Christine Stuart photo

The City of Hartford and a new nonprofit organization are betting that immigrants and refugees will help kickstart its economy with their entrepreneurial spirit.

At an informational forum Thursday about International Hartford, the new nonprofit group spearheading the effort, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill explained that today’s immigrants are not the stereotypical unskilled worker.

“Twenty-first century immigrants really defy those stereotypes,” Merrill said. “First of all, more of them come here with college and graduate degrees than you would imagine: 30 percent.”

More than half of the immigrants with college degrees are overqualified for their jobs in the United States.

According to a 2012 Kauffman Foundation study, about a quarter of the engineering and technology companies founded between 2006 to 2012 had at least one founder who was born abroad. In Silicon Valley, it was even higher at 43.9 percent.

Christine Stuart photo

It’s unknown how many of the 350,000 businesses registered in Connecticut are owned by immigrants, but Merrill said it’s a piece of data her office is looking at collecting in the future.

What the state does know is that in the Greater Hartford area, 78.5 percent of its immigrants are skilled and of those, 30 percent have college or graduate degrees. Also, immigrants are two times more likely to start a business than Americans and 13 percent are more likely to own a business.

Milagros Cruz, an immigration attorney and president of International Hartford’s board, said that many immigrants work one or two jobs, but they also have a side business. She said the goal of International Hartford is to “shift an individual into making that side business his primary source of income.”

She said immigrants contribute $5.6 billion to the Connecticut economy.

Many are highly educated immigrants, but when they come to America they work as housekeepers or janitors, Cruz said.

“They will hold onto those jobs for years and also have their side jobs. So we have highly skilled immigrants that are underemployed,” she said.

When it comes to money “immigrants are savers, they’re not spenders,” Cruz said. But they have difficulty adjusting to the American banking system because they come from countries where the government or the bank will take the money in the bank.

Art Feltman, executive director of International Hartford, said there’s a history of banks going belly-up in Nigeria, so that immigrant group may come to America with no credit history. He said that in order to get a loan they will need to provide the lender with some form of credit.

That’s where Feltman’s organization steps in to help. He said they’re not looking to become a micro-lender, but rather they’re looking to help immigrant businesses fill out the necessary paperwork or establish a credit rating.

Cruz said the immigrant community is often slow to trust the American banking system and government based on past experiences in their own countries.

Feltman and Cruz told a group of providers and community lending organizations that they’re not looking to duplicate the services already offered by their group, but they are looking to help connect immigrant entrepreneurs to their services or classes.

Feltman said the eight-member International Hartford board of directors is looking for about $55,000 in seed money from the city and also will seek private funds for the nonprofit.

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra said Hartford will continue to be a city of immigrants.

“It is immigrants that basically built this city,” Segarra said. “Even before the Europeans came to Hartford, this was a place all the different tribes got together to engage in commerce.”