IOWA CITY — Lien Son worked as a window washer, factory worker and blackjack dealer. But what she really wanted to do was open a restaurant, just as her family had done in Vietnam.
“She said she could do it and I supported her,” said Hung Son, Lien’s husband.
But getting financing to open even a small restaurant was difficult because the couple filed for personal bankruptcy in 2008. Conventional banks wouldn’t take the risk because the Sons had poor credit and didn’t have a proven track record in the restaurant business.
An official with the U.S. Small Business Administration suggested the Sons call Community CPA and Associates, a Des Moines-based firm with an Iowa City office, that provides tax preparation, IT help and auditing to a largely immigrant clientele.
“People are really at the end of their rope,” said Ying Sa, who founded Community CPA in 2006. “But our country and system has ways.”
Challenges for immigrants
People who move to a new country to find a better life are inherently risk takers. This may be why immigrants are almost twice as likely to start businesses as native-born Americans, according to a 2015 report from the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based organization that promotes education and entrepreneurial efforts to help people be financially independent.
More than 28 percent of new entrepreneurs in 2014 were immigrants, up from 13.3 percent in 1997, Kauffman reported, and about one-quarter of the engineering and tech companies started in the United States between 2006 and 2012 had an immigrant among their key founders.
But it isn’t easy to navigate the laws and bureaucracy of American business, Sa said.
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She left a management job at Wells Fargo to start Community CPA after helping people with taxes as a sideline. It started in 1996 when Sa moved to Iowa with her husband, who got a job as an Iowa State University professor.
Sa was working as CFO of a division of ISU on the campus of the Des Moines Area Community College, when a custodian approached her with a notice from the Internal Revenue Service.
“That was my third month in the U.S.,” recalled Sa, who previously has immigrated from China to Canada. “I didn’t even know what the IRS was.”
But she researched the notice and learned the custodian in fact was entitled to a refund. He was so happy, he referred every immigrant he knew to Sa for tax help, she said.
The company now has a 6,000-client pool that is about one-third Latino, one-third Asian, African or African-American and one-third white, Sa said.
Community CPA also spearheads an annual Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit. Last year’s was in November and featured Gov. Terry Branstad among its speakers.
Taking a risk
Dan Kim, manager of the Iowa City branch of Community CPA, learned the Sons needed $50,000 to start a restaurant, which meant they could qualify for Iowa MicroLoan, which finances loans of $5,000 to $50,000 for a six-year term.
Whereas traditional banks look only at someone’s credit score and business plan when deciding whether to loan money, Kim said, Iowa MicroLoan asked the Sons to provide a business plan, marketing plan and personal resume. Loan officials interviewed the Sons.
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“That’s where they could hear Lien’s story and see it was kind of unique,” Kim said. “They knew it was a family that had experience running a restaurant in Vietnam.”
The Sons applied for the loan in January 2015 and were thrilled to learn in July 2015 they were accepted. The couple plan to repay the loan in three years.
“When we got the money, we started looking for space,” Hung Son said. “Dan was running around helping us.”
They opened the Sun Cafe Dec. 4, 2015, on Iowa City’s east side. The sun-filled restaurant is spotless and Hung or Lien greet customers that include University of Iowa students, locals and visitors from as far as Davenport and Waterloo.
Steve Alter of Coralville stopped in for the first time for lunch on Wednesday.
“You don’t see a lot of Vietnamese restaurants,” Alter said. “I had to come over here today, so it was a perfect opportunity to expand my own encyclopedia when it comes to food.”
Alter ordered a steamy bowl of pho, which includes peas, mushrooms and onions in broth, and two Vietnamese egg rolls — which are different from Chinese egg rolls in that they rarely have meat and are fried just once instead of twice, Lien Son said.
She’s the main cook, but gets help on busy days from family members, including two daughters, ages 19 and 17. Son Aiden, 4, likes to wash dishes, his father said.
Hung Son works third shift at the nearby Procter & Gamble facility making toothbrushes before coming over to the restaurant in the morning to steam noodles and chop vegetables. He gets a few hours of sleep in the afternoon before heading back to work at night.
“Success isn’t magic,” Kim said. “It follows hardworking people.”
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