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Economics / Entrepreneurs / Immigration / Thriving

How do immigrant entrepreneurs thrive in Philadelphia? 5 business owners on building their legacies

Entrepreneurs who built their lives and businesses here after emigrating tell us how they've overcome barriers and found purpose in their work.

Clockwise from top left: Pheng Seng, Zikria Syed, Reyna Navarro, Deb Dutta and Shaunak Roy. (Courtesy photos)

This report is part of Thriving, a yearlong storytelling initiative from focused on the lived experiences of Philadelphia and comparative city residents. The goal is to generate insights about the economic opportunities and obstacles along their journeys to financial security. Here's who we're focusing on and why.

Update: Local census figures have been added. (10/7/22, 1:10 p.m.)
Ever since she came to the US from Mexico at age 18, Reyna Navarro and her sister have been taking on entrepreneurial pursuits, selling clothes or other merchandise.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Navarro was sitting in a sunny South Philadelphia rowhome that’s been renovated into a retail space.

After two years of selling Mexican crafts and clothing on social media, 35-year-old Navarro has opened her storefront, Artesania Mundo De Queen, on the corner of 8th and Mifflin streets. With kids playing cheerfully in the background and colorful merchandise behind her during a virtual interview, Navarro confirmed that she’s living her dream.

“It’s in my blood to have a business,” she said.

Navarro wasn’t planning on staying in the US, but she fell in love with her husband, had a few children and found jobs in manufacturing facilities. The 10-hour workdays with low wages drained her, but she didn’t know how to start working for herself. When the pandemic hit, and she began selling merchandise on Facebook, she sought out business resources.

Reyna Navarro. (Courtesy photo)

She’s since worked with The Welcoming Center, a nonprofit in Philadelphia that promotes the economic growth of immigrant communities. Navarro took classes and workshops, including a course for Mexican entrepreneurs, to help get her business off the ground.

“‘Thriving’ has a huge meaning. We live in a country of opportunities,” she said. “It’s a beautiful country. I miss my homeland, but I believe dreams come true here and there are many opportunities. For me, it has been phenomenal how I’m thriving with my business. I think it’s the most marvelous thing that’s happened in my life.”

Immigrant community growth in Philadelphia

The immigrant population in the US is rising. In 2019, 44.9 million immigrants made up 14% of the national population, the American Immigration Council found. And the same year, 12% of the country’s population was made up of native-born Americans who have at least one immigrant parent.

In 2019, 23.2 million immigrants (52%) had naturalized and 8.1 million were eligible to become naturalized citizens. Adult immigrants in the US represent a range of educational backgrounds — a third of this population had a college degree or more, a fifth had some college, a quarter had a high school diploma and another quarter did not have a high school diploma.

The numbers are similar here in Philadelphia. The most recent Census figures show that immigrants make up about 14.3% of the City’s population, or about 225,400 people. It’s a figure that’s doubled since 1990.

The wider metro area, encompassing eight surrounding counties, was home to about 670,000 immigrants in 2019 with a spending power of $20.7 billion, the New American Economy found. Of this wider population, nearly 54,000 immigrants were self-employed entrepreneurs. A analysis of five-year IPUMS census data shows nearly 6,300 immigrant entrepreneurs in Philadelphia for 2016-2020.

In this journalism series, Thriving, we look at how different groups in Philadelphia and beyond think about their work, life and economic success. Here, we focus on one of the city’s fastest-growing groups: immigrant entrepreneurs.

The entrepreneurs we talked to identified some unique challenges they face — legal status, communication barriers, lack of business resources and the pandemic’s effect on their businesses.

But we also heard about the largely positive aspects to running a business as an immigrant. Many felt very embedded in their communities and wanted to share the positive moments and success with others. Most of the people we talked to for this story said that straddling two cultures gave them an edge or advantage in the business world.

‘The American Dream’

For Deb Dutta, the India-born founder of West Philadelphia-headquartered healthcare technology company Viora Health, her entry to The Wharton School and finance career in the early 2000s were part of chasing the “American Dream.”

Deb Dutta. (courtesy photo)

“At the time, I really wanted to be on Wall Street. I was really intrigued by financial deal-making and funding of large companies and projects,” Dutta said. “I came here for schooling, but [after] the immigrant journey of having to sort of prove yourself — and really make that dream of pursuing education — finally making it to Wall Street was what shaped me as an entrepreneur.”

More than a decade later and now in her 40s, Dutta sees that dream differently. She did her time on Wall Street and saw the typical sort of financial success she was hoping for. But the call to join startup life came ringing. She worked on her first startup, a wholesale-to-retail food brand for busy people who want to eat healthy, for a few years. But years on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus in West Philly exposed her to the healthcare inequities in many low-income areas.

She also had a personal experience with an ill family member. Those two things were the driving motivations behind starting Viora Health, which focuses on improving access to care and reducing costs of care, specifically for people facing social and behavioral barriers to health. The startup offers health management programs for people with diabetes, pre-diabetes, weight loss, general wellness and hypertension. The company is partnered with clinics and medical practices within healthcare systems that then refer patients to Viora.

The founder said she’s faced barriers with capital, hiring and the sort of interconnected cycle of needing to fundraise before she can take big steps with her business. She cares deeply about her identity as an immigrant and feels that the startup world tends to have problems with diversity and representation.

“I often describe myself as an immigrant entrepreneur, it’s a big part of my definition as an entrepreneur,” Dutta said. “Being an immigrant, I think there are several life experiences prior to me coming to the United States that I bring to entrepreneurship.”

Now later in her career, thriving, to Dutta, exists outside of just financial success. Having enough to cover your food, rent and other expenses is essential. Beyond that, thriving means having meaning or purpose in your life, she said. She believes having an impact on your community, the lives of others or caring for sick family members is what brings progress to your life.

‘Creative freedom’

Zikria Syed, a healthcare tech founder originally from Pakistan, agrees with Dutta about the financial aspects of entrepreneurship. The Center City-based cofounder of six-year-old PatientWing said he finds the ability to pick which projects he works on more important than a huge paycheck.

“For me, it’s the creative freedom, it’s my opportunity to decide what projects to pursue and really go after them. Versus at a company, that’s not your choice. You have to go along with whatever’s happening at that time,” Syed said. “Sometimes you get to pursue the right type of project, sometimes you don’t. For me, it was really determining what I work on at the end of the day.”

Syed came to the US to attend college when he was 18, and after completing his undergraduate degree at Lockhaven University, he attended graduate school at Drexel University. He spent years building software at Microsoft, but when he thought about his next move, he felt stumped — if he wasn’t happy at one of the largest tech companies in the world, where would he be happy? So he struck out on his own.

Zikria Syed. (Courtesy photo)

When he first became an entrepreneur, Syed said, he wasn’t sure if being an immigrant was going to be an advantage or not. You’re not as familiar with some of the ways people talk or how US businesses work, he said. But ultimately, it has worked out well for him.

“Being an immigrant, you’re used to uncertainty. You’re more of a risk-taker. I came to the US when I was 18 years old all by myself,” Syed said. “So going into a very unknown situation is something I’ve done at a young age. And I’ve seen over the years that not everyone has the stomach to go into a new situation without knowing how it is.”

Syed is now on his third venture in about 15 years. He’s since fallen in love with Philadelphia’s food scene, culture, affordability and walkability. It’s a great place to build a business and pluck interesting, smart, young talent, he said. All of that feeds into what he considers thriving — a positive lifestyle outside of work, the ability to build strong work and personal relationships and community.

“For me, being an entrepreneur is a privilege,” Syed said.

Community is key

Community is the heart and soul of Pheng Seng’s business, Unrivaled.

Seng, a 41-year-old immigrant from Cambodia, has lived in South Philadelphia with his family since they emigrated from refugee camps when he was about 8 years old. Aside from some time Seng spent incarcerated, he’s been deeply embedded in his community ever since.

Pheng Seng. (Courtesy photo)

He started Unrivaled, a custom screen print company, with two friends in 2020, when most folks were stuck at home. His parents are entrepreneurs who run a laundromat, and Seng had done some real estate investing, but he had never worked for himself before starting the company. He’d run into issues with employment in the past because of his criminal record, which discouraged him.

“I applied for a few jobs, and just having that piece, when you fill out an application, that says, ‘Have you committed a crime?’ … it makes you feel like they’re not going to hire [you], right away,” Seng said. “And it makes you feel down and out.”

Seng and his cofounders learned about screen printing from a friend. They began running their business with support and education from the City’s Office of Business Services within its Commerce Department. He’s since joined the Philadelphia Cambodian-American Business Community, which promotes entrepreneurship and community within Philadelphia’s Cambodian population. Seng also became the Vendors Association of FDR Park’s new board president earlier this month.

Running Unrivaled and working for himself has been much more laid back than other jobs he’s worked in the past, Seng said. It also gives him precious time to be visible in his community and connect with neighborhood kids. He’s organized free COVID-19 vaccination sites and gotten folks connected to first-time home buyers’ programming. Seng also engages in anti-violence work and is involved with his police district to find creative ways to stop crime and violence other than the punitive approach.

To Seng, thriving would mean that a foundation is set for all kids, parents and neighbors in his community to be able to run businesses — as well as have support and information from their government, their city and local nonprofits to do so.

“Growing up, it was hard. I didn’t really have anyone to talk to, or guide me in the right direction, so I ended up going the wrong way. The whole school-to-prison pipeline, where I got caught up doing time, and now I’m on the deportation list, too,” Seng said. “I’m doing this for my kids, my neighbors, my friends, my community. If I was to be deported, I would hope that I left something behind.”

‘A very nuanced perspective’

Shaunak Roy, founder of education tech company Yellowdig, moved to the US from India about two decades ago — first to Boston, then to Philadelphia. He had some light entrepreneurial experience while in school, and just a decade ago rose to become the director of business development of FMC Corporation. But he started feeling ready to venture out on his own in 2014.

“My dad was an entrepreneur himself. In India, he had a manufacturing business while growing up,” Roy said. “Some of my early motivation was kind of watching him have his own company.”

Shaunak Roy. (Courtesy photo)

He knows a lot of other immigrant entrepreneurs, and never felt like it was a blocker for him. Nobody asked him where he was from when he was building Yellowdig, and he felt like he came with a unique perspective. It actually felt like an advantage at times, Roy said.

“I always came with a fresh perspective about everything. I always had my point of view, being in this country for almost 18 or 20 years now, and I also had the perspective of growing up in India so I knew how that system works,” Roy said. “Definitely gave me a very nuanced perspective of actually building this company.”

But at the start of the venture, he questioned if Philadelphia was the right place to start a tech company — he’d had experience in Boston and lots of connections on the West Coast. But he ultimately realized that tech companies can be built from anywhere.

When he thinks about the concept of thriving, Roy said it comes down to being successful in what you’re trying to do. Philly ended up being the right place to be in the edtech space, he said. Yellowdig has partnered with local institutions like Drexel, as well as prestigious universities like Harvard University. The company is working with more than 150 institutions in the country, and clients in other parts of the world.

“We started with this vision of transforming education using technology, using the product we have,” Roy said. “We of course have a long way to go, but we’ve established the product in the market, we have some top universities who are using us and seeing a lot of value in us.”

Do it all again

Navarro’s now operated her storefront business for just over one month, and she loves showcasing Mexican culture to the community. Her schedule is much more flexible now — she decides how many hours she works and can spend more time with family.

She feels like she’s gaining a lot of knowledge, like knowing which items will sell quickly, or how to market them. Navarro’s also since collaborated with other women entrepreneurs and, now that her business is up and running, wants to be a point-person who can help others get permits or other business tools.

“I love my life, I love this,” she said. “If I’m born again, I would live my life just like I am living it now.”

Companies: Yellowdig / Drexel University / University of Pennsylvania / Wharton School
Series: Thriving / Journalism

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