The Green Collar Community

Immigrant Entrepreneurship: Building capacity for collective reliance


It’s common knowledge that opening and running a family business is hard. This rings especially true for immigrant entrepreneurs who face additional challenges such as immigration status, language barriers, lack of capital, and lack of information networks. Nonetheless, small businesses owned by immigrants continue to thrive and are a steadily growing sector of the California economy. According to an article, immigrant business owners in 2010 generated $34.3 billion in total business income and made up 33.4% of all business owners.

As immigrants, my family depended on running their own businesses in order to earn a livelihood. Even though my parents possess a great deal of savvy, they lacked the education and skills that our society values and knows how to quantify, like a high school or college degree. Growing up, my siblings and I knew that we all would help out in the business as much as we could. At age seven, I started washing dishes behind the bar in our Chinese restaurant in Germany, and my duties only expanded as I grew older.

After we moved to America, my parents grew more dependent on me because they did not speak English well. I helped staff the cash register, make phone calls, apply for permits and did whatever else needed to be done for the business. These experiences led me to participate as a law student in the Green-Collar Communities Clinic (“GC3”), because I wanted to learn how to provide better assistance to immigrant entrepreneurs like my parents. More specifically, I was interested in learning how to build capacity and promote self-sufficiency among immigrant entrepreneurs.

When Sarah[1] dropped in for help with filing her Cottage Food Operations Permit, which would allow her to produce fruit empanadas in her home and sell them at markets, I saw many similarities between her family and mine. Even though GC3 had prepared some of the forms for her already, Sarah had obtained the necessary permit applications and filled them out on her own. Sushil Jacob, the supervising attorney, gave her the instructions she needed to submit the filled-out forms and complete the last few steps. To finish the undoubtedly long process, Sarah probably would have to go to three different agencies to submit her finalized paperwork.

After she left, we wondered whether it would have been better to take the final step out of her hands and submit the applications on her behalf. Streamlining the process for Sarah probably would have saved her trips to government offices and temporarily made her life a little easier. But then I considered the feeling of empowerment she gained when she completed the last few steps on her own. For example, Sarah had taken many of the initial steps of filling out forms, before asking GC3 for assistance, despite the fact that these forms were not in Spanish. She may have relied on her daughters to translate and fill the forms for her, thereby giving them exposure to the permitting process.

Now, both Sarah and her daughters have gained familiarity with three different government agencies that they will have to deal with in running their cottage food business. Sarah knows that GC3 is there for her if she needs it, but she has taken the lead role in developing her business and her determination has convinced me that she will be able to tackle other challenges as they arise. Running a business is never easy and takes the kind of drive that Sarah showed to get it started and keep it going. Her story reflects a crucial process of empowering entrepreneurs, building their individual capacity, and even raising their daughters to take the next entrepreneurial step.

[1] Client’s name has been changed to protect confidentiality.

Amy Tu is a second-year law student at Berkeley Law and a former law clerk at GC3.