Connecting state and local government leaders

Are Immigrant Entrepreneurs the Key to Local Job Creation?

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Albuquerque thinks so and is trying to engage them in better ways to boost the city’s business climate.

New Mexico is a minority-majority state and Albuquerque a minority-majority city housing around 60,000 immigrants—many of whom are entrepreneurs municipal officials want to engage to create jobs.

Six months ago, the city began hosting a program called “Business Deep Dives” with small gatherings of different immigrant communities each month, Mayor Richard Berry and his staff, asking entrepreneurs what they need to launch or grow their operations.

Now the program is looking at a $100,000, 18-month expansion—Albuquerque having been one of five municipalities selected to the second City Accelerator cohort in late May.

“We are what the rest of the country is going to look like in the next 20 years, and how we’re going to engage these folks is to take City Hall to them,” Gilbert Montaño, Berry’s chief of staff, told Route Fifty. “They’re the most worthy entrepreneurs out there with the risks they’ve taken, so we asked: ‘How can we, as a city, take this hidden economy—because they contribute so much to our community—and help bolster it any way we can?’”

To date, officials have held Business Deep Dives with Albuquerque’s Mexican and Vietnamese entrepreneur communities among others, explaining how to navigate City Hall’s licensing process and getting feedback on how to make it simpler.

The meetings should never end, Montaño said, which is why three city staff members were assigned to handle Albuquerque’s City Accelerator entry.

Eric Gordon, director of the Living Cities initiative’s second cohort, will visit Albuquerque on June 15 to get a better sense of what the city hopes to accomplish in its immigrant community and begin developing a project budget.

“We wanted a group of cities that would interestingly connect, a diversity of problem areas, to make sure the team within each city was strong enough to pull it off, and points of possible collaboration,” Gordon, who in April co-authored a Route Fifty guest article on City Accelerator and Living Cities, said in a recent interview. “Albuquerque's is an issue that was different than the other cities had proposed, and Living Cities has relationships there and has trust in the team.”

Last week, Gordon, an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, was in New Orleans, where officials want increase the number of citizens accessing free healthcare through a Medicare waiver program approximately 25,000 are eligible for but not using.

There he discussed strengthening local government’s partnership with New Orleans-based 504HealthNet as a means of engaging more low-income residents.

“It’s really not a top-down approach or solution in a box, where we’re bring a particular toolkit to every city,” Brandee McHale, president of partner Citi Foundation, said in an interview. “We’re building relationships, not just with the mayor, but key people leading different agencies with the idea to create a sustainable initiative.”

Montaño believes Albuquerque is on the cusp of a nationally trending model if the city does things right.

Speaking with the local Mexican immigrant community, the city realized it was at a disadvantage without a Spanish speaker in its Economic Development Department, so it hired one to work with entrepreneurs on a peer-to-peer level.

Rather than changing the city’s procurement code, sometimes the solution is as easy as helping a Vietnamese merchant buy a rose for $1 and sell it for $2, Montaño said.

“The simplicity of the straightforward, common-sense approach surprises me,” he said. “As elected leaders we tend to overcomplicate things, and we should take lessons from our entrepreneurs.”

City Accelerator's first cohort was focused on institutionalized innovation and Albuquerque’s on low-income citizen engagement. Once Gordon has visited all five cities in June and set up their initial $25,000 experiments, they’ll begin monthly online conferences to share lessons learned, and representatives will meet in person every six months.

Albuquerque will receive a second installment of $75,000 for a larger integration of the finalized project into its system of governance. The city will have the option to pool funds with one of the other cohort members, though the other problem areas are urban development in two instances, healthcare and prison re-entry.

“My hunch is that the first small bit of capital will be used by the individual cities, and some will collaborate by the second round hopefully,” Gordon said.

Albuquerque’s issue of immigrant entrepreneurship, and those of the other cities, should resonate with a broader set of cities watching what’s happening, McHale said, with a third to-be-determined cohort in development.

Business Deep Dives will become more consistent and reach more areas with City Accelerator’s help, Montaño said.

The 32nd largest city in the U.S., Albuquerque is also one of the poorest big cities, he said. Only by empowering its immigrant entrepreneurs can it hope to create companies and jobs, though officials are still working out how to quantify the new ones they’re responsible for.

“So many parts of the country are tied up in innovation, technology transfer and what’s the next widget to be made, and those are important jobs,” Montaño said. “But there’s a whole other focus of entrepreneurism that’s being left in the dust, outside that tech world, and we’d be at a loss to focus on the other stuff as well.”

Dave Nyczepir is News Editor for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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