Honoring Their Immigrant Roots, Entrepreneurs Combine Impact Investing And Film
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
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Andrew Leon Hanna, 27, and David Delaney Mayer, also 27, became fast friends at Duke, based, at least in part, on their shared status as descendants of immigrants they have known. After years of searching, the pair settled on starting a social enterprise called DreamxAmerica to write an empowering narrative of immigrants, creating a film production company that would tell the story of immigrant entrepreneurs and invest in their businesses.
Hanna, a Harvard Law student, is a first-generation Egyptian-American. Mayer’s grandfather was a refugee from Germany following World War II; his great grandfather was killed in Auschwitz.
The new enterprise is not only personal but timely. “Immigrants are too often portrayed in the media one-dimensionally as victims or villains—not as the strong, creative, inspiring human beings they truly are,” Hanna notes. Media narratives around immigration are often highly polarized.
Furthermore, he notes that immigrants are highly entrepreneurial, starting businesses at about twice the rate of other Americans, but often lack capital and networks that would help them scale profitably.
DreamxAmerica CREDIT: DREAMXAMERICA
DreamxAmerica, pronounced “Dream Across America,” was founded to address both these issues by using Mayer’s skill as a documentary filmmaker to share their inspiring stories and then to invest in their businesses with both money and mentoring. While Hanna and Mayer will provide some of the mentoring and DreamxAmerica will provide some investment capital, the plan is to partner with other organizations to provide resources in these areas.
Scott Overdyke, associate director for social enterprise at the Harvard Innovation Labs has acted as a “thought partner” for the team as they’ve launched. “I love that DreamxAmerica is ‘walking the talk.’ They’re both storytellers AND support system to immigrant entrepreneurs. Systemic change will require both.”
Andrew Leon Hanna CREDIT: VICTORIA BURNS
The pilot phase of the project begins with DreamxNC, a look at three immigrant entrepreneurs in North Carolina.
Caro Arias, CEO of Descalza, a Latin-inspired fashion company, was the first to be profiled. Hanna shared her story:
When she was a child, Caro Arias’s mom gave her a gift that would change the course of her daughter’s life: the family sewing machine. From their first home in El Salvador to their new home in North Carolina, the machine has been a constant — a device through which Caro developed not only a talent for design but an intimate pride for the vibrant fabrics her mom had spent her life with.
Twenty years later, Caro is using that same machine in her role as founder and CEO of Descalza, a Latin-inspired clothing brand based in North Carolina. Though she was told to flee to New York to get “real” fashion experience, Caro ultimately stuck beside the home community that had welcomed her family. As she prepares for a big fashion show in the brisk Raleigh air among her closest friends and supporters, she has never been more confident in her decision: “New York is amazing, but in building Descalza from the ground-up, I wanted to be with my community. I wanted to be in North Carolina.”
Arias described for me the feeling she had during production of her documentary segment.
When I was watching my mother and my production manager being filmed, they shared what Descalza meant for them and it reminded me why I’m doing this in the first place. It’s for my community and for anyone who looks or resonates with my story. I know that we’re going to be a successful brand. There’s no doubt about it, but I what I hope is for the next generation to see my story and see their reflection. They’ll no longer feel portrayed as victims or villains, but as fashion designers, CEOS, entrepreneurs, and any other title they’ll like to become.
She notes that Hanna and Mayer aren’t just looking to share a great story but also to provide long-term support. “People forget that I’m doing this on my own and I’m continuously jumping through hurdlers to make it work,” she says. “Finally, someone is extending their hand to empower the entrepreneur and not just take their story for their own use.”
Another North Carolina story featured is Caren Ochola’s. She’s the founder of The Palace International, a restaurant in Durham. She and her husband founded the restaurant. Today, her son Moses is transitioning into the leadership role, hoping his mother can take a break, get a massage every month, and visit Kenya whenever she wants.
David Delaney Mayer CREDIT: MELANIE FERRARO
The younger Ochola says they just started working with Hanna and Mayer; he is excited about the opportunity to be featured. “Honestly, we can’t believe we’ve been chosen. There are so many stories just as important and impactful as ours. The experience seems to be a series of moments where we ask ourselves ‘is this real,’ and trying not to get ahead of ourselves with hopes of how much of an impact DreamxAmerica can or will make on our small family business.”
A third company to be profiled is the Weeping Radish Farm Brewery in Grandy owned by Ui Bennowitz from Peru. With German-American heritage, Bennowitz was born and raised in Peru. He came to the US and launched North Carolina’s oldest micro-brewery in this costal town.
Hanna says the revenue model for DreamxAmerica has three parts: 1) donations, including the support it has already received from Harvard Business School, 2) returns on the investments in the selected enterprises and 3) the sale of distribution rights to the documentary films. The two report having discussions with Netflix, PBS and the on-demand platforms “planned.”
“I see myself as a poet. I am drawn to the aesthetics of daily life. The beauty found in complexity, in nuances, and in deep emotions compels me to create stories through filmmaking. To this end, I have become a kind of social entrepreneur. I become frustrated by simplistic narratives in the mainstream media and desire to combat them with beauty and nuance,” Mayer says.
Immigrant entrepreneurs could certainly use more “beauty and nuance”—along with a little working capital.
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