Had it not been for a dramatic kidnapping, Daniela Vidal might never have left Venezuela. A trained chemical engineer, she had a good job in product development for Procter & Gamble. But when her fiancé was taken by guerrillas during a fishing trip on the Colombian border and held in the jungle for 11 terrifying days, his family decided to seek safety in the United States.
“After that ordeal, they were looking for a small place that was peaceful and quiet,” Vidal says. When the couple married, Vidal joined her new husband in Evansville, Indiana, where she completed her MBA. She now runs the University of Southern Indiana’s Center for Applied Research, which generates $200,000 a year in revenues for the university and helps drive innovation and economic development for the region. “We want to stop the brain drain, and create job opportunities for young people,” she says.
Despite her marriage and her value to the U.S. economy as a highly skilled engineer, Vidal’s own visa process has nevertheless been bumpy. After graduation, she worked for a Bristol Meyer Squibb subsidiary and as a production engineer for General Electric’s plastics division. To stay and qualify for a skilled-worker visa, however, first she had to repay the Venezuelan government $50,000 in scholarship money, then a backlog of visa cases still made her ineligible to work in the United States for a time. “There’s never anything smooth around immigration,” she says.
It would be another decade before Vidal and her husband could secure permanent residency status. Finally, Vidal could change jobs. Without a green card, she had been tied to the employer that sponsored her work visa, even as she continued to build an impressive record of professional achievements. At Berry Plastics, for example, Vidal developed the strategy for its corporate university, Berry University, which is now used by all 16,500 employees. Once at the University of Southern Indiana, she established an advanced-manufacturing program and oversaw a $10 million construction of the Applied Engineering Center, which provides hands-on manufacturing training and advises local startups. She also started her own consultancy on lean manufacturing.
Right now we have 10,000 open jobs, mostly in manufacturing, and we can’t find people to fill them…We need to be able to import talent.
Vidal now leads USI’s Opportunity Development group. Its Center for Applied Research helps business and government tap into the university’s expertise and technology. She’s especially proud of a partnership with NSWC Crane, a Naval research facility. “We’re helping them to identify innovations that happen within the base, and find ways to commercialize that technology,” Vidal says. It’s these partnership that gave rise to the I-69 Innovation Corridor, which is succeeding in creating jobs across southwestern Indiana. In rural areas, Vidal says, it’s vital to connect the dots between entrepreneurial hubs. “We’re building a network of entrepreneurs and innovators and capital,” she says.
The results speak for themselves. Since 2013, the 13 counties in which the Innovation Corridor operates have jumped 14 points on Indiana University’s Innovation Index, a measure of human capital, high-quality jobs, and other economic indicators. In 2016, Evansville was named one of the top four cities in the country to start a business. Five new co-working spaces for entrepreneurs have opened in the area. “Evansville’s going through a renaissance,” Vidal says.
Of course, immigrants have an important role to play in the region’s economic revitalization, Vidal says, in part because they’re proven entrepreneurs. When the country needed a boost after the Great Recession, it was foreign-born residents who stepped up the creation of new businesses that create jobs. From 1996 to 2011, the rate at which immigrants founded new businesses grew by 50 percent, while the rate at which U.S.-born entrepreneurs did so actually declined, by 10 percent. In Indiana, foreign-born business owners employ 66,753 people and generate $337.1 million in annual income. “What you see in immigrants are people who are very open to change and taking risks, and have a lot of initiative,” Vidal says. “It takes someone like that to leave everything behind and come to a new country.”
In order to grow, Indiana’s companies will also need immigrant labor. “The crisis we have in this area right now is that we can’t find workers,” Vidal says. “Right now we have 10,000 open jobs, mostly in manufacturing, and we can’t find people to fill them.” Training American workers will only go so far, Vidal says. “There won’t be enough bodies to fill the jobs. We need to be able to import talent.”
If the United States really wants to boost economic growth in places like southwestern Indiana, it must reform its immigration system, says Vidal. Border security is important, but so too is welcoming people who want to come here to start businesses, or to work legally. “We have to work on having a system that’s easier and more accessible for a wider group of people,” Vidal says. “Immigration reform is a must.”