Entrepreneurs

How successful immigrant entrepreneurs are changing Chicago—and the US

In the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, a largely Mexican community with a two-mile corridor of small businesses, 66-year-old Eduardo Rodriguez is offering up a taste of home. His Dulcelandia stores are packed full of some 1,000 colorful treats mainly imported from his native country, including candy like Carlos V and Pulparindo and Paletas (fruit ices).

Rodriguez has built up a mini-empire of sorts with four locations in the city since launching in 1995, shortly after the North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted.

"We're fulfilling a niche market that people really wanted to buy from," says Rodriguez, who came to the U.S. in 1966 and has been a citizen for about 25 years. "People seem to really like what we are doing, and I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to do this in the United States. It takes a lot of work and sacrifice — but I recommend to everyone that they should be entrepreneurs."

Eduardo Rodriguez launched his business Dulcelandia, selling candies from his native country, Mexico, in the 1990’s after NAFTA was approved. His daughter, Eve Rodriguez Montoya has expanded on the concept launching Yogolandia, featuring healthy frozen yogurts with a Mexican twist.
Photo: Larry Collins
Eduardo Rodriguez launched his business Dulcelandia, selling candies from his native country, Mexico, in the 1990’s after NAFTA was approved. His daughter, Eve Rodriguez Montoya has expanded on the concept launching Yogolandia, featuring healthy frozen yogurts with a Mexican twist.

His daughter, 36-year-old Eve Rodriguez Montoya, has taken his advice, expanding on the Dulcelandia concept with her own twist, Yogolandia, offering healthy frozen yogurts in Mexican-inspired flavors within Dulcelandia.

Proud of her family's roots and job creation, Rodrigruez Montoya is hopeful the contributions of immigrant-owned businesses like her father's won't go unnoticed at a time when the debate over immigration policy has intensified within the United States.

"I recommend to everyone that they should be entrepreneurs." -Eduardo Rodriguez, owner of Dulcelandia

"Our community is very strong and hard-working — resilient and resourceful," she said. "I'd say come to our community, get to know our people. Shop at our locations and see for yourself —Little Village is full of people who came to this country to achieve the American Dream."

It's impossible to deny the economic contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs like Rodriguez, especially in recent years. A 2016 report from the Kauffman Foundation found immigrants launched nearly one-third of all new businesses and were almost twice as likely as native-born Americans to start their own companies.

In Illinois, immigrants make up nearly a quarter of the state's entrepreneurs, according to separate data from the New American Economy. Some 110,000 immigrant entrepreneurs reside in Chicago alone.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel
Scott Olson | Getty Images
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel

That's part of the reason why Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing back against threats from the Trump Administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities like Chicago, which protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.

"Don't tell me you are pro-small business but anti-immigrant," Emanuel says. "They are inconsistent. Immigrants have a unique work ethic — they know that America is special. They know what they left behind ...

"If you work hard and play by the rules, I want you to call Chicago home."

That openness is what helps to inspire entrepreneur Ayenew Biru, a refugee from Ethiopia who came to the U.S. as a child in 1986 with his mother and two older brothers, after first fleeing to Sudan. Biru, now 37, has been a citizen for 20 years and recently launched his second business in Chicago, Tastes of Teff, selling products featuring the gluten-free grain teff, which is popular in his home country.

Ayenew Biru came to the U.S. as a refugee from Ethiopia as a child. Today he’s working on his second business, Tastes of Teff, a gluten-free grain, in Chicago.
Photo: Larry Collins
Ayenew Biru came to the U.S. as a refugee from Ethiopia as a child. Today he’s working on his second business, Tastes of Teff, a gluten-free grain, in Chicago.

"That is the story of America — bringing the best of what you have to the United States, where you can turn an idea into something much greater," he says. "It's very rare when you go to a new place and people accept you and support you."

Biru, who also runs a small business consulting firm focusing on women and minority-owned companies, sells his teff products in local coffee shops and independent grocers in the area. As an immigrant entrepreneur, his advice for others in his position, especially during a time of great uncertainty: Don't focus on things you can't control.

"Stick to the fundamentals," Biru says. "If you have a business that is set up properly and you have an idea about your market and product, while there may be some issues that are a little bit different because you are an immigrant, at the end of the day it's your business that is either going to cause you to fail or succeed."