Indian-born immigrant Ketaki Desai has made important contributions in her adopted home in America. As executive director of eCenter@LindenPointe, a business incubator in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, she has helped create more than 45 jobs and coached 50 startups, all while maintaining a $300,000 annual budget. She says the incubator’s largest contribution to the economy is the creation of companies like Gecko Robotics, which develops and operates robots that conduct infrastructure inspections.
“We have a lot of companies that come in looking for guidance and we help them grow at any stage of their initial idea,” Desai says. “One of our goals is economic development through job creation for our region. We aim to attract new talent, new companies, and help the small businesses in these communities.” So far, the most influential idea the eCentre has been a part of is the Entrepreneur Academy, a yearlong entrepreneurship program for high school students. “We are creating excitement among local youth about starting your own business. Right now, we have a 19-year-old running a company, and it’s very successful,” she says.
Desai first came to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences at Texas A&M University. She followed with postdoctoral research at the University of California, Davis, and a public management graduate program at Carnegie Melon University. During her time at CMU, Desai competed for the Hult Prize, in which she worked to revolutionize a business plan for a fledging nonprofit. “We were very much the underdogs. We were competing with Ivy League universities and people from all over the world,” she says. “But we won, and part of the prize was $1 million in seed money to implement our business plan.”
Desai and her partners — three American citizens — started the company while they were still in school but were forced to dissolve it upon graduation. “We had no way to sponsor my visa. I was unable to work for my own company unless I did it for free. I had a student loan to pay off and needed an income,” she says. “I gave back all of the money I had earned through the competition, and the business plan never saw the light of day.”
We had no way to sponsor my visa. I was unable to work for my own company unless I did it for free.
Eventually, Desai and her husband, also an Indian immigrant, moved back to India, but they only stayed 10 months; it no longer felt like home. “We were so completely American,” she says. “It was an incredible realization for us. We didn’t want to change who we had become.”
Desai is passionate about reforming immigration law and has her own ideas about a fair path to citizenship. “I think that if you get a Ph.D. in this country from one of the top 100 universities, they should hand you a green card with your diploma. We are creating a wealth of knowledge,” she says. “Why would you not want to keep these students? Why have them go to another country after you trained them?”
Yet despite all of her struggles, Desai is grateful for her unique journey. “They are what got me here,” she says. “I learned that, because I had professional ups and downs, I was forced to do things I never would have considered doing otherwise. It was all worth it.” In the end, Desai’s appointment at the business incubator is an ironic twist of fate. Her day revolves around helping citizens grow the American economy. At the same time, she is still waiting for her own green card: That little piece of paper that says she is an American citizen who contributes positively to the economy.