Blanca Mata has made arepas and other Latin American staples in the same shop for 17 years and still remembers her first order: pork chops with rice and beans, requested by an English-speaking American.
Mata, owner of Arepas & More Café on North Bumby Avenue, moved to Miami from Venezuela 25 years ago and later to Orlando in search of a better life. She has been joined by a huge influx of foreign-born small-business owners in Central Florida, a new study has found.
As of 2010, immigrants made up 23 percent of small-business owners in Metro Orlando, which includes Orange, Lake, Osceola and Seminole counties — up from 10 percent in 1990, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute's Immigration Research Initiative.
That figure is slightly higher than the national data released by the group in June, which showed immigrants comprise almost one of every five small-business owners nationwide. The institute analyzed Metro Orlando data for the Orlando Sentinel.
A small business was defined as having one to 99 employees.
Mata opened her cozy shop because she thought an older, now-defunct arepa restaurant nearby was doing a disservice to the stuffed-cornmeal dish. She said she never has had to advertise her four-table shop, with business plentiful via word of mouth.
Orlando-area immigrants were most likely to own small businesses in the construction, professional and business services and leisure and hospitality industries, which isn't surprising considering Orlando's dominant tourism industry, said David Dyssegaard Kallick, senior fellow at the institute, a nonpartisan research group based in New York.
Looking at Orlando-area small businesses in general, immigrants own 59 percent of businesses categorized as restaurants and half of transportation and warehousing small businesses.
Most Orlando-area immigrant business owners come from Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, India, Mexico and Canada, according to the report. However, a fair number of immigrant business owners also come from Brazil, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Dominican Republic, Guyana and Pakistan.
Juan Velez moved to Orlando from Colombia in 1998 because he and his wife wanted to be close to her family. He said he saw many opportunities for work and was impressed with the construction and development of the area.
When the construction company he worked for went under in 2008, Velez started his own general-contracting business. Velez said he has 12 full-time employees, and his company, Sky Builders USA, is on track to make more than a million dollars this year. He said his biggest problem is a common one: managing capital to finance projects.
Velez said the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund of Florida, which works with Hispanic small-business owners, helped him get his business off the ground by offering basic business classes and accounting-software training. Velez also registered as a Minority Business Enterprise with the city of Orlando as part of a program that recruits and hires minority- and female-owned businesses for city contracts.
Alex Stepick, director of the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy at Florida International University, said the increasing share of foreign-born small-business owners reflects a big and relatively recent change in Orlando's population. Historically, immigrants have migrated to South Florida, especially to Miami-Dade County, he said.
"Immigrants go to places that have opportunities," Stepick said.
Language barriers can be an obstacle to starting an American business, Stepick said, but experts said bilingualism also can open doors in a community. The key is access to business infrastructure, including the ability to obtain loans, understand government regulations and supply a market's demands.
Alayne Unterberger, associate research director at RISEP, said the study is important because it shows that immigrants create jobs.
"People often seem to have the misimpression that immigrants are taking jobs from U.S.-born workers,'' Kallick said, "and are puzzled by economic research that consistently shows that that's not the case for most workers.
And immigrants are not just job seekers, Kallick said. "They're also consumers, so they're adding to the demand for a product. And they're business owners, so they're also employing people."
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