Throughout America’s history and today, immigrant-led entrepreneurship and innovation have been powerful economic forces that propel the nation forward. A vital part of the South Asian American story, entrepreneurship remains as a significant avenue for our own communities’ economic mobility and success. From small business owners to titans in the technology industry, Desi communities thrive in the United States because of policies that support both inclusion and innovation.
Despite our successes, there is still significant work to do. Anti-immigrant sentiment and policy threatens economic growth across the board. The global pandemic has also disproportionately impacted minority-owned small businesses, coupled with persistent inequities in access to resources and capital, which threaten the livelihood of community members and the entire economy. We must advocate for our immigrant workers’ rights, support small businesses, and continue to incentivize the entrepreneurship that has been a key driver of growth.
A lifeline of South Asian communities, small businesses are the backbone of the American economy. Today, Asian-owned businesses make up 10% of all businesses in the United States and have the largest estimated receipts among minority groups across all sectors. From the restaurant industry to retail and the accommodation sector in which Indian Americans own more than half of all motels, South Asians have contributed to America’s success in every sector since they first began emigrating to the country in the 1800s.
Indian Americans have also been leaders in the healthcare industry for decades, contributing cutting-edge innovations, founding companies to meet the country’s medical needs, and serving on the frontlines of crises, including the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. One in 20 US-based physicians is of Indian heritage. And we’ve paved the way as high-tech pioneers, with Indian-born executives having founded 15.5% of Silicon valley tech firms. In the tech sector, more than 70% of H-1B visas (work permits for foreign nationals) issued by the U.S. go to Indian software engineers. Due to the green card backlog, these individuals live, work, and pay taxes in the United States but have no realistic path to citizenship. These workers can be exploited by employers and lack any voice in the democratic process.
In spite of these successes, many South Asian American entrepreneurs are hindered in their ability to pursue the American Dream. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a devastating impact on our communities as Asian-owned businesses are overrepresented in some of the hardest hit sectors. Studies show that sales for Asian-owned businesses in March 2021 were down 60% as compared to the year prior. Compounding the problem are persistent challenges South Asian Americans face when trying to access funding, capital, or relief. For example, upwards of 75% of Asian-owned businesses had little chance of obtaining a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan in the initial rollout because of requirements to have existing relationships with mainstream banks or credit unions, language barriers, and business size prerequisites.
Additionally, the business successes observed in our communities are not uniform across the board. South Asian Americans continue to face discrimination in the workplace and not enough legal protections and structures protect workers on long-term visas like the H-1B. Large swaths of our community do not receive a living wage for their work, and in sectors like transportation, unfair predatory lending practices and inflated loans lead to unimaginable debt for undeserving, hardworking workers. For example, in New York City, taxi drivers– 40% of whom were South Asian– owed $500,000+ on average until successfully negotiating for debt relief.
It shouldn’t have taken a prolonged hunger strike to convince New York City to provide debt relief to taxi workers for unfair medallion cost increases, nor should it be so difficult for talented South Asian Americans to launch a successful business. To invest in our workers and spur innovation and entrepreneurship, we must:
- Strengthen employment-based and family-based immigration pipelines and legal protections to workers with work visas;
- Increase -and ensure equitable access to– funding, assistance, and relief for entrepreneurs and small business owners;
- Advocate for occupational licensing reform to make it easier to enter numerous professions and start a business; and
- Defend and strengthen collective bargaining rights so all workers receive a living wage and are treated fairly