SCHENECTADY — The little shop is stocked floor to ceiling with beaded clothing in the profusion of colors favored by Indians for celebrations and religious ceremonies.
“My store’s all about Indian clothing,” said Shelly Singh, owner of Shreya’s Exclusive. “And I also carry all type of supplies for puja.”
With a woman singing in Hindi on the stereo and an assortment of cultural items lining the shelves, this boutique would fit in any of the Indian or Indo-Guyanese enclaves in the New York City metro region.
But it sits at the corner of Crane Street and Forest Avenue in Schenectady’s Mont Pleasant neighborhood.
PART OF THE COMMUNITY
As the Guyanese-American community has grown in Schenectady, so too has its profile in the business landscape here.
Guyana is not a wealthy country, and many of its native sons and daughters have worked years to build the capital they’ll need to start their own businesses.
Some have failed, just as in generations of first- and second-generation Americans before them. But enough have succeeded that they’ve made an imprint on the business community.
The Gazette spoke to a diverse group of Guyanese-born entrepreneurs who’ve made their ventures work in Schenectady, whether for a few years or a few decades. All but one followed the same timeline: Work years for other people before taking the leap themselves.
They also shared a common sense of being away from their own people when they arrived in Schenectady, as most arrived before the large influx of Guyanese two decades ago.
Guyana is a melting pot, with a variety of cultures, races and languages among its citizens. One of the largest groups is the descendants of the laborers who moved from India to then-British Guiana in the 1800s and early 1900s; they account for much of the Guyanese diaspora that has settled in New York City and, for the past 20 years, Schenectady.
Schenectady has been a melting pot, too, but mainly for European immigrants in the 20th century. The city was 87% white as recently as the 1990 census.
Ronnie Dhanessur and his grandson Ravhi pose at Ronnie and Sons Autobody on State Street in Schenectady. Credit: Peter R. Barber
Ronnie Dhanessur was one of the very first Guyanese immigrants to Schenectady in 1971, 30 years before a wave of relocations from Queens brought thousands more to the city.
He recalls walking along Union Street early on.
“People never seen an Indian before — the kids would look at me,” he said. “I don’t mind that. I work with white people. I like them, they like me.”
His experience in the half-century since, like so many other entrepreneurs of all colors, has been that doing quality work is widely appreciated across racial and cultural lines — especially so in his profession, which is repairing cars and getting their owners back on the road.
After a youth spent fixing things with his father in Guyana, he followed two of his brothers to America. One of them had attended welding school in Schenectady.
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Dhanessur walked into an auto repair shop here and found the owner and crew puzzling over a VW Beetle lights wouldn’t work. Dhanessur asked for a job and the owner put him on the spot: Fix the lights.
He was familiar with the ubiquitous Beetle and it was a simple test. He saw they’d installed 12-volt bulbs in a car with a 6-volt charging system.
“So he said, ‘You’re hired,’ ” Dhanessur said.
That garage owner gave him not only his first job in America but the nickname that stuck for life.
“This old Italian guy, he could barely speak English,” Dhanessur said. “He couldn’t pronounce my name.”
Which, for the record, is Ronald, though he now prefers Ronnie.
Over the next three decades Dhanessur would work for several Schenectady garages including the original Mohawk Chevrolet before finally opening his own shop on State Street in 1998: Ronnie & Sons.
Allstate Insurance agent Haresh Bhatia and Lila Ramdeen in front of their Altamont Avenue business in Rotterdam. Credit: Peter R. Barber
The community profile Schenectady officials published in the mid-2000s showed Italians as the second-largest immigrant community after the Guyanese.
Haresh Bhatia, principal of the Allstate Insurance agency on Altamont Avenue in Rotterdam, said residents of Guyanese or Italian extraction now provide the bulk of his business, about 40% each.
He’s never sought or avoided one ethnic group or another; that’s just the way it’s worked out.
“I found people very welcoming,” he said of his start in the insurance business a third of a century ago. The only early barrier was practical rather than prejudicial — his English was heavily accented at the time.
“Initially, yes, I did struggle because people didn’t understand what I was saying on the phone,” Bhatia said. “Initially I had to do a lot of in-person calls. I was much more effective in person.”
Bhatia’s journey to entrepreneurship started in 1986, when he came to Schenectady almost directly from Guyana.
“To be honest, I was in Queens for two weeks. I couldn’t deal with it,” he said, recalling the high noise level, scarce parking and overall sense of crowding.
He rose to manager in two years at the Schenectady Burger King, then became one of five agents at the Allstate office in the
Allstate was part of Sears at the time, and Sears used the in-store offices as a proving ground to determine who was ready to open a field office. Bhatia got the nod, but not the Hamburg Street office he wanted. Instead, he set up on Erie Boulevard. When the chance came, he moved to Altamont Avenue in Rotterdam, where he lives today.
That worked out nicely, he said: His first choice, Hamburg Street, has declined as a retail destination over the years while Altamont Avenue has grown.
“So I’ve been very happy,” Bhatia said.
Shreya’s Exclusive owner Shelly Singh in her Crane Street store in Schenectady. Credit: Peter R. Barber/The Daily Gazette
Boutique owner Shelly Singh is another arrival from Guyana.
“I moved to Schenectady in 1999,” she said.
It would be 19 more years before she started the retail business that is her focus now: Shreya’s Exclusive, named after her now-4-year-old daughter. She has a second shop, Elegant Curtains and Boutique, that her husband manages across the street.
“Prior to that I was running a day care for about 12 years,” Singh said. “It’s a dream. I always wanted to be my own boss.”
She’s also excited to be among a large community that knows her and likes her wares, which go beyond clothing to include cultural and religious items.
“It’s like I’m on Liberty Avenue in Queens,” she recalls one customer saying, referring to the main retail strip in the neighborhood known as Little Guyana.
“It’s the community,” Singh said. “Without the community and the support, I wouldn’t be able to grow.”
She’s doing well enough that she’d like to expand her space into the backyard.
“I was actually looking for another building away from Crane Street,” she said. “I thought about it and said, no, I can’t move from Crane Street. People know me here.”
Her customer base is mainly Guyanese but not entirely — non-Guyanese customers purchase clothing or other items for religious or cultural events, or family celebrations. There’s also a Caribbean-born clientele, thanks to the cultural crossover between Guyana and the Caribbean islands.
THE MELTING POT
Vanessa Phillip embodies that crossover.
“Everyone in Schenectady thinks I’m Guyanese,” she said.
But she’s actually from Trinidad, the closest Caribbean island to Guyana.
“We’re the same culture,” she said, particularly when it comes to food and music.
There’s more: She’s Hindu like many Guyanese; her boyfriend is Guyanese; and her Guyanese brother-in-law living in Schenectady was the impetus for her family to move north from New York City in 2004, when she was a teenager.
Phillip is a full-time personal banker at KeyBank. Her experience there and at other banks led her to create Impactful Solutions, a part-time, one-woman credit-repair business. There was, she said, frequently a lack of knowledge about credit and debt among the Guyanese-Americans she met.
Her own parents knew little about it, and she made financial mistakes herself when she was younger.
When processing mortgage applications, she’d meet families whose income qualified them for loans but whose credit history disqualified them, even if an honest mistake was to blame. Some had never even seen their own credit report.
“A typical meeting with one of my clients is reviewing their credit report line by line,” she said. “And then I ask the tough question: What got you here?”
That’s key. A credit repair lasts only as long as good decisions are made. Her plan when the pandemic ends is to provide education on avoiding mistakes, and to do more outreach through the Schenectady Guyanese Community Center and Schenectady Hindu Temple.
Her belief and hope is that as a part of that community, she’ll achieve greater credibility and be more effective.
Nishal Mohabeer at his Vibez Bar & Lounge on State Street in Schenectady. Credit: Peter R. Barber
CHASING THE DREAM
Anecdotes and stereotypes suggest that many immigrants have to work hard to make progress, and that many do just that.
(Ronnie Dhanessur’s succinct take: “I had it the hard way and I worked for everything.”)
But hard data bear out the anecdotes: Research commissioned by the U.S. Small Business Administration nearly a decade ago showed higher rates of business formation and business ownership among foreign-born Americans than among native-born, though average annual sales figures were significantly lower for businesses owned by immigrants.
At the less-formal level of entrepreneurship, the Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey found 7.8% of foreign-born Americans self-employed in unincorporated businesses vs. 5.6% for native-born.
Guyana-born Nishal Mohabeer is one of those who just kept chasing the dream. His family left Guyana for New York City when he was a toddler and then moved north a couple of years later, before many other Guyanese did.
“I came to Schenectady — ’94, I think. I was just a kid,” he said.
“I went to Lincoln Elementary, middle school, Schenectady High,” he said. But he didn’t go to college. He went to work.
“I worked like 16 different jobs, all types, every field you can think of. While I was doing all that I DJ’ed for everyone else. I always wanted my own place.”
At long last, on April 4, 2018, he bought the State Street building that — eventually — would become VibeZ Bar and Lounge. Licensing took a while.
“I thought it was going to fail,” Mohabeer recalled. “Time is flying but nothing’s coming in.
“We ended up getting our license and then, boom! Everyone knew me. The support was real.”
That support carried VibeZ through the pandemic. Its name would suggest it’s a nightclub, and it is that, but it’s also a restaurant and takeout kitchen.
The menu Mohabeer and his mother put together has something for all cultures and tastes, from chicken tenders and mozzarella sticks to Guyanese-style bangamary fish to the curry and jerk dishes popular throughout the Caribbean.
Takeout orders boomed amid the pandemic and Mohabeer kept eight people employed.
BUMPS IN THE ROAD
Schenectady’s Guyanese community became very large very quickly in the early 2000s, and often found a warm welcome — but not always. Among Schenectadians inclined to bias, there were the standard prejudices about different colors and cultures.
But more than that, there sometimes was suspicion or curiosity about an outside group suddenly moving by the thousands to a city that had been on the skids for a generation.
Most of the five entrepreneurs in this story have experienced bias or resentment to some degree, though all describe it as minor: It was there at times and they noticed it, but it didn’t escalate above an annoyance and didn’t stop them from achieving their goals.
The rumor that Schenectady’s new Guyanese residents were getting some sort of subsidy or tax break to move here or to buy and fix run-down houses spread rapidly in some quarters.
Mohabeer chuckles at the suggestion 20 years later.
“We always paid taxes. When we moved up here we didn’t have a silver spoon,” he said. “We started working from scratch.”
(Dhanessur explained how immigrants from a poor country could buy up real estate: “What the Guyanese people do best is they work hard and pool their money to buy a house.”)
Bhatia said he has always felt welcomed as a member of the business community. He said, though, that he’s become very good at figuring out how crashes happened from all the accident reports he’s reviewed, and he’s noticed police incorrectly fault Guyanese motorists more often than non-Guyanese motorists.
Dhanessur said disrespect comes from within as well as without: His own people have paid him with checks they knew were going to bounce and wouldn’t look him in the eye the next time their paths crossed.
When working at the counter in a bank, Phillip saw that some customers would wait for another teller to be available when she was ready to take them. And she knows others who’ve been treated much more rudely because of their color or accent.
“I think that’s why the Guyanese community is so tight-knit here,” she said.
HERE TO STAY
None of this has soured any of them on Schenectady.
And the next generation is following — if not directly in their parents’ footsteps then in the same general neighborhood.
Bhatia is involved at his temple, in cricket leagues and with the Rotary. His son and daughter, both Mohonasen graduates, are pursuing their careers as a scientist in East Greenbush and a lawyer in Albany, respectively.
Phillip’s entrepreneurial drive is inspired as much by her son, Josh, as her desire to help her community, and she wants to raise him here. “I hate going to New York City now,” she said.
Singh’s two older children, ages 17 and 20, assist at her store when she needs help, and her mother also is there often. With the second store run by her husband and the possible expansion of her first store, she’s increasingly anchored at the top of the Crane Street hill. “I must thank God that everything is great so far,” she said.
Grandchildren of the original Ronnie & Sons customers now sometimes bring their cars in to be inspected or fixed, and they’ll soon find a similar generational transition behind the counter.
“My grandson, he’s going to run the place,” Ronnie Dhanessur said of Ravhi Dhanessur, who’s still finishing his education. “He’s going to be here. He wants to do this work. I’ll be there to help him.”
Ronnie is retiring in place with his wife of 58 years.
“I wouldn’t move anywhere else,” he said. “I never liked Florida.”
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