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Aaron George contracted the “entrepreneur bug” as an undergraduate in Cleveland, starting a business that allowed bakers to sell surplus products to his fellow college students. COVID quickly scotched the startup, but that ultimately led George to create SupplyNow, an ingredient delivery service for local restaurants.
Entrepreneurship is notoriously difficult for anyone, with about half of all small businesses shuttering within five years. Ownership is even harder for immigrants like George, who arrived from Dubai in 2015 to study civil engineering at Case Western Reserve University. Like many non-native founders, George was hampered by a U.S. immigration system that limited visa access along with any possibility of running a profitable company.
Rather than banking on the fickle H-1Blottery system – which is capped at about 65,000 visas annually – George discovered that organizations including universities are exempt from the H-1B cap. Further research uncovered the Global Entrepreneur in Residence program, which partners with cap-free universities on getting visas to international entrepreneurs.
To help himself and others like him, George started a local GEIR program alongside Global Cleveland, a nonprofit intent on growing Northeast Ohio’s economy through immigrant talent attraction. George, the organization’s first Global Entrepreneur in Residence, now has a much cleaner path to business success, he said.
“(Global Cleveland’s GEIR) has been great with general networking and tapping me into the immigrant community,” said George. “One of my mentors is (Cleveland chef) Doug Katz. We spent time refining my model, and beyond that with introductions to companies, restaurants and food distributors.”
Making room for new founders
Canada, Finland and Denmark are among the nations offering startup visas for immigrants developing new businesses. No such program exists domestically, despite multiple attempts by Congress to pass legislation in favor of the idea.
Global Cleveland is attempting to overcome this through affiliation agreements with local universities, which then sponsor select international entrepreneurs along their journey. Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland State University are currently in the fold – Global Cleveland is also in talks with the University of Akron about a potential partnership, noted organization President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Cimperman.
Cimperman, the son of Slovenian immigrants, lauds Cleveland as an ideal location for immigrant founders to take root. Yet, government policies create an impasse that harms immigrants and the region alike.
“In neighborhoods like St. Clair-Superior where I grew up – and in the city that I love – we have way more room for more people and immigrant innovation,” said Cimperman.
GEIR programming was initially conceived in Massachusetts by venture capitalist and Harvard Business School professor Jeff Bussgang before launching in Detroit, St. Louis and Cleveland. The local effort, the only one of its kind in Ohio, is funded by Global Cleveland with additional dollars from the Gund Foundation.
Program officials hope to corral at least two more founders in the near term to work alongside SupplyNow owner George. Candidates are mostly graduate students and undergraduate who are seniors with business ideas but no viable work permission pathways, Cimperman said.
Founders submit their plan to a committee of veteran business owners, upon selection spending eight to 10 hours weekly supporting other immigrant entrepreneurs. As part of his role, George assists non-native restaurant owners in coordinating purchasing planning and other workplace challenges.
“We have to understand where our advantages lie and the kind of entrepreneurs we have in the region,” said George. “Bringing in some diversity gives us an edge not just with jobs, but the different kinds of jobs that are created.”
Patience is a virtue
George encountered hurdles beyond visa availability when developing his business. Having no family members in-country made it almost impossible to get a loan co-signed. His immigrant status, meanwhile, scared off a substantial portion of the venture capital community, he said.
“Figuring out how to get capital before the GEIR program was a whole other ballpark,” George said. “Nobody would put in money if there was a risk of me having to leave the country.”
George bootstrapped SupplyNow via friends and family before receiving a $210,000 investment from Midwest early-stage fund Comeback Capital in 2021. He’s since raised $855,000 for an eight-employee company that shops for and delivers food products to area eateries.
Spreading this innovative momentum is vital for the region’s economic future, said George, who notes that almost 45% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.
“We have a long way to go, because you’re not just coming here to start a business,” said George. “Cities want you to revitalize the local population and economy in the process.”
Global Cleveland is reaching out to local universities eager to utilize the program as an international talent magnet, said President and CEO Cimperman. The nonprofit is also chatting with companies and investors at job fairs, and recently hosted an event to share the GEIR program’s potential in reshaping Northeast Ohio’s economy.
“That runway is five, six or seven years, but it’s usually in year seven or eight when you start to see the elevation change,” said Cimperman. “It takes time to get the business and investment community to understand that this is a good ROI (return on investment). For our success, it will be jobs created, how many local companies are benefiting, and how many people have decided to go on and become full U.S. citizens.”
Attracting international businesses to the region is not a novel concept, said Michael Goldberg, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur serving as an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management.
Twenty years ago, the Beachwood Development Center enticed more than a dozen Israeli companies to co-locate to the suburb. More recently, a delegation led by Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb traveled to Ireland to drum up potential business relationships. GEIR’s current goal should be simply making more people aware of its existence, said Goldberg
“It’s a struggle for international students to find employment opportunities to stay in the U.S.,” Goldberg said. “There’s tremendous learning in the (entrepreneur) journey. When it does work out, it can be very impactful for the region, because these businesses are employing people and paying taxes.”