Overlooked in the recent raucous debate on illegal immigration is the powerful role of legal immigrants on both innovation and job creation. A few years ago a study by the National Venture Capital Association estimated that nearly half of all private venture-backed companies, and 20% of private ones, have had immigrant founders. Count among the immigrant-founded companies some of today's corporate behemoths -- Google, Intel, Yahoo, Sun Microsystems and eBay.
A regional analysis by the Center for an Urban Future, called A World of Opportunity, reported that "nowhere is the impact of immigrants on urban economies more visible than in New York City. Over the past 10 to 15 years, immigrant entrepreneurs fueled much of the overall growth in new businesses across the city and triggered dramatic turnarounds in neighborhoods all over the five boroughs." While immigrants account for 39% of the total population, they represent about a half of all self-employed workers. The same pattern prevails in most major cities. Technology giants aside, on a local level the majority of businesses started by immigrants are mom and pop retail stores and restaurants. But immigrants also migrate into scalable businesses too, including biotechnology, media, apparel manufacturing, printing companies and food manufacturing.
The reasons why immigrants launch their own businesses are as many as the countries from which they come. Some may be natural risk takers; other come for education, settle here and launch companies. Another group simply seeks a better lifestyle, especially if they have been stuck in minimum wage jobs which allow few opportunities for advancement, especially for women.
One student who came and stayed was French-born Annie Vanrenterghem Raven who arrived with a civil engineering degree from Paris, then got a master's degree in environmental science at Columbia. After marrying and having two children, Annie plunged back into a PhD program in civil engineering with a concentration in water at Polytechnic Institute, the engineering school of NYU. With her degree, she stayed on to do research on water with grants from the EPA and the National Science Foundation with a focus on making connections with European labs and their know-how. While at the university, she also worked on a water project with the Las Vegas Valley Water Authority.
In early 2008, when a consulting firm heard her speak about her Las Vegas work, they invited her to consult for them on a project for the Boston Water and Sewer District; later that firm encouraged Annie to launch her own business to take advantage of the set-asides for women-owned businesses that are government mandated. Though Annie says she "stumbled upon becoming an entrepreneur," her motivation was to apply her research to real needs when she saw opportunity in decaying water infrastructure.
Her consulting business InfraPlan, hatched in 2008, provides water utilities with a highly analytical plan for rehabilitation of water pipes so they can prioritize projects. Within two years, Annie says, "we're already profitable." With the Las Vegas and Boston projects completed, she is currently working on projects with Aquarion, a Connecticut water company, and with the city of Montreal. Her next goal is to find funding to develop software that integrates the models she offers clients.
When she first arrived in New York from Honduras, Maribel Lieberman headed for a career in fashion since her mother had been a seamstress and "I always had a creative urge." But after marrying a Belgian artist, Maribel channeled her creativity into a catering company. When she found that the little box of chocolates she had designed to market her services attracted more clients than her catering business, she developed a specialty chocolate business, Mariebelle. With the help of a few microloans, Maribel produced dark chocolate morsels, made of single origin cacao and infused with a variety of 27 flavors. Her creative flourish was to transfers artistic designs onto her chocolate pieces through a silk screening process.
One key to Maribel's success is her instinct to respond to new opportunities. When a buyer from Bergdorf stopped by her shop one day and expressed interest in her chocolates, Maribel saw the opportunity to create a wholesale line. Along with Bergdorf, her luxury lines of chocolates are currently sold in Neiman Marcus and Gump's and internationally in luxury outlets in the UK, Switzerland and Japan. With the recent rise in cacao prices, Maribel saw the need for less expensive products and launched a line of dark chocolate bars now carried by 30 Whole Foods and 104 Fresh Market stores. She also maintains a flagship retail store in Soho in downtown Manhattan, which offers hot chocolate made from her popular Aztec Hot Chocolate powder, once featured on the Oprah show. The shop is filled with antiques as a backdrop for her artfully-packaged and decorated chocolates. "To me," Maribel notes, "the visual impact is just as important as the taste." Apparently her customers agree; last year, MarieBelle expects to reach sales of about $5 million this year.
Not surprisingly, immigrants face more than the usual obstacles in starting businesses. We'll discuss some of those obstacles in my follow up blog.
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