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The rise of the “foreign student entrepreneur migrant” (FSEM)

As the global recession rumbles on, the need for highly skilled entrepreneurs – domestic or foreign – who can drive growth has never been clearer. Not surprisingly, then, some of the world’s biggest (or aspiring) economies are increasingly recognising a new kind of migrant – the settling “foreign student entrepreneur migrant”, or FSEM.

Apple co-founders with Start Up Chile beneficiaries

40% of the 2010 Fortune 500 companies in the USA were founded by immigrants or their children

Many countries have offered more generous post-study work rights, giving talented students time to gain a foothold in the job market and apply for permanent residency. Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Singapore have all been active in this regard over the last few years, introducing more flexible immigration policies in a bid to tackle skills gaps in their labour forces.

Others have launched more targeted initiatives, America’s StartUp Act in 2011 being one example. A lobbying group in the US has been vocal in pointing out that 40% of the 2010 Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.

The UK also freed up 1,000 visas a year for foreign graduate entrepreneurs last year through its Tier 1 graduate entrepreneur visa scheme, despite more generally curbing student visas.

Others have launched more targeted initiatives, America’s StartUp Act being one example

For foreign students, such incentives are obviously attractive. A foreign education has always held sway on those aspiring for a stake in the global marketplace, often providing budding entrepreneurs with a launchpad for their careers.

We look at how a handful of countries are trying to attract and retain FSEMs who can help grow their economies with big ideas.

Australia 

According to research, nearly one out of every five Chinese-born have their own business, while for locals it is just under 15 per cent and foreign-born as a whole 15.7 per cent.

Aside from Chinese success in the country, one alumni who took Aussie business skills (and links) home with him is Lyi Qui Trung from Vietnam, who took a Master’s in hospitality management at Griffith University before returning home to set up his own local restaurant, using his mother’s recipes. Franchises of Pho24 have since spread all over Vietnam, and he hopes to open some in Australia, too. In addition, Ly helped introduce the Australian coffee chain Gloria Jean’s to Vietnam.

Wai Hong Fong is another success story. A Malaysian Citizen of Chinese descent, he studied a degree in Media Studies at the University of Melbourne, shortly after completing high school in Singapore.

For him, entrepreneurialism was “really more of an accidental affair than anything”. “It started with me helping an uncle list a few items for sale on eBay and when that grew, I was offered the opportunity to take up ownership and leadership of the business,” he recalls.

Ly helped introduce the Australian coffee chain Gloria Jean’s to Vietnam

Fong and his uncle Ting launched the OzHut online store in 2008 as a home-based, two-man operation in Melbourne, starting with an initial $30,000 outlay. Initially specialising in optical products such as binoculars and telescopes, they quickly broadened out to motorbike gear, bubble wrap and breathalysers and now have 12 different online stores. The business quickly grew and employs 17 full-time staff, grossing some $2.6 million revenue. Fong sold his share of the business to a partner last year for a handsome sum.

Fong said Australia was not that supportive of foreign students-turned-entrepreneurs when he was coming up. Another deterrent, permanent residency has become harder to obtain since 2007, having been linked to the field of study and degree taken by migrants under the points-based system. This may be changing however, after the government reformed its Business Skills visa programme last year to provide more temporary and permanent options for entrepreneurs and investors.

Canada

Kuwait native Ashima Kudasiyan graduated from Ottawa’s Carleton University as an engineer and then went on to work in hi-tech engineering for three years, during which time she gained Canadian residency. “Even with good money, I wasn’t satisfied so I decided to explore further,” she says. “This is where Canadian organisations were most helpful: I attended all the cheap to free classes at the Entrepreneurship Centre to get as much information as possible.”

After becoming an internet marketing consultant, Kudasiyan decided to launch an e-commerce project, Ethnitude, which married her long-held passion for Indian clothes with technology. Presently she has two product lines on her direct-to-consumer clothing website with plans to increase many more, and has started selling in the USA and UK.

“I attended all the cheap to free classes at the Entrepreneurship Centre to get as much information as possible”

For Kudasiyan, Canada’s organisations like the Entrepreneurship Centre, Invest Ottawa and Chamber of Commerce offered crucial help when she started out.

The government will help others like her it seems, as it tries to attract more foreign students and workers to the country to bolster its ageing population and fill skills gaps. Aside from extended permanent residency rights, the government has launched a match-making scheme that pairs foreign talent with Canadian employers.

Canada’s recently launched StartUp Visa will help others, and is open to those who have secured support from a designated Canadian venture capital fund or angel investor group; and have an adequate amount of money to settle and cover their cost of living prior to earning an income.

However, for domestic and foreign born entrepreneurs alike, no government assistance will replace sheer drive and ambition needed to succeed, says Kudasiyan. “To be an entrepreneur you need three things: persistence, professionalism and gut feel… Plus my risk tolerance was high.”

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