This Asian-American Heritage Month, we need to think bigger than #StopAAPI Hate. Certainly, we must fund anti-hate crime efforts within the NYPD and our schools. But, we can also help Asian-Americans by helping them build economic power and achieve their American Dream.
Like many Asian-Americans in New York City, I immigrated to this country with a college degree from my home country, India, but struggled to find a job when I arrived here. I worked in a convenience store, at a fast food restaurant, and as a taxi driver before starting my own insurance business.
With the hard work and sweat equity I poured into my small business, I was able to pay off my debts. I was able to afford a home in a safe neighborhood with good schools for my children. I was able to pay it forward, joining local civic organizations and helping other immigrant entrepreneurs start their own businesses and live their American Dream. Just two decades after coming to this country, I am now running to represent Eastern Queens in the City Council.
According to the Center for an Urban Future, there are approximately 47,000 Asian-American businesses in New York City. In my home borough of Queens, more than one-third of businesses are Asian-owned. Yet, just as Asian-Americans have been victimized by bias in the past year, our small businesses have suffered. One study suggests that the number of working Asian-American business owners nationwide decreased by 20 percent last year.
Our local elected officials have marched and given speeches to Stop AAPI Hate, and now it is time for them to boost Asian-Americans’ economic hopes.
First, our small businesses need commercial rent control. Just as a successful small business can provide a path to the American Dream, skyrocketing commercial rents can derail careers and families. The impact of astronomical rents is felt by mom-and-pop, immigrant-owned businesses without cash reserves or access to government subsidies, including Asian-owned businesses. It’s hardly a problem for big-box stores, nationwide chains, and well-connected firms. Though reasonable commercial rent control has been proposed several times in the New York City Council, it has never been enacted — now’s time to do it as our small businesses try to claw back from the pandemic.
Second, we need to invest in much better outreach and training to help our small businesses and entrepreneurs access government programs and win government contracts. In the first round of PPP loans, Asian-Americans had the fewest loans approved of any demographic group nationwide. Throughout the pandemic, Asian- and immigrant-owned businesses in Queens have struggled to keep up with whipsawing regulations, and the different programs and applications for the City, State, and federal grants and benefits. Most of these businesses don’t have lawyers on retainer, or decades-long relationships with big banks. Some business owners have weak English or computer skills.
New York City officials can help by going into communities and going door-to-door talking to businesspeople, not just posting flyers online. They need to build better relationships with trusted community business leaders like BIDs and small business and local development corporations (SBDCs and LDCs) and use those leaders as ambassadors to share information. They need to provide information in languages other than English. And they need to greatly expand existing programs to help small and minority-owned businesses access the $20 billion well of government contracts. For example, a total of only 13 firms participated in the City’s “Strategic Steps for Growth” program in Fiscal Year 2019-20, while the City hosted only three events for its “Peer Mentors” program in the first half of 2020-21.
These steps to help small businesses are just a start, but they are part of any comprehensive approach to helping our Asian community. They will also empower Black and Latino business owners and communities who face racism and injustice in our City and our country.
Economic prosperity is the cornerstone of the American Dream. If we level the playing field and give Asian-Americans and people of color a path to economic success, we are offering a pathway to real change — to success, to peace, and to a better life for all.
Sanjeev Jindal is an immigrant small businessman, leader in South Asians for Empowerment (SAFE), and candidate for City Council in the 23rd District.
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