UACC strives to educate people about the organization

But outreach takes time, money

by KEITH R. ARANEO-YOWELL

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.