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Immigrants are key to Baltimore’s economic growth

Baltimore is booming, and training a digital workforce is key to cementing our position as a national innovation hub. Unlocking our city’s full potential depends, however, on our ability to welcome immigrants and leverage their entrepreneurial zeal to power our economic growth.

I should know: I’m a Taiwanese immigrant, and my company, Catalyte, is training Baltimore’s workers as software engineers. We use artificial intelligence to identify people — from school teachers to construction workers to PhDs in biology — with the potential to become great developers. We’ve shown that given proper training, both new arrivals and multi-generational Baltimoreans can achieve amazing things, and compete on equal terms with computer-science graduates from top universities.

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The results are dramatic. After five months of training, our recruits join our development teams working with major Baltimore employers like Under Armour and big corporations like Nike, eBay and Blue Cross Blue Shield. The average salary of an employee before they joined Catalyte was $25,000. With their new skills, after just five years they make $98,000, on average.

The success of companies like Catalyte shows how foreign-born entrepreneurs are turning Baltimore into an economic powerhouse, creating jobs and prosperity for everyone. According to a new report from New American Economy, Baltimore’s immigrant entrepreneurs increased 18% between 2016 and 2017. Today, the city’s 23,885 immigrant entrepreneurs create tens of thousands of jobs. Baltimore’s immigrants are 57% more likely than American-born residents to become entrepreneurs.

Immigrants are also one of the few growing demographics in Baltimore. Between July 2017 and 2018, Baltimore lost 10,000 residents, but gained 2,000 international immigrants. Our immigrants have a collective spending power of $8.7 billion, according to NAE, and contribute $3.4 billion in taxes, funding schools, roads and public services. They also bring vital skills, entrepreneurial ambition, and a desire to build for the future.

That’s certainly my experience. My parents emigrated from Taiwan in 1974, when I was eleven months old, so my father could earn a master’s in economics at NYU. After graduating, he took an entry-level IT job at Ford, then became an executive with IBM and finally launched his own business. My mother started out as an airline ticketing agent and rose to become vice-president of a major airport services company.

I saw my parents create amazing lives for themselves through optimism and hard work. That inspired me to strive harder. It also made me keenly aware of the power of opportunity. Not many companies were hiring Taiwanese immigrants in the mid-1970’s. So my dad’s first job, that first life-changing opportunity to prove himself, was what gave my family the chance to live the American Dream.

My own American Dream included quality education at Wharton and an early career as an investment banker. I then followed in my parents’ entrepreneurial footsteps, starting and growing multiple international companies, including one that grew to over 23,000 employees.

At each step along the way, I re-learned the power of opportunity, and saw that it was now my turn to help others to achieve their American Dreams. I learned, too, that talent is often found in unexpected places. One of the best programmers I ever hired grew up in poverty in a remote Asian village where he’d swum across a muddy river each day to get to school. He made the most of his opportunity and is now a billionaire tech CEO.

Such stories remind me that America is a land of opportunity for anyone willing to work hard. That’s why I came out of retirement to run Catalyte. Our success speaks to the power of American innovation and the need to welcome immigrants like me, who have the imagination and energy to succeed, and whose efforts unlock opportunities for all of us.

As with my father, these opportunities ripple beyond any one individual. They affect families, communities and whole cities. With their new skills, Catalyte’s employees are making a better life for their families, boosting the local economy and delivering a multi-generational economic windfall. These individuals also now have the opportunity to become entrepreneurs themselves, building startups that will further boost Baltimore’s innovation culture.

To secure Baltimore’s place as a national leader in digital innovation and train the workforce of the future, we must continue to find talent in unexpected places — including our growing and vibrant immigrant communities. You never know where the next software engineer, job-creating entrepreneur or tech CEO will come from. That’s why it’s vital that political leaders, both here and in Washington, keep working to make our communities welcoming places for newcomers to our shores.

Jacob Hsu (jhsu@catalyte.io) is CEO of Catalyte.

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