Leaders discuss APIA business climate in Minnesota at legislative hearing

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Va Megn Thoj, Tran Nhon and David Zander recently testified on unemployment issues of the Asian American community of Minnesota at a Jobs Task Force Public Hearing. 


The testimony stemmed from meetings and discussions by members of a collaborative led by Asian Economic Development Association, Lao Assistance Center, and Hmong American Mutual Assistance Association. It advocated for community nonprofit support to design user friendly, culturally appropriate, technical assistance programs.


The nonprofits, they argued, can help clients over the language and cultural barriers, and to write business plans.


“The major theme throughout our discussion on solutions is the need to develop the capacity for bi-lingual, intensive, one to one mentoring through the Asian non profits,” said Zander. “The major solution we have been asking the legislators for is to fund a cooperative effort for an Asian employment and retraining collaborative.


“Our proposal today requests that the Job Task Force supports efforts coordinated through the Asian Economic Development Association that would offer programs based in the leading Lao and Hmong non profits,” he added.


Va-Megn Thoj, executive director, Asian Economic Development Association, testified on the area of Asian jobs and small business development.


Also testifying on minority business topics was Tran T. Nhon, a Board Advisor to the Vietnamese Community of Minnesota, and Board Member of the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans.


A member of the Vietnamese Minnesota community, Tran is currently a business consultant, and advisor to small business enterprises in Ramsey County. He is also nationally noted supplier diversity expert and advocate for minority owned businesses.


Tran is a past Executive Director of the Minnesota Minority Supplier Development Council, he was appointed a member of the Small Business Procurement Advisory Council by the State of Minnesota from 2000 to 2004.


David Zander, a cultural anthropologist, is also the Community and Legislative Liaison at the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans.


The three described “major barriers, obstacles and solutions” in their respective testimony.


“Asians are missing the boat,” said Zander. “Despite the federal money trickling down, it is not reaching the Asian communities. Banks are not lending to Asian businesses. The larger banks like Wells Fargo are guilty of this.”


Thoj went on to talk about barriers to Asian small business startups, issues preventing equal access to loans, and the need for support for small business corridors. He said that mentoring programs for APIA startups and economic growth would help with learning about how to start up a business where the mainstream agencies are work not working as well in culturally appropriate ways.


Zander expanded on special need groups among the newest and least supported residents. The new Asian refugees, mostly Karen, Bhutanese and older laid off Southeast Asian workers, are especially at risk.


Zander said the collaborative solution is to develop the capacity of Asian nonprofits to provide intensive employment advocacy, and also to develop their to offer tutoring to laid off workers interested in starting small businesses and help them overcome the barriers to developing business plans and accessing loans


Thoj said that Asian small business owners in business corridors such as University Avenue in St. Paul are feeling the impact of the economic slump. Many businesses are having a hard time surviving. Community leaders report that this is having a negative economic impact on the larger surrounding districts and neighborhoods.


“The solutions are to help Asian individuals and small businesses access credit,” said Thoj, “and support development of new business corridors in geographic locations such as Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, North Minneapolis and East St. Paul, similar to the existing University Avenue in St. Paul and Nicollet Avenue in South Minneapolis corridors.”


Thoj said that while Asian families built their own success using family savings, that this method is no longer possible. Conditions have changed, he said, and families can no longer rely on savings or income from wage earners any more with high unemployment.


“Much of what they achieved is not sustainable,” he said. “The informal financial support has collapsed.”


Asian leaders report that entrepreneurs are facing major barriers in getting start up loans. Previously, they could pool together and help each other, but he added that in lean economic times the earnings are not there to help.


They cannot qualify for loans as an alternative, and programs that cover 75 to 90 percent of lender risks are not offered to Asians.


“The banks don’t want to loan money to Asians to start small businesses,” he said. “Loans are based on collateral and the Southeast Asians who came as refuges are low on collateral.


Thoj painted a gloomy picture, quoting leaders who say that if APIA small business cannot get loans, such as the Community Development Block Grants, to invest or improve property, there may be return to boarded up properties on University Avenue like the 1970’s. The noodle restaurants and mom and pop grocers are especially at-risk and need technical assistance, he added.


He said the the entire surrounding community is dependent on the strength of these small Asian businesses and business corridors, and called for culturally appropriate training using nonprofits that now have laid off workers that are experts in helping to provide information on how to access loans and resources and otherwise tailored technical assistance.


Mr. Tran talked about new business corridors and bringing the Asian voice into planning for new corridors, as the existing ones are saturated and leave no room for expansion.


Tran identified likely areas for new corridor planning in North Minneapolis neighborhoods of Glenwood, Lyndale, and Lowry Avenue. He would like a corridor to expand through Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center.


“The Hmong need a corridor in the west metro area,” said Tran, adding that new sites should spread out to the suburbs so they are not all located and competing in St Paul.


Tran also spoke about Green jobs and the barriers to job creation, noting a report which states Minnesota lacks creative initiative attracting small and large business when compared to other states.


“The state needs to see help students get hands on experience in these new industries,” said Tran. “They need companies here who can offer them hands on experience with wind turbines, wind energy. Without this, much of their training in Minnesota is just text book learning.


Tran encourage state agencies such as DEED to reach out and include Asians in their work. He said mentoring is needed on technical assistance, business plans and should be coordinated through a nonprofit.


The testimony included support for the Asian Pacific Cultural Center, which after initial funding and support from the state legislature, has been deleted from the budget in recent sessions.


“With respect to the 2010 bonding bill, the Asian Council and the Asian community as a whole would like to see the Asian Pacific Cultural Center included in the bonding bill, ” said Tran. “This will do a lot to creates jobs and provide a hub for Asian organizations and activities in Minnesota. It has been extremely disappointing for the Asian communities to see APCC vetoed and dropped from several past bonding bills.”


“No work experience, no job. No job, no work experience.’ It’s a chick and egg problem,” said Mr. Xang Vang, HAMAA, a leading Hmong agency in Minneapolis, with an employment program.


Vang shared several personal stories about the difficulties he has faced trying to get funding from the banks. He said mainstream agencies such as the workforce centers are not reaching out to minorities as effectively as the ethnic nonprofits.


Rather than just get pointed to a computer, he said caseworkers could offer intensive one-to-one employment counseling to increase the likelihood of long-term gainful jobs.


“Mainstream agencies need to partner with Asian non-profits,” said Dave Zander in his talk about overcoming barriers to jobs and retraining.


There is a lack of culturally appropriate training on how to access resources and start up a business, according to a report from the Lao community in North Minneapolis.


“We have Lao who would like to know how to get off unemployment and open shops – nail shops, construction, landscaping, carpentry, carpeting, a Lao accountant who would like to open his own accountancy business – but they don’t know how to start, how to get customers. Some are vulnerable to predatory lenders,” said Sunny Chanthanouvong, executive director, Lao Assistance Center.


“They also need help on how to file taxes. If they run a business and don’t file taxes and then IRS comes to them and they have no records, they are sunk,” he added.


The testimony also talked about barriers to Southeast Asian women that have not traditionally found the help they need from mainstream organizations. They look for solutions through the Asian nonprofits.


The nonprofits need resources and staff expertise with financial and business advisors that speak their language.


“I start my own business, use all my own money, and pay taxes,” said Ms. Rathana Walbolt, a Cambodian American businesswoman. “I need a lot of spending (investment) to provide jobs to 10 to 15 employees. I need to learn everything about certification, making good decisions. But if I fail they don’t help me.”