St. Louis, United States

Mosaic’s Ambassadors of Prosperity

St. Louis Mosaic Project

October 24, 2013

Promoting regional prosperity through immigration, innovation and community partnerships

“We don’t have immigrants because we don’t have immigrants; [but] when immigrants have a positive experience somewhere, they tell family and friends who are then more likely to come, too.”
Jack Strauss, Saint Louis University.

Attracting and retaining immigrants has become a key strategy in St. Louis’ mission to remain prosperous. In fact, the Greater St. Louis region wants to become the fastest growing U.S. metropolitan area for immigration by 2020.

And they have the business case they need to support their ambitious goal. Jack Strauss, an economist at Saint Louis University, released a 2012 fact-finding report on how the mid-western city could boost its regional economy over the next decade.  His analysis clearly demonstrates that the region’s relatively small immigrant population makes a significant, positive impact on St. Louis’ economy.

Immigrant asset vs. immigration deficit

Strauss notes that the St. Louis Region, while 19th in the nation in population, is 43rd in immigrant representation and  has suffered from the lack of more immigrants. His study reveals that St. Louis immigrants are better educated, earn more, and start businesses at a faster pace than the native-born population. The data made it easy for local leaders to see that immigration is intimately linked to healthy growth in employment, income and wages for all residents in St. Louis.

“Immigrants bring work skills, add to our neighborhoods, pay taxes and buy goods in our region. And, we need new residents to add to our own multicultural perspectives, so our regional enterprises can compete effectively in the widening global market,” said Mayor Francis Slay (National Welcoming Week).

To realize its vision for St. Louis’ future prosperity, the city looked for strong initiatives that could both attract immigrants to St. Louis and retain those who are already here. To ensure its success, first steps included engaging a powerful cross-section of city leaders and local stakeholders to help put good ideas into practice. Under the leadership of the Mayor’s Office, the St. Louis County Executive and the St. Louis Regional Chamber, steered by the International Institute of St. Louis,  this enterprising coalition would work together to build a broad consensus across the whole community.

Enter the St. Louis Mosaic Project

On June 19, 2012, the 18-member St. Louis Regional Immigration and Innovation Steering Committee was launched, representing a diverse mix of regional business, civic, economic development and academic leaders. A year later, vision and action came together as the St. Louis Mosaic Project, under the slogan, “Regional prosperity through immigration & innovation.

Engaging the local business community and helping them understand the value of diversity is key to making the Mosaic Project a success: “Few St. Louis organizations provide services targeted at the local business community. This includes both services directed at helping local business hire immigrants and services to help immigrant entrepreneurs. This is a key area to attract and retain immigration. Efforts to increase services in this area could be tied to efforts to retain foreign-born college students by assisting local businesses in the process of sponsoring work visas and internships.”

Getting the local population on board would be equally important. So far, the project that has done most to generate enthusiasm among the local population is the Mosaic Ambassadors. The Mosaic Ambassadors Program is a low key but high impact strategy for better educating and connecting immigrants with native-born St. Louisans. Ambassadors are citizens who make a simple commitment to share information, visit at least three immigrant restaurants or businesses in the area and, importantly, make that important message of welcome real by inviting a new immigrant home for dinner. Other Ambassadors operate “pop-up” sites at local corporations with large numbers of immigrant employees where they promote St. Louis’ welcoming and integration services and distribute helpful information.

The appeal of the Ambassadors has been magical. Within weeks of its announcement in June 2013, hundreds of St. Louisans had expressed an interest in participating. Mosaic surpassed its initial goal of recruiting 50 Ambassadors with over 200 applications in the first three weeks.

Welcoming Cities Initiative

Immigrants “create opportunities and make the pie bigger,” said Betsy Cohen, project director. “We need to look at things we can do as a community. We need to become more welcoming and figure out all the points we need to connect services and resources so that when people come here they can immediately plug in.”

While Mosaic Ambassadors roll out the welcome mat and explore the contribution of immigrants within the local population, St. Louis is laying the important groundwork for its Welcoming Initiative, a campaign to recruit and retain immigrants with a clear message about services and opportunities in St. Louis. Building an inclusive community model has been a priority from the outset, according to Betsy Cohen: “Hundreds of immigrants have also been sought out for their input and assistance in achieving the St. Louis Mosaic Project’s goals. Project staff and members are highly visible at local meetings, social gatherings, and with the media to share the St. Louis Mosaic Project’s story and goal.”

Insight from local experts was available from the beginning, but  learning from other cities is an essential part of their plan for success. Strauss was commissioned to identify immigrant ‘welcoming’ and integration best practices elsewhere and to offer recommendations for St. Louis immigrant population growth. The St. Louis City Mayor and St. Louis County Executive have also signed on to the Welcoming Cities and Counties network run by the national Welcoming America.

Charting a path to future prosperity

Mosaic is also tapping into good ideas from outside the country. The highly successful Halifax Connector Program, developed by the Greater Halifax Partnership and replicated in cities across Canada, has been identified for Mosaic’s ongoing work to bring business and new immigrants together.

Access to employment is the number one concern for new immigrants, and a significant strand of St. Louis’ Mosaic strategy. A Career-Path initiative, initially focused on health and engineering sectors, is underway to support labour market integration of immigrants to the St. Louis region.

There is also a special focus on retaining international students in St. Louis, a valuable asset in this high density educational corridor. Betsy Cohen: “We have thousands of talented international students from all over the world at our top institutions. Keeping these students will add both talent and cultural diversity to our community. One program announced recently has our Regional Business Council of company leaders opening their influential Mentor program to international students for the first time. In the new [mentoring] class, 11 of the 136 students are international to help them connect with local leaders so we can retain them.”

Early successes

Mosaic’s early successes  include the support of the Mayor’s office and city executive, recruitment of top public and private leaders, blending of business and social justice priorities without one being sacrificed for the other, financial commitment of seed funds from St. Louis County to hire project staff with other project funding from other regional sources, and major, substantial and sustained local and national media coverage.

We asked Betsy Cohen for the secret to Mosaic’s success. She didn’t hesitate:  first, the evidence that makes for a believable vision, and then leadership for the passion it inspires about getting the job done.

Making it Work for You:

  • Start with local data that shows where there is opportunity and then look for programs that can accelerate your success.
  • Tap into insight from local experts and organize key players across all sectors, private, public, and nonprofit.
  • Focus your story on the positive economic impact of immigrants.
  • Make sure all communications, marketing and outreach weave a consistent message that all partners and champions can use.