Immigrant entrepreneurs: New Chicago office should cut red tape

August 24, 2011

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(WBEZ/Odette Yousef)
Tam Van Nguyen says there is much the city can do to make it easier for immigrants to open businesses.

Chicago has a reputation of being a tough place for small business owners. Everything from obtaining a business license to hanging an awning requires time and a tolerance for red tape. Well, navigating these difficulties can be even more trying if you’re new to the country. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised to fix that by creating an “Office of New Americans” to identify and clear barriers to immigrant entrepreneurs.

Two things. The Office of New Americans, or “ONA,” is still just a concept. There’s no director, there’s no staff, there’s no budget yet. And second, it’s not just about businesses.

It’s supposed to help immigrants adjust to all aspects of Chicago life. Whether that be using the library, or navigating the city’s school system. But the business component will be a big part of it.

Matt Fischler is a Policy Associate in the mayor’s office.

FISCHLER: Actually, immigrants are 50 percent more likely to start new business in the city of Chicago than current Chicago residents.

Fischler’s helping create the office. He says other cities have them, and he’s looked to them for guidance: Boston, Los Angeles, Houston and especially New York City.

You can tell how important immigrant businesses are in Chicago just by visiting the neighborhoods. Many are defined by their unique ethnic flavor.

Emanuel says encouraging mom and pop shops is just as important as wooing the General Electrics and Boeings.Small businesses help drive job growth in the City of Chicago.

FISCHLER: if you’re an immigrant come to our shores, you want to start new business, that you either have the educational opportunities available, the mentoring available, and the easiest process available to get the licenses you need, the permitting you need to start your business.

Here’s where those entrepreneurs go when they want those licenses. Chicago’s office of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. It’s lunchtime on Monday, and it’s busy. Three-quarters of the seats in the waiting area are taken. People are watching local news on a television screen as they wait to be called up.

Efrat Stein is the office’s spokesman.

STEIN: If there are individuals that have special needs with language, we have 6 business consultants that speak Spanish, we have one business consultant that speaks French which particularly is helpful to Haitian and African business communities, we have one employee that speaks Mandarin, we have an emploiyee that speaks Cantonese, and we also have an employee that speaks Polish.

And if someone comes in speaking Gujarat? Hindi? Vietnamese?

STEIN: Typically here we’re seeing somebody who may have a language barrier is preparing themselves by bringing an interpreter with them.

Stein says sometimes on-site translation is a challenge. But it’s not the only challenge.

NGUYEN: Most of the people, the problem is they don’t know how to do the paperwork.

This is Tam Van Nguyen. He’s helped hundreds of Vietnamese businesses get started in Chicago. This used to be his paid job. It isn’t anymore, but people in the community still go to him for help.

Nguyen says the license forms are pretty simple. The problem is that they’re in English. In fact, the only foreign language that the city offers the forms in, is Spanish. So Nguyen helps Vietnamese entrepreneurs fill the forms out in English, and then he has to coach them on what to do when they bring them to the city.

NGUYEN: “be careful when they ask you this question, this question, this question, you know. And if when they ask the question you should answer something like that.

Nguyen actually used to be able to go to the BACP office himself and file the paperwork on behalf of those businesses, but in 2008 things got complicated. The city started requiring people like Nguyen to have a something called an expediters license.

Since Nguyen does this on his own time, and doesn’t get paid, he doesn’t have the expediters license. But he’d like to see the city get rid of that requirement. Barring that, he'd like to at least get the paperwork translated into Vietnamese, and have Vietnamese-speakers in the BACP office. If those are things that the ONA will help to start, Nguyen thinks it’s a grand idea.

NGUYEN: If the City of Chicago to do like that, maybe it (will) make many different ethnic groups, many different immigrant groups feel comfortable and feel happy to do the business with the City of Chicago. That’s my opinion like that.

Nguyen says for immigrants, this whole process can be confusing and scary, and more than anything, it can just drag out. The city has promised to hire a director for the Office of New Americans at the end of this month, and have the office launch this fall.