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Indian-American C-Store Owners Team Up

TAMPA, Fla. -- On Saturday, the nation's Indian-American convenience store owners held their first convention, gathering under rainy skies at a meeting hall in suburban Tampa, according to the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.

Although stormy weather cut down on attendance, the convention's organizers declared it a success.

The event was the brainchild of Tampa resident Satya Shaw, who has long been involved in the Association of Indian Physicians, a doctors' trade association, and the Asian-American Hotel Owners' Association.

There are a lot of Indian-American doctors, and a lot of Indian-American hoteliers, he said -- but there are far more Indian-American convenience store owners, and yet there was no trade association for them.

So last year, Shaw started the Asian-American Convenience Store Association.

It made sense, he said. U.S. census numbers quoted on Shaw's Web site say that there are 132,000 convenience stores in the country. Of those, Shaw said, roughly 80,000 are owned by Indian immigrants. And about 60,000 of those Indian-American store owners, he said, come from the same state in India: Gujarat.

The entrepreneurial spirit runs deep in that province, said Chandra Patel, who chairs the association. Patel is Gujarati himself ("Patel' is a common Gujarati surname).

"We Gujarati are very enterprising," he said. "We are very aggressive."

But he also offered a more subtle theory.

"When (Indian immigrants) come here, they have limited (English) language," he said. That can make it tough to find a job, so they become their own boss.

"They cannot be employees. What they can do is buy a business," he said.

Convenience stores require only a small investment, he said, and they don't require much English to run -- only good business skills.

Kirit Patel, a convenience store owner who came to the convention from Gainesville, agreed.

Like many convenience store owners, he got into the business through a friend, he said -- another factor that helps bring people from the same place into the same business.

Convenience stores "are not a very complicated business," he said. "You buy things and you sell them. The only thing is to work hard and put in long hours."

Nisha Smith, a vendor at the convention, offered another reason for the trend. Indian-Americans work at convenience stores because it's a job many people don't want to do, she said.

"Most Americans are scared to work there," she said.

She was selling Citibank's offer of free money transfers to India. Many of her clients work low-paying jobs, she said, yet still manage to send money home.

Ashok Patel was once in that position. He was a civil engineer in his native Tanzania (although his ancestors are from Gujarat).

His degree was not accepted here, he said, so he ended up working for minimum wage at a convenience store. It still paid him better than what he had earned in Tanzania, he said.

Now, he owns his own store in Tampa. Like Satya Shaw, Ashok Patel says that a trade association for Indian convenience store owners makes sense.

By banding together, they have greater purchasing power; they can share strategies, tips and discounts.

"This is the beginning," he said. "It's good to come together."
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