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Diverse entrepreneurs are changing face of state's small business

By Devona Walker Published: July 13, 2008

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 entrepreneurs
Since 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 builds
The 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.”