Coming To America—And To Entrepreneurship

Immigrants across Westchester are part of a growing trend of foreign-born entrepreneurs trying their luck at business ownership.

After emigrating from Montenegro in 1996, Ardsley resident Benjamin Prelvukaj took a job waiting tables and working in the kitchen at Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn. “I knew five words of English,” he says.

Prelvukaj saw a brighter future for himself in the US. When he left Montenegro, a tiny Mediterranean country in Southeastern Europe, it was still part of Serbia, which had been torn by internal conflicts. “The economy wasn’t doing well,” Prelvukaj recalls. “It was hard to make it there.”

Waiting tables turned out to be path to opportunity, giving him a crash course in how to run a successful restaurant. “I learned the whole operation,” he says. 

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By 2006 he was ready to make a bold move, by going out on his own. Teaming up with his brother-in-law, Ben Sinanaj, and recruiting Arturo McLeod, a longtime chef at Peter Luger, Prelvukaj opened Benjamin Steakhouse in Manhattan. The eatery did so well that by 2010, he and Sinanaj opened a second location, in White Plains, not far from Prelvukaj’s home. They followed up with The Sea Fire Grill, their first seafood restaurant, in Manhattan, three years ago. Together, his restaurants employ 200 people. 

One of Prelvukaj’s restaurants, Benjamin’s Steakhouse

What’s the key to his success? “I think you have to understand the concept of what people want and eat,” Prelvukaj says. “I offer good quality food and service. People are willing to pay for it.”

Prelvukaj is part of a long tradition of immigrants in the US who have dived into entrepreneurship. They range from Alexander Graham Bell to Sergey Brin at Google. Immigrants are almost 50 percent more likely than native-born Americans to start businesses—and their rate of new business creation has increased by more than 50 percent in the last 15 years, according to a 2012 report by the Partnership for a New American Economy. Immigrants started 28 percent of new businesses in 2011, the most recent year for which data was available, though they made up only 12.9 percent of the population, the report says. Another report by the Partnership found that immigrants and their children created 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies.

Besides starting new businesses, many immigrants are buying them, bringing new life to Main Street. “Overall, as the economy is picking up, we are seeing more immigrant entrepreneurs purchasing businesses,” says Ramit Arora, president of Biz2Credit, a Manhattan-based online middleman between small business borrowers and lenders. His firm has worked with a number of entrepreneurial immigrants in Westchester, among them owners of gas stations, convenience stores, liquor stores, restaurants, and a manufacturing plant.

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Starting a business may be a natural fit for immigrants who are still learning the language and have few connections in the traditional job market. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  Many would-be business owners need to learn the cultural nuances of doing business in the US. And getting financing for a small business can be challenging for immigrants, if they have not yet established a credit history in the US. 

“That is an issue,” says Arora.  “They get a fresh Social Security number; they have to start all over. They have to get a cosigner, which is not easy to find, or they have to invest with friends and family.” 

To address some of the challenges, Westchester Community College (WCC) started a pilot program called Entrepreneurship for New Americans, with grant funding from the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth. The college’s Gateway to Entrepreneurship program teaches entrepreneurial immigrants about subjects such as legal aspects of starting a business and access to credit, and the school’s English Language Institute helps the students become fluent speakers. 

The idea is to help immigrants get a leg up in the economy. In New York State, 2.72 million residents, or 27 percent of the workforce, were immigrants as of 2011, according to the Division of Immigrant Policies and Affairs at the State Department of Labor. They account for an estimated $200 billion in annual economic output, by department estimates. 

It isn’t clear exactly how many immigrant entrepreneurs live in Westchester, but over a two-year period, 74 to 100 participants have taken part in WCC’s program, says Patrick Hennessey, director of college relations. “There might be someone who has a vision and an idea but doesn’t know anything about setting up insurance, hiring, sales, or marketing,” explains Hennessey. Besides offering workshops, the program provides materials like a brochure on conducting business in the US, covering “everything from the dress code to handshakes,” says Eridania Camacho, director, Gateway to Entrepreneurship. “It can be different from culture to culture.”

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Colombian immigrant Yamile Ramirez started her business, IP Management Solutions, with help from The Women’s Enterprise Development Center.

The program also helps the entrepreneurs tap into local markets. “These new citizens, outside of language skill issues, need to get assistance on how to deal with the various marketplaces in the US and Westchester,” Hennessey says. 

The program has started to bear fruit. “Some entrepreneurs have gotten new contracts and new clients,” Hennessey says, adding that it also provides a sense of community. “It particularly benefits entrepreneurs who might feel isolated. This setting gets them together with other immigrant entrepreneurs.” 

Many have arrived under difficult circumstances. Take Eastchester resident Yamile Ramirez. She left Colombia to come to the US in 1998. “I fell in love with someone from New York who was on vacation in my country,” she says. After dating awhile, they got married, but the relationship didn’t work out. Divorced with two small children, Ramirez worked in retail but yearned to do more.

“I said to myself, `I really am unhappy. I just don’t like to be an employee. I really want to give my ideas to myself,’” she recalls. 

After chatting with a doctor she met at Saks Fifth Avenue, where she was working, she began thinking about offering consulting services to physicians on how to improve their practices. Many physicians, she realized, had little background in business. Working with the Women’s Enterprise Development Center, a nonprofit in White Plains, she created a business plan. The 60-hour program required her to take an evening class one night a week. 

“It was a group of women who all had a dream,” she says. “No matter how tired I was, just thinking of these other women, who were also going after work, forced me to [attend the classes and] finish my business plan.” 

Three years ago, Ramirez started the business, IP Management Solutions, from her home. Today, the company has grown large enough for her to employ a full-time assistant. Recently, Ramirez took a leap of faith and went after a big contract for a medical device firm in Connecticut. Not only did she win the contract, she’ll now be doing international sales and distribution on their behalf. “I’m so excited,” she says. “What I was doing before was like training wheels compared with what I am doing now!”

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