fostered goodwill for his business within his community.

“When you’re a small business you have to move fast,” Shen said. “That’s one of the biggest advantages of being small — you can move faster than other groups and make decisions and make good ones that will benefit the community and give you a leg up.”

Like Shen, the majority of AAPI owners on Hello Alice operate true small businesses, earning less than $250k in annual revenue with fewer than 10 employees. They do not have the luxury of waiting for help to arrive. Shen’s story shows us that small business owners don’t have to wait for permission to try something new. We can pivot, experiment, and adapt. And with the support of our communities, we never have to do it alone.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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