Diverse entrepreneurs are changing face of state's small business

By Devona Walker Published: July 13, 2008
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Jose's Used Cars is at the corner of SW 29 and Western Avenue.

Next door is Jose's Quick Lube.

Next to it is Jose's Transmission.

And then there's Jose's Transmission Parts.


Jose Realzola's wife, Berta, owns a Mexican restaurant about three blocks down the road.

From restaurants to real estate, first-generation immigrant business owners — like the Realzolas — are changing the face of Oklahoma small business.

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City, Mo.-based entrepreneurial think tank, says 0.35 percent of immigrants are entrepreneurs compared with 0.28 percent for the native born.

In Oklahoma, with its high concentration of small businesses, immigrants make up a significant chunk of entrepreneurs.

The Greater Oklahoma City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, whose membership includes some non-Hispanic-owned businesses but does not include all Hispanic-owned businesses, has more than 300 members.

Other immigrant groups are evidence, too
While there is no official Vietnamese Chamber, business leaders in that community say there are just as many entrepreneurs among their ranks.

"Wherever you are from, be it Mexico or Iran, it takes quite a risk, to leave your home, possibly your family, and move to an entirely new society where you might not even speak the language,” said John Bowles, director of the New York-based Center for an Urban Future, which has studied entrepreneurs among immigrant populations.

"The ones who do immigrate they have a lot of the traits that you would normally describe entrepreneurs as having. These people were very entrepreneurial in just getting here,” Bowles said.

Being your own boss
Jose Realzola, 45, ran his first small business as a child, selling ice cream on the streets of Durango, Mexico. He and his family came to the United States when he was 12.

When he got older, Realzola spent eight hours a day working at a repair shop, then picked up additional work at his own home in the evenings and on weekends. After several years, unable to secure a bank loan, he managed to save up enough money to open a transmission repair shop.

"When I started my own place, it didn't get any easier either. It was just a little bit of a place. I was working from 7 a.m. to 12 at night just to survive, to pay the bills and have maybe enough money to take my family to McDonalds on the weekend for Big Macs and fries,” he said.

Over the years, he opened the other businesses.

With a half dozen employees, Realzola is not exactly a captain of industry, but his enterprises afford him a comfortable life. He and his wife are putting four children through Catholic school. They vacation at least once per year. At the end of the month, there's always a little left over to put into savings.

"Part of the American dream is being your own boss,” Realzola said.

Freedom to succeed
On the other side of town is Henryk Orlowski's real estate office.

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