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The case for a more immigrant-friendly, diverse Cincinnati







This month, the Brandery, a nationally top-10 ranked accelerator located in Over-the-Rhine, hosted a fast-paced roundtable discussion on global talent attraction, immigration reform and the need for a more diverse Cincinnati.
 
The event was part of a national series called #iCodeImmigration: Acceleration Immigration Reform brought together locally by the Partnership for a New American Economy, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and Agenda 360. #iCodeImmigration is part of the #iAmImmigration campaign to engage sectors across the economy and push for reform this year.
 
Cincinnati frontrunner in engaging business sectors

Cincinnati is one of just nine cities around the country—and the only one in the TriState area—to host an #iCodeImmigration event with the Partnership for a New American Economy and FWD.us, two prominent pro-immigration reform groups. Within the room that day was a staggering array of representatives from Cincinnati’s innovation and tech community, as well as its legislative and higher education sectors. Organizations such as the UC Lindner College of Business, the Greater Cincinnati Chinese Chamber of CommerceCincyTech, and Mayor Cranley’s office were all represented. The message was clear: It’s time to move Cincinnati, our region and our country forward.
 
“Our long-term competitiveness in the region will depend on being a growing, diverse population and an inclusive community,” says Mary Stagaman, vice president for regional initiatives at Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and executive director of Agenda 360. “The route to a healthy bottom line and continued success for companies large and small depends on attracting and retaining a diverse workforce.”
 
Rob McDonald, co-founder of the Brandery, agrees: “It’s critical we are welcoming the world’s top technologists, engineers, venture capitalists, angel investors and entrepreneurs if we want to compete with the other top advanced economies."
 
Current laws create obsticles to attracting global talent

The Brandery has already felt the effects of current immigration restrictions. Applications for its fall 2014 class have come in from more than 40 countries, but Mcdonald noted that visa restrictions have made it difficult to accept many of the international applicants.
 
“We need the best companies at the Brandery or we’re not competitive,” McDonald says. “Just because some of them may come from overseas, it shouldn’t be a convoluted process.”
 
Grant Schaffner, a South African immigrant, UC engineering professor, and president of a startup called Protostar Engineering shares McDonald's frustration: “It’s really baffling to me that we are educating the brightest minds from around the world at our universities, but we make it virtually impossible for them to stay and contribute to our economy. Some of my best students simply become frustrated and go back home. These people would be a huge boon to our economy if they stayed.”
 
The latest round of applications for H-1B visas for high-skilled workers exceeded the annual limit within a week. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that 172,500 H-1B petitions were filed for 85,000 visas, the highest number ever recorded for H-1B demand.
 
In her work with Agenda 360, Stagaman helped create Diverse by Design, a report originally published in 2012 and updated in 2013 with findings on the Cincinnati area’s comparative levels of diversity in relation to similar cities, national averages and more. The study found that Cincinnati ranks 9th in requests for H-1B visas with only 1.6 per 1,000 workers in the labor force, while Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio, rank 1st and 2nd with 3.9 and 2.9, respectively. It also noted that immigrants and nonnatives are four times more likely to start their own businesses than natives.
 
“The fundamental message of the report is that diversity and inclusion are not simply the right thing to do, they are the smart thing to do,” Stagaman says. “This isn’t a moral argument, it’s a business argument, and the data backs it up. So it’s not only about immigration reform, but it’s changing the region itself and being smarter about capturing and retaining diverse talent.”

Turning the talk from hypothetical to actionable

At the #iCodeImmigration roundtable, Chelsea Koglmeier, operations manager at local startup and Brandery graduate Roadtrippers, asked the question that everyone was thinking: “So how do we make this actionable?”

Stagaman explained that part of the reason for the event was just to get everyone together in the same room, make connections and allow ideas and actions to spring forth.
 
“You could feel the energy in that room,” Stagaman said. “Even if you are preaching to the choir, you still need to get the choir together now and then to make sure you’re all singing the same song.”
 
Aside from that, Stagaman, her colleagues at the Cincinnati Chamber and a group of 400 leaders representing big and small business as well as nonprofits in Cincinnati have banded together to work on strategies to overcome these barriers. They have sent task forces to nearby cities like Dayton, where they studied the Welcome Dayton initiative and have begun to explore a regional partnership. They have begun working with small businesses to help them understand how to expand their customer base to cater to non-native English speakers. And they maintain a strong link with Partnership for a New American Economy, which is working to push for immigration change in Washington, D.C.
 
“The Chamber has actively advocated for immigration reform. Our members have made a great impact on the discussion with the federal delegation,” says Brian Carley, president and CEO of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. “We encourage them to act on reform this year.”
 
While the need is very real and very current, Stagaman and the Chamber also recognize that change isn’t always a quick process.
 
“This is a longhaul project,” Stagaman says. “We can make the business case for diversity, but it’s hard to measure in quarterly results, so we’re at this work and will be for the indefinite future. We are always eager to connect with people who care about any of these issues.”
 
To learn more or get involved, visit www.agenda360.org or www.renewoureconomy.org, or email Mary Stagaman at the Chamber.
 
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