The birth of the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce

Story and photo by TAUNA LYNNE PRICE

The Asian American community maintained their lives. They worked, ran their businesses, supported their families and were contributing members of society. However, no business network existed among the Asian culture in Utah. There was no business community in place to help them stay connected and support one another.

In 2005 Gov. Michael Leavitt, under the auspices of the Utah Office of Ethnic Affairs, called all Asian leaders together. Eunice Jones, one of the attendees, said the leaders were divided into four groups: health, education, legal and economic development. Leavitt’s goal was to have an Asian directory created.

Jones, 51, a successful businesswoman who was born in the Philippines, was sought out by Leavitt to assist in bridging these cultures. She witnessed the importance of networking and local cultural support first hand through her volunteerism.

Jones was a real estate broker and therefore placed herself in economic development, where she knew her skills would be most useful. Jones recalls only roughly 10 Asian leaders who were involved in this assignment.

The group brainstormed for months. Jones said eventually all Asian leaders quit attending the meetings, with the exception of herself and Raymond Uno. Uno is a retired judge and currently a board member of the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce.

Jones began researching the Western United States and looked at Arizona, Colorado and California for any Asian Chamber of Commerce currently active. She discovered that each state has its own Asian Chamber of Commerce. She started printing and reading all available articles to gain ideas to move Utah forward in starting its own Asian Chamber.

“I said judge, can we call all of our business owners, all the Asian business owners, and we all come together and start the chamber,” Jones said, “and he said that’s [a] great idea, let’s do it.”

In 2005, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce partnered with Jones and Uno to help them launch the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce.

Jones remembers Zion’s Bank stepping up to be the first donor and founding sponsor for the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce with a $10,000 donation.

According to the chamber’s Web site, “The purpose of the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce shall be to promote social, economic, and other business resources to enable its members to become successful entrepreneurs and professionals. This will be done by training, education, sharing of information, networking and other resources that will be made available through the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce and Asian-owned businesses.”

The Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce is involved with and hosts many different events to promote camaraderie among the Asian culture and educate the general public.

According to its mission statement, the chamber strives “to foster Asian businesses and professionals within the state of Utah, particularly small businesses, with activities that result in a prosperous and economically healthy Asian community, and to promote international trade with Asian and other countries.”

Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce looking to expand scholarship program

Story and photos by KAREN HOLT BENNION

Growing up near a small village in the Philippines, she would often go to bed on an empty stomach. She spent her summers selling snacks like a vendor at a baseball game just to earn enough money to buy school supplies. She and her 10 brothers and sisters got by without running water or electricity. The only positive aspect in her life was the looking forward to each new school year. For Eunice Jones, education would be her salvation.

Eunice Jones discusses her life, past and present, with student-journalists at the University of Utah.

In her early teens, her parents moved the family to a small apartment in nearby Manila. Jones said the two-bedroom, one bathroom home seemed like a far cry from their “humble beginnings” back in her village. Life became a little easier for the family.

She eventually graduated from high school, and with the financial help from a college scholarship and her family, graduated in the top 10 of her class from a college in Manila. “That’s what we do,” Jones says. “We all help each other.” She got a job and settled down with her husband. They had two sons. However, after her husband left them, Jones decided it was time to venture outside of her home country. This meant breaking the rules of Philippine culture. She was supposed to live with her parents until she remarried.

She left her sons — one of whom was still breastfeeding — behind with her family and moved to Los Angeles, where she had been offered a job with the Hyatt Corp. “It was quite eye opening,” Jones says about her arrival in in that city. However, after three years of saving enough money she was able to obtain visas for her children and fly them to the U.S.

After marrying her second husband, they moved with him to Salt Lake City where she still worked in the hotel business. Finally, Jones decided she was ready for another challenge and earned her realtor’s license. During her first year as a realtor Jones was chosen as Rookie of the Year by Better Homes and Gardens magazine for her outstanding sales skills. She admits she owes it to selling snacks as a little girl in the summer. “I was in sales since I was a little girl,” she says.

In 2005, Jones, along with former Third District Judge Ray Uno, decided to establish the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce. That same year, they also founded the Chamber’s scholarship program with the help of founding sponsor Zion’s Bank. Three scholarships were awarded at $1,000 each. Currently, the Chamber’s charitable foundation offers partial scholarships to an average of 15 students a year. Jones would like to see the scholarship program grow with more sponsors helping to offer full scholarships to high school seniors.

U student Amy Tran received a UACC scholarship in 2010.

One of last year’s recipients, Amy Tran, says the UACC Scholarship Program has helped her in more ways than one. A sophomore in business at the University of Utah, Tran says not only does the program give financial help, it also offers the students chances to receive training in leadership skills from local UACC members.

“The UACC is really supportive and motivating,” she says.

An awards gala and fundraiser for the scholarship program is held every spring. All of the students are invited to attend. They meet each other and are introduced to members of the UACC. The members then teach the students how to network and make connections. Tran says, “They all really try to get to know you.”

Another student at the U has been awarded the UACC’s scholarship for three years in a row. The last time she was awarded the scholarship she received the highest score of all the applicants. Michelle “Mika” Lee is currently earning her master’s degree in occupational therapy. She is also a part-time intern for the UACC. Lee works as the event coordinator.

“Education is placed high in my family — my father got a Ph.D. and my mother got her B.S. early,” Lee wrote in an e-mail interview.

UACC President Lavanya Mahate congratulates Mika Lee at the 2010 Scholarship Gala.

Both students agree that more publicity is needed in order for the scholarship program to grow. Tran heard about the scholarship through her uncle, who is a member of the UACC. She never heard anything about it at her high school. Scholarship co-founder, ZeMin Xiao, says their program is still small compared to other minority programs in the area. The main reason for this, she believes, is due to a stereotype that Asian-Americans do not need scholarships. People view Asian-Americans as the “Model Minorities,” she says. Tran agrees; when she told her friends she was going after different scholarships they told her she didn’t need them.

“You’re Asian, you’re smart, you’ll be fine,”  her friends said.

Xiao would like the Salt Lake community to know there is a scholarship specifically targeting Asian-Americans.  She says the program is constantly trying to find more sponsors. Some of the supporting companies include Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, Crocker Ventures Ltd. and vSpring Capital.

Now divorced, Eunice Jones dedicates more time with members of the UACC to help mentor Asian-American students and to try to get the Salt Lake community to realize that by helping to fund their scholarship program, it is investing in the future of all Utahns. After all, her family invested in her.

Finding the needle to success

Story and photos by EMILY RODRIGUEZ-VARGAS

A 3-year-old boy sits barefoot on the pavement at 2248 S. 440 East in South Salt Lake City, with a weary look on his face. Watching other children laugh and play at the Hser Ner Moo community center for refugees, he remains on the sidewalk alone.

Unfortunately, not all Asian individuals have been lucky enough to have had the kind of upbringing and opportunities to succeed. Some of them have never had the chance to learn and grow.

This necklace made out of coconut was brought over from Thailand.

More than 2,000 immigrants arrive in Salt Lake City each year, according to reports by the International Rescue Committee. The majority of these immigrants come from Burma and other Asian countries. Many of them were allowed asylum into the U.S. due to political persecution. Many children have never lived outside of refugee camps, or have been exposed to the freedoms they find in Utah.

Roger Tsai, an immigration attorney at Parsons, Behle & Latimer and former president of the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce, said that although many refugees from Japan, Korea and China generally tend to have more education under their belt, many other people in Asian countries still struggle to access basic schooling.

In the Hser Ner Moo Community Center for refugees, students of all ages are learning English in school while acclimating to American culture. In the afterschool program, they come together to do homework, play games, and use the English vocabulary they picked up in school. With the help of volunteers, the center coordinates activities, outings and trainings for the children to enjoy.

Lewe La Sa shows off a traditional scarf.

Lewe La Sa, 17, who is Burmese, arrived in the U.S. only 18 months ago from a refugee camp in Thailand. She came to the center to get help with her homework, as she was trying to get through a full class load during her last year at Cottonwood High School. Sa showed motivation to learn for her classes and improve her English skills as she transitions from the life she knew growing up in the camp, where she was an excellent student. She speaks Karen, some Thai and now English. She said her mother never had the opportunity to go to school.

Sa dreams of attending the University of Utah and becoming a nurse. If that doesn’t work out, she said, she wants to be a social worker and help refugees from her country.

“Many people come here that speak Karen, but it’s very difficult for them to understand English at first,” she said. “I also want to be an interpreter, they really need one.”

Sa and her younger sister, Paw Ku Sher, currently teach a refresher course of Karen to refugee children between the ages of 4 and 14 every Saturday.

Special occasions in Burma require specific dresses.

“If they have lived here for a long time, they don’t remember their family’s native language very well,” she said. Her next step toward achieving her academic goals is succeeding at the upcoming college entrance exams.

Kaity Dixon, an IRC volunteer coordinator, said in an orientation to volunteers in Salt Lake City that it’s a true struggle to learn to read and write in a foreign language when you haven’t learned to do so in your own native tongue.

“In an instant, reading directions and completing necessary paperwork for daily life becomes a barrier to progress in a new country,” she said.

Without organizations like the IRC and other offices, as well as on-site tutoring for refugee children and services for whole families, personal, financial or educational achievements for these individuals might be too far out of reach.

A Japanese saying captured this complex situation of giving direction right at its point: “When one has no needle, thread is of little use.” The programs offered now could expand or improve in the near future by greater participation and community involvement for maintaining these vital services.

Maybe there is hope for the young boy on the sidewalk after all.

Affirmative action is debated at Utah 2010 general session

Story and photo by ANDREAS RIVERA

In 1969, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law an executive order that stipulated employers must “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” Other laws, policies and initiatives like this were meant to give minority populations equal opportunities in employment and education. These polices are known as affirmative action.

Some lawmakers in Utah say that these policies have served their purpose and need to go.

H.J.R. 24, which was introduced in the 2010 General Session, states that it shall “prohibit the State, public institutions of higher education, and political subdivisions from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin with respect to public employment, public education, or public contracting; and provide exceptions.”

The 2010 Legislature debated the need for affirmative action.

The bill’s aim is to remove past affirmative action laws concerning public-sector establishments such as government and education. Proponents of the bill want candidates for employment or education given opportunities based on merit and not race, gender, or national origin. Republican Rep. Curtis Oda of Davis County is the chief sponsor of the bill.

“There is a difference between a hand-up and a handout,” Oda said. “If an employer is hiring and they have three or four candidates, shouldn’t they hire the most qualified candidate?”

To his surprise, Oda, who is of Asian descent, has been criticized by the Japanese community.

“If anyone should be embracing this bill, I would think it would be the Japanese,” Oda said.

The Japanese have a work ethic that drives them, he said. “After the internment of Japanese during World War II, the Japanese did not openly call themselves victims, they overcame the stigma.”

He added later, “You can not fight discrimination with more discrimination, that’s hypocritical.”

The bill would still protect people against discrimination, something that is human nature, he said. The bill’s goal is to put people’s value in their merit, not their minority group.

If someone suspects they were turned down because of their ethnicity even though they were the best qualified person, they could report it, but only because they believe it was racism that prevented them from getting the job, Oda said.

He said religion was not included in the bill because religion is a choice.

However, many oppose the bill and think there will be negative repercussions.

Roger Tsai, an attorney for Parsons, Behle & Latimer who sits on the board of directors of the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce, said he is concerned about diversity of the public sector.

He said the chamber has stated it is against the bill.

“It is important to recognize diversity, but it does not mean you have to have a rainbow,” Tsai said.

Tsai said The University of Utah’s goal is to diversify, but how can it when it cannot give any advantages to minority groups for attending?

Tsai is worried about what the bill will mean for minority groups at the U. He said he is not sure what it means for funding for these groups. “Is it discrimination to give these groups money?”

It is important to have diverse outlooks on campus because it actually benefits the white majority, Tsai said. Students will be competing in the global economy.

Brittney Vuong, a freshman who is first-generation Vietnamese, said she agrees with the bill. “Different skin color should not deserve special treatment,” Vuong said.

Michael McFall, the news editor for the Daily Utah Chronicle who is first-generation Chinese, said when affirmative action was proposed, it worked well, but it may not be necessary now.

Both Oda and Tsai asked the question: When will we know when we are all equal?

Oda said, “If you go looking for prejudice, you will find it.”

Tsai said, “What’s changed? Are we all on an equal playing field? We have come so far, women are attending college at a higher rate than men.”

The bill made it past the committee stages of legislation, but failed to gain support and did not get the required two-thirds majority to become a law.

Despite this, Oda said this will not be the end of the debate.

UACC strives to educate people about the organization

But outreach takes time, money


The Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce (UACC) was founded “to foster Asian … small businesses with activities that result in a prosperous and economically healthy Asian community,” according to its online mission statement.

But, leaders in Salt Lake’s Asian community say the city’s demographics — and current economic woes — make it difficult to reach out to prospective members.

Between 1990 and 2004, Utah’s Asian population nearly doubled in size, from 25,696 to 46,132. Still, Asians comprise only about 2.1 percent of the total population of 2.7 million and own only 1.5 percent of the businesses in Utah, according to the Utah Office of Ethnic Affairs and U. S. Census Bureau.

According to the UACC website, chamber membership can cost businesses between $100 and $1,000 per year, depending on the number of employees.

Most of the Asian-owned businesses in Salt Lake City’s 9th and 9th neighborhood would have to pay only $200 per year to maintain membership.

Despite the nominal cost, the owners of one Salt Lake City supermarket — who wished to remain nameless — wondered: Why spend marketing dollars on 2 percent of the population?

Other local entrepreneurs also said they had to weigh membership costs against the benefits it offers.

Sue Kim has been operating the Oriental Food Market at 667 S. 700 East for 37 years. Even though the chamber is around to benefit businesses like hers, she said she’s unsure membership will help more than the hard work she already invests in her business.

“I know such a thing exists,” Kim said in an interview, “but I don’t even know if the Asian Chamber of Commerce is actively working to help Asian businesses or not.” She added that Utah’s Asian community is so small, the chamber seems almost unnecessary.

Kim’s isn’t the only well-established business that hasn’t joined the chamber.

Linda Lin has owned and operated Big Ed’s, the beer bar-cum-hamburger joint across from the University of Utah, for 29 years.

“I don’t have time. I work too hard,” Lin said while preparing four different meals in a kitchen that can barely accommodate two people. “Most people are regulars who come every day. It’s very busy here all the time and I get very good business.”

She said the money and time UACC membership would cost her might detract from the hard work that keeps regulars in the stools.

Roger Tsai, an attorney with Parsons, Behle & Latimer and the former president of the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce, said there isn’t a perceived need for an entity like the UACC because the lack of cultural diversity makes ethnicity almost a non-issue for people and businesses like Big Ed’s and the Oriental Food Market.

“[The Asian chamber] is primarily a shoestring organization that’s volunteer-run,” Tsai said in a phone interview. “Our outreach efforts have been purely by word of mouth through events that get media attention.”

Those events include the annual scholarship and awards gala, which recognizes outstanding Asian business owners and celebrates young leaders in the area. On April 2, 2011, 10 scholarships were awarded.

Tsai believes the online membership directory does not adequately reflect the organization or its members, who must remember to add and update their own contact information.

When the chamber first started in 2005, he said a group of members assembled a directory of Korean businesses and families. But after five years, only 30 percent of the information was still relevant.

Also, the high turnover rate for new small businesses, not just those that are Asian-owned, makes it increasingly difficult to maintain an up-to-date directory. Tsai said even the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, which represents every business in Salt Lake City, has a 40 percent turnover rate for small businesses from year to year.

Robert Rendon said the number of entries in an online member directory is not a fair assessment of the health of an organization such as the UACC. Rendon, who serves on the advisory board for the UACC and is also a member of the board of directors for the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said educating an entire ethnic community is a learning process that can take a number of years.

In a telephone interview, Rendon recalled the speed at which the Hispanic chamber was able to gain traction as a real benefit in the Hispanic community.

“If you look at the Hispanic chamber, they have a business directory with probably 300 members,” Rendon said. “But, they started in 1992.”

He also noted that the UACC does not have a full-time employee. “It really makes a difference,” Rendon said, “when you have someone working on your chamber full-time” and promoting it to the community.

UACC board member Raymond Uno believes the recent economic downturn has affected the chamber’s ability to attract members. “When people are struggling financially it’s really hard to get them to sacrifice money and time when they’re having a hard time just feeding the family,” said in a phone interview.

Aprirak Pruksirisumbut, 35, is the owner of Tasty Thai at 1302 S. 500 East. He hasn’t pursued membership with the chamber yet because his restaurant has only been open since 2009.

“It’s been very busy, so I don’t have time to become a member,” Pruksirisumbut said in an interview. He added that it is important for Asian-owned businesses to network and help each other build their clientele and that in the future he will probably put more thought into joining the UACC.

Networking is one reason to join the chamber. But Tsai said the cultural homogeneity and the relatively small Asian population in Utah are additional reasons for supporting the UACC.

“Something that almost every major business based in Utah knows, understands and is facing, is how do we make Utah a more diverse welcoming place? Not just for people who are minorities,” he said, “but for people coming from out of state who feel like Utah is different.”

Businesses make more money in a diverse marketplace of ideas, Tsai said. “So, it’s within the larger business community’s interest to foster a vibrant minority community, because at the end of the day, that’s what every other major city has.” Membership in the chamber is just one of the ways businesses can foster diversity.

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