Reflecting on working with small business owners

Kristy Cheung, a recent Communications graduate of the University of Washington, completed her summer internship with the Main Street Alliance of Washington. The following is her reflection on her experience working with small business owners on the issues of health care and immigration. 

My grandparents were immigrants and came to America from Hong Kong for a better life. We always had an American Dream, and we believed that we could have many opportunities and freedoms in the United States. I was born in the U.S. and raised in Hong Kong. As I grew up, my dream was to study abroad in America, as I believed I could be successful in this environment. My dream came true, and I am studying Communications at the University of Washington. As I neared graduation, I started to think about my career goals, and wanted to apply for an internship program. While many of my friends from school took on internships at large corporations, I was curious about small businesses, which seemed to me to be the backbone of American society. Thus, I began my communications internship at the Main Street Alliance of Washington, to try to understand the small business owner experience. 

When talking about dream jobs, many of us will say, “I want to be the boss.” Of course, I do too. Chain stores seem to have taken over our streets and malls, and only every once in awhile do we see small stores survive. I assumed that these business owners must have earned a lot of money. Because I heard so many good things about small business from the radio, television, and the community, I pictured the typical small business owner as a rich, white man, driving a nice car; I envied those who could run their business as a hobby. I assumed small business owners were receiving supportive assistance, and therefore they could still exist in the community. I never imagined that small business owners would need to worry about healthcare and working conditions.

I still remember the first time I walked into a small business, changing my perception entirely. I listened to a business owner’s story about their huge medical debt due to a lack of healthcare coverage. While their pressure of getting coverage was relieved after the Affordable Care Act was enacted, the efforts in Congress to repeal the law made them anxious again. I was shocked by how many business owners would have lost coverage due to pre-existing conditions; by the stories of medical debts and bankruptcy.

As I learned more about the small business owners, I found that their businesses are not a hobby, instead they are their main source of their income. And like my grandparents, many of them are immigrants. Despite operating in such an unsupportive environment, they all shared the same mission: to serve and strengthen the community. As I walked into their stores, they welcomed and smiled at me. Even in the midst of struggling to maintain their businesses, they worked hard to provide for their families, and make their customers and community feel connected. The immigrant business owners I visited all help build our economy and create local jobs, but because they are “low-skilled,” and not young enough, they wouldn’t have met the requirements of President Trump’s updated immigration bill. To me, it seemed inhumane that this Administration would advocate for these bumbling and cruel policies, even as they talked about the importance of small businesses.

The GOP’s policies on healthcare and immigration keep making our local small business owners nervous. One of the small business owners even talked about leaving the U.S to move to Canada for a better life, due to our unsupportive policies. In 2017, there are over 900,000 immigrant small business owners, and 18% of all small businesses are owned by them. Without these small businesses, our local communities would lose the uniqueness that makes them special. Without the jobs created by these small businesses, unemployment would only worsen. Many of my visits were with family run businesses, and without a supportive immigration policy, they would no longer be united with their family members from other countries. Over 13.5 percent of Americans are immigrants, and with this multi-cultural background, America has benefited greatly from talents around the world. Trump’s RAISE Act would not only limit immigrants’ opportunity, but would also harm our local economy.

In these few months, I had a chance to visit local small business owners, listen to their needs and stories, but also realize there is much more work to do for maintaining a supportive community for small business. I believe that the United States is a place full of freedom, and we should recommit to equity and inclusion. Our government should be a role model, making policies that embrace our diversity and needs, and not a force that breaks the American Dream.