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Cincinnati Compass Offers a Hand Up

Immigrants help fuel population and job growth across the region while fostering a community that embraces and thrives on diversity.

by Sarah M. Mullins

Cincinnati’s resurgence continues to shine bright with new businesses, investment in the arts, and a flourishing food culture. But the growth isn’t possible without individuals willing to share their personal experiences and backgrounds—and often they’re immigrants introducing food, art, and business concepts from their home countries.

In 2014, then-Mayor John Cranley sought to formalize support for Cincinnati newcomers by forming an immigration task force to find ways to make the region a more welcoming place. Those meetings produced the idea that a dedicated organization would help immigrants assimilate better here, which eventually led to the launch of Cincinnati Compass. Today that nonprofit helps immigrants settle in Cincinnati, start small businesses, pursue an education, and find employment opportunities.

Cincinnati Compass is a collaboration among the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, the City of Cincinnati, and more than 65 community partners who believe that immigrants and refugees are key contributors to a strong regional economy and a vibrant community. The organization takes a multi-pronged approach aimed at welcoming immigrants to the region while also improving economic impacts, increasing the diversity of thought, and accepting various backgrounds.

“We see ourselves as a trusted connector, a convener, and a catalyst,” says Cincinnati Compass Executive Director Bryan Wright. “We’re a trusted connector to help bring employers and talent together. We aren’t a direct service provider. We convene groups across different sectors to address pressing issues workforce development and small business development. And then we’re a catalyst to help spark innovative approaches to inclusive regional economic development.”

Bryan Wright

Along with supporting individuals moving to the region, Compass also works to boost their economic impact. Immigrants and refugees make up nearly 7 percent of the region’s population and have an annual spending power of $2.9 billion—two statistics that prove the power of a diverse economy. “We know that overall in the region there’s been population growth, and much of that growth is due to immigrants and refugees moving to the region,” says Wright. “We know that immigrants and refugees are drivers of population growth, and we know that job growth is outpacing population growth, because we have to find the talent somewhere. It’s crucial for our long-term economic sustainability that we continue to attract and retain immigrants, refugees, and international talent to the region.”

According to Wright, there isn’t enough natural population growth to replenish job sectors that are struggling due to increasing retirement rates or booming popularity. He believes a critical solution is to attract immigrants, and so Compass has set specific goals for creating a region where immigrants and refugees feel welcome, wanted, and important; developing and expanding opportunities for economic and social inclusion; and influencing policy change toward more inclusive and welcoming practices that open more social and economic opportunities for immigrants and refugees.

Immigration is a hot topic in the political landscape, though little movement has been made to create consensus on national immigration policies. Opinions among politicians can vary greatly, but Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval focuses on his own story as the son of two immigrants.

Pureval is the city’s first mayor of Asian descent and the first of Asian descent to lead a major city in the Midwest. In May he was invited to the White House to commemorate Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and has gained recognition in national media coverage highlighting successful mayoral candidates of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) descent. His accomplishments, along with his personal background, solidify his support for immigrants relocating to the Cincinnati region.

Pureval says his decision to pursue public office stemmed from his desire to advocate for individuals who felt powerless against local political power bases. “I can’t imagine spending this much time and energy just to get your name out there,” he told Cincinnati Magazine last year about his campaign to win the 2021 mayoral election. “You have to believe in what you’re saying and what you’re running for. I do, because I know what it’s like not to fit in, to be an outsider in the system. And that has a lot to do with my name.”

While Pureval is clear in his support for helping others such as immigrants and refugees move to Cincinnati, the topic of immigration is often a sticking point in a political sense. “Some of the challenges stem from the lack of movement at the federal level to help modernize our immigration system,” says Wright. “Everyone is quick to talk about the border and border security, which is important, but there are other issues too around modernizing our immigration system in ways that center the humanity and dignity of immigrants and refugees coming to the region are coming to the U.S., whether they’re applying for asylum or coming to work or both.”

According to Wright, there is a backlog of employment-based visas, specifically with a cap on H-1B visas—non-immigrant visas that allow individuals to work in the U.S. for up to three years with the possibility of extending the period to six years. These visas are typically offered for specific occupations, such as technology and engineering jobs, but there’s a cap in place that hinders the ability to recruit enough workers to fill jobs in these areas. This Congressionally mandated cap allows for 65,000 H-1B visas to be granted annually, with an additional 20,000 reserved for individuals who have obtained a master’s degree in the U.S. The last time the cap was higher was in 2003, when 195,000 H-1B visas were granted. Registration applications for 2024 already total 780,884 individuals, meaning a fraction will be approved through a lottery.

“The immigration system is archaic,” says Wright. “We need to modernize in a way that meets the needs of our current economy and in ways that help retain talent we attract here. We need more international students, but many, many businesses are also looking to bring in talent from abroad.”

Foreign workers already in the U.S. can also experience disruptions because of visa renewals and delays, which can affect a company’s productivity and the well-being of employees seeking to reaffirm their status in the U.S. Cincinnati Compass supports those who are able to obtain an H-1B and are seeking a job. Nationally, key business sectors are experiencing an aging workforce that will soon leave open jobs across the country, state, and region. For example, healthcare is struggling with physicians, physician assistants, nurses, and others retiring or near retirement age. According to the 2020 National Council of State Boards of Nursing and National Forum of State Nursing Workforce Centers national survey, the median age of registered nurses (RNs) was 52 in 2020, with more than one-fifth indicating they intend to retire by 2025.

Cincinnati is also experiencing shortages in these critical areas. The Health Collaborative reported survey data from seven area hospital systems that indicate nearly 6,000 hospital jobs went unfilled at the end of 2021. Tech jobs are another area experiencing high demand. In 2019, the Cincinnati Chamber launched a new apprentice program to help curb a shortage of tech jobs that was expected to leave 11,000 open jobs by 2020.

It’s crucial to raise awareness about the importance of immigrants to address job openings and to recognize the clear population trends indicating a shortage of talent, says Wright.

“There’s a lack of understanding of care in our region, how people arrived, how people are contributing,” he says. “And there are a lot of opinions about immigration without fully understanding how the immigration system works and operates. We need educate employers, workforce development providers, and broader community members about the power and the value that immigrants and refugees bring to our region. Again, because we have declining population growth, we need to find that talent from somewhere.”

Cincinnati Compass goes beyond supporting individuals and making them feel welcome. Sourcing jobs is another important mission, as is helping individuals navigate the U.S. legal, education, and business ecosystems. Shakila Ahmad and her husband, Masood, are immigrants who started a small business in the region, Allergy and Asthma Specialty Center.

“I know what it’s like to be a small business immigrant,” says Shakila, serves is the current board chair for Cincinnati Compass. “I know that I’ve seen refugees who have come with nothing but have become business owners. It’s a win-win.”

Shakila Ahmad

Shakila’s father is a retired college professor who left his home country of Pakistan to attend the University of Cincinnati. After receiving his PhD, he decided to settle in Cincinnati. Masood Ahmad MD is an allergist at the Allergy and Asthma Specialty Center. Shakila emphasizes the importance of her husband’s ability to speak multiple languages as a doctor and his ability to relate to patients when English is their second language. “It’s really quite remarkable when he had patients who were from a different cultural background, and they were so relieved to be able to express their concerns and medical conditions in their native language,” she says. “Having that diversity within our practice made a huge difference to a number of patients and heled them to the path of recovery faster.”

Shakila brings her personal and professional background to the Cincinnati community as board chair and advocates for diversity because of what others bring to the region from their home country. “We’re the new kids on the block, we bring a new culture, we bring diversity that people aren’t accustomed to,” she says. “If we don’t begin to understand that and embrace that, we will not be able to harness the economic power that immigrants and refugees are able to provide for the city.”

Wright says Cincinnati Compass is stepping in to help prospective small business owners with access to capital, technical assistance, tax support, and other logical processes that are necessary for launching a business. If it’s a food-based business, Compass will connect them with Findlay Kitchen and the Incubator Kitchen Collective in Northern Kentucky. Other partners include the Economic & Community Development Institute, which helps aspiring business owners to turn ideas into a business plan. “Restaurants, hair and nail salons, and food markets add to the vibrancy of our neighborhoods across the region,” says Wright. He mentions other immigrant-driven businesses including construction, landscaping, and the tech startup space.

Cincinnati Compass is working on a global entrepreneur-in-residence program to help retain international talent that comes here as college students. The goal is to help international founders, particularly tech-enabled startup founders who are in the U.S. on a visa and looking for a long-term pathway to remain in the country.

The aim is to support tech business creation, Wright says, because one successful business can have a massive impact on the region’s economy—and some of the world’s most prosperous and innovative companies were established by immigrant entrepreneurs.

According to a National Foundation for American Policy report, nearly two-thirds of U.S. companies valued at more than $1 billion were founded or co-founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. A Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation report indicates that immigrants are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as Americans born in the U.S.

Karla Boldery is general manager of La Mega Media, the region’s largest Hispanic media platform, which covers the state of Ohio and Northern Kentucky and reaches as far as Pittsburgh. She’s an immigrant who has spent the last 26 years in the Cincinnati region helping immigrants assimilate, and she now works with Cincinnati Compass to support Hispanic women with entrepreneurial ambitions. She founded the Latina Entrepreneur Academy, a 20-hour bootcamp for Hispanic women to learn how to start and grow their business.

“Compass is great business,” says Boldery. “Diversity is an enrichment for our community, and it’s great to have an entity that promotes, advocates, and helps organizations to stay culturally competent. There’s a real diversity of thought that happens with immigrants, who help us see things differently, and we’re able to address issues in new and nonconventional ways. That’s a great asset to have in this region.”

Boldery recalls a favorite story about working with a woman who went through her bootcamp program with a plan to apply what she learned to help her husband’s landscaping business. But she ended up being inspired and empowered to start a business of her own, and she went on to own an event center for special occasions. That kind of success has helped Boldery build connections and develop a network to help Hispanic women access what they need to advance their career and build economic stability of their own.

An essential mission of Cincinnati Compass is establishing a secure environment where immigrants can freely express themselves and integrate into society. That kind of experience may be best exemplified by Edouard Tende, owner of Zoe Consulting and pastor of a French language ministry in Northern Kentucky, who moved to the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of the Congo five years ago.

As an immigrant, he takes pride in his heritage and acknowledges how significant it is to foster a welcoming community, because culture shock is the most common experience for a newly emigrated individual. “It’s important for the city to be welcoming because the power and possibility happens when people work together,” says Tende. “We can all achieve together, we can do more together, we can go far. If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go with others.”

Tende adds that most immigrants aren’t afraid of potential obstacles like abandoned buildings, because immigrants are used to bringing life out of meager resources. He now buys abandoned houses and brings them back to life in order to revitalize neighborhoods that might have intimidated a local native. “We pay taxes and contribute by generating work,” says Tende. “It’s so important on the economic side.”