Welcoming Communities Unlock the Potential of Immigrant Entrepreneurs

This guest post is the fourth in a series by Kauffman Foundation grantees and other partners sharing insights on entrepreneurship diversity and inclusion. These timely topics will be discussed at this year’s Mayors Conference on Entrepreneurship, Dec. 1-2, in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Mayors are pragmatic. They need to make sure their cities work, and that they work for everyone who lives there. It’s not an easy task. The most successful mayors not only take on the challenges of the day but are always looking forward, considering the trends that are on the horizon and how their city can truly thrive.

Among these critical trends are the changing demographics of communities—which has led to a growing effort by mayors and other local elected officials to tap into the vitality and entrepreneurial spirit of immigrant communities in order to make their cities and towns more livable, vibrant and prosperous places for all.

That’s certainly the story of my hometown: Denver, Colorado. Anyone who is familiar with Denver knows that in the 1970s and 1980s we were a fairly sleepy city, with an economy largely dependent on oil and gas. All of that fell apart with the energy crisis of the 1980s, when suddenly vast numbers of people were out of work. The next generation of mayors worked to put Denver back together again over the coming decades by diversifying our economy, tackling infrastructure projects like our new airport and setting the stage to attract a new generation of people from across the nation—and across the globe—who now call Denver home.

Today Denver is growing—economically, socially and culturally—like never before, as these investments have taken hold. As Denver expands, it also has been intentional about how to ensure new residents from diverse backgrounds truly feel at home and can participate fully in the city’s opportunities. For those reasons, Denver has partnered with Welcoming America to join a growing number of Welcoming Cities.

Three years ago, Welcoming America and a number of local governments started a national dialogue to learn how cities, like Denver, were responding to their changing populations and to articulate the local government’s role in creating a welcoming community that attracts and retains global talent. This included documenting local policies and programs that helped immigrants integrate into the community and helping longer-term residents connect with and appreciate their new neighbors.

Welcoming America created the Welcoming Cities and Counties network in response to the need for U.S. municipalities to learn from and share welcoming approaches with each other. For example, Denver created an innovative micro-grants program that brings together diverse residents at the neighborhood level to foster greater understanding across different backgrounds. They based their idea on similar work in New York City, but tailored it to make it their own, and other cities are learning from Denver and following suit.  

The Welcoming Cities network has grown from a handful of 10 early adopters to a vibrant network of 100 welcoming communities, spanning from Anchorage, Alaska, to Gainesville, Florida; and from Houston, Texas, to Salt Lake County, Utah. With support from Welcoming America through annual convenings, webinars with experts, coaching, communication campaigns and other opportunities, they are intensifying their work and tackling issues ranging from workforce development strategies to community policing to language access for immigrant entrepreneurs, among so many others. A sense of friendly competition between the cities—who are competing for global talent—helps keep these efforts energized and robust.

Connecting Welcoming to Immigrant Entrepreneurship

As any Welcoming City knows, immigrant entrepreneurs play a particularly critical role in the economic vitality of our communities, though they may not receive the recognition they deserve. Consider these facts:

This entrepreneurial energy is a key element of the talent and vitality that New Americans are injecting into local economic growth.  Welcoming Cities recognize the need to capitalize on this energy by reducing the barriers faced by immigrant entrepreneurs, such as by demystifying regulatory and financing structures, and providing assistance to a more diverse set of entrepreneurs through training, technical assistance and lending and micro-lending services, among others. Strategies like these that help immigrant entrepreneurs overcome hurdles to starting new businesses also help entrepreneurs of all backgrounds, leading to more economic opportunity for all of us.

Is your city making the most of immigrant talent? How well is your city connecting immigrants to traditional economic development initiatives? 

To help your city answer these questions and support immigrant entrepreneurs, Welcoming America is pleased to be sharing its how-to guide, Seeds of Growth: Building Your Local Economy by Supporting Immigrant Entrepreneurs at the Kauffman Foundation’s 2016 Mayors Conference on Entrepreneurship.

If you would like to join the growing number of leaders who are approaching demographic change pragmatically, and want to do more to leverage the diverse talent that will be key to your city’s future, Welcoming America would like to help support you. We invite your community to join the growing Welcoming Cities and Counties Network and receive support and partnership in leveraging the opportunities that come from creating more inclusive and entrepreneurial cities that benefit from the talents and contributions of their increasingly diverse residents. To find out more, visit www.welcomingamerica.org.

Susan Downs-Karkos is the director of Strategic Partnerships at Welcoming America where she leads the provision of ongoing coaching, training and technical assistance to new and existing partners, including local governments and nonprofits across the country.

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Susan Downs-Karkos is the director of Strategic Partnerships at Welcoming America where she leads the provision of ongoing coaching, training and technical assistance to new and existing partners, including local governments and nonprofits across the country.