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Celebrating AAPI small business owners this Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

May has arrived, which means so has Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), a celebration of the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the US. 

At Invoice2go, a Bill.com company, we want to spotlight the tenacity and resilience of AAPI small business owners, especially during this trying time. Not only has the pandemic taken an outsize toll on their businesses, but their communities have been targeted in an ongoing wave of racism, xenophobia, and violence fueled largely by anti-Asian COVID rhetoric. 

AAPI include 22.2 million people of Asian descent and 1.6 million people of Pacific Islander descent, according to the US Census. Based on the Census’s definition, they can trace their ancestry to countries in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, as well as the Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia regions. Encompassing a huge diversity of languages, cultures, and histories, they make up the fastest-growing racial group in the US. Many are entrepreneurs: The Census estimates that around 2 million businesses are AAPI-owned.

We’re kicking off APAHM with a brief trip back in time to APAHM’s beginnings, a glimpse at the state of AAPI entrepreneurship, plus resources for AAPI small business owners to find support. 

A brief history of APAHM

We owe the existence of APAHM to Jeanie Jew, a former Capitol Hill staffer concerned about the lack of acknowledgement of Asian Americans during the US Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, according to TIME. Black History Month had been declared a national observance that year, while Hispanic Heritage Week had been decreed a national celebration eight years earlier. 

The erasure had hit a nerve for Jeanie, TIME reported. In the 1800s, her great-grandfather had emigrated from China and helped build the Transcontinental Railroad, which had allowed interstate trade to flourish. But at the time, US law made no secret of discriminating against Chinese immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the US for a decade. In 1892, the Geary Act renewed these exclusions and required Chinese immigrants to carry permits or risk deportation. Like Filipinos, South Asians, and members of other Asian communities, they were often targets of massacres, riots, and other acts of violence. Lee’s great-grandfather was killed in one of these incidents in Oregon. 

Jeanie teamed up with Ruby Moy, Chief of Staff to Rep. Frank Horton of New York, to campaign for designating one week in May to recognize Asian Americans. May was chosen to honor the first recorded arrival of Japanese immigrants in the US in May 1843, and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad – which as many as 20,000 Chinese immigrants helped construct – in May 1869. 

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law a joint resolution that declared the week beginning May 4, 1979 as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week, but the bill needed to be reauthorized every year. In 1992, Horton and co-sponsors introduced legislation that permanently declared May APAHM, which was then signed into law with unanimous support. 

The state of AAPI small businesses

AAPI have a long history of starting small businesses to gain financial security. In fact, they’re more likely to pursue business ownership than the general US population, according to New American Economy. Census figures on the growth of AAPI-owned businesses confirm this penchant for entrepreneurship. From 2007 to 2012, the number of Asian American-owned businesses grew 23.8%, while that of Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander-owned businesses shot up 45.3%, faster than any other racial category (except “some other race”). By comparison, the total number of US firms rose by only 2%.

While these numbers seem to paint a success story, it’s important to note the limitations of the available data on AAPI small business owners, as the National Coalition of Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD) points out

The lack of data disaggregating AAPIs by subgroups that each face different structural barriers, plus the insidious model minority stereotype – which deems all Asian Americans wealthy, hard-working, obedient, and successful – can prevent AAPI entrepreneurs from accessing the resources they need to thrive, the organization explains. Like many BIPOC entrepreneurs, they face more barriers to building, growing, and sustaining their businesses than white entrepreneurs, such as unfamiliarity with financial systems in the US and lack of access to capital. 

And like many small businesses, AAPI-owned small businesses have been hard-hit during the pandemic. Asian-owned businesses had the steepest drop in revenue of any demographic in the US, according to a 2021 Connected Commerce Council report. Forty-five percent of the 900 AAPI small business owners in a 2020 Asian/Pacific Islander American Chamber of Commerce and Entrepreneurship (ACE) survey have lost employees, while 10% have shut down altogether. 

Anti-Asian sentiment – which goes back centuries, but has swelled in recent years – has only added to the fear and uncertainty many Asian American small business owners already feel. Some have experienced boycotts, harassment, and other forms of racism and xenophobia, and business has slowed in Chinatowns across the country. Four in 10 AAPI small business owners reported having been blamed for the pandemic, while 1 in 4 reported vandalism or threats at their business, according to a 2021 ACE survey. AAPI women business owners were more likely to report unfair and disrespectful treatment than their male counterparts. 

But Asian American small business owners continue to persevere. In the 2021 ACE survey, most AAPI small business owners said they were optimistic about the future of their businesses. Consumers also seem eager to spend their coin on them, with the rate of Yelp searches for Asian-owned businesses surging 3,404% in February 2021 compared to February 2020. During this painful period, many Asian American social entrepreneurs also remain committed to amplifying their culture and community, their work more important now than ever.

Where to find support

Building community with other entrepreneurs is essential to successfully starting and growing your small business. But building community with those who understand firsthand what it’s like to navigate entrepreneurship as an Asian American and/or Pacific Islander can help you feel even more supported and validated in your journey. Here are 4 resources to help you do just that: 

AAPI Creatives and Entrepreneurs (ACE)

ACE is a collective focused on connecting consumers to emerging AAPI creatives and small businesses. ACE  hosts regular pop-up events in New York City, where up-and-coming entrepreneurs can both sell their goods and network with each other. The ACE team aims to curate a diversity of vendors – the products at their Winter 2021 pop-up event, for instance, included everything from Asian food-themed puzzles to sustainable fine jewelry. Keep an eye on ACE’s Instagram for calls for vendor applications. 

Gold House

Gold House advocates for authentic representations of AAPI through promoting, mentoring, and investing in AAPI in the creative and business industries. The nonprofit collective’s Gold House Futures initiative offers career growth, skill development and mentorship to AAPI creatives and founders in five fields – entrepreneurship, film, fine arts, music, and social impact.

Gold House also recently debuted Gold House Ventures, a $30 million fund to invest in AAPI entrepreneurs, part of a larger effort to propel more AAPI into corporate leadership.

Asian Women in Business 

Asian Women in Business, which has local chapters across the US, supports women entrepreneurs and professionals through social and networking events, from workshops on public speaking and growing your business with social media, to hikes and yoga sessions. 

Asian Businesses Matter

Signing up for Asian Businesses Matter, an initiative of the Asian American Business Development Center, offers access to a free marketing service, which includes social media campaigns that tell the story of your business. It can be especially helpful for small business owners in traditional industries, who might not have the time or money to build and run their own social media accounts. Asian Businesses Matter also hosts a small business directory


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