Inside Mt. Airy’s New Immigrant Entrepreneur Co-Working Space

It brings immigrant-run startups together — and just might change a neighborhood.

Mayor Jim Kenney attended the formal opening of the Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub on Feb. [tk]. Photo | Brian James

Mayor Jim Kenney attended the formal opening of the Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub on Feb. 4. Photo | Brian James

The following statements have become truisms:

  • Small businesses are the greatest engine of economic growth in America.
  • Immigrants from abroad have played a major role in the revival of many Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Mt. Airy in Northwest Philadelphia is not a neighborhood in need of revival — it remains an attractive and desirable place to live with a healthy commercial district — but the people in charge of keeping it that way saw signs of distress on the horizon and have their eyes on the long run.

Armed with a Knight Cities Challenge grant, Mt. Airy USA has formally opened the Immigrant Innovation Hub this month.

Jamie Shanker, Mt. Airy USA’s commercial corridor revitalization and business association manager, explained what led them to take this approach and how they hope it’ll secure the neighborhood’s future.

“Northwest Philadelphia was experiencing a population loss, and we were looking for creative ways to combat that,” she said. “Also, research showed that immigrants were more likely to be entrepreneurial in starting businesses. So we figured that by providing services to them, we could help them start their businesses and showcase Northwest Philadelphia as a great place to live and work.”

The co-working facility, located in a former post office on Germantown Avenue, provides more than just office space for ambitious immigrants with a dream. Mt. Airy USA set up partnerships with two other local organizations to provide education, support and financial assistance for “I-Hub” members.

Finanta, a nonprofit community lender specializing in services and assistance for low- to moderate-income entrepreneurs, provides the financial assistance through both loans and workshops. The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians provides the education and support through workshops and one-on-one business plan advising. “Some of what they offer involves getting to know local procedures in terms of starting a new business,” Shanker said. “Expertise on these subjects is particularly helpful to those who are new to the city.”

Vickerson Korewala

Vickson Korewala

Or those who have been around for a while, like Vickson Korlewala. The Liberian native came to the United States to study environmental chemistry in 1983. As he pursued his studies, his country descended into civil war, so he ended up staying longer than he had planned — all the way to the present, it turns out.

“I worked as an environmental chemist for a while,” he said, “then I realized I needed to get into something that was more helpful for my country. Energy is something that’s a problem for many developing countries, and I thought that biomass power generation would be that something that would help.”

This led to the creation of Ecopower Liberia, which started out as a collaboration with All Power Labs, a California company that had developed a biomass-powered electricity generator. “We took some of their units to Liberia for a demonstration in 2013, and it worked very well,” Korlewala said.

Once again, a crisis — this time, the Ebola virus — cut his stay in Liberia short, but this time, it hasn’t kept him out of the country completely.

Korlewala obtained funding from USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development, which provides funds to promote economic development abroad in partnership with both for-profit companies and non-profit organizations) for his demonstration project, but what brought him to the I-Hub was the desire to attract private investors to his firm.

“We are trying to come up with a business plan that is investor-ready, and the Hub is very helpful in getting us to that point,” he said.

Both Korlewala and Shanker are expansion-minded. Korlewala wants to expand his business and add a new product line in Liberia, then expand to other countries in Africa and eventually the United States. Shanker wants to spread the word about Northwest Philadelphia as a place to grow well beyond the city and region.

“We want to target people from all over to promote Mt. Airy and Northwest Philadelphia as the immigrant-friendly place, harnessing the spirit of the immigrants,” she said. Networking and connecting I-Hub members with local businesses and community leaders is a key element of that strategy for shoring up Northwest Philly and adding another element of color to the famously integrated neighborhood.

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