Albuquerque gets to work with small business deep dives and co-design approaches to improve the lives of immigrant entrepreneurs.
This post is part of a series about our work with the 2nd cohort of the City Accelerator, an initiative from Living Cities and the Citi Foundation focused on municipal government and public engagement. In the second cohort led by the Engagement Lab, 5 cities rethink and reinvent public engagement, especially as it pertains to lower-income residents. In this series we’ll be sharing progress of the city’s projects as well as best practices and lessons for public engagement.

Building Better Lives: Entrepreneurship + Innovation = Economic Opportunity in Albuquerque’s Immigrant Communities

By: Frank Mirabal, Ph.D (Director of Collective Impact, City of Albuquerque)

If you talk with immigrants in this country, you will hear a common theme: we came to America because we want a better life for our children and our families. As our nation continues to climb out of the Great Recession, city leaders are exploring innovative approaches to create the type of economic prosperity that is within reach of all residents regardless of race, income, gender, or country of origin.

Under the leadership of Mayor Richard J. Berry, the City of Albuquerque is focusing on an untapped talent pool to drive economic development efforts: immigrant entrepreneurs. According to a recent Kauffman Foundation report, immigrants were almost twice as likely to start businesses as native-born Americans and created companies that employed approximately 560,000 workers, generating $63 billion in sales in 2012 alone (Kauffman Foundation, 2015). With an estimated 65,000 foreign-born residents in the metro area (American Community Survey, 2010) and a state that is majority-minority, Albuquerque seeks to capitalize on its unique diversity to fuel the local economy.

Immigrants have an innate entrepreneurial spirit. One of the first entrepreneurial steps that immigrants take is making the decision to leave their homeland for a better future in our country — taking huge risks for the promise of freedom and prosperity as the reward.

We also recognize that there are significant barriers that immigrants face when trying to access the “American Dream.” A language divide and public systems that do not fully support needs of immigrant populations contribute to a lack of trust in government and a feeling among immigrants of being socially isolated.

Community-Sourced Solutions

In 2015, the City of Albuquerque was among five cities chosen to participate in the City Accelerator Cohort II. Our initiative is focused on removing barriers and increasing opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs to succeed in business. Our desired result is that immigrants become drivers of the local economy by creating jobs and increasing their economic mobility.

To achieve this, we began our process by engaging over forty (40) individuals representing thirty (30) organizations throughout our city in a day-long design workshop focused on designing solutions for immigrant entrepreneurs. The design workshop gave service providers the opportunity to sketch technological and service designs to better connect entrepreneurs to supportive services within a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem. It also gave service providers the opportunity to map existing programs and services for immigrant entrepreneurs and assess the strength of an existing entrepreneurial network.

On a parallel track, our small business deep dive sessions engaged over seventy (70) entrepreneurs in six (6) deep dive sessions over a two-month period. These deep dives gave us the opportunity to better understand the challenges and needs of the immigrant entrepreneur community. Some takeaways included: a better understanding of the barriers to access for immigrant owned businesses; the need for programs and what types; the opportunity to build upon place-based strategies that are already being accessed by existing immigrant entrepreneurs; the opportunity to collect feedback on the quality of these services; a better understanding of the social networks of immigrant entrepreneurs; and identifying potential growth industries and markets where immigrant entrepreneurs can fill a void in the marketplace.

Connecting Immigrants through Technology

The next phase of our work is to build a civic tech solution with immigrant entrepreneurs that places City of Albuquerque and community resources in the palms of their hands. Through our discovery process, we mapped a wealth of resources within our ecosystem that support immigrant entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, these resources are often disconnected and relatively unknown to end users. To address this, we are building web-based interfaces in English and Spanish that will connect entrepreneurs, service providers, and city government staff to a database of resources supporting immigrant entrepreneurs.

Based on market research, we have determined that the primary way immigrants access information on the web is through a smart phone (Pew Research Center, 2015). While the digital divide in the form of a desktop computer and high-speed, home internet still exists, many immigrants have access to smart phones to access critical information. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 86% of Latinos own a cell phone and are more likely to access the internet from their smart phone device than their dominant culture peers — 76% versus 60% (Pew Research Center, 2012). In Albuquerque, the majority of immigrants are Latino (56,000), with the largest proportion of immigrants citing Mexico (54,000) as their country of origin (American Community Survey, 2010). With this in mind, technology — whether web-based or in app form — will need to be intuitive for smart phone users.

Technology can be an effective way to bring people and places together. However, we recognize that people are the most important part of the equation. Over the next year, we will continue to engage immigrant entrepreneurs in every phase of our technology development in hopes that we can build something meaningful — together.

Frank Mirabal, Ph.D, Director of Collective Impact, Office of the Mayor, Richard J. Berry, City of Albuquerque