Seven years ago, Korean immigrant Justin Lee took over Fern Rock Hardware, an old-school store in Olney that had been run by a Jewish family for 86 years.
He says it’s places like this where Lowe’s and Home Depot employees tell owners of older homes in the neighborhood to go look for replacement parts long out of production. Lee and his wife are the only employees.
When the federal government launched the Paycheck Protection Program, a massive effort to help businesses during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Lee began hearing stories of people receiving financial aid.
Lee said he learned about PPP through neighborhood friends, KakaoTalk, a popular chat app in South Korea, and community groups. He was able to successfully apply with the help of a local corporate organization and a Korean bank in his park at Elkins.
For over a year, Metro and The Inquirer have been talking to Asian-American small business owners, community leaders, hallway managers, and more in and around Philadelphia. They said language and technology barriers are preventing him from accessing PPP loans.
However, Lee’s experience highlights the resilience of the city’s AAPI business community despite these obstacles and shows where more resources can be put to ensure that others are not left behind. is showing.
Fern Rock Hardware wasn’t the only AAPI-owned business that was able to obtain federal dollars through an informal network of community organizations, friends, accountants, younger relatives, and financial institutions.
In most cases, the path to a PPP loan required a great deal of assistance from multiple sources, especially for business owners with limited English proficiency.
Their stories demonstrate the importance of communities and neighborhood groups. Many are struggling with funding and staffing and need more outreach from government at all levels.
The same Olney group that backed Lee, the North Fifth Street Revitalization Project, also backed T-House Inc., a nearby screen-printing company.
T-House manager Elisa Kim said:
She said the $65,000 the business received in two rounds of PPP “really made a difference if we kept the lights on.”
“It was so hard. I’ve never filled out so many forms in my life.”
Kim grew up playing in the slouches of the T-House building on Fifth Avenue near Ashdale Street. Her parents started the company 35 years before her, manufacturing custom her shirts and other items for schools, churches, and other institutions.
Her parents still own the company, but Kim was responsible for navigating the PPP process.
“It was very difficult,” she said. “Never in her life have so many forms been filled out.”
Kim said the North Fifth Street Revitalization Project has sent emails and text messages to T House regarding the PPP and other forms of financial assistance.
Through a Korean interpreter, Lee said the organization provided constant emails, text messages and one-on-one support to help Fern Rock Hardware obtain a $5,000 loan.
The organization, like most commercial corridor groups in Philadelphia, has limited resources. His four-person team serves more than 300 companies in his stretch.
“Our team is fairly diverse and we have been able to translate for most businesses, but our team does not have all the languages needed at Olney,” said the organization’s executive director. said Stephanie Michel.
Dan Tan, who runs a pharmacy down the hall, occasionally volunteers as a Korean interpreter or to help his neighbors with their paperwork.
City officials rely heavily on corridor groups such as the North Fifth Street Revitalization Project to keep small businesses informed.
James Onofrio, program manager for the Philadelphia Department of Commerce, said:
Through a local grant program called Restore and Reopen, we provided approximately $1.6 million to 186 businesses affected by civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. The city paid a community organization to provide translation assistance to small businesses.
“I think this was our most diverse response in terms of ethnic background and immigration status background to our grant,” Onofrio added.
Metro, The Inquirer, and Resolve Philly collaborated on a data analysis looking at banks providing loans to businesses in the AAPI populous community.
In Chinatown, Asian Bank processed over $2.4 million in loans and distributed them to 68 businesses. That’s about 18% of all loans in the neighborhood, more than any other lender.
Of Chinatown’s top 10 PPP lenders, only four were large banks. In Cambodia, Vietnam, and South Philadelphia, where his AAPI-owned firms are concentrated, three of the top 10 are large financial institutions. Olney’s top lenders included only two national banks.
National Bank did not provide the largest loan or largest median loan in any of the three regions focused on in the analysis.
Fintech companies such as Paypal and Kabbage appear to have played a major role in funding minority communities.
A report that analyzed a sample of restaurants across the country found that Asian-American-owned establishments were about 8.5% more likely to use fintech for PPPs than white companies.
Robert Fairlie, professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies PPPs, said: “There is no doubt about it.”
Kim considered her PPP application hit a wall when she felt ignored by the National Bank, with which T House had worked with for decades. She eventually turned to her PayPal to process her company’s loans.
Chinatown-based Asian Bank, with a branch on Oxford Circle, has encountered a new customer struggling with an online portal set up by a major financial institution, said James Wang, the bank’s president and CEO. increase.
Others have struggled to get answers about their applications, he added.
Since the PPP form was not initially available in Simplified Chinese, Asian Bank created a program outline in Chinese and a spreadsheet guide that business owners can use to obtain an estimated loan amount.
Wang held a seminar on WeChat, a popular app in the Chinese community, and explained the benefits of PPP.
“It was so much more of a hands-on experience than I think some other places could and were willing to offer,” he said.
For future business assistance programs, it would be better to do the paperwork in Simplified Chinese first.
Hor Chou, who owns the New Happy Garden takeaway restaurant and heads the Cambodian business community in Philadelphia, said the aid program needed a website in Khmer for Cambodian business owners.
“What really helps is the timely dissemination of information,” he said through an interpreter.
In March, the city’s Department of Commerce hired Jennie Nam, who had led efforts to gain the city’s support for the Southeast Asian market at FDR Park, as its first Khmer-speaking Business Services Manager.
“What really helps is the timely dissemination of information.”
Other staff members speak Spanish, French and Vietnamese, the agency representative said. Mr Nam, whose family has been involved in several businesses, believes using the Khmer language makes shop owners feel at ease.
“My parents are the first line when someone from the city of Philadelphia comes to their house and asks to speak to the owner. No,” said Nam.
Pointing to the support systems he and many other AAPI business owners rely on, Lee said the additional funding should go toward strengthening the organization’s network.
“Knowing that I could go to these local organizations and get help like that, it took a lot of the burden off me and relieved me of having to go through these processes alone,” says Lee. increase.
Julie Christie and Diana Lu contributed to this report.