October 27 served as a kick-off of sorts for one of the newest initiatives based at the Boston Foundation, the Asian Business Empowerment Council, or ABEC. Before a sizeable and thoroughly engaged online audience, ABEC made its programmatic debut with a lively forum designed to elevate the voices of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) business community and a number of panelists in position to collaborate with them.
The event opened with welcoming remarks from Paul Lee, a member of the Boston Foundation board and Chair of the Asian Community Fund’s advisory committee. (ABEC is an initiative of the Asian Community Fund.) Lee gave way to Asian Community Fund Director Danielle Kim, for an interview with Boston Foundation Vice President and Chief Program Officer Orlando Watkins, who talked about philanthropy’s growing role in supporting and collaborating with Black, Latino and AAPI business owners and entrepreneurs, not just providing capital but advocating for the needs of businesses and connecting businesses to critical support networks.
Money still plays an important role, though, and Watkins noted that beyond grants, initiatives like the Business Equity Fund at the Boston Foundation are providing ‘patient capital’ to Black and Latino-owned businesses, and that the time is right for expanding those economic inclusion efforts to new partnerships.
From there, the discussion paused for a video presentation, featuring the voices of owners of three AAPI businesses: Rokeya Chowdhury, the owner of Dudley Café & Shanti Restaurant, Thao Lan, the owner of Push Muscular Restoration, and Khau Huynh, the owner of Pho Hien Vuong with his son-in-law Tam Le, a Business Associate with the restaurant. They shared their successes and struggles both before and during the pandemic, and set the stage for the panel discussion that followed.
In the panel, Danielle Kim was joined by newly-appointed Cambridge City Manager Yi-An Huang, Boston Chief of Economic Inclusion & Opportunity Segun Idowu, and Irene Li, the owner of Mei Mei Dumplings. The conversation ranged widely, with both the panelists on screen and the attendees in chat sharing resources and ideas for the future. Chief Idowu noted the City’s intentional pivot from an Office of Economic Development to one of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion, with a focus on both recovery from COVID-related business losses and one on business expansion – turning businesses with say, $200,000 in revenue to ones with $2 million.
He also pushed back on a common term in economic opportunity circles – access. Businesses know where the capital is, he suggested. It’s not access to capital, but rather dispersal of capital that is the core of the issue.
In Cambridge, Yi-An Huang has only been in the City Manager post for eight weeks. But he sees opportunities in both opening doors to businesses needing support and reaching out to business owners, especially immigrants, who may not have the same level of comfort at partnering with government. Other groups, he noted, have developed an understanding that often the best way to get government attention is to make noise – to self-advocate.
For Li, whose business is undergoing both rapid expansion and a transformation, building trust is critical not just with external partners but internally as well. She highlighted the importance of teambuilding and transparency, also noting that by strengthening her own team she was able to step away from operations more and look toward the future of her business.
Li also encouraged the recognition that resources need to not be one-size-fits-all – that Asian restaurants and other AAPI businesses might both need marketing help, for example, but that while they might both have, say, language translation needs, those needs might be very different depending on their industry. Government and other support organizations need to recognize that ‘intersectionality’ of needs.
The discussion moved quickly and there was recognition that this was only a starting point. Raj Melville, Executive Director of the Deshpande Foundation and an ABEC advisor, closed the session with a note that now is the right time for a group like ABEC, just after the pandemic exposed the need for technical, language and informational assistance for AAPI businesses, on top of historical issues such as racism and stereotypes. He reiterated the need for AAPI voices to make themselves heard, and for government and philanthropy, among others, to make innovative connections and investments.
The discussion ended with a general sense of work to do, but also an action-oriented community coming together, as ABEC shifts from ‘coming out’ to ‘moving forward.’