As a teenager in Senegal, West Africa, I grew up watching American sitcoms like Beverly Hills 90210, and lots of MTV.
The television version of the American Dream was beautiful, overflowing with fun and opportunity. What young Senegalese youth wouldn’t want to exchange French colonial rule for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the land of the free? In 1998, as soon as I finished high school, I was accepted into an American college and arrived on a student visa. I studied marketing and I fell in love with entrepreneurship; today, my start-up company, Teranga, sells healthy West African food, juices, spices, prepared meals, snacks, teas, and popsicles. At Teranga, we create contemporary African and Caribbean comfort cuisine from locally-sourced organic ingredients, drawing inspiration from traditional recipes of my homeland: Senegal and the African diaspora.
Immigrants like me are going to be crucial to our economic recovery, just as they were during the last recession. A 2012 study written by UC Santa Cruz professor Robert Fairlie in partnership with New American Economy, found that immigrants were more than twice as likely to found a new business than native-born Americans after the Great Recession. Here in California, immigrant entrepreneurs were responsible for 44.6 percent of the new businesses started here between 2007 and 2011.
We are poised to make the same contributions now, but federal policies restricting legal immigration are preventing foreign-born people from coming here and creating new companies and jobs. Two recent executive orders have plainly told international students they are not welcome here. The H-1B program for highly skilled workers has also been halted. That matters, because these visas helped create scores of American jobs after the 2008 recession: 700,000 between 2010 and 2013, according to NAE. In 2015, every H-1B visa holder who was able to come here and work, created 1.83 American jobs.
During the 2008 recession, I got married just as the economy sank. I hadn’t yet started Teranga. Our first child, a son, was born prematurely, yet the tech company I had been happy working for couldn’t offer enough maternity leave for me to care for him. I needed more flexibility and began thinking about opening my own business.
Creating a mix of my culinary influences from California and West Africa seemed natural; as a black woman, trying to convince predominantly white, male investors of my vision was especially difficult. In 2015, it was an honor and a relief to be selected to join La Cocina, a competitive non-profit incubator kitchen that supports female immigrants.
La Cocina guided me through permitting, licensing and marketing, helped me finalize recipes and plan Teranga’s January 2016 launch at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. Before COVID-19, our products were sold at 36 locations: supermarkets, coffee shops, specialty stores and farmer’s markets; while we’re still selling, it’s at a reduced rate until our regular vendors get back on their own feet. Yet we’re not going anywhere. We still source local ingredients and give back by donating food to homeless shelters.
As of 2017, there were 1.2 million female immigrant entrepreneurs in the United States—meaning that 10 percent of employed immigrant women ran their own businesses. More than 65,000 immigrant women helmed restaurants and food service businesses, while more than 55,000 owned beauty salons and another 50,000 had their own nail salons, according to NAE.
The majority of Americans believe that immigrants are good for the country, precisely because founders like me work tirelessly to create jobs and support the economy. We do this, in part, to give thanks to the nation that has provided us so much freedom and opportunity. It’s why I named my company Teranga. In my native Wolof tongue, Teranga signifies hospitality, an important Senegalese value. It’s the spirit of camaraderie, tolerance and acceptance. To me, Teranga is part of the American Dream.
Now is the time to make Teranga a way of life. It’s a time to strengthen the American Dream through inclusion. Let’s not weaken what is best about this country by pushing people away. America is my home and, like so many immigrants, I want that home to thrive. Our leaders should want the same
// Chef Nafy Flatley is the founder of Teranga in San Francisco and has lived in the United States since 1998; terangajuice.com. Photography courtesy of Nafy Flatley.