Immigrants fuel entrepreneurship in Michigan

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Capital News Service
LANSING — When Bhushan Kulkarni, an Indian citizen who finished his master’s degree in West Virginia, came to Ann Arbor for a summer internship in 1988, he fell in love with the community.
It became his second hometown as he started his own business there after the internship and now owns two Ann Arbor-based companies, providing information technology consulting service.
Kulkarni realized his dream to start his own business after he got a green card that allowed him to stay and work in the United States.

As an international student, “you need a work visa to do a specific job,” he said. “But when I got a green card, I was free to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to get my legal status first before starting a business.”
Good quality of life, a family-oriented atmosphere and blending cultural diversity are reasons why Kulkarni stayed.
He is by no means not the only entrepreneurial immigrant staying in Michigan.
From 1995 to 2005, a third of high-tech firms in the state were created by immigrants, compared to a national rate of about 25 percent. Michigan has a higher percentage of immigrant-led start-ups than any state except California and New Jersey, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC).
Tel Ganesan, also born in India, began a staffing business in Detroit seven years ago.
One reason why Michigan is a good place for immigrant entrepreneurship is because it has one of the highest concentrations of immigrants in the U.S., he said.
Another reason: “Michigan is oftentimes where we see innovation in new companies come and rise up in a recession,” he said.
Immigrant entrepreneurs, cite challenges in opening their own companies.
Ganesan said integrating into the surrounding culture was a challenge.
But from an acceptance point of view, Kulkarni didn’t feel such a challenge because “there was more curiosity from people who wanted to learn about me and my culture.”
Fathy Shetiah, founder of a Lansing-based company providing translation and cross-cultural communication services, came from Egypt in 1989.
He said Lansing is extremely welcoming to international people, a situation which made him stay in the city and start his business.
He said business always has ups and downs, and immigration is a psychologically sensitive subject.
“It’s always challenging running a business, no matter if you are an immigrant,” Shetiah said. “There are always going to be people looking at you differently, but they are very few. If you really know what you want to do, there are always a lot more people who will help you.”
Acknowledging the role immigrants could play in creating positive economic activities, Gov. Rick Snyder ordered the Department of Civil Rights and MEDC to launch the Global Michigan Initiative in 2011.
The program aims to open a global marketplace by retaining highly educated and skilled foreign-born talent and highlighting communities that welcome immigrants.
Global Michigan includes strategies to attract and retain talent, such as addressing visa provisions that allow foreign graduates to hold certain types of jobs in limited periods.
It also supports the International Student Retention project initiated by GlobalDetroit to connect immigrants with Southeast Michigan’s economy.
Athena Trentin, director of the Global Talent Retention program — which grew out of GlobalDetroit — said two things make it clear that investing in an international student is an investment in Michigan’s economic future.
The first is that Michigan’s international students are three times more likely to study in a STEM field — science, technology, engineering and math — when the entire U.S. is facing a shortage of STEM talent .
“There are five engineering jobs available for every one qualified engineer in Michigan, ” Trentin said. “And the only way we can fill this shortage is to include international students in the applicant pool.”
The other is that immigrants are six times more likely to start their own businesses in Michigan. Most of them entered the U.S. as international students and started their businesses about 13 years after coming to the U.S. after their arrival.
Trentin said her program provides international students and employers with training and resources on immigration regulations, information on finding a job and working in Michigan and help with cross-cultural issues.
“Many employers aren’t aware that they don’t have to immediately sponsor international students for work visas and can hire them for summer internships, just as they would do for a domestic student, no cost or extra time spent on their end,” she said.
From his experience, Kulkarni said immigrant entrepreneurs need a passion to start their own business if they are to succed.
“Immigrants start from scratch. They work hard until they succeed. Starting a business is the only way to move up,” he said.
Kulkarni said the state needs to cultivate such people and let them know Michigan has opportunity.
“Many international students get their higher education here but go to Silicon Valley,” he said. “We need to get them the idea that they can do business in Michigan, and not go to the place where everybody is.”

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