From restaurants to nail salons, local businesses owned by Asian Americans have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic. Now help is on the way with the formation of the Asian Business Empowerment Council.
It is modeled after the successful launches of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts and Amplify Latinx, both of which have become powerful advocates for their respective communities of Black and Latino business owners.
BECMA’s former president Segun Idowu is now the city of Boston’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion. His successor Nicole Obi, who took the reins in January, is a force to be reckoned with in her own right. Amplify Latinx’s cofounder Betty Francisco and executive director Rosario Ubiera-Minaya have also become influential voices.
The ABEC — as the new council will be known — arises out of the Boston Foundation’s Asian Community Fund, which is providing the seed money for its launch. The goal, said fund director Danielle Kim, is for the council to become a standalone nonprofit within three to five years.
Kim has been meeting with leaders from BECMA and Amplify Latinx for advice on how to set up ABEC. While there are other organizations that support the local Asian American community, Kim believes ABEC is the first one dedicated to advancing an array of Asian-owned businesses, from access to capital to public contracting opportunities.
“When we say business equity, it needs to include the Asian community as well,” Kim said. “We know that Asian business owners have seen such a disproportionate impact since the pandemic; everything in terms of economic loss to the ongoing racism and harassment.”
One survey found that 16 percent of Asian-owned small businesses in the United States suffered revenue declines of 75 percent or more in 2020 compared with 2019 — a proportion that was higher than those for Black, Latino, or white-owned firms. That’s on top of a nationwide surge in anti-Asian hate crime, with many of those incidents taking place at Asian-owned businesses.
Kim said the other business groups of color have welcomed ABEC, telling her, “We’ve been waiting for there to be an Asian counterpart at the table with us.”
Filling out ABEC’s vision will be Qingjian “QJ” Shi, who has been hired as its director and will start this week.
Shi has spent much of her career in the nonprofit space, most recently as the chief operating officer of Tech Goes Home, a Boston organization that bridges the digital divide. Previously, she served as executive director of English At Large, which provides free English language instruction to immigrants and refugees, and as director of education and outreach at the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence.
For Shi, the mission of ABEC is personal. Her parents briefly owned a Chinese restaurant in Chicopee in the 1990s, after coming to the United States with no money and speaking no English. Shi recalled how her mother felt exploited working in the restaurant business so she decided to open her own place, only to encounter racism and other roadblocks.
“At one point, their storefront was covered in racist graffiti. They didn’t know where to turn to ask for support, resources, and capital to maintain their business,” Shi said. “Their story still reflects the anti-Asian racism that Asian American businesses face today.”
That’s where she hopes ABEC will intervene, by helping immigrant owners navigate the system to get the technical assistance they need, as well as by raising the visibility of Asian-owned businesses.
At the same time, Shi believes there’s an opportunity to collaborate across BIPOC communities.
“There is a lot more synergy that can be generated around building equitable and inclusive economies to empower businesses of color,” she added.
As ABEC launches, Asian restaurant owners are also getting a boost.
In 2019, a group of Asian restaurant owners came together to form the Massachusetts Asian Restaurant Association, MA-ARA. Soon after, they decided they didn’t want to go it alone. Then the pandemic struck.
What has emerged now is a novel partnership with the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. Asian restaurant owners typically have not joined the MRA, but now if they join MA-ARA (pronounced “mara”) they have a dual membership, including access to all the benefits and resources of MRA.
The groups are finding other ways to collaborate too, such as by working together to provide translations into various languages of materials related to food safety training and workforce development, among other topics, according to Steve Clark, MRA’s chief operating officer.
Andy Kuang, cofounder and co-president of MA-ARA, said Asian restaurants are looking for ways to elevate their brand, navigate regulations, and pool their collective buying power, since many use the same ingredients.
“We can make a better deal,” said Kuang, who has been running restaurants for 30 years and currently owns Samurai Express in the Back Bay.
Bobby Wong, the other co-president, said Asian restaurant owners traditionally have not had the time ― nor felt the need ― to be part of a trade group, but he believes times are different now.
He and Kuang have been traveling the state meeting with groups of restaurant owners and so far have recruited close to 50 members. They estimate that there are at least a few hundred, perhaps close to 1,000, Asian restaurant owners in Massachusetts.
“I have a lot of uncles and aunts that had restaurants, and they put their heads down and they just worked hard, very hard and they became successful that way,” said Wong, whose family has owned the Kowloon restaurant in Saugus since 1950. “But now I can see a generation, as things go, where it is an advantage to be able to organize and have a voice together.”
These are vulnerable times for Asian Americans, and they are finding their voices at a time when they most need to be heard.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.