The Best Business Funding Options for Immigrant and Refugee Entrepreneurs
Breaking down the grants, loans and other forms of funding aspiring business owners should know about.
Although the streets of America have never actually been paved with gold, the pervasive dream of "making it big" here persists among newcomers. Thousands of successful American entrepreneurs weren't born in the U.S., and there shouldn't be a wall between immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs and business financing.
According to Fundera, 28 percent of all "main street" businesses are owned by immigrants. These businesses are the kinds of providers most people visit all the time – grocery stores, nail salons, restaurants, clothing and liquor stores and more. Nearly half of all business growth from 2000 to 2013 was due to immigrant business owners.
If you're an aspiring entrepreneur who doesn't have a long financial history in this country, here are the funding sources you should know about.
Grants for Refugees and Immigrants
For immigrants who speak and write English well, there are grants to teach English as a second language on Grant Watch. Use the site's search tool to look for grants specifically available to immigrants and refugees, or try the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Look into micro enterprise development or Wilson-Fish programs, the latter of which is an alternative model currently only available in 12 states (Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Vermont) and a single county (San Diego County, Calif.). These programs concentrate in early employment and immigrant self-sufficiency.
Refugees and immigrants who are members of a minority (including women and Latinx entrepreneurs) can qualify for grants and loans from the Minority Business Development Agency.
Loans for Immigrants and Refugees
There are some limitations on the loans immigrants and refugees can get. For example, SBA loans can go to noncitizens, but you must be a resident alien. Lending Club offers business loans and does not appear to check citizenship or status.
Although Stilt only seems to offer personal loans, it specializes in immigrant and visa-holding borrowers. Personal loans should not be your first option when funding a business, but they may be all you can get. To be eligible for a Stilt loan, you must have a physical presence in the United States and an American bank account in your name, with an American address. You do not have to have a Social Security number in order to qualify.
For loans, a consistent credit history always helps. Otherwise, borrowers may need a cosigner. Further, if the borrower will only be in the U.S. for short time, it will be harder to get a loan. For foreign nationals and those with diplomatic immunity, it is even tougher to get loan money, as lenders are not protected in case of default.
If an immigrant entrepreneur needs a fairly small amount of money, a microloan can be a lifesaver. One source can be local governments and agencies. For example, New Hampshire has the Greater Concord Community Microloan Program, specifically meant for new immigrants to do business in the Granite State.
In California, immigrants can get financial help with the trappings for immigration (e.g. getting green cards, etc.). The Mission Asset Fund provides 0% interest loans up to $2,500 to business owners for specific purposes like making a brick and mortar business more energy efficient or changing to a limited liability corporation (LLC).
In Pennsylvania, disadvantaged immigrants can turn to the Women’s Opportunities Resource Center.
For immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs who don’t mind giving up some of the equity in their businesses, venture capital could be an option. Venture capitalists tend to be looking for exceptional companies, so main street businesses might not have a chance. For truly innovative companies, refugee and immigrant business owners can try for funds from Unshackled Ventures or One Way Ventures.
Angel investing can be somewhat formal and come from organizations set up specifically for that purpose, or it can come from family and friends. Gust.com can be a great place for refugee and immigrant business owners to find financing.
Crowdfunding can be another attractive option for immigrant and refugee business owners. Kickstarter, for example, allows permanent residents of several countries to run campaigns on its platform. These tend to be countries in North America, Europe, and Oceania. In Asia, the only eligible countries are Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
The list of eligible countries is similar for Indiegogo, but they also have an option for China. If yours is a creative business, consider Patreon — but read the fine print. It’s unclear where it stands on citizenship, and you’ll have to directly contact someone there to get the word on your eligibility.
Caveats for Immigrants and Refugees
Loans might require a Social Security number. Qualifying for permanent residency means you can apply for a Social Security number. Other issues can be a language barrier and, like for American-born entrepreneurs, a lack of business credit or time in business.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer