Immigrant businesses

What immigrant business owners fear

Ying Sa, a Chinese national, owner of Community CPA and founder of Immigrant Entrepreneur Summit, writes about how to interact with immigrant business owners.
Fear of authorities is a normal life experience for new immigrants and immigrant business owners. They have a lot of reasons to be fearful. Many immigrants came to the United States through United Nations refugee programs. They survived oppression and danger in their home countries and lived in refugee camps for years, and were finally chosen to resettle in United States.
They are fearful of the Immigration Naturalization Service. Their American dreams could fall by the wayside, and friends and families could end up abandoned. The process of applying for the Green Card and getting it into the hand of an immigrant could easily take up another 10 years of someone’s life -- and at any time, it could be taken away.
So when Department of Labor auditors unexpectedly show up at an immigrant-owned business work site, it means nothing but fear to the immigrant. Even if it was just a noble and caring gesture from the DOL, it is hijacked by fear. 
When an immigrant taxpayer gets an audit notice from the IRS, instead of seeking professional help, some of them abandon their apartment and they move, leaving behind the growing pile of IRS letters.
The fearful minds of immigrants need a lot of education and care. It falls upon professionals to step up and help these immigrants address their issues with various government agencies, particularly when new immigrants are in business. We need to educate them and provide a road map for them to do things correctly from the beginning. I met an immigrant who was in business for almost 10 years without knowing he should be submitting sales tax regularly. He was so fearful that he did not seek professional help until his wife contacted me. She explained to me that her husband was terrified about their tax situation and was afraid of going to jail. So they were planning to move out of the U.S.
Of course, they do not have to move out of U.S. Their fear was misguided by their lack of knowledge regarding state and local taxes. With some guidance, they set up an installment plan with the state in less than two weeks and they could not believe how easy it was to correct their mistakes.
I remain open-minded when working with immigrants. I do not jump to conclusions and I do not rush to believe that they are hiding something. And when they tell me of their problems, I stop and praise them for being honest in business dealings. I know that most of them are good people but misguided by fear. So I tell my fellow immigrants that overcoming fear is the first step toward their American Dream.
To learn more about immigrant businesses, please register at and come to spend a Saturday at DMACC FAA building on Nov. 19, 2016.

I ate a goldfish

- Ying Sa is the founder and principal certified public accountant at Community CPA & Associates Inc. and a co-founder of the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit. 
 “What? You ate a goldfish?“ I raised my voice and could not believe what I heard! 
“Yes, it had a bitter taste and was not good at all,” Wang said matter-of-the-factly in her slow and accented English.
When she was in her late 30s, she and her husband came to United State through Governor Ray's refugee settlement program. They settled in Iowa, raised three wonderful children, and all of whom were college educated and employed. On a monthly basis, for decades, Wang would come to visit me for sales tax filing. Today she brought her husband Phung with her too. They both were sitting across the desk from me.
Content and happy as always, they had seemed this way to me for as long as I could remember. Business was never hard for them; they always made money. They are not the wealthiest clients I have, but with the little profit they earned, they use it to love the world. From an accountant's point of view, they run a perfect small business; especially if you can add “contentment” into the equity portion of the balance sheet.
I was telling these two that I brought my mom three goldfish when I visited her last week. So Wang blurted out her dining experience with the goldfish. They were caught off guard by my explosive reaction, so Phung added, “That was the time when we would eat whatever was moving.” He looked at Wang and she agreed silently.
My hand was on the calculator. I was supposed to get their sales tax completed, but at that moment, everything stopped and my mind was wondering about my own reaction and pondering Phung’s words.
Why would I be surprised? Of course I knew how life could be for them when they lived in the refugee camps. Life is so good here in United States, that people like me do not always think about folks who were forced to eat anything that could be eaten.
Today, it is unthinkable for someone to eat goldfish. They might even be reported to the animal right groups for animal cruelty. My kids would certainly be advocating for animal rights!
Material wealth is available to all of us here in this country. Living in this country is like heaven on earth for those who lived in a refugee camp. This is why Wang and Phung are so happy, all the time, no matter what.
I am their accountant and I know that they did not make a fortune with their $15.00-per-piece sewing business. But the way they carry themselves makes you think that they are exceedingly successful with their business. They are so content with what they have.
When someone has experienced hunger and hardship, they can appreciate what this country offers them. The hardship made Wang and Phung develop a tough mentality. So facing difficulties and challenges in the beautiful state of Iowa becomes nothing more than embracing the wind.
Phung continued to explain that when they were in the refugee camp they had to hunt for their food each day for three long years. Life was tough for Wang and Phung back then. So now, neither have had reasons to complain. Nothing could stop them from having a great business and great life. Every win is big win and every penny they made is a bigger penny than the ones before.
They wanted to live, so they ate a goldfish.

Reaching higher

- Ying Sa is the founder and principal certified public accountant at Community CPA & Associates Inc. and a co-founder of the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit. 

When Juan urgently showed up at my office with his son in tow, I knew they came to discuss an important decision.

Juan sat down heavily into my office chair, sighed, and said, "I have to close my store. Junior does not want it."

Juan is 69 and has been running a local grocery store for the last 25 years. Business has always been good, and his only son, Junior, practically grew up in the store. Junior has always been the most reliable helper for Juan.

Now Junior is a handsome 18-year-old high school student with an academic record that can easily ship him to the East Coast. Junior helped with translation whenever Juan came to the office to see me. I noticed that Junior has always dressed professionally to come to my office. He carries himself and speaks like a professional. Recently Junior had called me a couple of times about his college applications.

Today Junior wore a white and blue Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt and a pair of black frame Miu Miu glasses. Behind those glasses, I saw worry in his eyes.

Junior said, “Sorry Ying, we have to come to talk to you because I think you know what is going on. You know, I do not want to be like my Dad, and I want to go to school. I really appreciate what my mom and dad gave me, but I do not want to just work in the store. I have better and bigger things to do and to learn."

“OK,” I said. Looking at Juan, I saw that he was looking away. I understood why, but in my heart I was happy for Junior. There was a moment of silence between us.

“Well, that is really OK!” I finally broke the awkward silence. “Juan, we will look for a buyer, and I am sure Junior will help while we transfer the ownership.”

Junior nodded sincerely and turned to his dad. “Dad, I will help you to sell it. Do not keep the store for me, because I have my own plans. You can call it dream, my own dream,” Junior continued.

“I will do well in college, and I will try to support myself. Please let me go to college, and I will not trouble you and Mom financially. Just let me do my own thing.”

I looked at Juan and saw tears in his eyes. He seemed older than he was a moment ago. “It is not easy to build a retail business like this. So hard to let it go,” Juan whispered as if he was talking to himself, and his chin muscle tightened as he held back tears.

Junior put one of his hands on his Dad’s and added: “Dad, isn’t this what you want? You want me to be successful, and you and Mom want me to have all the opportunities that the American kids have. I have them, and you gave that to me. I am an American; I want to do better and greater things, Dad.

"Your store is great, but that is for you and Mom. I appreciate what you two have done, but I want something different and I dream differently than you two.” Junior gently rocked his dad’s arm and continued, "Dad, I cannot help you with your store. Sell it if you cannot run it without me. I promise to make you and Mom proud.”

It was hard to convince Juan to let the business go, but he eventually agreed and he finally said, “Junior, I am too old to handle this store without you. We will sell it. Mom and Dad will save the money for your college."

Finally we called a business broker, and now the store is officially for sale. They left, but I was given a bittersweet reminder of a situation that many immigrant families I know face.

For the first generation of immigrants, like Juan, choosing what they love to do might not be possible. But what they can do is make the dream more attainable for the next generation, so they can reach higher in the sky. Juan and Junior are not so different from several other immigrant families.

By standing on Juan’s shoulders, Junior can move farther toward his dream.


Enjoying the accents

- Ying Sa is the founder and principal certified public accountant at Community CPA & Associates Inc. and a co-founder of the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit. 

I have an ear for accents, so I enjoy listening to all kinds of them.

When growing up in the melting pot of Toronto, Canada, I learned an easy way to make friends – when I met someone, I liked to guess where they were from based on the accent I heard. I would say, "Oh, are you from Australia?" Many times, my new acquaintance would be thrilled and say: "Wow! You are the only person who guessed I am Australian! People think I am British all the time!"

Such compliments from my new friends and new clients make me beaming with excitement when I see someone new to America. Out of habit, I pay attention to how people speak English. At the right time I surprise them by saying, "You are from Canada!" These easy discoveries help me to bring new clients to my business and to build a new friendship with someone I've just met. 

In today’s business world, it is almost a required skill to be able to connect with business affiliates who speak English with strong accents. If you find yourself uneasy around the thick accents, or struggle to make sense of what they are saying, take a deep breath and let them know. "Excuse me, I love your accent, but can you please speak a little slower so I can understand what you are saying?" 

The worst mistake in communication is automatically nodding your head as if you understood what was said. And both professionals and newcomers do it.

The newcomers often take things very seriously because they have no experiences and everything feels so intense in their environment. This could be his or her first job in America and they just do not think that they can be understood easily because of their accent.

On one hand we need to give them time to get comfortable, and on the other hand we need to overcome our own mental barriers by simply recognizing that accent is part of a culture, not a bad habit. Accent has nothing to do with how smart the person is and should not be used to judge their intellect. It is, however, the mark of someone whos new to America.

If you enjoy being open-minded or want to be at home with folks who are new to the USA, start with listening to and appreciating their unique accents. I do not speak Spanish, but I have many Spanish-speaking clients who speak strongly accented English. I was told many times by these folks that I understand them perfectly. After hearing their accents for so long, I do understand them. And I enjoy the sound of their speaking. It helps connect me to these hardworking people. I look at the people and I think, "They speak a language that I do not, and they are smart for that!"

So enjoy the sound of their accents and see the world through the eyes of these newcomers. Dont let someones accent become a barrier between you and them -- use it instead to come together. 

Giving positive feedback gets powerful results

- Ying Sa is the founder and principal certified public accountant at Community CPA & Associates, Inc. and a co-founder of the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit. 

Any mother would be heartbroken if her 15-year-old son was called sexist at school by his teacher. It might happen without ever being reported to the parent by the child. This is particularly true if the kid's parents are uneducated or do not speak English. 

Labeling young kids with certain unwanted or derogatory terms is unethical and unprofessional. When an educator tells a young kid: you are sexist, or you are a bad influence on the team, or you are weird, it can be like a life sentence. The effect can be permanent. The power of labeling is like black magic; if care is not taken, the child will become the very thing you labeled them to be. 

I was not educated in the United States, so I don't know if derogatory terms are used regularly on students. I would be shocked to learn that it was.    

I was in China when I was 15, and in my high school, I had a math teacher called Ms. Huang. She had this quiet smile on her face and would never raise her voice at us no matter how naughty we were. At that time, I secretly struggled with math. I was kind of a tomboy and I felt that I had to be as good as these boys in math. I would cause drama in the math class that would lead to the boys getting in trouble.

I never made eye contact with Ms. Huang. I always wanted to stay away from her. One day, shortly after a math quiz, Ms. Huang called my name. Immediately, I started sweating profusely. I knew I was in trouble. She said softly: Ying, do you have the answer for me?" I quickly stood and darted my eyes around the room looking for help. The classroom was quiet and everyone was waiting for me to say something. I looked down to my feet and murmured: "Ms. Huang, I did not hear what you asked." In her usual calm voice, she said: "That is all right, Ying, let’s discuss that after the class".

I walked to her office and my legs were shaking. I could not even stand straight. I was very scared, thinking that she might have seen me peeping at Hua’s answers during the test.

In Ms. Huang’s office, students normally sat across the table from her so she could lecture them face-to-face. But she asked me to sit next to her on an empty bench, and without a word, she gently put her hand on my shoulder and said: "Ying, do you know you are very smart?" 

I looked up and shook my head without hesitation. I was not smart and I knew it. Someone told me that girls are never smart with math in high school. She continued "You actually can be very good at math but somehow you told yourself that you are not good at it." The only thing that came to my mind then was "When did I tell myself that?"

But she is right. I did tell myself that. I looked up and stared at the yellow-framed reading glasses on her face… that pair of glasses is imprinted in my memory even today. I love those kinds of frames and my reading glasses have always looked like those.

Ms. Huang held me tighter and said: "Can you stop telling yourself you are not good at math? I will be here for you whenever you need me. You can be a mathematician if you want to. Do you think you can prove to me that I am right?"

For a while, I visited her office often, I revisited all the areas of math that I did not like and later that year I won the Probability Math Contest in our school. As a kid I was just doing things to prove to Ms. Huang that she was right.

Ms. Huang changed my course of life by recognizing the good part of me. She could have labeled me in different terms – a cheater for copying from others, a sexist for creating issues with boys in class because they are better at math. She knew I was not perfect and she cared about me anyway. I loved her back by proving to her that I was worth her time and attention. Before I left China, I visited her at her home for the last time. She hugged me and said: "I always knew you would be wonderful."

Ms. Huang is the educator who lifted up a 15-year-old and put her on the right path to grow. Thirty years later, I finally can adequately articulate her impact on my life. It became apparent to me especially when I came to know kids being labeled this way in our system.

I am fortunate that someone labeled me in such positive way when I was in the stage of learning myself. Give children time to learn about themselves and do not label them so quickly and so irresponsibly.

Be like Ms. Huang.


He lost his food stamps!

- Ying Sa is the founder and principal certified public accountant at Community CPA & Associates, Inc. and a co-founder of the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit. 

"Something went wrong and I lost my food stamps," Samuel cried out loud when he stormed in to my office.

His breathing was labored and he looked shocked and his big brown eyes were filled with fear. I immediately listened to his urgent issue. After five minutes of listening and searching into his tax returns, I smiled. I sat him down and explained to him how well he was doing with his business last year and that his adjusted gross income was high enough that he no longer qualified for food stamp anymore.

I shook his hand and congratulated him for disqualifying his family from government subsidized support. "You have done so well with your business that your family is no longer needing government help." He looked perplexed and I added" "That is a good thing!"

Samuel replied, "Really? But everyone else has it."

So I went on and calculated the economic status of everyone else who might have qualified for the food stamp program. Finally, he left my office with a big, confident grin and a proud look on his face – proud of his own accomplishments and business success.

Samuel came back every year. Four years went by so quickly.

Recently, I saw him at VonMaur with shopping bags in both of his hands. He was doing his Christmas shopping. "Ying" he called out.

"Samuel! How are you doing?"

With a big smile he said, "You mean my business? It is really good!" Then he added "I need to come to see you because I think this year I will pay a lot of taxes. I want to plan." His voice was sweet and happy and there were no traces of fear or worry. He had become a confident businessman!   

Many newcomers live their live and raise their children in a specific social environment. These social circles have had a huge benefit in terms of culture preservation, but it also has limitations. If the social group is lacking successful entrepreneurs, then a lifestyle on food stamps could be normalized.  When Samuel lost his food stamps due to his business income increase, he felt scared rather than accomplished because he had been living in a community using food stamps and didnt know what to do without them.

Watching him grow his business and helping him to celebrate his milestones such as outgrowing the economic need for food stamps and becoming a productive taxpayer is a rewarding experience to me. It helps me to realize that with proper guidance and influence, folks will learn and will thrive.

My IRS is little

- Ying Sa is the founder and principal certified public accountant at Community CPA & Associates, Inc. and a co-founder of the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit. 

The eighth annual Immigrant Entrepreneur Summit (IES) will be held Nov. 21 in Ankeny.

I always thought of IES as the IRS Jr., since the difference in the names is only one letter. In fact, the idea for IES came from a pile of IRS notices that landed on my desk back in 2007.

At that time, my business, Community CPA, was located on Second Avenue in Des Moines, next to Double Dragon Food Market. One day an Asian lady, who had just finished doing her shopping next door, came in carrying all of her groceries and asked to see me. She pulled out of her pocket a stack of letters from the IRS and handed them over to me. She then pointed at her grocery bags, opening one of them up to show me what was in it, and said: "This is all for my business."

Based on what she had just said, and after reviewing some of the letters, I figured she had a retail food business that had been operating for at least three years. I also noticed that she had a limited liability company (LLC) set up for that business. The IRS letters suggested that she had not filed tax returns for her LLC entity and they were assessing more than $50,000 in taxes due on her Schedule C. After about an hour or so, following a lot of effort in talking to the IRS, the solution was to dissolve her business entity, that had been formed but never used, and amend three years worth of federal and state income tax returns. On top of that, we needed to file her sales taxes for the past 3 years – "Really? More taxes?" She was in disbelief.  

It was all simple work, but something that she needed help with. Many immigrant-owned small businesses begin with a focus on just selling. The rest, such as an income statement, balance sheet and tax compliance, is sometimes unknown to them. So I explained everything to, slowly and with great detail, to my new client. She gave me a big hug before she left and said: "Ying, where can I go to learn this? My IRS is little."

I chuckled because I knew what she meant was that her IRS knowledge is limited. I replied: "IRS is not little!".  

The IRS is not, and it will never be ‘little’. The goal of IES is to educate and help entrepreneurs, like the lady with her grocery bags, in making tax and accounting compliance more streamlined and simple.

That’s why eight years ago Swallow Yan, who at the time was the Chinese Association President, Max Cardenas, a Grinnell graduate and Peru native, and myself decided to give this IES a try.

At the first summit in 2008, 208 eight business owners, representing more than 30 countries, showed up. IES has been growing by leaps and bounds since then. Each year more and more immigrant business men and women move from the "my IRS is little" stage and go on to accomplish great things.

IES educates folks about federal and state regulatory compliance as well as industry specific requirements, so no one will be surprised by how ‘big’ the IRS can be.

This year, we anticipate that more than 700 attendees at the IES event Nov. 21 at the FAA Enrichment Center on Des Moines Area Community College's Ankeny Campus. Join the event by registering at The IES mantra is: Let’s grow together.

Understanding foreign students' worry

 - Ying Sa is the founder and principal certified public accountant at Community CPA & Associates, Inc. and a co-founder of the Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit. 

Twelve years ago, in the heat of the summer, when most accounting professionals were on vacation, a young man who had just graduated with a master’s degree in accounting kept calling my office and leaving long messages. For three days in a row the messages were the same. This young man was seeking employment at Community CPA and needed it urgently because his OPT (Optional Practical Training VISA) status was about to expire in 12 months.

In his mind, Community CPA could hire him and so he can stay. This set my employer alarm bells ringing, as I wondered who in his sane mind would hire someone just so he could stay in the United States party all night long? My initial instinct was to ignore him, so he would quit calling.

But I was wrong! This young man showed up at my office unexpectedly on the fourth day. He had driven all the way from Chicago. He delivered the same message he had been leaving the previous three days. He explained how he needed a job so badly so he could obtain sponsorship for his visa, or else he had to return to his native country.

I listened to him for 20 minutes without hearing one single word about how he would help the firm. Yet his transcript was excellent. One thing struck me as I walked him out and wished him good luck in job search. In the hallway, there was a recycling bin that, although not in his way, was crooked. On his way out, the young man took notice of that, stopped, walked towards the bin and squared it to the wall before leaving. Looking at the swinging door and hearing the loud, labored car engine starting sound, I made the decision to hire him against all orthodox sound management advice. I have never regretted that decision.

In 2003, I was in the same situation as this young man. I needed Wells Fargo to sponsor me so badly or else I would have to return to Canada. The company trusted me and sponsored my H1 visa. So this was payback time!

I checked out my worry about him appearing to be self-serving in talking so much about OPT and his visa and his desire to stay in U.S. I would have done the same. It is a real worry and it is a worry that is bigger than what he could personally handle. I thought to myself that the technical side of this young man is demonstrated in his transcript. I remember him saying he wanted to sit for his CPA exams, but did not have money for it. Clearly, he knew his career path.

Above everything, whether he needed the sponsorship or not, the bin incident was testimony of the fact that this young man has a caring spirit. The broken car, the loud engine, the travel all the way from Chicago to Des Moines… were all testimony of a young man with determination and drive, longing for a place to call home.

As an employer, I decided to understand the worry of the foreign students. I would not focus on their expression of urgency for their status. Instead I would work on bringing them home. I believe that providing foreign workers a job is like providing them a home. They will come to work like they are coming home.

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