Stefano Zullian never dreamed of being a chocolatier. But the Venezuelan-born mechanical engineer with an MBA from Emory University now runs Araya Artisan Chocolates, a Houston company with roughly $700,000 in annual sales and 11 employees. “It’s way more complex to start a business in Venezuela, and we started thinking about what would suit the U.S. market and realized no one was making gourmet chocolate like we were used to,” he says. Zullian and his wife, a financial advisor, hired a chef to teach them the tricks of the trade, and set out to bring the confections to the United States.
“In 2009, of course, it was not a great time for the American economy, but things weren’t so bad in Houston,” Zullian says. They opened their first shop in nearby Katy, Texas. “The Houston community has been very welcoming. They’re used to diversity, and they understand why we’re here and why we’re doing this. And 95 percent of our customers are not Venezuelan. We’re serving the entire community.”
The business has grown to three locations and is expanding to include an e-commerce platform, which will allow Araya Artisan Chocolates to reach customers nationwide. “In addition to the jobs we’ve created, we’re also pumping money into the economy, because we buy all of our ingredients locally, in the States,” says Zullian.
We will never be Americans with this visa. I will always have to renew it.
To start the company, Zullian obtained an investor visa, but since that particular visa doesn’t provide a road to citizenship, he is constantly aware of his family’s tenuous situation. “We knew when we applied for an investment visa that citizenship wasn’t going to be an option,” he says. “But it still feels unfair. We can’t talk about the United States as our home, really. We will never be Americans with this visa. I will always have to renew it.”
Zullian’s greater concern is for his youngest daughter. His eldest daughter was born in the United States and is a citizen; the youngest, however, was born in Venezeula. She’s currently here as a companion under Zullian’s visa, but once she turns 18, she will no longer qualify for the visa under her parents. “Hopefully she will go to college and can get a student visa,” he says. “Or she’ll have to go back to Venezuela. It’s always a situation where you never feel secure. My father migrated from Italy to Venezuela in the ‘50s, and he would always say, ‘The moment you step out of your country, you belong nowhere.’”
In addition to wanting a road to citizenship for himself, his family, and other immigrants who want to make the United States their permanent home, Zullian would also like to see the country make more types and greater numbers of visas available, to encourage more people to come and work — legally. “The solution is making it easier for people to come, work, and return if they want to,” he says. “And they will pay the dues.”