By Bill Smith, BBB Reporter
Ethnic diversity shows up in the “Little Bosnia” neighborhoods of South St. Louis, the Asian restaurants and businesses up and down Olive Boulevard and in the rich variety of ethnic entertainment and dress at the summer Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park.
The St. Louis region has become a patchwork of diverse cultures, a stitched-together crazy quilt of histories, cultures and languages that create unique challenges and opportunities for our region.
BBB’s challenge is how to better serve all the people who live and work here, whether it’s a new refugee victimized by a scam or an immigrant family starting a new business.
Anna E. Crosslin, president and CEO of International Institute of St. Louis, a BBB Accredited Charity that serves more than 7,500 immigrants and refugees, says that 4.5 percent of the region’s population is foreign-born.
“They are St. Louis’ largest in-flow of new population and are helping to turn the tide of decades of population loss,” Crosslin said. “These newcomers are of tremendous benefit to our region. And with some focused assistance, they can quickly gain a stronger hold and engage even more fully in our economy.”
Crosslin said immigrants fill two important roles in St. Louis’ business community. First, she said, they are customers, purchasing goods and services. Second, they are entrepreneurs, founding and operating enterprises ranging from high tech firms to restaurants and cleaning services.
A 2012 study by Saint Louis University showed immigrants are 60 percent more likely than native-born St. Louisans to start businesses.
They are job creators, Crosslin said, and a significant asset to our economy.
Crosslin said immigrant newcomers especially “can be confronted with a myriad of business practices, policies and regulations which are confusing and which sometimes can result in them being victimized. Therefore, immigrants benefit from education to overcome their language and cultural barriers.”
BBB Education Coordinator Maggie Sueme has made presentations about BBB services to Vietnamese, Afghan and Bosnian senior citizens.
“It’s something we have to do,” Sueme said. “If we don’t, we are continuing to leave so many people vulnerable.”
Sueme previously worked for a financial institution, where she saw multiple cases of fraud targeting seniors. Many seniors, particularly if they spoke little or no English, found it daunting and frustrating to find help. Often, victims had to find someone who spoke English to fight their battle for them.
“There should be a better way,” she said.
In April, BBB hosted an Ethnic Media Conference coordinated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The event brought law enforcement, consumer organizations, business groups and media together to discuss fraud affecting minority and ethnic communities.
The conference demonstrated a need to find better ways to serve minority and ethnic groups throughout the region, said Michelle Corey, St. Louis BBB president and CEO.
“Cultural and language barriers are very real,” Corey said. “Unless we do everything we can to break them down and help people understand who we are and what we do, we are not living up to our mission.
The FTC’s Combating Fraud in African-American and Latino Communities, issues in June, noted that African-American and Latino communities “under-report scams to the FTC, even though consumers in these communities were more likely to experience fraud than the overall population.”
Scams experienced by the groups include bogus work-at-home opportunities, phony credit and debt repair schemes and fake mortgage relief scams.
The report calls for the use of trusted sources of information – such as local libraries, community advocates, teachers, religious organizations and media – to help protect people from fraud.
Karlos Ramirez, executive director of St. Louis’ Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said, “It is crucial to provide education and resources regarding fraud.” Ramirez said some people specifically prey on the Hispanic community, and “people need to know how to report this malicious act.”
“BBB can no longer be content with things as they have been,” Corey said. “We want to be there for every business and every consumer.”
This article orginally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of BBB’s Torchlight magazine, produced for BBB Accredited Businesses and BBB Accredited Charities.