Economic Development, Higher Education, and Small Business & Startups

Foreign students with startups face obstacles

SBAM encourages entrepreneurs to start businesses in Michigan.

September 25, 2015
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LANSING — International students face daunting challenges starting a business.

But as more and more international students enroll at Michigan universities, more and more keep trying to open businesses in the state.

And the Small Business Association of Michigan encourages their actions.

For example, Grand Valley State University has 400 international students, Western Michigan University has more than 1,800, and Michigan State University has more than 7,000.

Yue Dai, one of the founders of Mr. Pot, a Chinese hot pot restaurant in East Lansing, says a simple idea made him want to start the business: “When I open up ‘Student Info’ and I see the price of my tuition, I feel ashamed to be the person that only knows to ask for money from my family.”

“I want to use what I’ve learned to earn my own living,” Dai said.

For those with the standard international student visa — an F-1 — starting a business in the U.S can be difficult.

“U.S. law is very strict about what you can and cannot do while in the U.S. on any particular type of visa,” Nina Kaufman, a New York City attorney, wrote in a column for Entrepreneur magazine.

“One exception is that F-1 students on OPT (optional practical training) may be able to become self-employed business owners in limited circumstances. The student must show that he has the required business licenses and actually does business in a field directly related to his studies,” Kaufman said.

Most F-1 students have only one year of OPT time, however. Science, technology, engineering or mathematics graduates get a 17-month extension.

After OPT, foreign students who want to stay need an H-1B visa (the most popular for high-skill workers). There are strict criteria to qualify.

Michael Rogers, vice president of communications for the Small Business Association of Michigan, said the organization is helping international students with challenges they face when they try to start a business.

“I think one of the greatest opportunities for our small business community is to encourage foreign students who study here to stay in Michigan to start their own small businesses. We will do whatever we can to encourage them.”

Rogers said Michigan’s small business startups have declined for almost 30 years.

Startups by young entrepreneurs can expose Americans to different products, services and cultures.

“To America, hot pot is something new but something they might be able to accept,” Dai said.

“One day an American came here to hold a birthday party. He tipped us 25 percent because he and his friends never ate hot pot before and they think it’s good. They were very happy about it.”

Michael Marzano, SBAM’s director of government relations, encouraged young international entrepreneurs to explore their options.

“I’ve seen the economy grow up and down, but this is a great time because inflation is low, the interest rate is low, there is access to financing. There are a lot of organizations that are standing by to help anyone who has a great business idea,” Marzano said.

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