Welcoming Economy Innovations: PhillyiHub strengthens local economy

The Welcoming Economies Global Network is a program of Welcoming America and Global Detroit. The Welcoming Economies (WE) Global Network is comprised of more than twenty regional economic development initiatives from across the Midwest working to tap into the economic development opportunities created by immigrants.

Denise Williams found her courage negotiating with CEOs at the age of fourteen while working for her family’s staffing business. As the eldest child raised by her Cambodian mother, she learned how to run a business and to be a part of a community, from her parents, whose lives focused on strengthening their local community of Cambodian and other Asian immigrants. They were very involved in the lives and future of their neighbors.

In 2009 she took that courage and ventured out on her own. She integrated the Cambodian family style into Madison Birch Staffing Agency, whose strength is her commitment to building healthy communities.

Incubation space for immigrant entrepreneurs fuels innovation

In 2016, Denise was welcomed into a new space for immigrant entrepreneurs to gather and grow together in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of northwest Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub (PhillyiHub) provides aspiring immigrant entrepreneurs and established small business owners, like Denise, with the tools and expertise they need to grow.

Denise entered the PhillyiHub to grow her business, but as she learned she also uncovered a gap in her community: many elders in need of health care services are unable to access those benefits because of language and literacy barriers. With her Vietnamese and Cambodian language skills, and the support of the PhillyiHub and connections made through it, Denise launched her second business, WelSpring Home Care, to support Philly’s aging Asian community. She sets it apart by treating every client like family.

How the PhillyiHub works

Mt. Airy is a diverse neighborhood but it has not experienced much growth of its immigrant communities relative to other Philly neighborhoods like Northeast and South Philadelphia. These neighborhoods benefit from the economic and social contributions of immigrants – which can be seen in things like small business and population growth – and strengthen Philadelphia’s position as a city that recognizes welcoming and inclusion as vital, and valuable, to the city’s future. In the Philadelphia metro, immigrant entrepreneurs are a huge asset: there are more than 40,000 of them and they are responsible for an astounding 96 percent of small business growth since 2000.

Knowing these numbers, Mt. Airy USA, a non-profit organization committed to preserving, empowering and advancing the vibrancy and diversity of the Mt. Airy neighborhood, saw the opportunity to show its welcoming side while marketing the neighborhood and drawing in entrepreneurs and new businesses. Through a unique three-way partnership with Welcoming Economies Global Network member The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and local micro-lending institution Finanta, a plan for an immigrant entrepreneur incubation space was born. The partnership’s goal was to create a holistic environment for businesses and entrepreneurs to grow with wrap around services including space, training and resources, and access to capital.

The team secured a grant from the Knight Cities Challenge, which allowed for the renovation of an abandoned post office to house the Hub and to sustain the program for the first year and half. The incubation space has graduated three cohorts including entrepreneurs with a wide range of businesses, from import and export companies to fashion and magazines, home health care to catering. The cohorts begin their training as a group, then move into more specialized guidance based on industry.

Just as essential as the business services provided, the space fosters a sense of community for the entrepreneurs, not only within its walls, but with the Mt. Airy community. Most of the graduated cohort members continue to take advantage of the PhillyiHub’s events and support after their training has finished, and have built strong networks they can lean on.

“Our goal is to have people connected to the neighborhood, and to each other,” notes Nikia Hill of Mt. Airy USA. “The PhillyiHub provides entrepreneurs and community members the opportunity to cross paths and make connections. Community involvement is an integral part of  the space.”

Denise is still in contact with many from her cohort. “I wanted to network with other immigrant business owners and entrepreneurs that could relate to my story, and I to theirs.”  Part of what is unique about the PhillyiHub is its focus, not on a specific industry, like tech, but on immigrant entrepreneurs – and it is the only one in Philadelphia. It is a space for individuals living in Philly but coming from all over to gather and connect, to share experiences and resources. 

“The value the PhillyiHub has brought to the neighborhood is exciting,” notes Ms. Hill. “Our neighborhood values diversity, and the space brings people with very different experiences together to collaborate. We’re eager to support the innovative ways  entrepreneurs are helping grow our local economy.”

Denise found value in collaborating with entrepreneurs in different sectors that she might not otherwise connect with. “Our cohort had so many different industries, and we would come together each with a different way of solving a problem, and those unique perspectives fostered an environment that welcomed every idea. I believe our businesses are stronger because of it.”

“In our current political climate,” Nikia adds, “it feels like there is a very real need for a place where immigrants can come together and where the community can support them. The PhillyiHub is that space.”

How to launch an immigrant incubator:

  • Identify key partners (community, training, capital)
  • Build relationships with immigrant community groups
  • Create a welcoming space for people to feel comfortable and be productive
  • Develop comprehensive training program that addresses barriers many immigrant entrepreneurs face (finance, market research, etc)
  • Market using outreach, social media, and partner’s referrals
  • Prioritize community involvement and networking in the space

Learn more about Welcoming Economies Global Network innovations