Andrew Wainer: Harvest Haitian entrepreneurial spirit
By Andrew Wainer on June 21, 2014
© Sun Sentinel
In 2001, Haitian-born Odilon Celestin arrived in Florida on a boat from the Bahamas. As an unauthorized immigrant with contacts, his work options were limited. His first job was harvesting green beans in Homestead. "I came and I didn't know people, I didn't have any friends," Celestin said. "This is how I started my life [in the United States]."
By 2003, he transitioned from agriculture to working in a bakery, eventually launching his own storefront restaurant in the Haitian enclave of North Miami. The banks turned down his loan requests, but he drew from a local nonprofit and his own savings for start-up capital.
Ten years later Celestin received a $380,000 bank loan to open a second, larger restaurant that occupies 3,000 square feet, has capacity for 80 customers, and will have 11 employees.
Those who know the South Florida immigrant community note Haitians' propensity for entrepreneurship. According to community leaders, poverty in Haiti is the catalyst for this Haitian entrepreneurial spirit in the United States. "Nobody is going to take care of you [in Haiti] so you better get out there and find something to sell if you want to eat that day," one Haitian American microfinance expert said.
South Florida contains the largest concentration of Haitian immigrants in the United States. There are 201,000 in the region – about one third of all Haitian immigrants in the country. But in spite of Haitians entrepreneurial drive they face major socioeconomic challenges. While the greater Miami metro area has an overall poverty rate of about 18 percent, almost a third (30 percent) of Haitian immigrants and 54 percent of Haitian immigrant children live in poverty.
Harnessing Haitian immigrant entrepreneurship is central to the regional economy: "South Florida's future is tied to how well we can take advantage of the [immigrant] groups that have come here," said Jim Murley, Executive Director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council. To support this entrepreneurship, the barriers entrepreneurial success must be addressed:
Informality: Experts estimate that as much as 95 percent of businesses in Haiti operate informally.
Isolation: Like many immigrant groups, Haitians tend to operate their businesses in their own community.
Access to credit: Isolation and informality are both linked to a lack of credit sources.
Immigration status: Irregular immigration status hinders business sustainability.
Miami local government and nonprofits offer technical assistance to entreprenuers, but it is typically not coordinated. In order to harness the entrepreneurial drive of South Florida Haitian immigrants, service provides will need more targeted, coordinated services tailored to this entrepreneurial community.
Andrew Wainer is senior immigration policy analyst for Bread for the World Institute in Washington, D.C.
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