Immigrant women are increasingly running their own businesses
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In the carpeted dining rooms of the Dawoodi Bohra mosque in the Houston suburbs, families mill around barefoot going from booth to booth where women business owners advertise their bakeries, clothing stores and dental services.
Floral design business owner Ummehaani Karimjee stands in front of boxes of hot pink, mauve and orange flowers imported from around the world.
“I started out doing small backdrops for my daughter Zahra,” said Karimjee, who said her flower designs at birthday parties attracted the attention of her network of friends and family, including members of her tight-knit Shia Muslim community.
“I was like, ‘You know what, I think I can do this. I think I can do this as a business,’” she said.
She opened just as the pandemic hit; the timing allowed her to avoid the setbacks other flower services faced.
“I can’t imagine having so many weddings booked that year, and then just having to close everything down,” she said.
Karimjee used the down time to read books and watch tutorials about how to care for fresh flowers. Then, when the pandemic subsided, her business took off. “People just want to celebrate more and more after the lockdown,” she said.
Now, Karimjee is working four events a week from her studio space. In her short time in business, she’s also seen costs increase.
“That same rose that I used to buy within like a year, it’s doubled in price,” she said.
One of the things that keeps her going is the memory of her daughter Zahra, who passed away two years ago at the age of four.
“This is something for me that’s personally very therapeutic,” she said. “She loved flowers so much. So somehow, I kind of feel closer to her because she is the inspiration of why I started this.”
Originally from Kenya, Karimjee is one of more than a million foreign-born female business owners across the country.
“There’s this assumption that when you say, ‘immigrant entrepreneur,’ we’re thinking about a traditional male entrepreneur, sometimes even going back in history. That’s very different from what we’re seeing today,” said Susan Pearce, a sociology professor at East Carolina University. “Women in general are more educated around the world. So we’re getting women who are moving into these businesses that sometimes are non-traditional.”
According to data analysis from the American Immigration Council, roughly 11% of immigrant women are entrepreneurs today — up from 8% in 2000. Immigrant women are also more likely to own their own businesses than U.S.-born women, of which just 7.5% are entrepreneurs.
Houston business owner Tasneem Plumber came to the U.S. from India at 38 with her husband, kids and a big dream.
“I wanted to explore the jewelry market in the United States,” she said. Plumber is also a member of Houston’s Dawoodi Bohra community, which is known for entrepreneurship; the word “Bohra” likely comes from the word for “trader” in the Indian language of Gujarati.
Plumber worked retail at Macy’s first to get a sense of the American jewelry market. Then she decided it was time to strike out on her own. She quit Macy’s but soon after was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Tears started rolling down my eyes. Emotionally, financially, physically, mentally, everything fell down,” she said.
But the diagnosis didn’t stop her. Even while doing chemo, she kept going to flea markets to sell her jewelry.
She said she still remembers her first sale — a sterling silver ring with a small emerald for $20. Now, she sells six figures worth of jewelry a year from her store and she’s not stressing about the uncertain economy.
“There are still people in the world who still want to buy jewelry,” she said.
Also a member of the Dawoodi Bohra community, Sharebano Kitabi from Karachi, Pakistan, said it was her passion for cooking and desire to help her family financially that led her to open Bar BQ Village, a Houston-area halal restaurant that specializes in kebabs.
“My grandma and my mother and my mother-in-law, they’re very good chefs,” Kitabi said.
She learned how to prepare large-scale meals while working for the mosque’s community kitchen. The congregation also helped her with seed money.
“They give me a good amount of loan without any interest for long periods,” she said.
While she said her food is still affordable, she has raised prices some to account for inflation. “We can change the price a little bit high, but not too high.”
In Pakistan, Kitabi said she would never be able to run her own eatery; restaurant management is traditionally seen as a man’s job.
After years of working 7 days a week, Kitabi has a better work-life balance now. She has 16 employees — also immigrants, from South Asia and Latin America.
“But here, we can do everything,” she said, “I proved myself I can run the restaurant.”
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