Asians small but growing influence in GR business

April 1, 2011
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Phillip Hien Nguyen, owner of a Grand Rapids-based web development business, knows that his accent is thick, despite the nearly three decades he has lived here.

“I still have a very heavy accent sometimes,” said Nguyen, who in 1983 arrived here from Vietnam as an orphaned teenager. He graduated from South Christian High School before earning a business degree at Western Michigan University and a computer technology degree from Grand Valley State University.

“I can sense on the other line that there are expectations that people want to hear perfect English. Even though I have no problem listening to it or writing it, still, I do have an accent, and sometimes that’s a disadvantage, I guess.

“But I’ve got to say, being Asian and being in IT is a plus. People think that you are smarter,” he joked.

Asians in Kent County
Grand Rapids
Gaines Township
Grand Rapids Twp.
Ada Township
Source: Census 2010



The recent release of Census 2010 data shows that the Asian population in Kent County is in growth mode. While much smaller and growing more slowly than the Hispanic population, which is 9.7 percent of Kent County’s population of 602,622, Asians number 13,932, or 2.3 percent.

The Asian population is particularly strong in Grand Rapids and Kentwood. South Division Avenue south of 28th Street is witness to the new accents of West Michigan, offering an array of Asian and some Hispanic businesses, such as auto shops, restaurants and food markets that carry ethnic food and goods.

Census 2010 counted 3,215 Asians, primarily Vietnamese, in Kentwood, a growth rate of 27 percent between 2000 and 2010. Asians now make up 7 percent of the suburban city’s population of 48,707, compared to 2 percent in Grand Rapids and 3 percent in Wyoming.

While the numbers are only in the hundreds, Asian populations in Gaines, Grand Rapids and Ada Township grew significantly in the previous decade. Asians now represent 5 percent in Gaines and 4 percent in Grand Rapids and Ada townships.

Results of the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent national survey of Asian-owned businesses are expected later this month. But a 2010 report from the Asian Pacific American Chamber of Commerce in Rochester Hills indicated that Asian-owned businesses have an economic footprint of $11.5 billion in Michigan.

Entrepreneurship is part of Asian culture, said Denise Yee Grimm, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Chamber of Commerce based in Rochester Hills.

“I think it’s because of the culture,” Yee Grimm said. “The Asian culture, as an Asian community or group, we are very entrepreneurial as immigrants. We did a seminar on entrepreneurship at Lawrence Tech. They (Asian students) have the drive, they really, really do. They are all studying for their master’s and PhDs.”

Education levels set Kent County Asians apart from other race and ethnic groups.

In Kentwood, for example, about 31 percent of Asians have at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. In Grand Rapids, the rate is about 40 percent, and statewide, more than 61 percent.

Grand Rapids lawyer Susan Im, whose practice focuses on immigration law, said she sees strict U.S. immigration laws interfering with Gov. Rick Snyder’s goal of an extreme makeover of Michigan’s economy. Snyder has said he wants Michigan to welcome foreign-born entrepreneurs and their start-up companies.

“I 100 percent agree with Snyder on that point,” Im said. “I just think about all the foreign-born entrepreneurs in my practice or in the Asian community. To put more legal impediments on them, it forces them to go to countries that have better immigration laws.”

It can take as long as 20 years to obtain green cards for family members of professionals from the affected countries, she said. For many, their patience wears out first. “I’ve seen highly skilled Asian foreign professionals leave,” Im said.

Im is one of the founders of the Asian Professionals Organization, which, at its gala in March, announced a merger with the Asian Health Outreach Foundation. The West Michigan Asian American Association will work on broad issues such as business, health and education.

“We have a very thriving Asian professional community,” said Im, who helped to found APO in 2004. “I couldn’t believe the people who came out of the woodwork. There’s all these people who look like me, and I said, ‘Where have you been?’”

These days, some of them are at the Salsa Pachango dance parties at the JW Marriott, sponsored with the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said George Aquino, general manager at the Grand Rapids hotel.

“For the first one (in 2010), we had 700 people here for a salsa party. You have a large group of Asians and Latinos who showed up in full force,” he said. The JW has hosted many minority business community events, he added. “The corporate community really understands that the minority community in West Michigan is a group that you cannot ignore.”

The worldwide nature of business today has prompted cultural change in local companies, Aquino said.

“As globalization has taken over … you need to have a community that is welcoming, that shows how you’re conducting business now,” he said.

Still, the Asian community has scores of stories like those of Nguyen, who has been involved in many community organizations including the Vietnamese America Association of Michigan. Orphaned in Vietnam at age 3, Nguyen bounced between the homes of relatives and a refugee camp until he was 14, when an aunt told him about the opportunity to come to the United States via Bethany Christian Services and World Vision. He jumped at the chance, joined a Grand Rapids foster family and enrolled in school.

“When you have a determination to succeed, that’s 90 percent of it,” said Nguyen, who always had a goal of having his own business.

“The toughest for me was in the first year at school over here. (In Vietnam) I was unable to attend fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades — those were missing years for me. I wanted to go to college, and the counselor said, ‘You can’t; you can’t go to college. You should attend trade school.’ They said, ‘Son, you can’t. You barely have any schooling background.’ I said, “That’s OK. I can do it.’

“I just studied day and night. I would have a dictionary in my hand, and every word I didn’t know, I would look it up. I spent the whole summer with a Calvin College student who could come over and teach me math.”

After eight years of moonlighting and another eight of running his own web development shop, Digital Marketing Solution, he now employs three people in his Cutlerville office and has 21 IT developers in India and Vietnam.

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