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Biz Talk: East Side entrepreneur helps Bangladeshi immigrants get settled in Buffalo

Foreign-born entrepreneurs in recent years have added ethnic grocery stores and eateries to the area’s business landscape, but Bangladeshis – Buffalo’s newest immigrants – aren’t only food focused.

They are establishing a diverse and rapidly growing collection of businesses – from a pharmacy and a driving school to construction companies and travel agencies – on the city’s East Side. Their recent migration from New York City has quickly resulted in dozens of new stores and dozens more are planned.

Atiqur Rahman, a department head at a Buffalo post office, is the man largely behind the explosion of Bangladeshi-owned businesses. He owns only two businesses himself – Madina Accounting and Broadway Hardware Store in the former Francis Fronczak Library.

Rahman is one of the first Bangladeshis to migrate and settle in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood, which now boasts the area’s largest Bangladeshi enclave. Bangladeshis turn to Rahman, an accountant, for assistance in launching their ventures. He believes the community’s efforts could lead to the resuscitation of long dormant commercial districts on the East Side.

Q: What types of services do you provide Bangladeshi entrepreneurs?

A: I’ve been an accountant for almost 30 years so I do everything – prepare taxes for individuals and businesses, help entrepreneurs form corporations, assist them to get all sorts of permits from city, state and federal governments. A lot of them don’t understand the process because of language barriers. I assist them every step. There are a lot of people who have home-based businesses that are growing and I help them get set up and move into an actual building.

Majority of my clients are from my ethnic and religious background but I have all kinds of people as my client – Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, Hispanic, African-American, different people. For example, I helped Burmese Muslims form their organization — the Burmese Muslim Community Association, a Somali set up a janitorial businesses. There are many others.

Q: Your practice seems to be doing really well. Have you seen major increase in number of clients?

A: It is busy with more clients. A lot of Bangladeshi men are taxi drivers but want do something other than driving taxi or doing little jobs here and there.

The Bangladeshi community is growing really fast and many people are trying to figure out business ideas because they see a lot of potential customers. So more people are stopping by my office to start something. But you have to remember, most of my services are free of charge, and sometimes I charge very minimum to survive. My goal is to help people and this community.

Q: How many businesses have you helped start the past 10 years?

A: It’s hard to say, but at least 20 to 25, most of them in the past five years, though. It’s been a good mix – construction, food services, real estate. Lately, there’s greater focus on East Side real estate because it’s a good investment. You can buy two, three houses cheap, fix them up and sell them to someone else and make a profit.

Q: How many Bangladeshi businesses are planned for this year?

A: About 30. It doesn’t mean all 30 of them will open, though. A lot of Bangladeshis arrive from New York City and want to start a business right away but I tell them to make sure there’s a market for what they want to do.

Q: Why are so many newly arrived Bangladeshis going into business in the first place?

A: Where else you will find minimum investment and maximum returns like Buffalo? This is the place you can start from zero. Also, there aren’t many job opportunities for our people in Buffalo – many of them drive taxi or open a business.

Q: But why such a wide array of businesses?

A: Bangladeshis are moving here and buying homes and establishing new lives in neighborhoods, especially on the East Side, that don’t have a lot of businesses so residents have to leave to get what they need. So Bangladeshis are taking upon themselves to make sure the community has the goods and services it needs by opening different businesses. When I moved here, there were no Bangladeshi food stores, now there are at least seven.

Q: You’re already employed full-time with a bustling accounting business on the side. Why take on the project of converting an old library into a new business?

A: The library closed when I moved here. Bank of America and other businesses in the neighborhood also closed when Bangladeshis started moving here. It was a sign that things were going downhill. This nice library building was sitting there unused for 10 years. It’s a very big space with a lot of potential but the city wasn’t doing anything with it. So I bought it for $70,000 in 2013 and opened the hardware store in the fall of 2015.

Q: Why a hardware store?

A: Bangladeshis buy a lot of broken down houses that need a lot of work. So that means a lot of business for Home Depot because they are doing the work themselves. I want to give Home Depot some competition because this neighborhood doesn’t have a full-service hardware store. My store has more than 4,000 items – everything you’ll need for small repairs to big renovations.

Q: How has the neighborhood changed with the new businesses?

A: Overall the community is safer and has new life. When I moved here people would come to the Broadway Market Easter time and not check out the rest of the neighborhood but now I see people walking up and down Broadway.

Q: As the migration continues, what kind of impact will Bangladeshi entrepreneurs have on the city’s East Side?

A: This is nothing; we’re just getting started. Give us five years, and Broadway-Fillmore and the East Side won’t be the same. A lot of Bangladeshis have bought those abandoned commercial buildings you see on Broadway. They are planning clothing stores, professional services, retail and other businesses. As the population grow, this place won’t be recognizable with all the new businesses.

Q: Why offer such valuable services for free?

A: A lot of my clients are very low-income. They don’t have any money to pay me. Over the years I encouraged a lot of people from New York City to move here. Buying the house is the easy part but then how are going to make repairs. Where are you going to get the money and money to live in Buffalo? So they turn to me.

Q: What are your plans for the library?

A: Right now I want to focus on the hardware store. But down the road, I plan to maximize the use of the building by adding other businesses. There’s enough space.

Q: How do you help your clients?

A: I help people from A to Z – the whole process. Other times, it might be just one aspect of business and they need me as a consultant. I can speak a few languages - Bengali, Hindi, some Arabic and Spanish and even a little bit of English – so I’m able help a diverse group.