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Ancient Indian Tradition Sparks 21st Century Business

When Sudha Krishnasamy was growing up in India, family meals were served on dried leaves. They were inexpensive, disposable, and completely biodegradable.

After arriving in the United States, Krishnasamy was bothered by the frequent use of paper and Styrofoam plates; it felt wasteful to use something once, toss it in the garbage, then have it shipped to one of the country’s ever-mounting landfills. So while she was pursuing her MBA at Duquesne University, she had an idea: Bring those ecologically friendly dishes to the United States. With her husband, she subsequently started Leaf2go, which sells and distributes disposable plates made from palm leaves.

“Once you use it, it goes into the compost bin and it can be converted into fertilizer within 60 to 90 days, so the landfill is reduced. And we don’t cut down trees for making the plates — they are made out of fallen leaves,” she says.

Krishnasamy came to the United States in 2000 as a software engineer, after being recruited by a Columbus, Ohio, firm. She made the move because, like many other highly skilled Indian natives, she saw more opportunity for advancement in the United States than in India, where, she says, “It was a brain drain.” Krishnasamy continues to work full time as the principle software engineer at Carnegie Mellon University.

When immigrants like Krishnasamy settle in the United States, they are more likely to bring the high skills that come with an advanced degree than are native-born Americans. In the congressional district where Krishnasamy lives, in southwest Pennsylvania, 32.3 percent of the immigrant population has a graduate degree, compared with 11.6 percent of the U.S.-born population. Immigrants also bring an outsider’s perspective and an entrepreneurial spirit, starting businesses at a high rate. In 2014, there were 2.9 million immigrant entrepreneurs in the United States, and they generated $65.5 billion in business income, money that gets redistributed throughout the U.S. economy. From 1996 to 2011, the rate at which immigrants founded new businesses grew by 50 percent, while the rate at which native Americans did so declined by 10 percent.

I would like to see this country be as open as it has been in the past. That will give us the confidence to advance our capabilities.

Still in its first year of business, Leaf2go employs three people; Krishnasamy and her husband, Krishnasamy Karuppiah, are the founders; their daughter, a student at Carnegie Mellon, helps with communication and marketing. For the next phase, they plan to import plates directly from India, while their long-term goal is to set up a manufacturing unit in Pennsylvania and create a franchise. Duquesne’s Small Business Center has been an excellent resource, says Krishnasamy, with professors who helped her craft a marketing and business plan.

“That is the one of the best things that this country offers. Anything that a person wants to achieve, the resources are out there and within reachable height. That is where I’m blessed being in this country and being an American,” she says.

Though her family’s experience in the United States has been excellent overall, the current political climate and, in particular, the recent travel bans, have her worried about her husband’s ability to travel. Even though he has a green card, and even though India has not been included in a travel ban, she still doesn’t want him to leave the country.

“He was supposed to travel to India, but I’m afraid he won’t be able to come back, so I told him not to go,” she says.

This anxiety and uncertainty will have a negative impact on their business. “He has contacts there. He could talk to vendors. But now we have to take the slower step in traveling,” she says.

It’s also difficult on a personal level. With seven siblings in India, and everyone aging, Krishnasamy is afraid they might lose their last chance to visit family. “We both have health issues, so it’s a frightening moment,” she says. “Can we ever see any of our siblings?”

She hopes that the current leadership in Washington will return to its deep tradition of welcoming and appreciating the hard work and ingenuity of the immigrant community.

“I would like to see this country be as open as it has been in the past. That will give us the confidence to advance our capabilities,” she says.

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