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In this episode of the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, host Clark Cogbill sits down with Yang Luo-Branch, Ph.D. and Ameen Pabani to discuss Asian businesses in Arkansas, bridging the gap between Arkansas and Asian companies, and international trade.
Luo-Branch is the founder and president of the Arkansas Association of Asian Businesses (AAAB), and Pabani sits on the AAAB board of directors.
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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, where we discuss the latest topics and trends in economic development with subject matter experts and influencers from across the nation and around the world.
Clark Cogbill (00:18):
Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. This is Clark Cogbill, I'm Director of Marketing for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. We are recording today's podcast from Lucky Dog Audio based in downtown Little Rock. We appreciate the great job that Scott Minor and the Lucky Dog team always do for our podcasts. One of the facts about our modern economy is that it is truly global, whether we're talking about the US as a whole, the State of Arkansas or the economy of one of our local communities. International trade is a major force that helps grow jobs and sustain businesses. In 2020, Arkansas’ total exports worldwide was over $5.1 billion, but taking advantage of the opportunities of international trade can be challenging. There are language barriers, cultural differences, and many other hurdles to overcome to break into the international marketplace. And if you are living and working outside of your country of origin, the idea of starting and running a business can seem daunting. Success, or sometimes just even survival in business is often tied to relationships.
Clark Cogbill (01:27):
Today, we're going to be talking with two people who are helping those in the Arkansan Asian business community form those key relationships and connections, Dr. Yang Luo-Branch, and Ameen Pabani. Now, just to put it in perspective, Arkansas’ total exports to Asia in 2020 was over $1 billion. Among our top trading partners in Asia were China, Japan, and South Korea. There are many Asian companies with operations in Arkansas, just to name a few, with operations in Jonesboro, Hefei Risever, which is based in China, with operations in Little Rock, Welspun Tubular based in India. DENSO Manufacturing has operations in Osceola, they're based in Japan, also based in Japan with operations in Marion, Hino Motors Manufacturing and with operations in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Kiswire, which is based in South Korea. Four years ago, Dr. Luo-Branch started the Arkansas Association of Asian Businesses to help bridge the gap between Arkansas businesses that want to reach Asian markets and also to support Arkansans of Asian descent.
Clark Cogbill (02:35):
Ameen Pabani is CEO of One Stop Solutions and MyFlag Insurance based in Little Rock. Ameen is not only an Asian business owner living and working in Arkansas, but he also serves on the board of the Arkansas Association of Asian Businesses. Dr.Luo-Branch and Ameen, welcome to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast.
Ameen Pabani (02:54):
Thank you for having me.
Dr. Yang Luo (02:54):
Thanks Clark. Thank you.
Clark Cogbill (02:56):
Okay. Now, full disclosure, Dr. Luo-Branch spent several years at Arkansas Economic Development Commission. We worked together and know each other well, and she's given me permission to address her as Yang. So Yang, I'm going to start with a question for you. What are the key areas of focus for the Arkansas Association of Asian Businesses?
Dr. Yang Luo (03:15):
Yes, Clark. Well, first of all, it's my pleasure to be on this podcast with you and great to have a good conversation again.
Clark Cogbill (03:24):
Dr. Yang Luo (03:24):
I always appreciated working with you. So thanks for this question. And you said it very well. So we are basically here to support Arkansas and Asia in business, in both directions. So specifically when Arkansas companies want to explore the Asian market, we're here to help them to learn the cultural first steps. And then when Asian companies want to explore the Arkansas market for investment opportunities, we're here to do the same thing in terms of facilitation. And then we are here to support people like myself, who's an Asian immigrant for their professional growth in Arkansas. And we want them to succeed. And also to advocate small business owners, like Ameen, who came here to set up his own business in Arkansas. And the companies that you just listed in the intro, the Asian companies, we want to support their needs in Arkansas as Asian originals.
Clark Cogbill (04:35):
Well, you're a full-time employee now with Tyson Foods, one of Arkansas’ Fortune 500 companies. You're a very talented artist, and if you happen to know Yang and follow her on social media, you've seen her incredible work. You're also a wife and a mother. So it's not like you have a ton of free time. What led you to start this organization from scratch four years ago?
Dr. Yang Luo (04:58):
Yeah, that's a very good question. I'd like to answer that question in two parts. So why I started it in the first place, back then, I wasn't working for big company, I wasn't a mother yet, my daughter is two-and-a-half years old now. So four years ago I was working at AEDC, and I was an analyst. I saw public data that is regarding the economic development, professional labor force data. I know those are public data, I think that will add so much value to just your average Arkansans. So I live every day in the Asian community after work, like in the WeChat group in the Chinese community, so nobody was talking about anything about economic development. I think I just wanted to create an opportunity or a channel at that time to share the data, the public data, to share the opportunities, like job creation opportunities.
Dr. Yang Luo (06:06):
So they're aware of it and then they may be able to add value to those stats because the Asians, many of the Asians, are just highly skilled professionals themselves and they know the cultures of their home country or their origin. So that's what drove me to start a platform to exchange information, to exchange opportunity just to network and help each other, so I did it. Four years ago, I saw that gap and then I just wanted to create, to fill that gap. I didn't think too much of how big the organization will grow and all of that, but definitely it's a passion. I wanted to fill that void and build a community for our Asian and Arkansas Asia community in business. So I don't have a lot of free time, but I think that's a way of thinking.
Dr. Yang Luo (07:12):
I don't think doing different things is a calculation of time, it's a calculation of energy. So I do different things because they fulfill different parts of my needs. And I enjoy them. I think one plus one doesn't equal two here to fill the 24 hours a day, I think it works magic when I do different things. It helps me relax, it helps me be creative, helps me do leadership. I think it just works out great. And also, being a mom and a wife. So I'm so thankful that I have very supportive family.
Clark Cogbill (07:46):
Well, I'll tell you, you recognized the need, and that's one thing, but you stepped up and you did the hard work to establish this organization. And congratulations on the four-year anniversary. Now, Ameen like Yang, you are very ambitious and you have a lot of energy. You are originally from India and you were determined to start your own business. I'd like you to tell us about your journey to the US and Arkansas as a business owner. And some of the challenges you had to overcome to be a business founder and owner.
Ameen Pabani (08:17):
First as you mentioned, Clark, I was born in India and I completed my graduation with a major in accounting and taxation. And I did my post-graduation in India. I started my career as a banker, and then I went to Democratic Republic of Congo where I joined the business of my brother in pharmaceuticals. In there, at around 2001, in early 2001, I would say I came back to India to start to an export house after visiting Congo and learning a little experience on pharmaceuticals. After the 2001, back again in 2005, yes, it was 2005, I seized an opportunity to buy machineries from an European company that went bankrupt and we established a manufacturing unit for cotton and bandages, the surgical bandages, to supply for the local market and the military in Congo. We still run the business by name of Pharmex in Republic of Congo even today.
Ameen Pabani (09:26):
We do have, as of today, we just bagged last year, an American contract worth millions of dollars for eradication of malaria in Republic of Congo. So as Congo, lacked education and health facilities, I decided to look for a country of opportunity. As we all know, America is truly a land of opportunity and has welcomed immigrants like me from around the world. And I was not wrong. I came to Arkansas in 2010, and within four to six months, I was able to open a truckstop. I bought a truckstop, a Subway and a motel with the help of my friend, like a joint venture. This was accomplished because of the best thing that we had in Arkansas, the help we received from the government officials and the community in Arkansas. And so I did not find any repayism or other problems in establishing or doing business in Arkansas.
Ameen Pabani (10:27):
The community welcomed me to open up the business and they gave me all the support that is needed. I opened my second gas station in Wooster, Arkansas. It's a small town near Conway, Arkansas, and I was thrilled with the help and the support of the community. And I would like to specially thank the Mayor of Wooster, I believe Terry Don Robinson, for all the support he gave us in building up the business then. The second question on the challenges that we faced, one of the biggest challenges that I faced was lack of capital. Since, I was new to the country, I did not have any credit history in America, plus the immigration status, because you would need to have a social and other things, and at least it would take a couple of years for you to build up the credit history with the banking institutions. And that was one of my biggest challenges when I came over here.
Ameen Pabani (11:25):
But with all the great community and good employees, I was able to succeed. In 2016, I started my accounting business, One Stop Solutions where we help small businesses, most of them from Asian descent. And we also do insurance for small businesses, and we offer health insurance coverage to many Arkansans, and we help them to enroll in either Medicaid or Obamacare. We have been proudly able to enroll more than 500 members into NVR into the elite group from a healthinsurance.gov. So we do health insurance under MyFlag Insurance umbrella and accounting and taxation from One Stop Solutions.
Clark Cogbill (12:14):
Well, it's been quite a journey for you as a business owner and to get established here in Arkansas. And I know that you bring a very valuable perspective to the AAAB board. So, Yang back to you. How is the AAAB supporting Arkansans of Asian descent like Ameen, who are trying to get established here?
Dr. Yang Luo (12:35):
Yes, that's a very good question. So, we, Ameen included, at the board meeting every time we meet, we think about how do we add value to our community? So there are basically a couple of ways. One formal way is we host the workshops like how to start a business in Arkansas. And then during COVID, we know a lot of small business owners of any races and ethnicity were struggling. We held workshops to broadcast all the opportunities in terms of loans and funding to small businesses. And also we provided translation, simultaneous translation to Asian languages. We know in a time of urgency and needs, we need to speak their language, the language everybody appreciates and help them to overcome that hard time. So those are some formal ways in terms of events and other ways are like networking opportunities.
Dr. Yang Luo (13:45):
So people like Ameen and myself, we uprooted from another continent and come to the US, we put our network behind. We basically have to start from scratch, like Ameen said earlier, and same as myself when I came to the US and even until today, I'm the only person in my family that's in the US, aside from my husband's family. So we have to build the network from scratch. And that I know from this journey, how difficult it is. And now we want to create that connection through networking events, or just emailing or messages, if we can make a good introduction to someone that will mean a lot to us. And also there are ways that our Asian cultures are very different from American culture, in terms of how to succeed in the workplace in general, such as public speaking.
Dr. Yang Luo (14:51):
So myself, [I] had to go through great journey of just stepping up and stepping into the spotlight to showcase, for good reason, that what we can do, public speaking is not something highly valued in some Asian cultures, especially for women or younger women. Yeah. So there's that culture background that pulls you from doing certain things back home, but in America, it's a totally different story. So we want to, as Ameen and I being example of, hey, we participate, we want to become mainstream. We want to help others to get those qualities that are highly valued in American society for you to succeed in Arkansas. And also we want to celebrate everybody's wins. We are here, you've done great work. And then let’s celebrate Arkansas, let's celebrate us as Asians. So we created opportunity to celebrate. So that's our East meets West event every year to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Yeah. Those are some ways I can think of right now.
Clark Cogbill (16:06):
That's great, Yang. You and Ameen have both been on your own unique journeys. You've learned so much. And I think it's wonderful that you're sharing what you've learned with those who are trying to get established here. And I'll just say, small businesses are at the heart of the economy. And so, it's so important. And Ameen, now that your business is established and growing, what would you say are the advantages of running your own business and being your own boss?
Ameen Pabani (16:36):
When you become your own boss, you become an expert, you become an expert in different fields of like, same accounting, marketing, hiring, technology, your skill sets and your experience, when you wear different boss hats, will actually explode. And don't forget, the boss is always right. On the many advantages of being your own boss is with good creativity and expertise. And by taking the right deductions and credits, you save a ton on taxes, that is what we help our clients, our small businesses achieve. So being a little more creative will actually pay you off and you can be different creative when you are your own boss. And being your own boss also gives you a sense of satisfaction and happiness by helping people in need and actually giving back to the community that has offered you so much. Especially, I'm so happy and so proud and I am so thankful, thankful I would say is a perfect word. I'm so thankful for American community for giving me this opportunity. Thank you.
Clark Cogbill (17:47):
Well, that's great. And as a follow-up, Ameen, what advice do you have for Asians living in Arkansas who are thinking about, who are considering starting a business? They have that idea, or they're in the process of starting a business. What advice would you give them?
Ameen Pabani (18:02):
Actually, I still remember and follow one of the best advice I received from His Highness the Aga Khan in 1989, when he said, "The future will be a marital credit society." That word marital credit, I couldn't understand in 1989, but then I realized what it meant. And since then I have been following that advice, which will give importance to education and merit. In my view, to be successful, it shouldn't be complex, rather it should be very simple to be successful. And I would say two things that would make you successful. One is education. And second is English language. Well, education today is not something that ends when you graduate, but it's a lifelong process. The second is of course, the English language, English is a language of knowledge and all the new knowledge that is currently available and would be available in decades ahead will be first available in English.
Ameen Pabani (19:09):
So for all the immigrants, I would say whether they are from China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, my advice would be to learn English, not only your own language of your country, but be bilingual. I can speak seven languages. And that has helped me a lot. I can speak English, French, Gujarati, Hindi, Telugu, the local Congolese language, Lingala. So this actually helped me build up my business. So this is the same advice I would like to share with my fellow Asian communities. I would also like to emphasize on the power of two P. One is patience and passion. If you are passionate about your business idea, and you have patience, you will succeed. Lastly, I would advise all my small business owners to implement from the very beginning, what I call best practices in everything they do.
Dr. Yang Luo (20:10):
I want to add onto Ameen's point on learning English. I think in my own understanding, and also talking with linguistics, a different language actually helps you to think in that system, a culture system. So it's not just the words and vocabulary difference, how you express things and what has to be said when, the courtesy around everything. So it's like if you learn English, then your mindset is becoming American and then it changes how you view things and do things in business. And you will be surprised, many of our Asian business owners do not speak English. And I have great respect to them because without even the language ability they can succeed, they can set up a business here, like some of the small mom and pop restaurants and then nail salons. And you can hardly communicate with the owner, but yeah, they are feeding a family, give good education to the kids and hard working. I have great respect to them.
Dr. Yang Luo (21:28):
I just feel wanting to add to Ameen's common language, having the language skill will just bring you to the next level, to do things American ways. And then that would just add that much more to their journey.
Clark Cogbill (21:43):
That's great advice. And it is impressive that some non-English-speaking Asians living in Arkansas have just found a way through hard work and determination, but by learning the English language, it just makes it easier, is what you're saying. And I'm sure that you would advise native Arkansans who are looking to break into Asian markets or any international market, to pick up a foreign language of their own.
Dr. Yang Luo (22:12):
Clark Cogbill (22:13):
So a question for both of you, and we'll start with Yang, why should Arkansas entrepreneurs have Asia on their radar?
Dr. Yang Luo (22:20):
Yes, absolutely. I think, 20 years ago we may see the world very differently from how it is today. Today, the technology, the transportation has advanced so much and so fast continually the globe is actually one community. So it's not just in supply chain of manufacturing alone anymore. Some of our apps that we're using today, may be from another culture, some venture journeys are maybe put together through multinationals. And then, yeah, I just feel there are ways, I mean, there are so many reasons to consider global from the get-go for anyone. It's not like once you succeed to a certain point, you want to expand globally. I think you just need to start thinking global from the very beginning. Like Ameen, as I know that he has a team in India and I'm sure they work closely as a team and I work in IT and then I work with Indian team members every day. It's just so seamlessly in the work environment today. And Asia or not Asia, like you said, we need to think global.
Clark Cogbill (23:39):
And Ameen, how would you answer that question? Why should Arkansas entrepreneurs, business owners, have Asia on their radar?
Ameen Pabani (23:45):
Sure. As Clark, you pointed out in the very beginning, I know the modern economy is that is truly global in today's times. It's not just Arkansas oriented states, it's really global, it's truly global. So when you look at those Asian countries, the population itself is huge, just for China and India combined, you're looking roughly about 300 billion people. So the market for United States products, whether it is agriculture, whether it is for rice exports from Arkansas was number one rice exporter or anything that we can, the native Americans or the Arkansans for that matter, can have ties and export to Asians. And here, I would like to emphasize on the relationships that the Asians have back home country, like me, if I have good relations with Asians, I will be able to succeed. And that would be really great for American economy as well.
Clark Cogbill (24:49):
Great advice from Yang and Ameen. So Yang, one more question for you. You wrote an article for Arkansas Business titled, “Put Asia on Your Business Radar.” In that article, you shared four tips or steps on how to get started with an endeavor into Asian markets. Can you please share those tips with us?
Dr. Yang Luo (25:10):
Yes, for sure. The first step I will say is to break the unfamiliarity. So Asia is on the other side of the Pacific, and I think we, as the AAAB, we want to be here to help you to break into the Asian culture. So I would encourage anyone who has an interest or even remote interest with Asia come to our events first and you can experience that first step of something you are unfamiliar with, which is the Asian culture. So step two would be to acknowledge the cultural differences while maintaining your authenticity. So, in my experience, of being in the US since 2009, in my journey, I feel I'm more appreciated when I fully acknowledge what it takes to succeed in the US, the US common conduct, but also celebrate my own heritage. I think there's great value of knowing, assimilating to the mainstream, but maintaining your own advantage.
Dr. Yang Luo (26:24):
So that goes to Arkansas that go into Asia, I think, to embrace, you need to embrace and acknowledge and embrace the cultural differences, but maintain your own authenticity, your own unique, competitive advantage. And then the third would be, yeah, take a trip to Asia, nothing is like seeing it with your own eyes. And then that firsthand experience would just change your perception of a foreign culture. And step number four would be to continue to learn about your newly found opportunities with the help of our local Asian community. So why I say that is, when I founded the AAAB, I was working for the State government and from observation, I feel there's limitation of how much the government can do, how much individual companies can do. And there's great value in the local communities. For example, I live in the Chinese community in Arkansas, so I think that's something the AAAB can help fill that gap is to bring the communities together, Ameens Indian community.
Dr. Yang Luo (27:37):
So the Arkansans, once they love the country in Asia, they can stay connected with the Asian cultures, through our communities. We can talk about career advancement, business conduct, and then, yeah, just how to succeed in Asia. We want to help, we're passionate people, we're very purpose driven. So definitely stay connected with the AAAB. I will link you with the right community or people.
Clark Cogbill (28:07):
Fantastic advice for those looking to break into Asian markets. So before we close today, Yang, I would like to ask you, how do people need to get in touch with the AAAB? How can they find AAAB online?
Dr. Yang Luo (28:22):
Yes. Online presence is so important, so you could definitely, just Google search, just typing Arkansas Asia Business, our name will pop up in the first. And then search us on social media, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and then we'll follow up and we'll start from there. Looking forward to it.
Clark Cogbill (28:46):
Fantastic. Well, I want to congratulate you both on the work that you're doing, the success that you've had and what you're doing for not only Asians, living in Arkansas and Arkansans looking to break into Asian markets, but what you're doing for the Arkansas economy overall. And so I would like to thank our guests on today's episode, Dr. Yang Luo-Branch, Founder and President of the Arkansas Association of Asian Businesses and Ameen Pabani, CEO of One Stop Solutions and MyFlag Insurance. You've been listening to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. This is Clark Cogbill, Director of Marketing with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. For more information about AEDC visit Arkansasedc.com and connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Thanks for tuning in.