Let me start this post with a story about a teenager with grand plans to graduate high school, head off to college, take business classes and figure out how to create a successful business that would allow him to travel the world and experience as many cultures and regions as possible. This remarkable fellow was an exchange student from Norway who lived with our family for a year while our son was a junior in high school. In addition to his native Norwegian, he spoke excellent English and three other languages. He worried that his parents would not approve of his entrepreneur goals. His less ambitious plans, he worried, would disappoint his parents, who expected a high level of education from him. They expected him to follow in the footsteps of his engineer older brother and older sister completing med school.
But he was spending the year with our family, where both my husband and I are entrepreneurs. So, while we didn’t want to go against his parents’ wishes, we were certainly happy to have conversations with this high school junior about what was involved in getting a new business off the ground and what we loved about entrepreneurship in general.
We were so pleased when he connected with us through Linked In while in college, to let us know he was working for a start-up in Oslo and felt that he was on his way to entrepreneurship.
Do you have a picture of our exchange student in your head? Native born Norwegian, living outside of Oslo, able to take advantage of an exchange program in the U.S. where he ended up in Wisconsin with us (but “no offense”, he would have preferred California, “because Wisconsin isn’t all that different from Norway”) and then off to college with the support of his parents.
With that picture in your head, would it surprise you to hear that this student was the child of Pakistani Muslim immigrants? That his father came to Norway at the age of 13 to escape war and poverty, and worked his way up from a cab driver to owning his own business with several cabs?
Talha spoke to his parents frequently while he lived with us in Wisconsin. They would continually tell him to say “Hi” to his “white parents” (us) because they only spoke Norwegian and Urdu, and we only spoke English, whereas Talha spoke all three fluently, along with some French, Spanish and Bosnian. And we were honored that his parents trusted us to care for their son as if he was our own.
But here in small town Wisconsin, Talha stood out from the crowd. His high school experience included kids accusing him of being a terrorist, based solely on the color of his skin. He laughed it off, but it was always on his mind that he stood out based on his appearance. When he came out to see us the summer after high school graduation, his mother told him to shave his beard before he got on a plane, “or people will think you’re a terrorist”. Of course, we knew him as a bright outgoing kid who wanted to see the world and make a difference – and as a member of our family.
This experience, this kid, his story, his parent’s story, his goals, had a huge influence on my life and perspective. Our time with Talha served as a lesson to me that skin color, religion, heritage, and all the things that make us seem different on the outside, are nothing compared to all we have in common on the inside.
Now fast forward a few years to today. Inequity combined with a pandemic has put our country in an untenable situation. Research shows that black small business owners have been forced to shut down at twice the rate of white small business owners due to COVID-19. Another study showed that three in ten Black and Latino business owners did not receive the amount of financial assistance they requested from the SBA programs such as PPP.
Why is that? How does this sort of thing happen in 2020? One study suggests that the PPP relied too heavily on major financial institutions, which have historically shut out minority business owners and women.
At the same time, studies have shown that companies with a more diverse make-up of employees have 19% higher revenues due to innovation. Another study showed that companies with women and foreign nationals at the senior level performed better than companies with less diversity, and that Millennials seek out companies that emphasize diversity as part of their corporate culture.
And, of course, immigrants are nearly twice as likely as American born citizens to start a business in the United States.
But women, minorities and immigrants typically all struggle more so than their white male counterparts when it comes to starting a new business and funding a new business. One report indicated that more than half of female start-ups had trouble accessing capital. And black and Latinx entrepreneurs often struggle to find other entrepreneurs in their networks of friends and business associates, to serve as peers or mentors.
Clearly, we have a way to go before women, minorities and immigrants are able to participate more fully in the world of start-ups. So what can existing entrepreneurs and supporting agencies do to help?
Consider some of these simple steps as a good starting point:
- Promote: Actively support and promote businesses in your community that are owned by minorities, immigrants, and women. Sharing these success stories in your community serves to celebrate those who have already had success.
- Network: Work harder to network with women, minority and immigrant business owners. Many networking events in our town include the same groups of people everywhere you go. Seek out the diversity where you can find it.
- Support: Seek out and support organizations devoted to creating start-up opportunity for women, people of color and rural residents, like Start Us Up, which focuses on providing equal access to the tools needed to start new businesses.
Remember that the more diverse a business or a community, the more innovative it is, which bodes well for all entrepreneurs!
Note: The sad ending to our tale about our exchange student Talha is that he passed away at the age of 19 due to an undiagnosed heart condition following a case of food poisoning. We will never get to see him follow his dream. Our family has established a scholarship in his memory, with the goal of providing funds to students who seek to expand their horizons through travel, and we remain in touch with his family.
How to survive in troubled waters? Communicate, collaborate, innovate, compromise and improvise!
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