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The St. Louis Mosaic Project began its research in 2012 with an economic impact report outlining St. Louis to be lagging in immigrant growth, as well as highlighting the economic benefits of increasing its foreign-born population. The Mosaic Project is a regional initiative that is professionally managed by St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, World Trade Center St. Louis and a 27-member committee.

The organization became operational in 2013 with the hiring of Executive Director Betsy Cohen. An exchange student in high school, Cohen was always interested in international activities. In her tenure at Nestlé Purina, she was vice president of marketing and worked on both international business opportunities and ran a local regional coalition. “I’ve always been involved with different nonprofits and businesses – I think of myself as a connector,” Cohen said.

Tell us about your background.

My family came from Europe in 1848 to St. Louis from Germany and Czechoslovakia. While I was born in Chicago, I lived in many cities growing up and moved back to St. Louis when I was in elementary school. My family hosted international people when I was growing up, and I was also an exchange student in high school. I went east for college, earned my MBA, got married and lived in Baltimore. My husband and I later moved to St. Louis where we’ve been since.

After a long career at Nestlé Purina, I was searching for an opportunity where my skills would be needed in the region. At the same time, the Mosaic steering committee had been formed. I was told about the new position, which was essentially a marketing initiative to encourage international people of all skills to come to St. Louis. It appealed to my sense of regional pride and my interest in international people.

What is the goal of St. Louis Mosaic Project?

The goal is to transform St. Louis into the fastest growing major metropolitan area for immigration by 2020 and promote regional prosperity through immigration and innovation. St. Louis is in the top 20 regions for population in the United States even though we have less than 5 percent foreign-born in the region.

When foreign-born people come to the United States, they are already risk-takers. They are 60 percent more likely to start a business than native-born people. They are 130 percent more likely to have an advanced degree and 44 percent more likely to be college educated. They are 25 percent more likely to earn a higher wage than the average native-born person due to work in scientific fields.

Foreign-born people have an opportunity to fill jobs that are currently going unfilled such as in the STEM fields. Not only will immigrant entrepreneurs be job creators, but they also become consumers, supporters and part of the neighborhoods.

The Mosaic Project is on a mission to overcome the stagnant population. According to American Community Survey data, in the past two years the St. Louis region was ranked No. 1 in 2015 and No. 2 in 2016 for being the fastest growing major metropolitan city of foreign-born people – so we know the program is working. In September we will receive new data for 2017.

How do you draw people here?

First of all, you draw them by being welcoming. We have over 200 community partners and organizations in the region that welcome people and assist them with their careers and families. For example, one of the programs is our Mosaic Ambassador program. The ambassadors visit restaurants, introduce themselves, learn the culture, invite people to lunch or dinner and are available to share their knowledge of St. Louis or the country. We currently have over 700 ambassadors who reach out to foreign-born people.

We have 30 Mosaic Ambassador schools. Just recently, Shenandoah Valley Elementary of the Parkway School District hosted an international passport night and shared information about the St. Louis Mosaic Project. They are interested in becoming a Mosaic Ambassador school, which means they will host more activities in order to welcome foreign-born families in the community.

The International Spouses Meet-Up Group is a new program that started up last year. Several of the wives are here with executives and are not able to work because of their visas. The group is for international women interested in getting to know people from different cultures, helping them settle down and break the cultural barriers. There is also a group of local St. Louis women who are meeting with the wives on a pilot basis to be one-on-one mentors and help them have a better experience in St. Louis.

What is the biggest challenge in reaching the 2020 goal?

A couple of thoughts come to mind. When a foreign-born lawyer moves here from another country they may be authorized to work, but they can’t practice law in the states because it’s a different legal system. Or perhaps a doctor can’t practice medicine in the states because the medical training requirements are different. In some cases they need to improve their English and secondly, they need guidance from us or training from the International Institute to get back into their chosen career.

Another challenge is helping people who live in the region understand that foreign-born people have the same goals and dreams as native-born people. They want safety in their neighbor- hoods, and they want to have meaningful work. Foreign-born people are job creators, not job takers. They are filling jobs in the science fields where we as a region aren’t fully leveraged to take advantage of. For our region to be dynamic, we need both native-born and foreign-born people.

Advancing St. Louis highlights local leaders of small businesses and large corporations that are impacting the St. Louis region from a variety of industries. These leaders are Advancing St. Louis by inspiring change and starting conversations. Are you interested in having your story told? Contact Jennifer Mason, who coordinates marketing content, at jmason@stltoday.com.