St. Louis Mosaic Project Leads Foreign-Born Entrepreneurs to Success

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The St. Louis Mosaic Project has a big vision: to make St. Louis the fastest growing major metropolitan area by foreign-born people by 2020.

Launched in 2012, the project was launched in response to a 2012 study published by the US Chamber of Commerce that found St. Louis was missing economic opportunities from immigrant entrepreneurs. St. Louis was lagging behind in immigrant growth, despite its long history of and reputation for welcoming immigrants (the St. Louis International Institute has been around for almost 100 years).

The study pointed to the economic benefits the region could reap by increasing its foreign-born population. Foreign-born people are 40-60% more likely to start a business than people born in the United States and are often precluded from practicing the occupation they practiced in their home country. Researchers have characterized foreign-born individuals as risk takers that must be resilient in order to start new careers, and need to be creative and have expansive ideas. This is true for all types of businesses–neighborhood store fronts, lifestyle companies and high-tech businesses.

In the five years since its launch, the Mosaic Project has created multiple programs that foster connections between immigrant and local professionals and entrepreneurs, and created a global talent hiring program. The regional initiative is professionally managed by the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, the World Trade Center St. Louis and a 27-member committee.

EQ sat down with Betsy Cohen, founding Executive Director of the St. Louis Mosaic Project, to discuss how the Mosaic Project supports foreign-born entrepreneurs in starting and growing successful businesses.

Betsy Cohen
Betsy Cohen, Executive Director of the St. Louis Mosaic Project

How does the Mosaic Project help foreign-born entrepreneurs throughout the startup process?

We guide foreign-born people to immigrant entrepreneurship programs through our partnership with the University of Missouri St. Louis. Immigrant entrepreneurs can apply for a visa, but could potentially get it more quickly by being affiliated with the university.

Mosaic Project also facilitates partnerships between immigrant entrepreneurs to help them add value to the community, and we provide sponsorship. For example, last year we provided scholarships for three immigrant businesses at Create Space Generator, whose founder, Julia Li, is herself an immigrant.

Finally, we publicize their stories. We have some amazing stories and we feel it’s critical to tell them so that individuals and the community understand why it’s so important that we welcome the foreign born–to show, for example, why someone who was a banker in Damascas is now adding value to the St. Louis community.

What are some current challenges?

Due to the national visa dialogue, it’s more challenging right now to figure out how to help people with the visa process. This is very important work, and we are always trying to be better at it. For example, one of our entrepreneurs, Tomas Pena, is a founder of S4, an AgTech startup. He relocated his company from Argentina to St. Louis to participate in our growing Ag Tech community [S4 is an Arch Grant Recipient and a SixThirty accelerator graduate.]. Many of us in the community are helping him find his way, but it’s a complicated triangle. Their business has to grow, their visa acquisition is challenging and we need to find ways to help their families be successful.

We want to connect people to all the wonderful programming that is already in process; we’re not trying to create new resources. We want to make sure we don’t have people missing out just because they don’t know about it since foreign-born people may not be as connected as some others. There is no separate funding for foreign-born people that is not available to other people. For Tomas, we want to connect him to the Latino community, in both business and AgTech. He helps us as we work on Sister Cities efforts and wonderful global opportunities. In many cases, connections to the home countries of our foreign-born clients opens up business both ways.

Mosaic Project
A brainstorming session for Mosaic Project volunteers in December, 2016. Photo via Mosaic Project ambassador Zarrin of SomethingLou.com

What is your call to action for foreign born entrepreneurs in our region?

For the foreign-born people in our region, know that there are resources. We want to make sure you have moved your minimum viable product into all the avenues for showcasing and piloting your business–from neighborhood storefront businesses to agricultural science. We can very quickly help people move through that process.

What is a unique contribution of our city’s foreign-born entrepreneurs?

Their incredible drive. These are really driven, resilient people who are overcoming a lot of challenges. They are dealing with the visa system, they have to be proficient in English, and they are funding and growing their businesses. They are highly motivated and enthusiastic, and that is great for St. Louis.

Find out how to get involved with the Mosaic Project here.

This story was created in partnership with the organization listed in the label at the top of this post. We work with a curated list of partners we feel are aligned with EQ's mission to raise the visibility of and increase connectivity within St. Louis' startup ecosystem. Read more about partner content here.