Business loan program aims to help 1st-generation immigrants

Bhutan native Tika Acharya came to the U.S. nine years ago with his parents and his wife after spending 17 years in a Nepal refugee camp. The 40-year-old father graduated from college in India and has a degree in business, but he was turned down by banks when he approached them about starting a company of his own.

Acharya, who launched an independent insurance agency last year in Manchester, was the first participant to be helped by the Regional Economic Development Center, a New Hampshire nonprofit that helps first-generation immigrants achieve their American Dream of becoming business owners by providing them with microloans and technical assistance.

"In just one year, we've been able to gain close to 1,000 customers," said Acharya, the first of many to be helped by the center.

The nonprofit on Friday unveiled a statewide economic program called the New Hampshire New Americans Loan Fund, which provides small-business loans for $50,000 or less. It also brings in experts to act as advisers to the businesses during their first two to three years, helping with website design, marketing and accounting. It anticipates administering six to eight loans over the next year to new residents with U.S. citizenship, green cards or work visas.

The loan program is an expansion of the Welcoming Concord Initiative, which focused on immigrant newcomers in the state's capital.

For Acharya, the center not only helped him with his business, it also gave him a chance to feel welcomed in a country that recently has witnessed significant anti-immigrant rhetoric.

"After the (2016 presidential) election, we were nervous about what would happen, but I knew we were backed up by welcoming, big-hearted people," Acharya said. "We have confidence and faith in those people in America."

The nonprofit's president, Laurel Adams, said it looked at New Hampshire demographics and saw a growing population of immigrants facing challenges as they tried to open their own businesses. According to the center, in 2015 the state, which has about 1.3 million residents, had more than 75,000 foreign-born residents.

"We want New Hampshire to have a young, vibrant workforce," Adams said. "Our aim is to help mitigate those challenges so we can keep new Americans here."

Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, a Democrat, said the program would have a tremendous impact on her city and its residents.

A representative from U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's office spoke on her behalf on the program's benefits to the state. In a statement, Shaheen said the financing will provide economic support for the region for years to come.

"By empowering immigrants, we can help them achieve their dreams, and in turn, find our community enriched by the contributions of our newest neighbors," wrote Shaheen, a Democrat.

Acharya said he believes the U.S. will always have space for new Americans because it is known for helping people.

"It's an investment for the country because we'll be giving back," Acharya said. "One day, I'll be sending my sons to college here."