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Immigrant, entrepreneur: Getting here & giving back

Editor's note: This is the second installment in a two-part series examining the impact of Southwest Washington's immigrant entrepreneurs. To read the first installment, click here.

The GrigoryansWhile the impact immigrant entrepreneurs like Arawan Thai Cuisine/Ginger Pop owner Joe Varagoon have on their employees can be significant, Buck Heidrick of the Washington Small Business Development Center believes the contributions they make to the community at large is equally as important.

Heidrick works to improve the local economy by assisting entrepreneurs in almost every facet of their business. After witnessing the language and cultural barriers that his foreign-born clients face, and helping them past these challenges, he said he is really impressed by them.

“[Immigrant business owners] serve their own community,” Heidrick explained. “They’re very parochial. That’s a contribution in and of itself, because if they weren’t there to serve their own communities, those people would be floundering even worse.”

Paola Zarate is one such example. Born and raised in Mexico City, she moved to the United States when she was 20 and received her business degree from Washington State University Vancouver. She now owns two insurance agencies, one in Longview and one in Vancouver. Zarate went into the insurance business to help her community, especially the local Latino community.

“Some countries don’t require you to have insurance,” Zarate said. “So how do you explain to people that insurance is required? To me, it’s been a challenge, but at the same time, it’s good. I like to teach people and I like to learn.”

Zarate said that about 50 percent of her clients are Spanish-speaking, and many are also immigrant business owners like herself. The common challenges they face inspired her and two friends to start the Latino International Business Alliance (LIBA), a nonprofit organization.

“We want [LIBA] to be that bridge, where we have a business owner and he has so many questions, and we have all these resources,” Zarate explained. “We’re going to help people who either want to have a business or people who already have a business. It’s not only for minorities, but we want to focus on minorities.”

LIBA members are meeting the first Friday of every month in preparation for the organization’s grand opening this fall. At that point, Zarate hopes to operate the nonprofit much like a chamber of commerce for the Latino business community.

Creating economic ripples

The impact immigrant entrepreneurs have may go beyond their own minority communities as well. Heidrick believes that many contribute to Southwest Washington’s broader economic and social well-being, benefitting all races and nationalities that live or do business here.

“[They] reach out beyond that and serve other people, and provide goods and services for the broader public,” he said. “I bet they give more than they take. I would be willing to bet that one.”

Andrey Tkachenko contributes both to the local community and to that of his homeland. The owner of Quality Homes CCCP, a construction business on Highway 99, left a professional soccer career in the Soviet Union after it dissolved. Aside from helping build housing developments throughout Vancouver, Camas and Washougal, Tkachenko also gives back to area children through his coaching.

“When I have [the] opportunity, I help kids to develop in soccer,” he said. “I don’t mind pass[ing] along my knowledge and experience.”

Tkachenko’s generosity extends beyond political boundaries, too. He also gives financial assistance to a foster home in Russia that supports about 30 children.

“We help that, make sure it’s running there,” he explained. “There are five teachers. It’s all financial. I do my best. I don’t just make money to drive a nice car or [have] a fancy house. Life treats you the way you treat it.”

Vancouver’s International District

If immigrants are one out of every six small business owners in America, the Fourth Plain Corridor probably exceeds the national norm. Mark Maggiora believes the ratio of foreign-born small business owners to native-born small business owners there may be more like one out of every two.

“And if you look at the actual business transactions that are not reported to respective entities and agencies, it’s probably more like two to one, multicultural to white,” Maggiora said. “I’d say that’s probably pretty fair. There are a heck of a lot of transactions that go on under the table, and not because they are trying to beat out somebody. They are trying to protect themselves because that’s all they know.”

Maggiora serves as executive director of Americans Building Community, a Vancouver-based nonprofit devoted to revitalizing the Fourth Plain Corridor. Throughout his work, he has heard outsiders make negative sentiments about the corridor that he knows to be false. With the significant concentration of immigrant entrepreneurs in what he calls “Vancouver’s backbone,” Maggiora brought a task force together to start resolving those imposing perspectives.

“How do we help the small businesses on the corridor become more viable?” Maggiora recalled asking the task force. “We all knew that food was a real strength… so we said, let’s organize an annual festival.”

As a result, the team launched the Fourth Plain International Festival in 2009, which brought together local business owners to showcase their traditional food, dancing and music. Maggiora said he only expected about 600 people to come the first year, but ended up hosting almost 2,500.

“These restaurants had to go back two and three times to get more food,” he said.

Four years later, the festival has picked up some sponsors and partners to keep it going, and Maggiora said many businesses report increased activity after participating. Despite a smaller turnout at this year’s event, Maggiora keeps the task force’s mission in mind: to start changing the negative thoughts that many have about the corridor.

“[The festival] brings the broader community to come and see… and they can do it in a pretty safe setting, but they can also bring the family and have fun,” he said. “That starts to shift the thinking about a particular place.”

Overcoming obstacles

One business on Fourth Plain that has seen the abundance of cultures present on the corridor is Haircut Now, a salon owned by Arkadiy and Yelena Grigoryan.

“We have probably 20 percent [of the] people who speak just English,” Yelena explained. “But at the same time, we have people from Bosnia, from Bulgaria, Romania. Lots of people from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia. We would have never met them if we hadn’t been hairdressers. It’s very interesting.”

The Grigoryans came to the United States 22 years ago from the former Soviet Union. With just $50 and three children, Yelena said the transition as an adult presented a challenge.

“It’s very difficult especially if you’re not young,” she said of coming to a new country. “For young people, it’s okay. But for us it [was] very difficult. First it’s the knowledge of life over here. We didn’t know how people live over here. We didn’t know lots of the laws over here and still don’t know lots of laws over here.”

Despite established careers in Russia (Arkadiy was a civil engineer and Yelena worked as a bookkeeper), the Grigoryans started their vocations anew in America and went to beauty school. After working for various companies, they decided to open their own salon in order to spend more time with their children. Despite difficult beginnings, Yelena said the well-being of her children and the freedom to run her business now means that her life is perfect.

“If you do not have broken luck, nobody can stop you,” she said. “This, for me, [is] the American dream. My kids finished school, finished university. They work and they’re happy.”

One of the Grigoryans’ daughters, Galina Burley, ran for city council this summer in Vancouver. Burley said she admires her parents’ resilience and throughout her residency here in Clark County, has met many inspirational entrepreneurs like them.

“We could learn a lot from these folks who came here with nothing and built large-scale, sustainable businesses,” she said. “It’s possible without any English, money, or knowledge of how the business rules and regulations work to be successful. Maybe, as a result, [their stories can] inspire more business-minded people in our community to do something for themselves.”