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Immigrants meet business success

Angel Valdivia, from Chile, was nominated for the 2013 Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards. His company is Angel’s Painting, Inc. in Framingham.

Angel Valdivia, from Chile, was nominated for the 2013 Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards. His company is Angel’s Painting, Inc. in Framingham.

Angel Valdivia had been a physical education teacher in his native Chile, but when he moved to Framingham in 1995, he took whatever work he could find: shifts at McDonald’s, a supermarket, the YMCA.

When he was offered a job painting houses, work he had never done, he took that, too. Once he started, he had an idea. “You know, you can do it for yourself,” he remembers thinking.

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Fourteen years after he started his own company, Angel’s Painting is well established in Framingham, and Valdivia has his own crew of 12, more during the busy summers. The company is one of four local businesses in the running for special recognition by the Immigrant Learning Center in Malden.

The organization’s Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards are given through its Public Education Institute, created in 2003 in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to draw attention to the positive contribution of immigrants. The winners in three categories — neighborhood business, science and technology, and business growth — will be announced at an event Wednesday night in Cambridge.

“The whole motivation for doing this program was after 9/11, there was a rising anti-immigrant sentiment,” said Marcia Hohn, director of the Public Education Institute. Some of the students in the Immigrant Learning Center’s free English classes, especially those who appeared to be Muslims, were the targets of hostility, she said.

After the Boston Marathon bombing, immigrants once again feared that they would be targeted, she said. “Of course, people are scared, just the way they were scared after 9/11.”

So far, Hohn said, support for immigrants has outweighed negative reaction.

‘The whole motivation for doing this program was after 9/11, there was . . . anti-immigrant sentiment.’

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In 2003, the institute began commissioning research studies about immigrant-owned businesses.

“We found that we started to gravitate toward immigrant entrepreneurs,” Hohn said. “Clearly we could show the economic and social benefits that they bring.”

Mahmud Jafri, owner and founder of Dover Rug & Home in Natick, is another of the local award nominees. Jafri came to the United States from Pakistan for college and business school. After he got his master’s degree in business administration from UCLA and worked in finance, his company transferred him to Boston.

In the mid-1980s, he took over a family business importing hand-knotted rugs. The first store in Dover was 350 square feet. Now his store in Natick is 36,000 square feet, and has a squash and fitness club.

Jafri was nominated also for his broad philanthropic work, supporting more than 50 nonprofits. Governor Deval Patrick appointed him to the Governor’s Advisory Council for Refugees and Immigrants.

Jafri is also a trustee and founding member of the Islamic Masumeen Center of New England in Hopkinton. He said he feels a responsibility to educate people about the country where he was born and Islam.

“It’s probably one of the most misunderstood regions of the world,” he said. “And one of the most misunderstood faith traditions, as well.”

Like Jafri, Valdivia and his wife, Nilda, who is from El Salvador, are local volunteers. Valdivia learned English at Framingham Adult ESL Plus and later was invited to raise money for the group as a member of the Metrowest ESL Fund.

“They are very active in the community and their local churches,” Hohn said. “Not only has he built a good life for himself, he is helping to build one for the broader community.”

After their son, Jeovanni Lopez, an Iraqi war veteran, was killed in a car accident, they started a scholarship fund in his name.

One of the other nominees, Marin Soljacic, founder of WiTricity, came to one of his discoveries by annoyance, according to his company’s website. He was woken repeatedly in the middle of the night by beeping when the charge on his cellphone ran out. He thought about all the electricity running through the wires in his house.

And that created a challenge: how to harness that power without using wires, so devices like his phone could recharge without being plugged in. Soljacic, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor from Croatia, and his MIT colleagues developed a theory for making this happen and published the results. WiTricity, in Watertown, was created to shepherd this technology into commercial production.

The fourth nominee, Ash Ashutosh, is founder and chief executive of Actifio, a Waltham copy data management company that was launched in 2009. Before starting Actifio, Ashutosh was the founder and chief executive of ApplQ, which was acquired by Hewlett-Packard. Ashutosh, from India, is active in philanthropy and is an entrepreneur-in-residence at Harvard Business School.

“A lot of the neighborhood businesses that are credited with reviving economic communities that are in long-term economic decline don’t get much recognition,” Hohn said.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.
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