The Threads of Success: Immigrant Women Entrepreneurs in Philadelphia

This article was written as part of the Acel Moore workshop.

Immigrant entrepreneur Sadia Afreen meets with a customer at the Fishtown shop of the Thread Bar, a business she co-owns with another immigrant businesswoman | Nora Garg/Workshop photographer
Immigrant entrepreneur Sadia Afreen meets with a customer at the Fishtown shop of the Thread Bar, a business she co-owns with another immigrant businesswoman | Nora Garg/Workshop photographer

At the Thread Bar in Philadelphia’s tony Rittenhouse Square, Bollywood music plays on a loop and the multilingual banter of employees buzzes through the shop as a string of American customers filter in and out.

Sadia Afreen, whose family immigrated from Bangladesh when she was 11, and Harinder Kaur, a native of Punjab, India, are the female immigrant business partners in this now-thriving eyebrow threading salon.

Kaur immigrated to Philadelphia in 2012 and was pregnant during their first year of business. 

“I had never been anywhere but Punjab. I hadn’t ever left India. I’d only been to the airport once, to drop somebody off. It was hard to adjust to this new environment; I wanted to go back. But when I started working and meeting all these amazing people, I realized there was something here. Now we have three locations open and successfully running.”

Afreen and Kaur are among the many determined immigrant business women making their mark in Philadelphia. These female entrepreneurs change their lives as well as contribute to the local economy and enrich the cultural landscape.

“They bring up their little taste of the world here, and it’s almost like we get the best of everything,” said Layla El Tannir, director of entrepreneurship at The Welcoming Center, a local non-profit that assists new immigrants.

“We get the best of their culture. We get hardworking individuals. We get a new product or service that isn’t readily available. And without that, you’d be missing that character, and you would be missing that energy.” 

These women immigrant entrepreneurs make a big financial impact as well. About 75% of the city’s revenue is generated from small businesses and job creation, said Narasimha Shenoy, head of the Asian-American Chamber. That comes to $7.4 billion.

In addition, immigrants in Philadelphia are 43% more likely to start their own business than residents born here, Shenoy added. Out of these immigrant-led businesses, 38% are run by women.

Few Philadelphians would disagree that Cristina Martinez, 2022 James Beard Award winner best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region and owner of highly successful South Philly Barbacoa and Casa Mexico restaurants, has added greatly to the flavor of the city.

But Martinez, who was fired as a pastry chef because she was an undocumented immigrant and turned to selling food from a pushcart, is now an employer as well an advocate for other immigrants and immigrant businesswomen.

“The most important legacy is for women to see that it is possible to start a business, whether or not you speak English,” said Martinez.

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“If I did it, other people can do it better, especially women who have the knowledge and were born here. I hope my work shows them that women can grow. We can run a business. We can sustain and support the community.”

Immigrant entrepreneur Sadia Afreen is threading a customer’s eyebrows at her shop | Nora Garg/Workshop photographer

The culinary business is frequently one new immigrants seek out, but many women with professional qualifications in their native lands may find those fields closed to them here.

Over 2 million highly skilled immigrants in the United States are either unemployed or underemployed due to cultural and linguistic barriers or they cannot afford the costly process of attaining certification, according to Ballard Brief, a Brigham Young University’s student-led research library. 

For those women, as well as some of their undocumented sisters, entrepreneurship is often the answer. However, those who are unable to get into higher sectors of work make up a large division of entrepreneurship in small businesses in Philadelphia.

According to El Tannir, 16.6% of the women in each cohort at The Welcoming Center are pursuing paths to starting their own small businesses related to personal care and beauty services. 

One example is a West Philadelphia entrepreneur - her main expertise being in cooking and catering - who is an undocumented immigrant.

Here since 2015, the woman, who is not being identified due to her immigration status, has provided the main income to support herself and her family.

While her work opportunities have been limited due to her status, her work has helped pay for her ailing husband’s medical care and her daughter’s education throughout four years of state college. Now she and her daughter are business partners.

“I help with the food; my daughter helps with the money and translation,” said the entrepreneur,  whose quotes were translated from her native language, Hindi. “We’re self-run.”

And as these women work, they provide services and experiences that enrich their adopted city in more ways than just financially.

“They actually enhance the availability of the options around services that Americans wouldn't have had access to,” said The Welcoming Center’s El Tannir.

“Just thinking along the lines of natural beauty, a lot of the stuff that comes in now, a lot of the practices and the skill sets, a lot of that is from professionals in the industry abroad, and they bring their expertise here. And now they're opening up new experiences for residents and citizens here."

Any given day, the three eyebrow-threading shops opened by partners Sadie Afreen and Harinder Kaur are bustling with happy customers. Through their hard work, an American Dream that once might have seemed improbable is coming true.

“We are two immigrant women running a successful eyebrow threading store,” said Afreen, who came to Philly from Bangladesh with her family at age 11 and now sends money to aid family back there.

“Some women are running clinics or nail salons. I get to see more people like me running their businesses and growing. But all together, we’ve allowed ourselves to build something for ourselves.”

Thread Bar co-owner Sadia Afreen shows a customer her reflection after threading her eyebrows | Nora Garg/Workshop photographer



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