This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When Jason Jan came to the United States, he traveled a bit, even spent some time in California. But when it was time to settle down and found his own company, the native Malaysian knew just where he wanted to do it.
“I got my bachelor's in finance from UMSL. I met my wife in St. Louis,” said Jan, creator of FroYo, a chain of frozen yogurt stores, as he hands out samples of his enterprise’s signature product in the atrium of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. “It has a good quality of life, good school districts, reasonable cost of living. I can tell you that I love St. Louis. It’s a great place to start a family, a great place to start a business.”
It’s the sort of story organizers of the St. Louis Mosaic Project hope to hear more often. Unveiled this morning at the Plant Science Center, the initiative is a joint endeavor funded with seed money from the St. Louis County Economic Council, featuring representatives of economic, educational and civic institutions who promote growth and innovation in the area by creating a more welcoming environment for immigrant entrepreneurs by 2020.
Immigrants "create opportunities and make the pie bigger,” said Betsy Cohen, project director. “We need to look at things we can do as a community. We need to become more welcoming and figure out all the points we need to do to connect services and resources so that when people come here they can immediately plug in.”
Among the statistics highlighted by Cohen during a later presentation to attendees were that St. Louis has the lowest immigrant share of any top 20 city and that, since 1970, it has fallen from 26th place to 43rd among metro areas in number of foreign-born individuals.
It was a fact lamented by organizers of the event who noted the success enjoyed by those immigrants who are here. St. Louis’s foreign-born community is well-educated and mostly hold white-collar jobs. Immigrants are 44 percent more likely to have at least a college degree, 60 percent more likely to be an entrepreneur, and earn a quarter more than their native-born counterparts.
Cohen said she hoped that the project could benefit St. Louis by tapping into the immigrant entrepreneurial spirit.
“I hope it grows into a movement where we actually start to see, by 2020, that we are the fastest-growing region for the foreign-born and that we see our neighborhoods rejuvenated, schools opening, teachers hired, retail stores returning and that we see that economic vitality,” she said.
Much of Mosaic is based off a William T. Kemper Foundation study by Jack Strauss, an economist at Saint Louis University. The study examined the immigration picture in St. Louis and also looked at mid-sized cities from Kansas City to Baltimore in an effort to draw conclusions about how the Gateway City could improve its draw of talent from outside the U.S.
The report spotlighted a number of best practices from other cities including an anti-discrimination measure in Baltimore, an Office of Globalization in Louisville and various business initiatives in Detroit and Cleveland.
Locally, it found that services for immigrants were heavily fragmented compared to other cities. It also noted a lack of support for international students in the area and too few connections to the local business community as well as state and regional groups and religious organizations.
It concluded with a nine-point plan that included a “Welcome Center” for connecting employees and companies and the creation of a virtual enclave online to link immigrants within the community.
Organizers also announced the inclusion of St. Louis city and county in the Welcoming America initiative, a group of 12 other localities that promotes friendly attitudes toward immigrants.
“This is a way to grow our population in the future,” said Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, “and if we are going to increase the economy of our region in all aspects, whether through economic growth that comes from travel and tourism or from new jobs that are created through new industries, every aspect of it has to do with the workforce and the diversity of that workforce.”
Ratcliffe, who chairs Mosaic’s communications committee, cited the cultural and economic growth of the Bosnian, Hispanic and other communities in the area.
“You look at areas like South Grand and it makes for a place that’s more interesting to be when you’ve got that kind of diversity in the culture and offerings of a community,” she said. “That’s the future.”
Interviewed before the event, Tanya Charumilind, an attorney and native St. Louisan of Thai descent who serves as secretary of the local Asian-American Chamber of Commerce, said she thought the new Mosaic initiative could make a big difference by creating linkages between immigrants and the community.
“Where we’re falling short the most is in getting young immigrants to come and to stay in the St. Louis area,” said Charumilind, who later served as a panelist for the brief discussion that concluded the event. “Not only getting them to stay but to take leadership positions both in their communities and their jobs, as well as playing a significant role to attract other young immigrants.”
Charumilind also said that creating synergies between education and business was vital.
“We have fantastic, world-renowned universities here – Wash U, SLU, Webster, They have very active programs to bring immigrants to the United States and to St. Louis,” she said. “We also have the business infrastructure with Monsanto, Boeing, Sigma Aldrich.”
During the panel discussion, moderator Karlos Ramirez, a first-generation Mexican American, noted that his parents had worked two jobs much of the time since arriving in the U.S. in 1968.
“They are exactly what I’m proud to come from,” said Ramirez, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Everything that I do to help the community really stems from their hard work and leadership…There is definitely a human side to this as well.”
However, economics for the whole community are important also.
“The tagline, ‘Regional prosperity through immigration and innovation’ is really important to us,” said Rodney Crim, executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation. “It shows that we all grow because of immigration. We have more people moving into communities, buying homes, starting businesses and providing jobs for people here. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Ibrahim Vajzovic, a Bosnian immigrant and successful businessman who didn’t even know English when he came to this country in 1994, praised the local International Institute and said that education and overcoming cultural issues were key to the success of those arriving on American shores.
He also said stereotypes were a challenge and told a story about being involved in a Bosnian lamb roast when police were called by neighbors who erroneously believed the Bosnians were cooking a dog on a spit. He said others often label foreigners as lazy or feel they are stealing jobs rather than creating them.
“In this region, we have to involve media to tell so many of the successful stories of immigrants,” he said. “That will change opinions.”
Julian Schuster, a fellow immigrant from the Balkans who now serves as provost and senior vice president of Webster University, said that when he came to this country, his professor warned him of two things – that he would always be seen as a foreigner in America but that he would also become a foreigner to the land he left.
“The [latter] I cannot do anything about but for the first thing I think that we can,” he said. “That is what we need to do in St. Louis.”
Schuster said that people here should embrace the benefits immigrants can provide to their adopted hometown rather than defining people solely by their differences.
“That is going to be what will distinguish our city from the others,” he said to applause.