Over a cup of mint tea and sugary, flaky baklava, Humayun Ahmed and his friends discuss plans regarding their children’s upcoming nuptials, politics, childhoods, the community, and business. Photo by Sarai Vega.
While many South-Asian entrepreneurs work together, supporting one another within a network, their businesses also have a broader impact – they create services and jobs for the community as a whole.
The weekly drive with my mom, sisters, and I across Kansas City to my dad’s business was our typical Saturday afternoon. Piled in the car, we left our nearby college town to drive nearly an hour into the city.
Dad’s business was a Texas Tom’s restaurant – an iconic local franchise with locations across the city during the 1950s. By the mid 2000s, his was one of the few remaining locations from that bygone era, with an eclectic menu of burgers, tacos, gyros, Philly steaks, and tuna fish sandwiches. By the time I hit the door after the drive, my 8-year-old stomach craved two things: cheesy jalapeño poppers and Mamba Chews.
I skipped inside through the smell of grease and fried catfish, giving a quick "hi" to my dad before making my way to his "candy shop" – the convenience store inside the restaurant. There, Mr. Shah, my dad's oldest employee, teased me by asking where my money was to pay for the goodies I had taken. Then, I retreated to our usual booth in the back-left corner of the restaurant where I would have lunch with my family.
Through his connections, Humayun Ahmed was able to buy into a partnership of a Texas Tom's franchise as a way to provide for his growing family. Photo by Sarai Vega.
Owning a business like a fast food franchise was not my dad’s original American dream. When he emigrated from Pakistan to the United States in 1982 to pursue his Master of Business Administration, my dad, Humayun Ahmed, had aspirations to break into the marketing industry. His dream was to do brand management for international companies like Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble. But circumstances and necessity instead turned him into an entrepreneur.
After receiving his degree, he struggled to find a job in the corporate sector. In retrospect, it isn’t a stretch to think that as a South-Asian man in the middle of America, it wasn’t a lack of credentials or experience that held him back – especially with a post-graduate degree.
So, instead of entering the mainstream workforce, my dad turned to the only option many new Americans have, by tapping into his ethnic network. Through his connections, my dad was able to buy into a partnership of a Texas Tom’s franchise as a way to provide for his growing family. It was a move that became the first of several similar ventures, including the Sinclair franchise he currently operates.
For many South-Asian immigrants, owning and working in gas stations and convenience stores has helped them build a niche for themselves within the community. Immigrant entrepreneurs gain social capital from networks within their ethnic enclaves that help them grow their own businesses. Immigrant entrepreneurs are twice as likely as native-born Americans to create their own business, and their informal networks help them sidestep barriers such as the persistent racial bias found in the decision-making processes related to financing new businesses.
Retail businesses like gas stations are attractive to immigrant entrepreneurs, because the path to self-sufficiency is relatively straight-forward. In the South-Asian community, in particular, there are many established gas station owners who can help newcomers break into the industry. As research shows, access to capital is a challenge for most entrepreneurs, and can be especially so for immigrant entrepreneurs who want to acquire a chain through a national corporation like Phillips, 7-Eleven, and Sinclair. An alternative route to overcome that barrier is to rely on an informal network to lease out a gas station from an already established South-Asian American entrepreneur.
Because people know and trust each other, this path allows them to fund and own their business without having to wait for approval from banks and national corporations. By leasing for two or three years, an immigrant entrepreneur, with little or no capital, can become an owner.
"This is the American Dream," Dad said.
While the popular image of how business gets done in the U.S. is through negotiations during a round of golf, for South-Asians, business is more typically done at gatherings such as weddings, baby showers, graduations, and concerts. My dad and his friends, many of them who’ve also built their own entrepreneurial ventures, like to discuss business over a savory meal at the Olive Café, a Mediterranean restaurant and grocery store.
Humayun Ahmed and his friends meet to discuss their entrepreneurial ventures at the Olive Cafe, a Mediterranean restaurant and grocery store.
Over a cup of mint tea and sugary, flaky baklava, the group discusses plans regarding their children’s upcoming nuptials, politics, childhoods, the community, and business.
Brothers Javaid and Arshad Chaudhri who own Alpha Petroleum located in Kansas City sit at the table. Their business, as a gasoline jobber (supplier) and leaser to local gas stations, serves immigrant entrepreneurs who want to run businesses and invest in their local communities. Javaid Chaudhri said if he can help his community in any way, he will.
Raja Kamran Khan, owner of Everyday Conoco, is the same. He has opened up his home and lent money to those aspiring to open up their own gas stations. For Khan, it is a matter of paying it forward to those in need because he remembers the generosity of his friends that helped him start his business.
While many South-Asian entrepreneurs work together, supporting one another within a network, their businesses have a broader impact than within the circle, because they create services and jobs for the community as a whole.
"It’s all interdependent," my dad said. "We don't all operate in isolation."
Entrepreneurship helped my dad support a family, and it has given other immigrants a way to support their families, as well as to invest in their neighborhoods and communities, too. While my dad didn’t live out his dream in becoming a big shot in brand management, he found a new dream in entrepreneurship. Now that he’s developed an entrepreneur’s mindset, my dad is always challenging himself to find ways in which he can expand his ventures. His next passion project includes breaking into the real estate market in Kansas City.
His sacrifice, like that of many immigrant entrepreneurs, has led the next generation to be able to dream big and follow other professional pursuits. We may not all have an entrepreneurial spirit like our parents, but growing up in an entrepreneurial household has shaped our worldviews: Whether we become doctors, lawyers, or engineers, many of us have a drive to help and build our community. I may not be business savvy like my dad, but watching him navigate owning a business has inspired my passion, not to become an entrepreneur, but to become a lawyer to help entrepreneurs.
And as for me and my dad’s "candy shop," I now get a bag of Skittles and a Calypso lemonade every visit.
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