Twenty years ago, Radhika Reddy traversed the globe to attend Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University packing little more than a visa. Today, the Indian-born Clevelander is cofounder and partner of Ariel Ventures
, a thriving consulting firm with nearly $2 million in annual sales.
Reddy came here to learn the language of business, but decided to stay when she realized that she’d found a kindred spirit in the American entrepreneurial way of life. It hasn’t always been easy, of course. Some American norms remain bewilderingly foreign to her, like refraining from asking coworkers about their families, which is commonplace in India but less so here.
Yet Reddy still gets starry-eyed when talking about America’s wide-open highways, and she wouldn’t live anywhere else. Now that she’s earned her success, she wants to help others enjoy the same. She recently opened the Ariel International Center
, a regional hub for international businesses, in the former Leff Electric Company building on E. 40th Street.
“I came here as an immigrant and faced a lot of cultural issues with not understanding how to navigate the U.S. market,” Reddy explains. “I want this to be a one-stop-shop for other immigrant entrepreneurs. I want to help people who face the same issues.”
That almost didn't happen. After a one-year Rotary International scholarship ended, Reddy ran out of money and nearly resigned herself to going home. She was just one week away from getting on a plane to India when she landed an internship with Phillips Electric, which led to a full-time position and allowed her to finish her MBA.
“I had a 3.9 GPA and was almost at the top of my class, but I couldn’t get a job although I was willing to work for free,” she says. “Ninety percent of companies don’t want to hire foreign students. They don’t want the hassle and they don’t understand the process.”
To succeed as a region and rebuild the population we’ve steadily lost over the last 50 years, Cleveland needs smart, hungry entrepreneurs like Reddy -- people willing to come here and lay it all on the line for a chance to build their dreams. Yet there are confounding barriers for foreign-born entrepreneurs who wish to remain in the U.S., from byzantine immigration laws to the plodding process of hiring foreign workers.
Some employers are leery of hiring high-skilled immigrants because of the time and expense involved in sponsoring their H-1B visa applications. Each year, the number of people applying for those visas continues to rise, but thanks to caps imposed by the U.S. government, many are denied. And because an established employer must sponsor them, entrepreneurs often face even greater difficulties.
Despite the challenges faced by high-skilled immigrants, they continue to fuel the U.S. economy. Nearly half of the top venture-backed, early-stage companies are founded by at least one immigrant, says a 2011 study by the National Foundation for American Policy. But strict U.S. immigration laws, in place since 2002, do little to stem “brain drain,” according to a 2012 study by the Kauffman Foundation.
While comprehensive immigration reform can only be addressed at the federal level, Reddy and other local leaders want to rebrand Northeast Ohio as a place that welcomes high-skilled immigrants in growing fields like healthcare and technology. With an estimated 30,000 open positions in high-skill industries across the region, there’s no time to wait in marketing Cleveland as a place friendly to outsiders, they argue.
“The only way to grow effectively is to attract more people to our region. We know that immigrant communities are very effective at creating jobs and innovating,” says Joy Roller, new President of Global Cleveland
, a regional talent attraction effort. The organization recently launched a Welcome Hub at Public Square that provides critical services, information and educational programs to newcomers entering Cleveland.
Since launching last year, Global Cleveland has rolled out initiatives to grow targeted immigrant groups in Cleveland, developed marketing initiatives to reach high-skilled immigrants, and organized online job fairs in key areas.
Reddy, who also sits on the board of Global Cleveland, believes that efforts to assist high-skilled immigrants could have a transformational impact. “Immigrants may not know what resources are available here,” she says. “We created this to help them. It’s a common gathering place where people can feel a sense of bonding.”
Momentum is growing. Already, many of our region’s fastest-growing startup companies are headed by foreign-born entrepreneurs, including Zuga Medical, Embrace Pet Insurance, Analizadx, CardioInsight, Electron Database and Adap Nanotech.
has developed an innovative dental implant that allows patients to obtain implants without surgery. While still in the startup stage, projections show the company can create 40 to 70 jobs in Northeast Ohio.
Chan Wang, Zuga's founder, is a Chinese immigrant who came to Cleveland in 1993 when her husband moved here to do research. Although Wang was a respected dentist in China, once in the States she had to start from the bottom and work her way up again. Obtaining a job as a dental assistant, she was simply glad to receive a paycheck.
Twenty years later, Wang has worked at two of the region’s finest research institutions -- CWRU and the Cleveland Clinic -- as well as the biotech firm Athersys. In addition to running a dental practice in a highly under-served area in East Cleveland, she opened an office at the Ariel International Center to bring her product to market.
Earlier this year, Wang received competitive funding from the Great Lakes Innovation and Development Enterprise (GLIDE
) as well as the North Coast Innovation Fund. Jumpstart
and other entrepreneurial groups also have supported the startup.
Reddy says that inventive immigrants like Wang not only are the future of Cleveland, but also the future of our increasingly globalized society. Well-versed in two cultures, these foreign-born businesspeople glide easily between dissimilar business worlds, gleaning ideas and opportunities that others, lacking their experience, often miss.
“They know what’s available here and in their country, and what’s missing," says Reddy. "They can take the best of both worlds and then create something new that might not exist now.”
The United States will lose the fast-paced international race to grow innovation unless more immigrants like Wang are given opportunities to stay, Reddy says. She’s far from alone in making this argument. At the national level, the issue of retaining immigrant entrepreneurs has become a hot topic among the savviest investors.
“The story of America is the story of entrepreneurs,” said AOL founder Steve Case at the National Association of Seed and Venture Funds conference held recently in Cleveland. “Right now, we’re taking the best and the brightest and kicking them out so they can create businesses in their own countries. We need to focus on keeping high-skilled immigrant entrepreneurs.”
Case believes the answer is the “Startup Act 2.0,” a federal bill that would streamline the H-1B visa process and give immigrant entrepreneurs a pathway to a green card. The proposed law has been introduced into Congress, but it faces a tough battle.
Reddy hopes that the newly renovated space at the Ariel International Center will help. The three partners behind Ariel Ventures have finished the raw, empty building using loans, grants and their own equity. With exposed brick walls, wooden beams and large windows offering panoramic views of the lake and skyline, the space is inspiring. The building now houses seven growing companies and is 40 percent leased.
Despite cultural differences, Reddy has thrived in the U.S., and she now feels at home here. “I wanted to stay because of the independence you have. You can make a difference as an individual. India is bureaucratic and it can be difficult to get things done on your own. There’s a lot of opportunity here. You can make anything happen.”
Photos Bob Perkoski