Setting Roots in Rocky Soil: The State of AAPI-owned Businesses in Massachusetts

June 18, 2024

Roots in Rocky Soil: An exploration of the AAPI business landscape in Massachusetts 

One in 12 residents in Massachusetts are of AAPI heritage and AAPI businesses are the fastest growing ownership sector in our state. Even so. Asian businesses remain significantly misunderstood and under-supported. This was painfully evident during the COVID pandemic when AAPI small businesses were hit hard by the loss of customers and struggled to access relief while navigating increased anti-Asian bias. 

This big picture prompted the Asian Business Empowerment Council (ABEC) at the Asian Community Fund to commission a report on the matter, which was released and presented at an in-person forum at the Boston Foundation on June 18, along with a panel discussion. 

Former TBF Board member and current Asian Community Fund Advisory Committee Chair Paul Lee welcomed all and introduced State Rep. Tackey Chan (2nd Norfolk). His opening remarks set the stage, noting the diversity of the Commonwealth’s AAPI population—“Even among ourselves we’re getting to know ourselves”—and raising a challenge to the audience: “How have you shared your sacrifice and success to help others grow?”

ABEC Director Q.J. Shi segued to the report. It was inspired by missing data. “Insufficient data leads to insufficient resources,” she said. More data will help get us closer to the truth and away from harmful mistaken narratives that ignore the diversity and varied experiences of the AAPI population generally, and business owners particularly. Lead author Anne Calef stepped up to share some topline data conveyed in Setting Roots in Rocky Soil: AAPI Businesses in Massachusetts. The report summarizes a multi-year study, including surveys and focus groups as well as census and other data, and it opens with some impressive stats: The number of Asian-owned businesses has surged by 187 percent over the last two decades. These businesses now contribute more than $3.9 billion in payroll to the Massachusetts economy. They also make up more than 10 percent of so-called Main Street businesses, the unique, usually small enterprises that bring goods and services—along with culture and character—to our neighborhoods. 

The report found that business conditions varied by sector and identity (e.g., education, immigrant status). Certain challenges were widespread, however. Currently more Asian businesses seeking capital (at startup and throughout the business lifecycle) turn first to their own savings or family and friend networks rather than a financial institution. Two-thirds reported wanting help accessing such external capital. The flip side of challenges are opportunities: That need and interest in gaining “technical assistance” could be a catalyst for further growth and success.

Calef closed by outlining policy and practice recommendations the report makes: 

  • Invest in technical assistance.
  • Expand access to networks (both AAPI and other).
  • Increase access to capital of different kinds.
  • Increase anchor institution (hospitals, universities, etc.) spending in the sector.
  • Advance language access and inclusion.

A panel moderated by Vincent Lau, Managing Partner at Clark Lau LLC, took up some of the issues raised in the report. From their respective vantage points, panelists Nancy Daniel, Founder of Madhrasi Chai; Jason Solomon, Vice President, Equity Alliance for Business Relationship Manager at Eastern Bank; and Anuradha Yadav, Executive Director of Women of Color Entrepreneurs, agreed that the need for access to resources and services was great. Alongside that need, however, is a lack of trust and often a language barrier. Technical assistance and other forms of help need to be culturally appropriate. As Daniel said, “Asians are not taught to ask for help. Since entrepreneurs are already by nature independent, that makes it even harder. It is a bit easier to ask someone with a cultural connection.” Moderator Lau related to that reluctance to ask for help and got a laugh by observing, “When we come up against obstacles, our parents say, ‘Try harder.’” But he called the report and the forum a conduit to bring the broad community together and, in talking about these important issues, form a stronger community.

Yadav agreed: “We can use the diversity within our community as a strength. Growing familiarity will increase trust.” Being part of a group is important, said Daniel, who is a member of Yadav’s Women of Color Entrepreneurs. “As a business owner, I’m worried about making my chai, finding customers, and all that. Being part of WOCE is key to learning about what’s out there. What even is the Chamber of Commerce? What do they do?”

Eastern Bank’s Solomon noted that service providers needed to be proactive. Working with community groups and helping overcome suspicion while helping clarify the process could alleviate some of the discomfort small businesses have about going outside the family circle for financing and other assistance. 

A lively Q&A was followed by Segun Idowu, Chief of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion for the City of Boston, who closed with rousing words based on the very essence of his department. “There is no such thing as economic opportunity if we don’t talk about inclusion at the start…. The development of some communities can’t exist at the cost of underdevelopment of others.”



Click to view the presentation from this event
Read the report



Paul W. Lee, Chair, Asian Community Fund; Asian Business Empowerment Council

Opening Remarks
Rep. Tackey Chan, Second Norfolk District, State of Massachusetts
Q.J. Shi, Director, Asian Business Empowerment Council

Research Presentation
Anne Calef, Lead Author, ABEC Research Consultant

Panel Discussion and Audience Q&A
Nancy Daniel, Founder, Madhrasi Chai
Jason Solomon, Senior Vice President, Equity Alliance for Business Team Leader, Eastern Bank
Anuradha Yadav
, Executive Director, Women of Color Entrepreneurs 
Vincent Lau, Managing Partner, Clark Lau LLC (Moderator)

Closing Remarks
Segun Idowu, Chief of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion, City of Boston