Half of the city's small business owners are foreign-born, and the city is stepping up its effort to support immigrant entrepreneurs by expanding business classes into more foreign languages and offering them at public libraries. 

On a humid and rainy summer afternoon last week, about 20 New Yorkers talked through their business plans at the New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan branch overlooking Fifth Avenue. 

After the end of the class, held in Spanish, the participants swapped information and planned to meet again to discuss their progress. 

In May, NYC Small Business Services announced a partnership with the New York, Brooklyn and Queens public libraries to offer free business classes for immigrant New Yorkers. The department has doubled the amount of non-English business classes offered, and is looking to triple the number, since Mayor Bill de Blasio,  and expanded the number of languages for the course offerings. 

Since the launch, 30 classes have been offered and attended by 160 business owners across the five boroughs. 

About half of the city’s 220,000 businesses are owned by immigrants, according to the city, while immigrants account for just 37 percent of the city’s population. A NYC Small Business Services report, identified ways the city could better support immigrant-owned businesses, such as building trust with local government, streamlining license and permit requirements and access to baking services and loans. 

Karen Espinoza, 45, from Brooklyn, said she was attending her third business development class. Espinoza previously owned a daycare business for about 11 years, and started taking the classes because she’s interested in opening a bookstore/cafe. 

I think they’re excited to know that these resources are free and available at places they go across the city, like public libraries,” said Rodrigo Camarena, director of the NYC’s Business Solutions’ business development division. “There’s over 200 branches in this city and what we’re trying to do in this administration is reach more diverse business owners.”

For business owner Bill Zhen, 39, who left a private equity firm to take over a Chinatown repair shop 10 years ago, business classes through the city would have helped. But Zhen, who moved to the U.S. from China in 1987, said he didn’t know the city offered development courses at the time.  

“I think immigrants here, they come in, they have a language barrier, they’re in a totally new place or country, you have no friends. Basically, you start from scratch. So a lot of immigrants, when they see small opportunities, they want to take it.” 

“Immigrants have been such an important part of economic revitalization in New York over the last decades, and concentrating on removing barriers to immigrant business growth is a great idea,” said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the Fiscal Policy Institute’s Immigration Research Initiative. “It makes a lot of sense for [the city] to redouble their efforts to make sure immigrants have access to the same kinds of services, and language is an important piece of that.”

Kallick said it’s also important to note that foreign born workers make up nearly half of the labor force overall, and that immigrants may start their own businesses for a variety of reasons, including being a “natural risk taker, or are pushed into becoming entrepreneurs because they can’t find a job. 

“While it might be great to have the next American Express [headquartered in New York City], it’s hard to know what the city can do create that, and for too long they threw hundreds of millions of dollars to lure them. That’s not business development … there’s a lot of fairly simple things the city can do to help small businesses grow,” Kallick said.