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Wed February 15, 2012
Midwest leaders look to immigrants to rebuild our economy
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.”
And there’s more:
- In Silicon Valley, half of the tech companies were founded by immigrants. In Ohio, that rate is about 14 percent. It’s 17 percent in Indiana, 27 percent in Illinois and 33 percent in Michigan.
- Nationwide, 40 percent of today’s Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants, or the children of immigrants – like Steve Jobs.
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.