Pittsburgh chamber chapter urges trade with Asia

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When Kanak Iyer came to Pittsburgh from India in the 1980s, a term would come up in conversation, but she didn't know what it meant: the U.S. Congress.

More than 30 years later, Ms. Iyer runs her own business, Kanakadhara Financial -- and she is quite familiar with the political and financial networks that underpin commercial success in the city. Now she wants to ensure that other Asian-Americans have the same opportunities.

That's why Ms. Iyer is founding a Pittsburgh chapter of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce, a coalition designed to aid homegrown ventures and advance bilateral trade between the U.S. and Asian countries. The chamber's inaugural event -- today at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business -- will highlight opportunities to revive what the chamber is calling the "golden entrepreneurial spirit of the steel city" in a series of panel discussions.

"Asian American is a powerful combination," said Ms. Iyer, who received a doctorate in biomedicine from the University of Bombay, now the University of Mumbai, and a master's degree in genetic epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University.

"Different communities bring a lot to the table in terms of education and a fairly wealthy demographic, but how do we partner with each other?"

As an Indian-American, Ms. Iyer said, she has felt welcome in the city but added that the same may not be true for "all of the communities across the board." The chamber will offer a platform to address shared needs and set common goals, emphasizing networking and mentoring among Asian-American business owners. Member businesses will pay dues to share in the benefits of the chamber.

Kalpana Biswas, an independent filmmaker from Calcutta, India, will be addressing the group about Asian-Americans and the media. One simple benefit she said she hopes the chamber can provide is funding, either through direct payments or assistance tapping into resources from foundations or the government.

Particularly for artistic ventures, Mrs. Biswas said, benefactors can be sparse. Her own project has taken her to Afghanistan, where she is working on a film about the effect of war on women and children, provisionally titled "Jewels of Kandahar."

"I've met people in Pittsburgh who feel that the project is worthwhile, that it touches them, but when it comes to funding, there is an emphasis on the local," she said. Her hope is that the chamber will take a wider perspective, breaking through "established networks" of financial support and advocacy.

There are many pro-business advocacy groups in the Pittsburgh area, but none representing Asian-Americans as a whole. The Allegheny Conference on Community Development, for instance, is focused on political advocacy work, seeking to create a suitable business climate in the region, according to the conference's senior communications specialist, Philip Cynar.

The conference is an umbrella organization with three affiliates, including the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, which welcomed collaboration with the new chamber in a statement Friday.

Other groups cater to particular Asian-American ethnic groups. The Pittsburgh China Chamber of Commerce seeks primarily to help American entrepreneurs do business in China, and vice versa, said founding member Frank Li. While granting that more can be done to promote local commercial operations, Mr. Li said he questions the scope of the fledgling Asian-American Chamber of Commerce.

"When you talk about Asia in general, that's very broad," he said. "What are the specific services you will provide? Not that many resources exist, so I don't know."

But Narasimha Shenoy, CEO of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, said a broad focus is necessary to unite different strands of the Asian-American community.

"The biggest challenge is to have all the Asians speak the same language -- it's called money," said Mr. Shenoy, 65, who came to the U.S. from India in 1972. "Each community is pocketed, but there are 150,000 Asians in Philadelphia altogether."

Nearly 50,000 Asians and Asian-Americans call the Pittsburgh metro area home, according to 2010 Census data.

Debra Lam, another panelist and Pittsburgh's chief of innovation and performance, said the chamber dovetails nicely with her efforts to foster innovation through entrepreneurship, start-ups and small businesses. Mrs. Lam, a Chinese-American whose parents ran a small Chinese restaurant in Pittsburgh, said chambers, in addition to the government, play an important role in making the city an attractive business environment.

Isaac Stanley-Becker: istanley-becker@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3775.

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