Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Newcomers Challenge the Barriers

Maria Lores-Browne, a Colombian immigrant, began dreaming about her own business during her years working as a laborer on construction sites, doing everything from pouring concrete to laying flooring. She asked herself, “How can I do this when I’m 45 or 55 years old?” So she went to school to learn how to operate heavy machinery though she was repeatedly advised “they don’t take girls.” After taking the requisite courses, she qualified to join the Operating Engineers Union, but “they were always reluctant,” she says, “to send out woman to operate equipment so they only assigned me to jobs as a watchman for construction sites.” Maria persisted because “I love running big equipment; I love the feel of the paint, the fittings, the tires, the same way many women love diamond rings.” Last fall she started Berma Construction Company. The harsh New York winter provided her with her first customer. JFK Airport hired her company to plow snow.
Like Maria, who now seeks funds to purchase equipment, the biggest problems most immigrants face is access to capital. What’s particularly hard for them, says Catalina Castano, Director of the Brooklyn Small Business Development Center is that “they are unfamiliar with credit rules. Many have no credit histories, though lenders insist on credit scores. And unlike native born entrepreneurs, they frequently can’t turn to their networks for a ‘friends and family’ first round; they often can’t find a co-signer on a micro loan.” Adds Elisa Balabram, who heads a government-funded Brooklyn Women’s Business Center , “other countries have more informal rules for doing business, so immigrants have to learn about requirements; their language problems can add to their difficulties understanding financial rules and regulations.”
Shabnam Rezaei
Sometimes entrepreneurs don’t find government incentives to encourage their launches. Born in Iran and raised in Austria, Shabnam Rezaei worked for ten years both in London and NYC in finance before she launched her start-up, Big Bad Boo, a media production and distribution company dedicated to teaching children about different cultures through entertainment. One current project, a cartoon series called Mixed Nutz, which puts Persian Babak together with a group of friends from Korea, Cuba, India and the US to learn about each other’s cultures, has reached 32 million viewers on 32 PBS stations. Her next TV series, an animated series of the legendary Persian tales of 1001 Nights, launches later this year in 50 countries and 12 languages. Shabnam has also recently launched a website,, to sell games, DVD’s and books to teach children about different cultures, including comic books based on 1001 Nights.
1001 Nights
As an educated and fully acculturated entrepreneur, Shabnam Rezaei says her biggest problem is “simply maintaining a New York City presence for her company.” While she loves New York and retains a sales and marketing office here, she has moved her production facilities to Vancouver because “they’ve lured us there with 40% tax credits on production. We spend some $8 million on production each year which goes to Canada though I am a US citizen. New York needs to think more about attracting media companies because the talent is certainly here.” Shabnam recently won an “international fellows award” from the NYC EDC, which provides her with networking opportunities, and she hopes “an opportunity to tell Mayor Bloomberg directly that I would love to keep all of my business production in the city if only the incentives were equal to what I find in Canada.”
Dr. Dan Dan Yang
Chinese–born Dan Dan Yang (Dan means red in Chinese so her name translates to super red!) says her problem in launching her engineering career was rooted in gender stereotypes. For starters, her high school principal in Nanking tried to persuade her to major in literature instead of physics because “girls have better chances in literature.” Instead Dan stuck to physics, especially lasers, first getting an undergraduate degree in Nanking before winning a scholarship for a PhD in photonics in Paris where she especially “loved playing with laser beams and semi conductor chips in the labs.” Next step in the journey was immigrating to Canada with her engineer husband and landing a job with MPB Technologies to work on underwater fiber optics.
Dan Yang’s first start up was AFC Technologies for which she invented a broadband light source that later became the industry standard. When AFC was bought by JDS Uniphase, Dan moved to Silicon Valley to launch Dowslake Microsystems, which allows networks to transfer voice and data. With 11 patents awarded and another 5 pending, Dan’s latest venture through a company, Rullingnet, is a tablet for toddlers, because of her frustration with finding stimulating toys for her two- year old daughter. “Because toys are so dull”, Dan speculates, “most toddlers gravitate towards their parents’ smart phones or computers.”
The Vinci Tablet for Tots
Called Vinci,, Dan’s new Galaxy tablet provides an interactive learning platform with an Android operating system; it features a sturdy red silicon handle, a non toxic tempered glass screen and has no wi fi components to minimize radiation; it will be available in July. These days Dan works mainly with psychologist, educators, and artists as she develops software for her tot tablet, combining her talents in advanced technology with the creative world, a step which presumably her early teachers would have considered a more appropriate arena for women!


  1. Great article! I started and run a web-based business now but it feels like yesterday I arrived in New York with only four hundred dollars and a friend's phone number in my pocket.

  2. That's a very interesting article. I find it remarkable that a woman of her age can do such a thing.

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