ESG Matters: Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

ESG Matters: Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month transcript

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Thank you for joining me for this special episode of ESG Matters at Ashurst, I'm Nathan Huynh an associate based in our New York office and today in celebration of Asian-American and Pacific Islander heritage month, I am thrilled to be joined by Yanki Tshering executive director of Accompany Capital, a New York-based and award-winning microlender to refugee and immigrant owned businesses and a pro-bono client of Ashurst's. Yanki, thank you for joining me. Before we begin, would you mind sharing with our listeners a little bit about what Accompany Capital does?

Of course Nathan, thank you for inviting me to the special episode of ESG Matters. So Accompany Capital's mission is to support immigrant refugee and women owned businesses in New York City with access to capital, with loans ranging from 500 to 250,000, as well as empowering them with financial education and offering training in best business practices and technology. So we were initially founded in 1997 to support resettled refugees who wanted to start a small business or microenterprise, but quickly realized there was also a need for our services among recent immigrants.

Then during 2008 recession, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of women who we're attending our workshops as well. So in our first year we made three loans totalling $25,000, fast forward to 2020 when we made almost $7 million in loans and helped immigrant and refugee businesses access to over $5 million in COVID relief in the form of grants and long-term loans from private and government resources.

So in 2020, we provided services to over 1,500 business owners from over 55 countries, 20% of which were from New York's Asian American communities, Queens, as you know Nathan is the most ethnically diverse area in the world and one of the most entrepreneurial and Accompany Capital satellite office in Queens is proud to support small and micro business entrepreneurs. Many of whom are recent immigrants from Asia, Korea, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan who create the majority of new jobs as well as critical products and services that allow communities to thrive.

That's amazing to hear Yanki, and I really do want to focus on your clients a little bit more in this podcast, but before I do that, I do want to share some statistics with our listeners. In the US since the pandemic, the New York Police Department has reported a 1900% increase in hate crimes driven by anti-Asian sentiment. The advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate said it received more than 2,800 reports of hate incidents directed at Asian-Americans last year and in March of this year alone incidents surged from 3,795 to 6,603.

Similarly in the UK, according to police data, there was a 300% rise in hate crimes against East and South-East Asians in the first quarter of 2020 alone. Also in Australia, the Asian Australian Alliance has recorded more than 500 incidents since April 2020. You know, obviously these statistics are troubling and need to be highlighted. And to me very, very concerning. However, I feel like the silver lining has been how the AAPI community, not only in America, but worldwide have become emboldened to band together and become a stronger political and cultural force.

And so Yanki, if I could segue a little bit I think this was probably relevant for your clients as well. A form of discrimination that does not get as much attention is economic discrimination. Obviously hate crimes and violent attacks are despicable, and must be condemned, but I've also seen many AAPI run businesses being affected by the combination of this anti-AAPI sentiment combined with this notion of being part of this model minority. I know you've outlined Yanki, the diverse range of countries that your clients have come from. Obviously they've probably been impacted by this very issue that we're talking about. Could you please share with us some of your client's experiences and what Accompany Capital has done to help with this problem?

In early 2020 when New York City was experiencing a dramatic increase in COVID-19 infections, we were seeing the same dramatic increase among our clients. Many of whom live in apartment buildings with limited space for social distancing to make matters worse we were also barraged by anti-immigrant and in particular anti-Asian hate speech from the former administration in DC. While we're fortunate in New York to have elected officials and community leaders who stood up against this hate speech and discrimination; unfortunately, the damage had been done.

This was most evident in Chinatown where businesses were deserted. There was also a significant drop in business for our Asian clients in Queens, particularly among the restaurant owners. So at Accompany Capital we felt the best strategy was to help clients focus on strengthening their online presence, help restaurant clients create a menu, more suited for delivery services and then when outdoor dining was allowed, we were able to get grants to help clients build outdoor dining areas.

Our lending team also worked overtime to help clients get emergency loans and other forms of relief to cover reopening expenses. So getting back to your earlier remarks, Nathan, we have obviously been very shocked by the ongoing attacks against Asian Americans and have joined with the Asian American Federation to denounce these attacks. If there is anything positive to come from these horrifying attacks, it's that there is greater awareness in the Asian American community about the need to run for office to be represented; there is also greater awareness I think about the importance of not staying silent and just working hard behind the scenes and of taking more of a leadership role in the many areas we contribute to like business, medicine and technology.

I think it's amazing that you point that out and I think civil advocacy and civil representation is something that we don't really talk about often. I think we're seeing more and more community and business leaders, not just in the US but around the world, really focus on discrimination. And I guess, based on your experiences over the past year, obviously you and Accompany Capital have really been involved in that partnering with the organizations that you've mentioned. Do you have any advice or suggestions for leaders who really want to move their organizations to facilitate change on how they can better address this discrimination, not only to the AAPI community, but also to discrimination in general?

You know, I think it's extremely important that leaders everywhere at every level set the tone and be the role model for their communities because it is unacceptable to discriminate and it is in everyone's interest to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. While I'm very aware that we may not be able to influence and even very well-meaning leaders may not be able to influence everyone's behavior. As business leaders it is their responsibility to promote an inclusive environment and culture, which ultimately affects the bottom line in a positive way, too.

One example I want to share, as you know, Nathan, you've been volunteering your services and your company law firm, Ashurst is very involved in promoting volunteerism. And in your case, your time was used to help us transition from a business center for new Americans, transition to our new name. So any kind of interaction like this, I think really also is a good way for increasing the diversity and knowledge base of current people who work at different corporations about the needs and a greater awareness of the immigrant and refugee communities in their area, whether it's in New York or London, or other areas of the world.

I'm very grateful that you mentioned that just for our listeners who aren't aware. We are very proud to have you as a client personally, for me, what was really refreshing and exciting was helping you with the rebranding, but then also really getting to understand what you and your organization does. When you and I chatted the initial conversations were about legal advice, but then we started going a little bit off track and talking about the clients that you were helping. I know we talked about some of your clients in Queens and you know, certain types of businesses there, and it's really refreshing to see you be able to service these clients and come up with strategies that you wouldn't think of, for example, online deliveries in terms of like readjusting their menu. It seems like Accompany Capital has really gone beyond just providing financing, but providing business strategy advice, which I really enjoyed.

Obviously it's been a tough period for the AAPI community, but I sort of do want to pivot to something a little bit more positive. You and I were discussing offline, have heard some of these stories, but if you could share with some of our listeners, some of the success stories that your clients have had over the past year.

You know, while on one hand, as we know, the small business community has been impacted the most due to the pandemic, but talking about our conversations, I remember one conversation I particularly enjoyed with you, Nathan, it wasn't just business. We were talking about Momo's dumplings, which are very popular here in New York. And many of the Himalayan restaurants carry this dumpling and Accompany Capital as a marketing ploy, we've also funded a app that people can use to find where you can get this Himalayan dumpling.

So one business that comes to mind is this business that was started by Mingma Sherpa, she's from Nepal and as soon as we were in New York City, we were told about shelter and place and businesses had to close. One thing we were able to do is, our staff, and we actually hired many of our former interns who had been vetted and we knew them to actually reach out and find how the businesses were doing. And we were able to respond with emergency loans and then for the businesses where the owners were ill and their families were ill. It really didn't make sense to be offering them a loan when they were in such a difficult situation. We actually raised funds on Go Fund Me and matched it with fees that we made from processing PPP loans. So that group of clients we made grants.

We're really fortunate, our board members agreed that we should be allowed to do this, but for businesses like Mingma's, it's a woman owned business, it's a small restaurant with limited seating, but take out services. Immediately we were able to help her develop a delivery menu, strengthen her online presence, give her an emergency loan and have her get ready so when we were open and there was limited service through delivery, she could function and she had the capital, she needed to keep her staff and continue her business. And then now she's at a point where she's received some additional loans, we were able to help her through a grant we received from our foundation, to build outdoor space. She's already at 70% of her business activity that she was at before the pandemic.

So another example that comes to mind, and these are stories that our trade association will also be sharing throughout the country is Andy Wong, whose family came from China and they started a family business, which started very small. But I think right now they have over 20 employees. So they have a retail beauty supply business in Jackson Heights, Queens, which as you know, is one of the most diverse areas, urban areas in the world and a neighborhood, they speak over 130 languages. So we were delighted to be working with the business like Optimal Beauty Supply that Andy's family started many years ago. And we've continued to support them with emergency loans so they can keep the business open, continue to pay their employees. And it's one of those businesses that anyone who works in the beauty business is familiar with and goes to get their supplies. So those are just two examples. Obviously we have a current portfolio of over 800 businesses that we are continuing to work with and support.

I think it's extremely heartening to hear that and, you sort of briefly mentioned the Momo business, especially it really does excite me and I still need to make my way out there to go and visit them. We're seeing a bit of a change here, obviously with stimulus packages that have happened here in the US and around the world, plus organizations like Accompany Capital, really raising capital and helping fund these businesses and also provide business advice. Also on the more high level things, we're seeing a lot more focus from politicians, members in the community about AAPI issues. I guess I'd be really interested to see what you think the outlook is moving forward, obviously it's been a tough year.

We're very positive. We did have about 30% of our businesses that closed and we were very realistic early on in the pandemic. We were actually surprised that more did not, but in place of the ones that close there're many new businesses, and in particular, we are seeing a high percentage of women owned businesses that are startups. So we're looking at ways of supporting these businesses. We're very fortunate, there's quite a bit of federal relief and not just debt, but grants to support the businesses. So we have a very positive outlook. We are very fortunate. We also have a number of foundations and corporations that are supporting our work. So very, very positive. Of course, we admire our business owners because it takes a lot of work to keep a business running and it's not easy, but we think New York City is on its way to reopening fully and really supporting small businesses that are vital for the economy and actually create two out of every three jobs.

That's amazing to hear and just to finish up, because we're sort of about out of time. I know we previously talked about how community and business leaders can get organizations to really volunteer and help out, whether it's pro bono. Just wanting to see whether there was anything else that you would want to recommend to our listeners and it doesn't have to be for leaders, but just in general, how they can sort of help out the cause and help out businesses like your clients at Accompany Capital or how they can help address the issues of AAPI discrimination.

Well, I think one way definitely is I think volunteerism. During the pandemic people had a lot of time to reflect and think about what was important. So similar to Ashhurst, I'm thinking there's always such a great need for quality legal services among organizations like ours and among the businesses we work with.

As an example, if we had had to pay for the legal services we received from your law firm it would have been very expensive. So we would have had to maybe go to someone else maybe who judged much less, so that quality may have been missing. So I think pro bono services is an excellent way and not only that, I think if corporations could not only provide the pro bono services, whether it's legal services or any other services, but also invite some of these organizations to come in maybe during lunch hour, now that you know, we are so accustomed to having zoom meetings, they're probably going to be fewer of them in the future, but invite these organizations or their clients to talk about who they are and what they do.

I think it's always very enlightening and really always makes business leaders and people working at those respective corporations appreciate more about what the corporations are doing and also the way they're able to make a difference in their community.

Well, I'm really grateful to hear how much of a positive impact we were able to have for your organization and I think that was amazing advice that you gave and something to really keep in mind. Yanki, I just want to say thank you for joining us and it was an absolutely pleasure talking to you and to everyone else, thank you for listening. To hear more ESG Matters episodes, including our 30 For Net Zero 30 series, please visit To ensure you don't miss future episodes, subscribe now on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite platform. While you are there, please feel free to keep the conversation going and leave us a rating or a review and thanks again for listening and goodbye for now.

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