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, tooWhile 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 bossJose 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 succeedOn the other side of town is Henryk Orlowski's real estate office. He was 26 when he and his wife, Elizabeth, escaped then-communist Poland. They stopped first in Chicago, where they worked an assortment of jobs. Soon they arrived in Oklahoma to pursue advanced degrees. The Orlowskis now have been in business 15 years. They have raised three daughters in Oklahoma. Henryk Orlowski, 52, believes perspective sets immigrants apart. "This is why we came, because of this freedom. Of course, with freedom come responsibilities, but for us the American dream is to own a house and to have a business,” Orlowski said. "Experiences from other countries, where you don't have the freedom, teach you to take advantages of the freedom when you see them.” The Orlowskis have encouraged their daughters to take trips back to Poland so they will always appreciate the freedom and opportunity the United States provides. "Instead of waiting for someone to do something for you, you just go out and do it for yourself,” Henryk Orlowski said. "The dream of owning your own business is something greater than the security of a job.”
Barriers create entrepreneursSince 1880, the U.S. Census Bureau has documented more entrepreneurs among immigrant populations than the native born. For some like Realzola and the Orlowskis, it is a advancement of the American dream. Other immigrants turn to running their own business due to obstacles they've encountered in the workplace. Immigrants sometimes face discrimination in the labor market, but more often there are language barriers, Bowles said. "They often find they can only advance so much. Maybe the schooling they did back home doesn't qualify. Maybe its language difficulties,” he said. Just as immigrants have used self-employment and small-business enterprises to get around obstacles in the workplace, they often use social connections among other immigrants to get around obstacles in mainstream banking, Bowles said, adding that alternative lending pools are commonly used by immigrants. "If they are here recently, they do not have the credit line. Sometimes, they as immigrants see opportunities and markets that mainstream banks are not aware of. Alternative lending pools have become tools out of necessity,” Bowles said.
Tension buildsThe recent explosion of immigrant-run businesses has occurred at a time when wages for low-skilled, native born workers have remained stagnant and fewer blue-collar workers can earn their ticket to the middle class, Bowles said. "It's a complicated story,” he said. "We are a nation built on immigrants. But there was always a path to the middle class. And that's not so much the case anymore. That's why more immigrants are turning to entrepreneurship. A lot of immigrants see it as the best, if not only, ticket to the American dream. "For American workers, that can be threatening. I don't think that is an irrational feeling,” Bowles said. "But we see real positives in this. Immigrants are engines of growth, especially in the city. They are creating jobs and revitalizing communities.”
Jose Realzola talks about his Oklahoma City business. BY JOHN CLANTON, THE OKLAHOMAN