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Entrepreneurship As A Gateway To Immigrant Success

Sofia DeMartino The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Sofia DeMartino reports, "The Gateways for Growth plan [outlines] several key opportunities for Cedar Rapids to support immigrants in both social services and economic growth — issues that had been identified as barriers to success in conversations with immigrants living and working in the city."

Cedar Rapids

Before a pandemic crossed the county line, before a derecho caused a single leaf to quiver, and before the very first 2020 Census-taker rang a doorbell, I joined a crowd gathered at the Czech and Slovak Museum to hear the Gateways for Growth Action Plan for Cedar Rapids.

The plan's purpose was to address an issue that is both a challenge and an opportunity for our community: Linn County is growing, and nearly half of that growth is due to immigration. With nearly all of our neighboring counties showing population losses, the growth in our community is cause for celebration.

Once the new demographics data is reviewed, our population growth is cause for self-examination as well. The Gateways for Growth plan outlined several key opportunities for Cedar Rapids to support immigrants in both social services and economic growth — issues that had been identified as barriers to success in conversations with immigrants living and working in the city.

For many newcomers, cultural differences in the workplace can make advancement difficult.

Population growth is important to economic growth and innovation. The immigrant community in Linn County accounted for over $21 million in state and local tax revenue in 2017. Contrary to misinformation regarding the contributions of those not born on U.S. soil, immigrants also pay into both Social Security and Medicare, although they are less likely to draw on either Medicare or Medicaid. For many newcomers, cultural differences in the workplace can make advancement difficult. This may be part of the reason so many turn to entrepreneurship — in fact, Linn County immigrants are over 45 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs than residents born in the U.S.

This was certainly the case for real estate agent Marie Hancock. Marie arrived in Iowa with an education focused on finance, and her corporate pursuits reflected her schooling. However, she did not feel supported by her employers and felt ostracized by her colleagues. Although her superiors felt comfortable enough with her performance to grant her additional responsibilities and a more complex workload, she received what were essentially promotions in title only. There was to be no additional compensation, and no ability to take enough consecutive days off to allow her to visit immediate family abroad.

"Many immigrants in that position would simply quit their job, go home to visit, return and begin another job search. This is one of the reasons advancement can be very difficult," Marie lamented over the phone. Rather than continue to plead with employers who didn't see the value in creating a more functional work environment, Marie decided to take matters into her own hands and build a life that would reward her efforts. In March of 2020, one week prior to shutdown, Marie activated her real estate license and began to sell homes.

Because of her connections with the immigrant community and her understanding of the challenges and barriers that exist for foreign-born newcomers to Cedar Rapids, Marie Hancock sold $5 million in real estate in her first year. She accomplished this feat during a pandemic, a global uprising, and a historic storm that nearly leveled half of the town. She accomplished it without the extensive network that comes with a lifetime of connections in one area, and without the support of a mentor to shepherd her through the first year or two as is common in the real estate industry.

"My peers will say to a client, 'talk to me once you have a pre-approval.' My role has been entirely different — my role has been, 'This is what pre-approval means.'"

Marie has been teaching her clients about understanding credit, understanding what qualifies as an asset, and how to apply for financing. She has also served as an advocate with lenders on behalf of her clients, helping both to navigate cultural differences that make becoming a homeowner so difficult. In a city filled with billboards showcasing the smiling faces of real estate agents, Marie has not used advertising to generate any of her business. Marie's ability to bridge the divide has created so much organic interest in her services that she anticipates needing an assistant in the near future.

"So you are filling a gap in the market that other agents haven't yet tapped into because they don't understand the population you are working with?" I asked her. "Exactly."

In this microcosm of our community, Marie's ability to recognize a problem and capitalize on the solution while improving the lives of others is the American dream in its purest form."We are more powerful than we think."

However, this is one woman in one industry. There are certain to be other pain points for foreign-born community members, and it is likely that more solutions and innovative service models will come from within the immigrant community rather than be created on their behalf. There are a few organizations working to assist the immigrant community with entrepreneurial endeavors.

Catherine McAuley Center offers a Childcare Business Development program that offers business planning and ongoing support in addition to assistance with licensing in-home child care centers. Sara Zejnic elaborated on their strategy: "We work with our clients to determine career and employment goals and plan for the future. If an individual is interested in going into business, we connect them with community resources. Among others, we have worked with the City of Cedar Rapids, the Metro Economic Alliance, Lutheran Services and the Empower program at Jane Boyd."

Empower by GoDaddy works in partnership with Jane Boyd to provide business coaching and development support to entrepreneurs. Program Manager Maurice Davis described the evolution of the program from "a social services program that helped people through entrepreneurship to an entrepreneurship program with social service capabilities. Now, we spend a lot more time focusing on the business acumen of the entrepreneur. I foresee Empower allowing more flexibility in the future, and serving as an organization that can unlock resources for entrepreneurs."

Mr. Davis has big goals for the future of Empower. The biggest need for Empower right now is awareness of and conversation about the work that they are doing. "It is challenging to grow something when the people that know we exist aren't mentioning our name in the places that matter."

Just a year before the Gateways for Growth plan was unveiled in October 2019, I sat in the conference center at the DoubleTree Hotel with a few hundred friends and watched the origin story of Great America Financial, a Cedar Rapids institution. The Metro Economic Alliance was presenting Great America Founder Tony Golobic with the Howard Hall Excellence in Business Award. Mr. Golobic had arrived in the United States an immigrant; his mother had been a guerrilla fighter resisting Nazi occupation. He began his life in America with very little, and built an enterprise that has changed the lives of thousands. We applauded his corporate and philanthropic contributions and the legacy he has built, and I wondered then as I do now whether those in attendance recognize the parallels between his story and the experiences of more recent immigrants striving for a better tomorrow. If we are to exalt these successes, we must also exalt the initiatives and the people that foster future success. We are better because of the immigrants who have helped to build this community, and if we want our city to win, we need to have the same desire for foreign-born residents to win as well.

After an hour of conversation with Marie, I posed a final question. "If you were standing in a room full of immigrants considering entrepreneurship, what would you want them to know?" Marie paused briefly and exhaled before responding in a steady voice. "We are more powerful than we think. Even at our small demographic percentage, I would like to see you focused and hungry — hungrier than you've ever been for anything, because success is reachable."

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