The story of Radhika Reddy is a classic immigrant rags-to-riches tale. In 1989, Reddy left a low-paying banking job in India to come to Cleveland, Ohio, to earn a master’s degree in business administration at Case Western Reserve University. When she received permanent residency status six years later, she started an international business consulting firm; Ariel Ventures now brings in nearly $2 million in annual revenue and employs six people. “There’s no end to opportunity in the United States if you’re willing to work hard,” says Reddy. However, there’s a part of her story that rarely gets told: That the years in between were extremely difficult, making her an advocate of immigration reform that would help other foreign students find their footing.
Reddy was able to pay for her first year of graduate school with a scholarship from her local Rotary Club in India. But when she tried to get a job in the United States to cover the rest of her education, she discovered that many American companies hesitated to hire foreign students because of the consequent visa requirements. “I had a 3.9 GPA. I was so frustrated, that I even offered to work for free,” she says. “I almost had to go back to India.” However, a small company that forecasted stocks and bonds took her on at the last minute, and she was able to finance her second year.
Many foreign students are vulnerable to being abused because they can’t leave the company while they’re in transition.
After graduating at the top of her class, however, Reddy ran into nearly the same problem: With her student visa now expiring, she found it extremely difficult to find a U.S. company willing to sponsor her for a work visa. She was forced to take another low-paying job, where she worked “crazy hours” for many years until she finally received permanent residency status, also known as a green card. “Although I was treated well, many foreign students are vulnerable to being abused because they can’t leave the company while they’re in transition,” she says. “It’s a terrible process.” Reddy would like to see more flexible laws that make it easier for foreign students to receive temporary work visas and make it more convenient for American companies to hire them. That’s in addition to creating a program that offers financial aid to foreign students. “It’s a good bet that we’ll work hard and be successful,” she says.
Reddy quickly proved that she was a good bet. She launched her own consulting firm, established an expertise in helping companies to do business in India, and built a clientele through business networks and women’s groups. She eventually brought in two more partners and branched out into real estate finance. In 2014, she was a finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Northeast Ohio award. She also cofounded Ray of Light, a charity to help impoverished women and children in underdeveloped countries. Now Reddy is focused on helping other immigrants assimilate. She recently purchased a 68,000-square-foot building in downtown Cleveland to create an international center, event space, and incubator for several immigrant–led startup ventures in which she’s invested. “I want to help all immigrants, no matter where they’re from,” she says. “The one thing we all have in common is that we feel out of place, and we’re bonded by that experience.” In the meantime, she says, more flexible immigration laws could make that experience a little more friendly.