Innovation Hub Growing Local Businesses a Few Immigrants at a Time

by 
Laura Young, for the Shuttle
Optometrist Shanthy Brown, top, said she made valuable contacts as well as getting useful information; above, Vickson Korlewala shares his business plan with Mayor Jim Kenney at the I-Hub ribbon-cutting last year.

For more information about the Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub, visit www.phillyihub.org or email Mt. Airy USA Business Services Associate Agnes Edwards at
aedwards@mtairyusa.org.

With all the controversy surrounding immigration these days, it might be worth checking the facts: According to the New American Economy (www.newamericaneconomy.org), a national nonpartisan group of mayors and business leaders focused on immigration policy, in 2014:

  • Philadelphia-area immigrants paid $6 billion in taxes and had more than twice that amount in spending power. 
  • Their increasing numbers helped Philadelphia maintain its population base by offsetting the decline in the native-born. 
  • Foreign-born residents have been responsible for most of the area’s small-business growth since 2000.

In other words, immigrants are good for Philadelphia’s economy.

These facts inspired Mt. Airy USA to create the Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub, a program designed to spark economic development in Northwest Philadelphia. In collaboration with the nonprofit Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and Finanta, a nonprofit lender providing access to capital, I-Hub provides aspiring entrepreneurs and current small business owners with tools and expertise to help them develop and grow. 

I-Hub launched in 2015 with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The core of the program is an intensive three-week workshop. Twice a week, immigrant entrepreneurs gather to discuss their ideas and develop workable business models, meeting in Mt. Airy USA’s co-working space, Work Mt. Airy, at 6700 Germantown Ave. 

The first group met in November 2015. To date, six cohorts have been assembled comprising 60 participants from 19 countries. The participants’ interests vary greatly in size and focus, from a small catering company to an international solar power concern, and have included an optometrist, an app developer and a fashion designer. Some have been in business for a while, while others just have an idea.

In the workshops, participants are encouraged to share ideas and network with each other to create enterprises that personally benefit them — as well as our community. 

Dr. Shanthy Brown of Brown Eye Care, 6633 Germantown Ave., was one of them. 

Like many immigrants, Brown’s story involves fleeing war and conflict. Born in Sri Lanka, her family had to leave the country as civil war took hold. She lived in Africa as a child, until once again her family had to flee conflict in Zimbabwe, eventually settling in Canada. She came to the United States for optometry school.

“I started thinking about opening my practice in Mt. Airy because my husband grew up here. In fact, my mother-in-law owns a hair salon on Germantown Avenue,” Brown said. When she reached out to Mt. Airy USA, she learned about I-Hub.

There were about 10 other participants in her workshop group from diverse international locations, including West Africa, China and Europe. The program started with experts sharing their knowledge on a wide variety of issues important to entrepreneurs, such as laws and regulations, marketing strategy and sources of grants and other financial assistance. In the following weeks, the participants worked together to help develop each other’s businesses. 

“The program’s biggest advantage for me was that I met another participant, a lawyer, who partnered with me in starting an online business providing contact lenses,” said Brown. 

For Vickson Korlewala, I-Hub was invaluable in working up a business plan that would attract investors to EcoPower Liberia, his solar-energy company. 

According to the World Bank, roughly 600 million people in Africa live without access to electricity. The majority of the energy-poor live in sub-Saharan Africa.

In these countries, building a brand-new electrical grid is not practical. But Africa has ample access to an important, plentiful and renewal resource: the sun. EcoPower, founded in 2011, harnesses solar power for batteries that bring lighting, refrigeration, entertainment and worldwide connection to health centers, schools and businesses.

“I-Hub gave me access to an office and an address where I could register my company,” said Korlewala, a former environmental chemist born in Liberia. “With I-Hub, I developed a clearer understanding of my business plan, which enabled me to move faster.” 

With an eye to expanding EcoPower’s product line in Liberia, he wants to move beyond to other countries in Africa and eventually the United States. 

I-Hub has been important to Korlewala in another way as well. “This is a program that reassures immigrants that we have the support of the city,” he said, adding that this welcoming attitude is particularly important now.

Laura Young is a Weavers Way working member.