On July 11, 2014, the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies hosted an enlightening panel discussion on immigrant entrepreneurship at Nebula Coworking. Panel participants Diego Abente, Ola Ayeni, Betsy Cohen, and Nicole Cortes shared their experiences in multiple fields. They offered valuable insights and advice for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially foreign-born students. Interns Diana Zeng, NJ Fu, and Clayton Vitek provided stimulating questions, which drove the intriguing discussion.
When immigrant entrepreneurs come to America, they bring a unique perspective to the table. Ola, who founded two American businesses, viewed life differently than most Americans when he came from Nigeria. He felt increased pressure “to survive and not fail in the land where everything is possible.” Since going back to Nigeria was not an option, he had no fallback. This created motivation for him and helped drive him to succeed. According to Ola, immigrants have a “totally different mindset,” which leads them to “see the big picture” and “not complain like people here.” The immigrant perspective, which creates a strong drive and work ethic, makes foreign-born skilled workers into valuable assets for America’s economy.
Part of immigrants’ unique perspective comes from the fact that they must overcome more hurdles than native-born Americans to succeed. According to Betsy, entrepreneurs need “connections, cash, and credibility,” which immigrants have greater difficulty obtaining. Ola talked about how he had to learn how to do business here. Among other challenges, Ola had to adapt his accent to bolster his credibility. Immigrants often do not have much credit history, so they face difficulty acquiring funding to start their businesses. Diego, who serves as a Program Manager for Microenterprise Development, explained how his business has provided loans for immigrants, so they could build their credibility and eventually obtain larger bank loans.
St. Louis, which has a mere 4% foreign-born population, offers several programs that entice immigrant entrepreneurs to come to the region. ITEN’s Special Interest Groups, for example, help provide opportunities and networking for immigrant entrepreneurs. Ola moved his company from Chicago 11 months ago to obtain funding from the Arch Grant. According to Ola, the St. Louis community offers significant support to entrepreneurs. Since other cities tend to have greater output, the culture is not as “dog eat dog” here, and “everyone wants good for St. Louis.” There are many people and resources available to assist entrepreneurs in the region, and St. Louis provides opportunities to be a “big fish in a small pond.”
St. Louis also recently became a regional center for the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Pilot Program, which encourages foreign investment in the United States economy. Foreign nationals can invest $500,000 or more in regional businesses, creating or saving at least 10 jobs. In return, the investors are granted a green card, which provides permanent residency in the United States. Betsy works in the World Trade Center and serves as the Executive Director of the St. Louis Mosaic Project, so she has been involved with this initiative.
Additionally, the Mosaic Project has been working on incentivizing local companies to hire foreign-born students. These students’ visas typically grant them 12 months after graduation to find employment in the United States. Students in STEM fields receive an additional 17 months to find employment, so Betsy suggests that foreign-born students pursue technical degrees for greater leeway in their job searches.
Ola suggests that students start seeking ways to achieve their goals now by searching for relevant internships and building necessary skills to work in America. He says that students should “know where they want to be” and incorporate street smarts to get there. Similarly, Diego suggests that students need to “make themselves known quantities.” Additionally, foreign students need to build their soft skills, such as their English communication capabilities. Betsy suggests that students brush up on American culture by learning to be aware of local trends, such as Cardinals baseball.
Toward the end of the discussion, the panel addressed regulatory changes that could be made to increase immigrant entrepreneurship. Diego thought that simplifying the process for opening a business could be beneficial. He also felt that regulators should refocus services and attempt to think more from the entrepreneur’s perspective. Betsy highlighted the importance of reforming the national visa system to allow for more high-skilled, agricultural, and entrepreneurial visas. Nicole, who serves as Co-Director for the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project, saw little room for regulatory alterations at the local level. Although Betsy pointed out that Massachusetts lawmakers have begun looking for ways around national visa laws, it remains unclear whether Missouri lawmakers could follow suit.