DALLAS — Starting a business was a small risk for Alfredo Duarte compared with when he left his hometown of Durango, Mexico, and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at age 16.
To buy a $2,500 GMC box truck, he drained his savings and went into debt. Already married with two young children, he quit his job as a factory machinist to drive the truck, delivering fresh produce to restaurants in Dallas.
“I didn’t have anything,” he said. “What do you lose if you don’t have anything?”
Thirty-five years later, Duarte said, his company Taxco Produce sells about $50 million a year in Mexican food imports to most of North Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
This bravery in risk-taking is often cited by researchers who explain immigrants’ outstanding entrepreneurial spirit. In Dallas, it has changed the landscape: Although they make up about 24% of the population, 32.2% of all businesses in the city are owned by immigrants, according to a study published last year.
The analysis is based on demographic data from 2016, most of which comes from the U.S. Census, said Andrew Lim, director of quantitative research at New American Economy, which studies immigration policies.
“I think the share is remarkable,” Lim said. “I think it speaks to how important immigrants are in general to Dallas.”
The study showed that immigrant entrepreneurs accounted for nearly $495 million in business income, and were responsible for more than 55,000 jobs in Dallas.
“They’re an important part of the economy,” said Priscilla Camacho, senior vice president of public policy and advocacy for the Dallas Regional Chamber. “What our immigrant community brings to the table, not only in the amount of dollars they generate for our region and for our city, but the talent, workforce, the skill set.”
Duarte moved from California to Dallas, hoping to stay close to his brother-in-law, who’s also from Mexico, and had chosen Texas over California because of the better job opportunities.
Just a couple of years later, he noticed that the population of Hispanics in Dallas was increasing, along with the demand for certain products, such as mineral water Topo Chico, that are made in Mexico.
Data from the Texas State Department of Health and Human Services show that Hispanics made up about 17% of the population in Dallas County by 1990. According to 2019 estimates, the number of Hispanics has tripled since — possibly reaching 54%.
“Everyone who comes from a different country, the first thing we see is the potential to do things because we just can’t do them in our countries,” Duarte said. “Hunger doesn’t hurt us — it just makes us more efficient when we have to do things and see opportunities.”
But starting a business came with many sacrifices for his family. Duarte lost the first home he bought when he couldn’t afford the mortgage.
“The foundations of building a business haven’t changed in 200 years,” he said. “It starts, it grows, it becomes strong, and then you get the benefits. You can’t get the benefits before time.”
Kassahun Kebede said he’s familiar with patience and sacrifice.
To open a grocery store in 2003, he saved about $30,000 in a little more than five years, while working in the service industry and retail.
He worked as a clerk at his shop during the day. At night, he managed a bar in Dallas for two years. As profits declined, he closed the store on Sunnyvale Street and moved on to become a restaurateur.
“In order to accomplish something, you pay the price,” he said. “You have to be strong, you have to be determined, and you have to be success-driven.”
Kebede, who grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, helping in his family’s restaurant, said he tries to replicate those flavors and smells in Yenat Guada, his eatery in the Vickery Meadow neighborhood of Dallas. He’s there from open to close, not only overseeing his staff, but also often covering for them.
“I play many roles,” he said. “If I don’t have a wait staff, I don’t have to wait for someone to come in, so I have to serve them, and then if someone’s not in the kitchen, I don’t have any choice but to do it myself; if you don’t have anybody at the bar, you have to do it.”
According to a study by the German-based Institute of Labor Economics, immigrants tend to be more able, ambitious, aggressive, and entrepreneurial than similar people who chose to stay in their place of origin.
“They chose to come to this country to give up their lives in their home country, so that’s entrepreneurial itself,” Lim said. “They’re geared to sort of that risk-taking, sort of setting out on their own and making it for themselves.”
Another reason immigrants are more likely to start a business, Lim said, is the social networks they lack in a new country.
Most immigrants don’t have many options after leaving their country, as opposed to native-born Americans — most of whom have the chance to choose a career path and find employment through friends, family members, coworkers, and other connections built over time.
“You can find a job,” he said. “If you lose your current job, you’d reach out to friends or family, perhaps you belong to a church or other coworkers whom you’ve worked with in the past.”
But even in Dallas, where the average immigrant has been in the U.S. for 17 years, according to a city census, most of the foreign-born don’t have that luxury.
“It’s an all-in kind of mindset,” said Nilesh Naik, who was born in Zanzibar to Indian parents. “So in essence, we haven’t burned our bridges, but we have, right? ‘So let me see if this works, and if it doesn’t work I’ll go back.’ It just has to work.”
Naik’s parents arrived in Dallas in 1976 and immediately invested in a hotel, he said.
“If you look at the hospitality business, from day one you got an investment, from day one you’ve got something that’s producing cash, but by the same token you also have a roof over your head,” Naik said.
Three years after graduating from Stanford University, Naik invested in a hardware manufacturing company, where he now owns the majority stock.
Based in Far Northeast Dallas, Eagle Circuit Inc. makes circuit board prototypes for tech companies. Naik said he wasn’t worried about risks.
“It’s more of like, you’re young, you’re energetic, and you want to try something new, so I said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Naik said.
Even in the early 2000s, when the trend of outsourcing manufacturing to countries in Asia began to emerge, he said the company, partly under his leadership, was able to adapt to the circumstances.
While the City of Dallas has set contract goals for businesses owned by ethnic minorities and women, there’s no specific program in place to help immigrants who want to start a new business, said Liz Cedillo-Pereira, who oversees the Office of Welcoming Communities and Immigrant Affairs.
Naik has for decades been involved with the U.S. India Chamber of Commerce in Dallas-Fort Worth. He attends networking events, which he said has been great for his business. Naik, 54, tries to advise young entrepreneurs in the chamber.
“If somebody’s trying to get started, it’s a great way just to have the background that kind of connects them; it helps break the ice a lot quicker,” Naik said.
Cedillo-Pereira said her department focuses on civic engagement for now, but one of the priorities is to break down barriers for immigrants’ success.
“We know from the data that it’s sort of a magical thing,” Cedillo-Pereira said. “Immigrants are entrepreneurial, and they have a way of being resilient and surviving and thriving even in difficult times, but if we can help them be included at a much more accelerated rate, I think that we would see a giant economic impact as a result locally and nationwide.”