February 1, 2016

Foreign-born business owners boost Worcester

Libis Bueno, a native of the Dominican Republic, founded Worcester IT service provider Domitek in 2005.
As a native of a Latin American country, Bueno hopes to take advantage of the rise of Hispanic-run businesses in Central Mass.

When Kenya natives James Njoroge and Julius Kihumba launched Century Homecare in 2012, they initially set out to expand home health care across the state.

But the co-founders, friends since high school and now brothers-in-law, found their niche in providing home health services to Worcester's underserved minority communities."Home health care becomes a very personal experience. You don't just send anybody. You have to develop a certain level of trust. By sending a Spanish-speaking person to [a Spanish-speaking client] it makes them much more comfortable," Njoroge said. "There's a level of trust when you share a cultural background."

Tapping into this market, combined with a commitment to going the extra mile for their patients and long-term investments in their employees, has led to exponential growth for Century, Njoroge said. Open for just about three years, today the home health provider operates statewide with 600 employees and four branches.

Njoroge and Kihumba are just two of Worcester's successful foreign-born entrepreneurs. According to a recent study from Worcester nonprofit Seven Hills Foundation, 37 percent of the city's business owners are foreign born, and the city's immigrant communities – especially naturalized citizens – are both less likely to live in poverty and make use of public benefits than natives.

Anita Fabos, a professor at Clark University and an expert on refugees and immigrant populations, said the Seven Hills findings are consistent with studies she has seen for other cities.

"It's not unexpected to have a foreign-born population performing well. Immigrant populations typically perform quite well in the labor force; it's sort of a known thing," she said.

The study's numbers

Worcester is home to 37,970 immigrants from 85 different countries. Most are from Latin America (33 percent) and Asia (27 percent), with 18 percent hailing from Europe and 21 percent coming from Africa.

Slightly less than half of the foreign-born population is naturalized, meaning they've become citizens. Generally, naturalized citizens are better off economically than Worcester natives, and noncitizens are worse off. Among noncitizens, there are about 5,500 unauthorized immigrants living in Worcester, and an estimated 2,196 refugees came to the city between 2007 and 2012.

There are also more immigrants of working age than natives – 42 percent of immigrants are between the ages of 25 to 44, compared to 24 percent of people who were born here. Most immigrants in that age group are noncitizens.

Naturalized foreign-born residents also have higher rates of homeownership (53 percent), compared to natives (46 percent) and noncitizens (19 percent), and they have the highest median household income ($50,865) out of those groups as well, with natives earning $46,263 on average and noncitizens earning $37,944.

"If we really want to get to the hard issues of money and economics, that's what this report tried to get to, and we were able to prove without a doubt that immigrants in Worcester and elsewhere bring significant economic value," said David A. Jordan, president of Seven Hills and its affiliates.

The one foreign-born population that falls short of citywide averages in earnings and employment is the Latin American population, the study found. While the Latin American community had second highest labor force participation rate at 77 percent, it also had the lowest rates of English proficiency (61 percent) and educational attainment (21 percent), as well as the lowest median individual income ($20,454), and the highest percentage of Medicaid/MassHealth enrollment at 50 percent, which is much higher than the citywide average of 34 percent.

"We, in the city of Worcester, need to work closely with the Latin American and Puerto Rican communities and find means of working with that population to provide ... job(s)," Jordan said.

Worcester residents of European origin had the highest educational attainment at 44 percent, compared to 38 percent citywide. Foreign-born Africans had the highest labor force participation at 88 percent; Asians had 65 percent, Europeans had 61 percent and the citywide rate is 64 percent.

Technical solutions

Libis Bueno moved to Worcester from the Dominican Republic in 1987, when he was 16. A self-proclaimed lifelong geek, Bueno spent years in corporate IT before he founded Domitek, a Worcester IT services provider, in 2005.

Today, the company employs seven people and focuses on providing secure, reliable information-technology support to small and medium-sized businesses.

Bueno first hoped part of his business could focus on Latin American-run companies, but it wasn't a good fit at the time.

As more Latin Americans open healthcare companies and accounting firms, Bueno said he hopes he can provide their IT infrastructure.

It was hard moving here from a third-world country as a teenager, but as an adult, Bueno said he embraces challenges that may come his way.

"Have I been overlooked [because of my ethnicity]? Maybe. What I look at is, this is an opportunity for me to show them I am who I am," he said. "When you get mature, you have to step up, become an adult and become responsible."

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