Starting a new company can be challenging. Throw in the trials of starting that company in a new country and it can be an exciting, albeit scary experience. For communities here in the US trying to create entrepreneurial climates, easing those challenges will bring more skilled people into the community. Immigration of entrepreneurs into the US can pay off (literally) in both the short-term and the long-term. I’ve been an immigrant entrepreneur abroad and learned a lot in the process.
In 2008, I co-founded PharmaSecure. I was living in India, working with NGOs as a Clinton Fellow, and saw firsthand the problems of counterfeit medicines in emerging markets. That’s when I met my soon-to-be business partners who were working on technologies to wage war on the counterfeit drug trade. From there, our company was born.
I grew up watching my dad start and grow his company. I wanted that same spirit of entrepreneurship. With PharmaSecure, I was able to experience that for myself. In our business, my partners and I saw that a solution to counterfeit medicines lay outside the pharmaceutical industry. I knew that we could be flexible in a way corporations couldn’t; to effect change in emerging markets, a startup was the way to go.
Just like immigrants coming to our shores, I faced language barriers and assimilation to new and foreign ways of doing business. In India, there are additional issues in starting a business. My biggest hurdle was the foreign perspective on women in business. On one particular occasion, I attended a meeting with a potential strategic partner, accompanied by two of my male direct reports. Once we completed the obligatory exchange-of-business-cards ritual, we sat down to our discussion. Throughout the entire first half of the meeting, our potential partner addressed his remarks to my male colleagues. He then stepped out of the office to take a phone call. When he returned, he exclaimed to me, “I just noticed your business card. I didn’t realize you were the CEO!”
I bring those experiences and understanding of the challenges of immigrant entrepreneurs with me to my current position as Executive Director at Arch Grants, a nonprofit organization that gives non-dilutive grants to early stage ventures.
In 2012, the Arch Grants startup competition brought in hundreds of entries with four of the 15 grants going to entrepreneurs from outside the United States. (And our $1MM competition for 20 grants of $50,000 each is open through Feb. 1 if you want to check it out.) One of Arch Grants’ success stories is Dr. Arnoldo Müller-Molina, founder and CEO of simMachines. Arnoldo came from Costa Rica; he was seeking a place that would embrace the risk inherent in startups. He explored Germany and Japan and chose St. Louis because Arch Grants understands that startups sometimes fail and we embrace that risk.
Arnoldo’s first and one of his toughest challenges as an immigrant entrepreneur was getting to the US. He needed an E2 visa but the process is laborious and doesn’t always work. We had the fortune of donated services from attorneys at Polsinelli Shughart and Stinson, Morrison, Hecker which were a huge benefit for Arnoldo that enabled him to secure an E2 visa. And that hard work is already paying off. simMachines is now partnered with three other startups in St. Louis that are paying for its service. Arnoldo has met investors and connected to influential executives in numerous industries. He’s just one of what we hope to be hundreds of new entrepreneurs we help bring to town as we build St. Louis’ startup scene.
It’s not just a theory that immigration boosts the economy. Last summer, the Simon Chair of Economics at Saint Louis University released a paper, The Economic Impact of Immigration on St. Louis. Citing U.S. Census data, Strauss says increasing the number of immigrants coming into St. Louis will raise employment, grow incomes, boost real wages, reverse declining home prices and lower unemployment rates.
Arch Grants hopes this research and information is useful to people who understand that only turning inward for growth is the surest recipe for failure (people like Brad Feld and Richard Florida). We plan to use it to help grow St. Louis.
Startup communities are naturally energetic and inclusive places for immigrants to land that help immigrants to grow accustomed to their new surroundings. Immigrants also benefit communities like ours by introducing diverse perspectives and practices that they bring from their experiences. But it’s more than just diversity. Bringing more immigrants to a community can also mean greater inclusiveness and more jobs for the local community. The more embracing a community, the more people will want to be a part of that community, which translates to more people who will join that community, which will then bring more jobs into that community. Paving the way for foreign-born entrepreneurs to establish their startups in the U.S. adds much-needed innovations, skills, and jobs to the domestic economy. Providing a welcome reception to those who come ensures a continued pipeline of entrepreneurs like Arnoldo who are now making a difference in the US.
Sarah Spear is the Executive Director of Arch Grants, a global startup competition for early stage ventures. A former Clinton Fellow, Spear was also co-founder and CEO of PharmaSecure before coming to Arch Grants. She holds a BS in Chemistry from Gordon College and an MBA from The Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine.