Immigrant service fuels Community CPA’s growth

A group photo of the Community CPA team, which prides itself on having the diversity needed to help clients from a broad range of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. PHOTO COMMUNITY CPA


By Dave DeWitte

Few people understand the needs of Io­wa’s immigrant-owned businesses like Ying Sa, founder of Community CPA & Associates and the nonprofit Immigrant Entrepreneur Summit.

“We’re pro-immigrant because we’re pro-business,” Ms. Sa said. “We don’t be­lieve immigrants are burdens to society, we believe they’re all movers and shakers. They’re the ones who fill the void, working long hours and keeping the store open 24/7. They’re providing grassroots services to the people who cannot go to the high-rise buildings and live in luxury apartments.”

Des Moines-based Community CPA has grown over two decades to 19 employ­ees with a customer base that spans much of the Midwest. The company’s branch office in the Corridor will be tripling in size on Oct. 1 when it moves from Iowa City to 2421 Coral Court in Coralville.

Meanwhile, the Immigrant Entrepreneur Summit (IES), which attract­ed more than 1,000 attend­ees last year, is going national and interna­tional. About 60 people gath­ered on Sept. 21 in Beijing to learn about opportunities for Chinese en­trepreneurs to expand to the United States, and the next IES, to be held Nov. 17 in An­keny, is being marketed as a national event.

Community CPA thrives by catering to immigrant entrepreneurs, listening to their problems, guiding them through the nuances of the American business system and literally speaking their language. Ms. Sa and her staff can help immigrants fill regulatory and cultural knowledge gaps that can save them considerable expense and inconvenience.

One client who came to Communi­ty CPA found success making short-term loans to other immigrants, but wasn’t aware that they had to be licensed to per­form the kind of banking services they provided. Another wanted to open an auto body shop, but didn’t realize they couldn’t fix cars for a living at their home unless it was properly zoned.

One reason for the knowledge gap is that many immigrant entrepreneurs are distrust­ful of the government, and fear that asking questions of officials will bring undesirable legal or regulatory action.

“We don’t report people,” Ms. Sa said. “We believe that all people are good peo­ple – that’s our default belief.”

Ms. Sa was born in Beijing, and spent the first part of her adult life in Canada, where she graduated with an accounting degree from the University of Toronto. She was passionate about crafts, and af­ter graduation began selling goods from a rented cart in a mall, but eventually found herself helping other Asian entrepreneurs at the mall with bookkeeping and ac­counting tasks.

By the time Ms. Sa’s husband accepted a faculty position at Iowa State University in Ames, she had a sizable list of account­ing clients and told them they’d have to find other services because she was leav­ing the country.

There were not as many Asians in Iowa – or people, for that matter.

“Toronto is kind of like Beijing, but moving to Iowa is literally a culture shock,” Ms. Sa said. “Nobody is walking on the street, so where do you find people here?”

But Ms. Sa’s abilities to work with im­migrant clients followed her. She agreed to be a long-distance accountant for about 50 Canadian clients who didn’t want to break up their trusted relationship. After she took a job as CFO for the Iowa Man­ufacturing Extension Partnership at ISU, immigrant business-owners still found their way to her campus office in the eve­nings to seek accounting help.

Eventually, at age 44, Ms. Sa decided to quit her then-job as vice president of controllers at Wells Fargo Financial in the Des Moines area to form her accounting business.

Community CPA performs tax plan­ning and accounting, audit and payroll services. She said clients come to her firm not necessarily because it’s good or bad, but because they feel comfortable with the way they are treated.

“Our employees are a family,” Ms. Sa said, and clients feel like they are coming into the living room of their home.

Community CPA founded the Immi­grant Entrepreneur Summit in 2008 after a conversation Ms. Sa had with Swallow Yan, an Asian client running a nonprofit, and Max Cardenas, a Hispanic entrepre­neur. They all felt that immigrants coming to the area needed more help overcoming the regulatory, economic and cultural bar­riers to establishing businesses.

The summit is underwritten by Com­munity CPA, and provides seminars and sessions on financing and operating a business from a multicultural perspective, according to Dan Kim, who handles busi­ness development for Community CPA.

Over the years, Wells Fargo has become a significant sponsor of IES, and a num­ber of financial institutions and Small Business Development Centers around the state have come to join as exhibitors, Mr. Kim said. Attendees have come from at least 53 countries, and in its first nine years have gone on to form more than 1,000 companies, generating 6,285 jobs.

“We’ve had [former Iowa] Gov. Terry Branstad attend, and he’s now the reason why we’re able to have IES expand over­seas,” Mr. Kim said. “There’s tension be­tween the two nations with the trade war going on, but in the middle we’re involved trying to promote better trade relations.”

Ms. Sa regards IES as a wise investment for her company.

“We have been financially supporting this nonprofit from the very beginning and I wouldn’t say that we walk away with all of them as our clients,” Ms. Sa said. “What really is the case is that if any of these become a successful business, they for sure are knocking on our door for help. It’s almost like goodwill that you plant in the community.”

At 53, Ms. Sa is one of Iowa’s strongest voices for immigrant entrepreneurs, and is still going full throttle. She aims to expand the business to include offices in the Chi­cago and Minneapolis metro areas in the years ahead.