Local entrepreneur Suni Pak said the local community is her favorite part of owning a business.

“It’s very personal when you spend a lot of time and really get to know the customers,” she said. “People really care in this neighborhood.”

Across from Ravenna’s Cowen Park is Pak’s shop that’s named after it: Cowen Park Grocery and Café.

While hailing from perhaps not the most diverse region in Seattle, the market-meets-coffee shop is immigrant-owned and operated.

Owners Suni Pak and Ki Tae are siblings whose family moved from Korea in 1974 for the “same reason most immigrants come: in search of a better life,” Pak said. They acquired the space nine years ago from another first-generation Korean family, but changed the scope of the business to better suit the local community.

That meant swapping adult magazines and “not so interesting beers” for plant seeds and local IPAs.

While immigrants make up only 13 percent of the national population, they own 18 percent of small businesses, and are twice as likely to start one as US-born citizens, according to a recent Fiscal Policy Institute report.
Director of Finance and Operations at Seattle’s Office of Economic Development Tina Vlasaty said there’s a challenging job environment for newcomers in our country.
“Often their degrees don’t translate, or they can’t speak perfect English or maybe they just don’t know how to find a job here,” she said. “Entrepreneurship is a really great way to support themselves.”

Though business owners are more likely to be white, Asians lead in immigrant minority entrepreneurship. In 2010, Asian immigrants made up a higher share of business owners than U.S. born whites, according to the Fiscal Policy Report.

Vlasaty said that her team aims to “create a vibrant economy,” and immigrant owned-business plays a major part of this. According to Census data, 30 percent of the growth in numbers of small businesses from 1990 to 2010 is due to immigrants.

She refers to the phenomenon of colorful businesses replacing vacant lots as “neighborhood and community revitalization”—not only is the local economy stimulated, but a new cultural flavor is introduced.

She references Rainier Valley, where authentic businesses create an international experience.
“You can buy duck tongue—and all kinds of food and learn about different cultures,” she said. “It makes it an interesting, trendy cool place to be, which means lots of other positive things will follow.”

Often, these ethnic cuisines are due to immigrants looking toward entrepreneurship to support their cultural customs.

“Maybe they don’t have access to foods, restaurants or clothing that they want,” she said. “Sometimes it’s incumbent on the community to meet [its] own retail needs.”
Most days, you can find Pak serving up espresso at the café and her brother or his wife working at the connected market. That makes three out of the four employees from the same family, and it’s not uncommon to find Pak strolling her one-year old nephew around the store.

Despite the evident family-dynamic, Pak said whether or not that will stay alive is unknown.
Cowen Park Grocery and Cafe regular Nathan Flaim has a different perspective.

Holding the one-year old in his arms he joked to Pak, “he’s going to own this place someday.”
Vlasaty noted that the family-owned business is both popular and practical for immigrants.
“One business might support multiple families,” she said. This is typically because minority businesses tend to employ people from within their minority community. As a result, immigrant cost-structure is lowered.

She also encourages people to support immigrant-business from a position of empathy.
“All of us except for Native Americans were immigrants at one point,” she said. “The opportunity to participate in the economy is part of the ‘American Dream.’”

According to Vlasaty, diverse neighborhoods mean a diversity of ideas and experiences.

“Innovation comes from different people coming together,” she said. These businesses “make our cities unique and interesting places to be.”

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