Northeast Ohio embraces immigrants in new economy

Immigrants are a fundamental component of the U.S. labor force, now representing one in every six workers, according to analysis from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Foreign-born talent is strongly represented locally as well, to the tune of 7,405 immigrant entrepreneurs in the Cleveland metro area alone, per a 2017 report released by New American Economy and promoted heavily by Global Cleveland.

The region’s overall immigrant population — more than 113,000 — boasts $3.2 billion in spending power. Local government and businesses must tap into this well of human capital if Cleveland is going to compete in the worldwide marketplace, said observers interviewed by Crain’s.

While the city has a recent history of welcoming immigrants, the work of attracting and retaining new residents is far from finished.

Baiju Shah, CEO of BioMotiv, is constantly searching for skilled drug developers on a global level. As Shah’s Cleveland-based company works with scientists hoping to validate their products for Federal Drug Administration testing, casting a wide net for talent is a necessity.

“In our field, many scientists happen to have been born abroad, and come to the U.S. for education and to develop their careers,” said Shah, a founding chairperson of the Global Cleveland nonprofit. “We want the most talented individuals independent of their backgrounds, but a high proportion of scientific degrees go to individuals from international countries.”

2010 U.S. Census figures support Shah’s assertion: As of that year, foreign-born inhabitants represented 33% of all bachelor’s degree holders in engineering fields, 27% in computers, mathematics and statistics; 24% in physical sciences; and 17 percent in biological, agricultural and environmental sciences.

In fact, eight of Shah’s 40 employees were born overseas, symbolizing an expansive web of technology partners from New Zealand, China, India, United Kingdom and elsewhere.

“Human disease doesn’t know any boundaries, so having people with strong scientific capabilities to work in a global industry is vital in how we function,” Shah said. “For Cleveland to realize its full potential, it needs to be connected to this network.”

With the economy constantly evolving, hiring managers nationwide must take into consideration the unique and significant contributions made by immigrants, said Joe Cimperman, president of Global Cleveland, which champions increased immigration into Northeast Ohio as a means of spurring economic development.

Immigrants and native-born peoples comprise 17% of U.S. workers, according to the Chicago Council study. In Cleveland, those individuals are filling talent gaps at smaller companies such as Buckeye Business Products and plumbing supplier, Oatey, as well as paying into the tax system and occupying homes that would otherwise stand empty. Akron and Summit County, meanwhile, are teaming up to make their own immigration push, via a “Welcome Plan” focusing on the steady integration of immigrants into the community.

Citing an immigration system he calls “broken,” Cimperman said bringing in this highly qualified population should be viewed through a practical rather than emotional lens.

“It’s not our moral imperative to be welcoming, but to look at the economics of it, and what these newcomers bring to society,” he said. “We can’t build anything other than a bridge. To do otherwise is anti-American and anti-free market.”

Last year, the organization partnered with Flashstarts on the business accelerator’s Entrepreneur-In-Residence program, designed to kick-start immigrant-led companies in Cleveland. Entrepreneurs hosted by Flashstarts are offered an H-1B visa for their participation, while also working part time for a local university, as a visa cap that impacts foreign workers aiming to immigrate to the U.S. does not apply on the collegiate level.

Through the effort, Flashstarts is hosting four nascent startups — two from India and two from Ukraine. Bangalore native Hemanth Velury arrived in Cleveland a month ago following the 2016 launch of VirtualSpaces, which uses mobile virtual reality software to transform building blueprints into a first-person visual tour for clients.

“If someone wants to buy a property, they can go to a (real estate) website and look at different options, but nothing is going to help them understand the concept of space or depth,” Velury said. “Our VR gives you the immersion of being in a place, and fools your mind into thinking you’re somewhere else.”

Velury and chief technology officer Abhijeet Naik will continue the acceleration process with Flashstarts through mid-August, learning marketing, financial modeling and how to negotiate the mindset of potential customers. Using their technology, the pair is readying a pilot program for a Cleveland-area real estate developer. During his short time here, co-founder Velury has enjoyed the warmth and affordability of the community.

“The more talented people that come to Cleveland, the more the city will get recognized,” Velury said. “Talent is talent, whether it’s local or hailing from elsewhere.”

More Northeast Ohio companies are acknowledging a foreign workforce likely to have high levels of educational attainment. Sherwin-Williams and Progressive are two local stalwarts in employing this demographic, said Cimperman, as are the region’s hospital systems.

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