Asian entrepreneurs now outnumber Memphis' black-owned firms

Burglars broke into the used-car lot on Lamar Avenue.


They yanked catalytic converters off a half-dozen vehicles and got away in the night.


It’s happened before.


Fayez Elkhayyat, who not long ago raised his children in Palestine, expects it will happen again.


“Here they steal. The police don’t do nothing,” Elkhayyat said. “There’s too much going on for them. There aren’t enough police in Memphis.”


Despite the crime, the stubborn car dealer is staying.


“It is still a good place for business,” said Elkhayyat, who opened Trust One Auto Sales & Service in 2010.


What’s happening on this stretch of Lamar east of Airways points out the quiet change in the commercial face of Memphis.


More than 1,500 men and women of Asian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern descent now own businesses in nine-county metropolitan Memphis, chiefly in the big city of 645,000 population.


Even as America debates the Syrian refugee crisis, it is clear these entrepreneurs -- recent immigrants and Memphians who have lived here for years -- now outnumber black-owned firms and have helped shore up the tax base in faded neighborhoods like Elkhayyat’s, while recasting Memphis with an international air.


“There’s quite a diversity in occupations and professions of people who have moved to Memphis,” said Dr. Mohammed Moinuddin, an Indian radiologist who settled here in 1995 and estimates 1,000 Indian and Pakistani medical professionals now practice in the city.


Long regarded as a crossroads for black and white America, Memphis has seldom looked abroad.


Memphians instead focus inward, talk of improving schools, fixing old neighborhoods, solving crime, ramping up entrepreneurs.

Just last week the Greater Memphis Chamber announced a new diversity contracting program aimed at women and black Memphians.


Yet quietly, with no planning, the number of Asian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern entrepreneurs has surpassed African American firms in metro Memphis during the last decade.


“Everyone wants to come to the U.S.,” Elkhayatt said. “There’s work, more money, freedom.”


In a region where almost half the 1.3 million residents are African American, the total number of black-owned firms slipped 6 percent between 2002 and 2012, and white ownership declined even more, especially as the 2008 global financial crash wiped out jobs, consumer spending and bank lending.


While the crash struck the city hard, anyone driving the streets can see Memphis hasn’t dried up.


Jordanian gas station operators, Indian wholesalers, Thai restaurateurs and Taiwanese jewelers lease and own scores of buildings on streets such as Cleveland, Park and Summer.


Even as the total number of firms declined by almost 1,200 between 2007 and 2012 in the metro area, led by a nearly 9 percent drop in white-owned firms, the number of Asian and Hispanic businesses that employ at least one worker surged 63 percent to about 1,550, a gain of nearly 600 firms, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Factfinder reports show.


A firm is an establishment whose owners’ race could be identified when the Census Bureau conducted its regular survey of business ownership in America. Firms do not include companies such as International Paper owned by many shareholders.


What’s missing from the 1,550 number are the Muslims. American Factfinder did not show Middle Eastern, Arab or African entrepreneurs for those years, although Saleh Al-Dabashi, Muslim Society of Memphis president, estimates about 11 percent of the society’s 15,000 members are entrepreneurs and professionals.

“If you go to almost any gas station or convenience store, it’s going to be a Muslim owner,” said Al-Dabashi, himself a Flash Mart owner.


He notes the recent inflow of immigrants prompted the Muslim Society to open a small school teaching the English language and American values, particularly for women coming from nations such as Saudi Arabia, for example, which long prohibited women from driving cars.


“They have the right to know what this country is about and that they have freedoms here they didn’t have back home,” he said.


What is happening here reflects America’s changing population.


In nearly all of the country’s 30 largest cities, white firms have declined in number since the 2008 crash. Yet the decline was masked as the share of ethnic firms increased. Many cities now have more firms than a few years ago, says the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, noting the shift corresponds with the inflow of families coming from throughout the world.


Nearly a third of metro New York and metro Los Angeles residents are immigrants, compared to 13.3 percent in Atlanta and 7.4 percent in Nashville, while in Greater Memphis, one of every 20 residents is an immigrant, part of a population of 67,000 immigrants living  in the metro area, a Migration Policy Institute study estimates.


White-owned firms remain the most abundant in metro Memphis, totaling 12,792 in 2012, compared to 993 black, 253 Hispanic and 1,295 Asian firms employing one or more workers, American Factfinder reports. The survey found 248 Chinese firms, 65 Filipino, 50 Vietnamese and counted 634 Indian firms as Asian. Indian firms averaged $1.5 million in annual sales, compared to $1.3 million at Hispanic firms, $757,000 at black firms and $3.5 million at white firms.


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23 Mar 2016

By Ted Evanoff