A Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) month call to action, words from CDFI leader Jessie Lee

AAPI Equity and Inclusion: Our Call to Action

For Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, OFN shares the words of noted CDFI leader Jessie Lee, managing director of Renaissance, a CDFI serving immigrant and refugee communities in New York City, about the unique challenges AAPI small business owners face.  

The AAPI designation includes more than 26 nations and 25 million people. Nationwide, more than 2 million small businesses are AAPI-owned. These businesses are community anchors, especially in rapidly changing neighborhoods. Diverse in size and scope, they catalyze local economies and serve as cultural touchstones for their neighbors, who speak a multitude of languages. And, for many in the AAPI community, entrepreneurship is a primary source of income and a ladder to economic opportunity.    

In New York City, AAPI residents represent numerous ethnic groups and speak more than 50 languages. Since 1997, the CDFI Renaissance has served thousands of immigrant and refugee small business owners with financial products and services. Along with other CDFIs focused on lending to the AAPI community, Renaissance also fights harmful misconceptions that members of the AAPI community don’t struggle as much as other minorities to access capital.  

Last October, Renaissance Managing Director Jessie Lee spoke on the OFN conference mainstage about her experience as the daughter of Chinese business-owning immigrants and offered a frontline perspective on challenges AAPI communities face. In honor of AAPI month, below is a lightly abbreviated transcript of Jessie’s speech, which closes with a bold call to action for all of us.     

[Renaissance is a] small business loan fund located in New York City,… one of the very few CDFIs that places a focus on serving the Asian American community. 

When people think of the Asian American community, it’s as if we don’t exist and that our struggles do not matter. Did you know the CDFI Fund today does not recognize Asian Americans as a target population?*   

There is a stereotype that Asian Americans are model minorities and that we have no financial struggles, which is completely untrue… 

One of the reasons many of these struggles go unnoticed is that, on current data, Asian Americans include more than 50 detailed race groups that can differ dramatically across key social and economic indicators… 

As Asian Americans, we are calling for disaggregated data. We want to demonstrate the true vulnerability of the AAPI community, especially when we are the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. Recent census data shows that, in the last 20 years, the Asian American population grew by 81%. We are 7% of the U.S. population. We are a racial group that cannot be ignored in our financial system. 

Like many of Renaissance’s clients, my family immigrated to the United States for economic opportunity. They came from a very poor village in China. They did not speak English and, therefore, struggled to find work. The only job opportunity my parents had was to work in a Chinese restaurant, even though, back in China, they were engineers. But to my parents, these local small businesses in Chinatown were a lifeline. They provided economic opportunity to earn a living and have some sort of economic stability to raise a family. After a decade of struggling, my parents saved enough money to start their own restaurant. The restaurant did well. It put my brother and I through college and they even bought a home. Success, right? 

Unfortunately, things happened and life happened. My mother was hit by a car and was hospitalized for months. My family fell into financial difficulty and the medical bills were growing. And at the time in the early ’90s, there was no such thing as a CDFI. And with my parents’ limited credit history, they could not access traditional capital to help them with the bills. Like many immigrants, my parents turned to predatory lenders in their community. Very soon, my parents lost their home, as well as the business. 

My family’s immigrant story has so much in common with many Renaissance clients and the Asian American immigrants. Because of our limited language capacity and our lack of understanding of the financial system, we are preyed upon and often cheated of our hard-earned money, yet we are too proud to let others know of our shame… 

[When] my Asian community was struggling during the very early onset of the pandemic, due to outright xenophobia and racist attacks, we cried out for increased awareness and the need for capital to help our struggling businesses, even in February 2020. We were ignored. And I really had to ask myself, what does equity really mean? As a result, Renaissance decided, ‘Heck, start our own emergency loan fund to save our own community.’ 

And so on March 27, 2020, we were the first CDFI to launch a COVID emergency loan fund and began deploying money to save our businesses… I’ll never forget that night when New York City sheltered in, I was desperately calling my funding partners for help. To all my funders… Thank you for the lifeline and for caring about the Asian community and recognizing that we are all struggling together and need to uplift each other. You enabled Renaissance to do the mission work that we’re called to do. 

As a CDFI, we are called to take on risk because we are the small business first responders to our community. If we don’t save them, who will? What I’m trying to say is this: Don’t overthink risk. Don’t become too calculated, too fearful of risk that you lose empathy and trust for your community. Never forget high risk yields high reward, and what higher reward than to invest in our communities where the yield is immeasurable and invaluable? 

Our communities still need our help today from organizations like Renaissance and all those represented here today…. We all need to work together that helps these struggling communities and we cannot do it alone. 

I am still searching for the meaning of equity. This will perhaps be my life’s work. This work is personal for me because every business I can help and save, it’s like saving my parents. And so, I’ll end on this note. Whenever we discuss diversity, equity, inclusion, I hope the dialogue includes Asian Americans because we also face discrimination and struggle to access capital. I believe, if all of us come together in unity, we will no longer accept crumbs, but together we can leverage a larger piece of the pie for all of us. Thank you. 

*Editor’s Note. The CDFI Fund designates certain groups as approved “target populations” and AAPI is not currently recognized as such.

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