In College Point, Queens, immigrant Thomas Chen, a former apartment-building superintendent with little formal education, has built a $40 million-a-year window-manufacturing business in less than 10 years.
In Midtown Manhattan, Lloyd Grant, an ex-programmer at PaineWebber, has scored success with a new business magazine aimed at the growing ranks of middle-class blacks not being served by traditional ethnic newspapers.
These entrepreneurs, and thousands upon thousands like them from Flushing to Harlem, from Crow Hill to the South Bronx, from the Lower East Side to Midtown, are part of the remarkable success story of minority business in New York City during the '90s boom.
By the end of 1997, according to the latest government five-year economic census, the city's 40,000 or so minority firms accounted for fully a quarter of all businesses in the city—employing more than 200,000 workers. Asians owned 24,000 of these businesses, Hispanics headed more than 9,100, and blacks ran nearly 5,700.
As part of this tidal wave of enterprise, another 197,000 minorities were self-employed sole proprietors. The ranks of Gotham's black sole proprietors increased by 76 percent from 1993 to 1997—compared with just 26 percent nationally. Local Latino entrepreneurs grew by 120 percent, compared with a 50 percent gain nationally. Today, after the record-breaking economic years of 1999 and 2000, the size of the minority business community is no doubt larger still.
Minorities didn't just benefit from the '90s boom, but helped to create it: The 400,000 jobs created by minority firms and sole proprietors accounted for 12 percent of New York's job base in '97.
Never before have minority businesses played so significant a role in Gotham or had such a stake in its future. Two decades ago, the federal government's economic census of minority firms found just 54,000 minority-employed workers, only 2.5 percent of the city's job base.
Today's new minority entrepreneurs are not just more numerous than their predecessors, but also more sophisticated. Mobilizing their now-considerable experience as managers in the corporate world, they have leaped beyond traditional minority industries and are opening ad agencies, consulting firms, graphic and design shops and publishing ventures—to name just a few.
Many are solidly part of the major industries that drive the New York economy. And more are certainly on the way, as the growing number of minorities who work in professional and managerial jobs enriches the talent pool of potential entrepreneurs.
The fact that so many of these businesses are not "black businesses" or "Asian businesses" but just New York businesses is evidence that something momentous and deeply hopeful has happened in the past decade in Gotham, where the American dream has been coming true.
Some of Gotham's pioneering urban entrepreneurs are not only part of this new generation of upscale minority executives but are prospering by offering that generation a product it wants. Lloyd Grant and Cynthia Franklin, a husband-and-wife team who publish The Kip Business Report out of offices in Columbus Circle, typify this trend. Kip's is a four-year-old glossy publication with a circulation of 12,000 and a readership of 40,000.
"We felt that the local ethnic media have not kept pace as our market has moved into the middle class," says Grant, noting that blacks now head such top New York companies as Merrill Lynch, AOL Time Warner and American Express.
These savvier urban entrepreneurs are reaching out beyond Gotham's main business districts, too. The last government economic census counted nearly 3,000 minority firms in The Bronx, 7,400 in Brooklyn and nearly 11,000 in Queens.
While sophisticated new urban entrepreneurs are helping transform Gotham's business community, traditional forces, including immigration, have also reshaped the landscape. In the '90s, for the first time in three decades, the city's population grew, as the proportion of foreign-born New Yorkers increased to about 35 percent. That spurred enterprising immigrants to find ways to serve burgeoning ethnic populations with money to spend.
* Flushing Avenue in and around Bushwick in Brooklyn became known in the '90s as the Tortilla Triangle because of its bakeries and food-processing plants, which now produce about 10 million tortillas a week for local consumption.
* Indians helped boost shopping districts in Astoria and Long Island City, where they opened 150 restaurants and stores in the second half of the '90s alone.
* Guyanese entrepreneurs, meanwhile, started as many as 500 retail businesses and restaurants to serve the growing Caribbean community in and around the Richmond Hill section of Queens—an area that in the early '90s was dotted with empty storefronts.
Minority businesses often employ workers from their own group, and some of the most successful minority-owned businesses are also among the biggest employers in minority communities.
Two years ago, for instance, Mose Chest opened C&S Leather Products in the South Bronx to make components for hats and caps. He staffed his factory with people from local job-training courses, including some welfare-to-work programs, and he taught them the fine art of leather making. "I hire people who want to work and are willing to learn," he explains, voicing a sentiment that countless employers express—a sentiment that the most successful job-training programs have made their credo.
Chest's company is part of the answer to the question of where the welfare clients will find jobs. Such companies help create the virtuous circle of neighborhood economic, social and cultural renewal that is under way in New York.
Though this '90s entrepreneurial boom is a pure product of the free market, government policies nevertheless permitted it to take off, just as they aborted it in the '80s—and the contrast between the two eras is an instructive one for policymakers to consider right now.
SUCCESS DEFINES NANCY MAH
One of the city's hottest restaurant designers, Nancy Mah, a second-generation Chinese-American, typifies the new corporate-bred minority entrepreneur.
Mah gained valuable design experience working for Ark Restaurants, a publicly held Manhattan company, then later joined the prestigious Rockwell Group, where she helped fashion such restaurants as Michael Jordan's Steakhouse and Ruby Foo's in Times Square.
In 1999, Mah, then 37, decided to capitalize on her growing reputation and open her own Manhattan-based shop. "In big companies, there can be a lot of layers that inhibit the creative process," she says, explaining her decision to strike out on her own.
A Tennessee native who studied design in Italy, Mah hardly fits the stereotype of the ethnic small-business owner. Although she was drawn to New York because of its large Chinese population, Mah is cultivating a reputation as a designer with a New York style, rather than as an Asian-American designer.
Her latest work, for instance, includes a chain of small cafes in Japan dubbed Gramercy New York. "A lot of people have wanted to typecast me as an Asian-inspired designer, but that alone doesn't really define what I do," she says. And the fact that it seems silly and irrelevant to think of her company as a "minority" business is evidence of the magnitude of the success of so many minority entrepreneurs like her.
BRONX BASEMENT FISH FARM?
The new breed of savvy, well-trained minority entrepreneur has been quick to recognize business opportunities that might otherwise go unnoticed in these increasingly vibrant ethnic neighborhoods.
Nothing illustrates that better than Philson Warner's fish farm in a South Bronx basement—a farm that supplies the growing demand for tilapia fish from local Asian and Caribbean restaurants.
Warner had spent 22 years as a researcher at Cornell University, applying the principles of modern, high-tech agriculture to urban settings. Drawing on his experience raising tilapia on fish farms in South America years ago, Warner embarked on an effort to farm the breed in big indoor tanks.
Three years ago, he signed a licensing agreement with Cornell, allowing him to use his research commercially; then he invested $300,000 in an elaborate system of tanks and water filtration. His company, Inner City Oceans, is already producing about 2,000 pounds a week of tilapia, also known as St. Peter's Fish, because it once abounded in the Sea of Galilee.
"This is the future of agriculture," says Warner, who next wants to move beyond the ethnic marketplace into the mainstream by raising striped bass and then opening a processing plant in The Bronx to go along with his farm. "About 80 percent of the world's food is produced in and around cities," he observes.
Adapted from the Spring Issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, where Steven Malanga is a contributing editor.