The next wave of immigrant entrepreneurs

CHICAGO – Cities across the Midwest are full of immigrant stories. Previous generations filled the factories, building cars, furniture and steel. Now that those jobs are disappearing, cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh are hoping another wave of immigrants will help reinvigorate the economy. Changing Gears is a new public media project looking at the reinvention of the industrial Midwest. In this story, we look at the role immigrant entrepreneurs are playing in our economy.

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On Chicago’s Southwest Side, the 26th Street corridor in Little Village is hopping. It’s Saturday morning, and the streets are full of families, wheeling carts and kids in strollers as they shop.

I’m standing outside the Little Village Chamber of Commerce with its new director, Nilda Esparza and its vice-chair, Robert Garza. They’re talking about how this area is the cultural and economic home to the city’s Mexican population.

Esparza says you’ll find anywhere from 500 to 600 businesses, just on this strip.

“Everything from A to Z,” adds Garza, himself an entrepreneur. “From grocery stores, travel agencies, just about anything, you can find here on 26th Street.”

Garza’s family came here from Mexico the 1940s. They opened one of the first grocery stores in the area. Now, it’s a bustling center of city commerce. Little Village has the largest concentration of Mexican-Americans in the Midwest.

“Little Village is a place where a lot of us have started, a lot of us have flourished,” says Jesus Davila, as he stands outside Davila’s Restaurant – just one of his four businesses. He says his two restaurants alone make at least a million and a half dollars in revenue a year. He also has another business that makes small parts, and a photo studio – even though they do more than just photos there.

“Here we also do income taxes, we help people with their immigration forms, and that keeps us going year round,” he says.

Three hundred miles to the east, Steve Tobocman looks at neighborhoods like Chicago’s Little Village and is not just envious – he’s trying to figure out how it can be replicated in Southeast Michigan.

“I think immigrants represent a tremendous potential,” he says.  “Already the role that they’re playing, for example here in Southeast Michigan, is that they are critical components of energy driving us to the new economy”.

Tobocman is in charge of the Global Detroit Initiative. He’s working with Pittsburgh and Cleveland to try to make all of their cities more welcoming to immigrants, because he sees these people as key to helping kickstart their economies.

He points to Hispanic and Arab communities that are repopulating parts of Detroit – creating rare economic bright spots.

Tobocman also likes to reel off figures like this one: In Michigan, almost 40 percent of the tech businesses started in the past decade were created by immigrants. This from a state where just five percent of its population was born outside the country.

One way Detroit is working with Cleveland and Pittsburgh is to create a regional center for a government visa program called the EB-5. That’s where would-be immigrants who are willing to invest a million dollars and create ten American jobs qualify for a green card  – for them and their families.

“I think being open to attracting the intellectual capital is going to be critical to the 21st Century,” he says.

Back in Chicago, a group of three dozen university computer science students are handing in a coding test. It’s an effort by the Illinois Technology Association to ensure that the next generation of entrepreneurs stays in the Midwest.

Terry Howerton is the head of the industry group. He looks at companies like Netscape, Paypal, Youtube and Oracle as the ones that got away.

“All of those people have one thing in common: an Illinois education,” he says. “And they have another thing in common: they slipped away from our community. They built their companies somewhere else. They created massive amounts of jobs, and massive amounts of wealth, somewhere else.

So for the first time this year, the tech group visited seven universities throughout Illinois. They fed computer students lots of pizza and gave them the first round of tests. The top 45 made it to Chicago – where they’ve sat another two hour exam. The winner gets $5,000. More importantly, there are recruiters from a dozen or so Illinios-based tech waiting outside the room to meet and interview the test-takers.

Most of the room is full of international students – mostly from China, and India, but also Eastern Europe. In the past five years, more of these students are going back to their home countries and starting businesses there.

But Howerton hopes finding them jobs in Illinois will make the students stay.

Vivek  Thyagarajan is a senior at the University of Illinois. He’s 22. He ticks off a few on his list of reasons why he wants to stay here instead of going home to India: American corporate culture here, American lifestyle, and American money.

He points out he’s not in a position to bargain for where he wants to go. He needs to go where the jobs are, because his employer will sponsor him. But all things being equal, he’ld love to move to Chicago.

He’s an electrical engineering student. And he points across the street to the Willis Tower as yet another reason for staying.

“I love the design,” he says. “I love the city because of the amazing architecture, this is where the skyscraper was born. So yeah, I’d love to stay here.”

Thyaragun’s goal is to have a job offer before May, when he’s set to graduate.

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