Chamber president proposes resource center for immigrant entrepreneurs

The president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut is proposing to create a resource center for immigrant entrepreneurs — an initiative he said could significantly grow the region's economy. 

The proposal for a center to assist legal immigrants in starting or growing their businesses earned an endorsement from the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments at its meeting Wednesday.

"It's a huge opportunity for us to have an immigrant-friendly region in eastern Connecticut," Tony Sheridan, the chamber's president, told the regional council.

Sheridan said communities — including Dayton and Cleveland, Ohio; Louisville, Ky.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Nashville, Tenn. — have implemented similar initiatives and "all of their downtowns and enterprises have blossomed as a result of being an immigrant-friendly community."

The proposed Immigrant Resource Center's mission is "to provide a culturally sensitive personalized service to the region's immigrant entrepreneurs with the goal of providing a pathway to growing and/or opening their own business."  

In a letter to the regional council, Sheridan said the center, through the chamber, could both "significantly grow our state and region's economy" and "encourage the immigrant to successfully integrate into the region's economic community."

Based on conversations with immigrants, he said, many want to start a business, but "feelings of being an outsider may play a role in holding them back."

And though advice from state and federal agencies is available to them, he said, they may shy away from government-related assistance because they come from a country where they had a negative experience with government.

His proposal points out that 18.5 percent of businesses in the state are immigrant-owned. Together, those businesses result in a net income of $2 billion, or 15 percent of the state's total net business income.

The proposal's goals, among others, are to create an electronic resource center with a list of business support or loan programs in multiple languages; maintain a comprehensive list of interpreters; translate business brochures and application forms; and offer a series of business-related networking events, with interpreters available, as needed. 

In an interview after the meeting, Sheridan said the next step in developing the center would be focus groups with immigrants to determine needs.

Local immigrant entrepreneurs have said the most helpful services would be language assistance during permitting processes, information on state and federal grants and programs, and an ombudsman who could speak at hearings related to permitting and regulations, according to the proposal.

Sheridan said many of the center's services would be the same as those offered at the chamber, but there will be a focus on sensitivity to cultural differences and language.

The chamber's existing resources, such as a comprehensive list of interpreters, would be updated. 

Under the proposal, short videos of immigrant business owners, who would act as "Goodwill Ambassadors," would be posted on the chamber's website and those of other organizations in the region.

Sheridan said the videos would offer immigrants an opportunity to share success stories with loved ones in their country of origin, as well as promote Connecticut as a place to do business.

k.drelich@theday.com

Twitter: @KimberlyDrelich

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