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Dustin Dwyer

Bing Goei came to the United States as a child. Now he runs a company with 60 employees and more than $5 million in annual revenue.

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In many ways, the headquarters for Eastern Floral in Grand Rapids, Mich. is like a factory. It’s in an old building with brick walls. The floor is smooth, cold concrete. A noisy printer rattles off new orders.

But of course, it smells amazing in here. Designers stand at long wooden tables, primping and pruning flowers. Red tulips. White daisies. Yellow roses. And just about any other flower you can imagine.

Bing Goei, the owner, says this work is more like artistry.

“I think you have to be born with that.” he says. “I was not. I admit it.”

Goei says this with a laugh.

But he was born with something else that turned out to be its own asset. He was born with a foreign birth certificate. His parents were Chinese. He was born in Indonesia, then moved to the Netherlands. From there, they moved to Grand Rapids, like a lot of Dutch people before them. Except, they have a Chinese name.

And like many of those immigrants before him, Goei worked hard. He started in the flower business in high school. Now, Eastern Floral has seven locations, about 60 year-round employees – twice that around Valentine’s Day – and the company has over $5 million in annual revenue.

Goei says being an immigrant, and being an entrepreneur, there’s a connection there.

“Almost every immigrant that comes to this country has come because they see America as that land of opportunity,” he says. “So immediately, their drive is to fulfill that dream.”

The data on this backs Goei up.

The Kauffman Foundation reports that immigrants are twice as likely as people born in America to start a business.

Richard Herman is an immigration attorney in Cleveland. Herman and Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Robert Smith wrote a book called Immigration, Inc.

Herman could go on all day with stats about how entrepreneurial immigrants to the U.S. are.

“Immigrants are filing patents at a two-to-one ratio [compared to] American-born,” he says. “Immigrants are more likely to have advanced degrees than American-born.”

The Kauffman Foundation

From "America's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs," by the Kauffman Foundation (click for larger version).

And there’s more:

Immigration is controversial in this country right now, because of added social service and enforcement costs, and because many believe unemployed American-born people could fill some of the jobs taken up by immigrants.

But in study after study, the data all points in one direction: Immigrants create more jobs than they take.

In the Midwest at least, policy makers are starting to take notice.

“I’m not into the politics of immigration, says Michael Finney, who heads up the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “The facts of immigration says it’s good any place in the United States. The politics of it, obviously, says something different. And I think there’s just an awful lot of confusion with regard to the kind of immigration that’s really good for the United States.”

Finney says his office does work to increase opportunities for people born here.

“But we’d be remiss if we decided to ignore or work against the immigrant population,” Finney says. “Particularly those that are educated at our universities, and in many cases, they’re earning advanced degrees. And after completing those advanced degrees, we’re requiring them to leave the United States and go back to their country, and compete against us.”

Retaining and attracting immigrants has become a major focus for Finney, and the man who hired him, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. They’ve started an initiative called Global Michigan.

More programs like it are popping up in the Midwest. In the next story for our series, we’ll look at some of those efforts.

The hope is, investing in immigrants will pay off, like it has many times before in this country.


Over the past decade, the Great Recession has perhaps punched Michigan workers the hardest.

Michigan was the only state in the country to lose population in that time span. More than 300,000 residents fled the state. Its peak unemployment rate of 14.1 percent ranks as one of the highest in the U.S. More than 1 in 5 residents in Detroit, its largest city, remain in search of work.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder

So it’s inexplicable to many in Michigan that one of the lynchpins in Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to put people back to work is encouraging an influx of immigrants. Snyder touted those plans in an exclusive Dan Rather Reports segment that aired earlier this week.

“I think it’s important for our future,” Snyder told Rather. “We’ve been in a recession for a decade. How do we really reinvent ourselves? One of the keys to how we build ourselves is immigration.”

It’s been a relevant issue in the state’s past. One century ago, immigrants comprised 33 percent of Detroit’s population during its nascent boom years. For a more contemporary example, Snyder gazes beyond Michigan’s borders toward Silicon Valley, and notes 47 percent of its residents are foreign born.

“I am focused on finding more and better jobs for Michiganders,” he tells Rather. “Encouraging legal immigration for advanced-degree people is consistent with that. They’re job creators.”

A study from the Small Business Administration shows immigrants in Michigan are three times as likely as native-born residents to start businesses, and six times as likely to start high-tech businesses. Snyder, a Republican, would like to tap that entrepreneurial spirit.

Steven Tobocman, author of Global Detroit, a recent report that formed the foundation of  Snyder’s immigration policy, writes that 32.8 percent of the state’s high-tech firms over the past 10 years have been founded by immigrants, in a state where 6 percent overall are foreign born.

He’s an unlikely ally for Snyder. Tobocman served three terms in the Michigan House of Representatives, a Democrat representing Detroit’s southwest side.

“Nothing is more powerful for remaking Detroit as a center of innovation, entrepreneurship and population growth than embracing and increasing immigrant populations and the entrepreneurial culture and global connections that they bring and deliver,” he writes.

Many of the immigrants Snyder and Tobocman seek are already within the state’s borders. Approximately 23,000 foreign-born students currently attend the state’s colleges and universities, and the state spends “millions” educating them, according to Dan Rather Reports.

Visa restrictions and more lucrative opportunities elsewhere lure them away after graduation.

“It’s a great opportunity to keep our kids in a wonderful position,” Snyder said. “We already educate so many wonderful students from outside the country. Is there a way to help keep them here? … The other piece I want to do is talk to the communities that we have here that are already ethnic communities, and do they have outreach back in their countries to bring and attract people to Michigan. I think we can all win.”


In 2007, entrepreneur Brad Keywell co-founded a company that intended to build a critical mass of online consumers and leverage their collective purchasing power with local merchants. The company, originally called The Point, was a quick failure.

“You could have called it ‘What’s the point?,’” he joked Friday, while delivering the keynote address at the University of Michigan’s “Entrepalooza,” a two-day seminar on entrepreneurship at the Ross School of Business.

Forced to retreat and reinvent the company’s business plan, he and two partners simplified the concept and re-launched as Groupon. Since then, the Chicago-based company has seen its workforce mushroom from 37 employees to 3,600 and grown from 152,000 subscribers to approximately 115 million. Forbes Magazine recently called it the fastest-growing company in history.

Per Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, Keywell could not comment on the company’s upcoming initial public offering, tentatively slated for October or November, nor its recent decision to delay the IPO due to what it termed “market volatility.” But in general remarks, he attributed the company’s position to its willingness to embrace failure.

“The surest thing you will experience in life is failure,” he said. “But talking about that is a taboo. We take classes in accounting and everything else. How much time do we spent talking about failure? Zero, usually.”

Keywell graduated from Michigan in 1991 and earned his J.D. from the university’s law school in 1993. In addition to Groupon, he has co-founded Lightbank, a venture fund that invests in disruptive technology businesses, Echo Global Logistics, a transportation management firm and MediaBank LLC., a tech firm that provides integrated tech platforms.

While noting that more than half of the companies currently among the Fortune 500 were started either in a recession or bear market, he lamented that U.S. policies and businesses were primarily concerned with risk avoidance during the most recent downturn. He believes they should instead concentrate on intelligent risk-taking.

That position left Keywell in a quandary recently. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn asked him to serve as chairman of the state’s Innovation Council. “My reaction was that I’m happy, but I don’t know how much government can do, other than get out of the way,” he said. “Cheerlead, connect and get out of the way.”

In his closing remarks, he said current conditions make now the “best time in the history of the human race,” to start a business, noting that capital markets are more efficient, real-time data is available and technology is cheap or often free. Groupon, he noted, started on WordPress.

Since he believes failure is inevitable, he said that entrepreneurs should not view their business success as win or lose, as much as “win or learn.” He defined a three-step entrepreneurial business process as: taking risk, inevitably failing and then, hopefully, emerging stronger.

Keywell advised would-be entrepreneurs in the audience to avoid a common mistake in writing their business plans.

“Too many entrepreneurs write business plans to convince themselves how they’ll defy gravity,” he said. “The best thing you can do is have an idea and convince yourself it’s not a good idea. You’ll save yourself the aggravation. … Write down your idea and beat it up.

“Precious few (ideas) get through that process.”


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. China jolts Chevy Volt. China is increasingly looking to leverage access for Western Markets in exchange for concessions on advanced technologies. The latest example, reports The New York Times, is a press for General Motors to share core technology from the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. The Chinese government will not let the Volt qualify for subsidies worth up to $19,300 per car unless G.M. agrees to share engineering, a possible violation of World Trade Organization rules, according to some international trade experts.

2. Ohio’s green power retreat? Three years after legislators voted nearly unanimously to require Ohio power companies to meet new green energy standards, some Republicans tell The Columbus Dispatch it’s time to repeal the rules. State Sen. Kris Jordan said in a release that the standards, which require at least 12.5 percent of energy generation come from renewable sources by 2025, will drive up energy costs for Ohio businesses and families. Environmental groups have criticized the proposed repeal.

3. Michigan begins entrepreneurial law program. The University of Michigan Law School launches a new program this fall that will train student lawyers to better serve start-up and existing entrepreneurial businesses. The program, which also establishes a clinic to offer free legal advice to Michigan’s student entrepreneurs, will contain opportunities for students across the university.


A new experiment I’m trying here – sharing online some interesting background or side stories that I find in the course of reporting a bigger story, like the one I just did about Latinos across the Midwest. One of my biggest frustrations as a public radio reporter is how much research we do that doesn’t end up on air. Here, in a new section I’m calling Niala’s Notebook, I’ll highlight some interesting smaller stories (or as we say in the biz, angles) that don’t end up in larger stories.

Migration waves of ethnic groups to the United States have traditionally happened over about a hundred year period, I was told by a couple of folks as I researched this story. It begs the question: how does this wave of Latino immigrants differ from previous ones, like the Irish to the United States during the 18th to mid-19th centuries?

Allert Brown-Gort in his office (Niala Boodhoo

 

I had some interesting discussions about this with Allert Brown-Gort, the associated director at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. I’m sure this has been the topic of many graduate studies, in our discussion there are two interesting modern differences about current immigrants that I found especially interesting:

-Given the increasingly global nature of the world, and the mobility and improved communications, immigrants don’t lose as many ties to their home countries – how can you when a trip home is as simple as a plane ride or a Skype call? That results in an increased duality in the way immigrants approach life in the United States, although the traditional patterns of first- and second-generation immigrants still follow more familiar patterns of assimilation. (When I write this, I think of myself as a good example: I’m a first-generation American, my parents immigrating here from Trinidad for my father’s career as a university professor. I think I’m still of this hypen/bridge generation that straddles both worlds. If you’re really interested in this, my public radio colleagues over at Southern California Public Radio are doing a really neat job of reporting on this in their MultiAmerican project, check them out.)

-Even with this level of modern globalization, the unskilled immigrant who comes to the United States finds  a vastly different work landscape than previous generations. As Gort told me, “What’s different now is that we are in a society that requires much formal educational attainment, and we’re living in an economy where businesses no longer really train people from the ground up. If that is the case, then when we think about the typical upward mobility we have to think the only door that is still wide open to them to assure that opportunity is entrepreneurship.”

That was, for me, an interesting take on why there may be even more entrepreneurs now than in previous generations. Your thoughts on how else this is different?

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.