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Entrepreneur wants to make her American Dream come true for others

Radhika Reddy, founder of Ariel Ventures, Cleveland. Photos Bob Perkoski
Radhika Reddy, founder of Ariel Ventures, Cleveland. Photos Bob Perkoski

The Ariel International Center, which had its preliminary opening in May on the site of Cleveland's old Leff Electric Building on East 40th Street, is already causing a stir. A longtime dream of Reddy's, the center has already signed up two tenants. More are on the way, even though Reddy and her partners are still awaiting city permits to begin renovation of the site.

"So far, we have a German company and a medical examining company that are ready to move in, and a company from Norway is coming to look at it in July," says Reddy. "They have an office in Texas already, but they've heard about the center and are interested. That's the surprising thing -- we haven't even advertised anything, yet. Everything's been by word-of-mouth."

Ultimately, Reddy hopes the 68,000-square-foot center will include three rooftop event venues, taking advantage of the site's unobstructed view of Lake Erie, along with an incubator for immigrant entrepreneurial ventures.

The center also will provide office space for foreign companies looking to expand to the States, and for home-grown companies with an eye on the international marketplace.

Plans also call for the first floor to house art galleries, retail and restaurant spaces so visitors can experience and buy a taste the fare of up to 20 different countries at one stop.

The center became a reality last year, when the historic Leff Building, with its proximity to downtown and Lake Erie views, went on the market. Reddy and her partners snapped it up.

"I'm an entrepreneur at heart, always looking for opportunities," Reddy explains. "I've been thinking and talking about an international center for about 15 years. I looked around, and there wasn't any place in the area that had an international focus. I always thought that if you could bring together different international groups at one location, and have international events and host trade shows, it would be something truly unique to Cleveland."

While the venture has all the positive signs of success, success isn't new to the former international banker from India.

After graduating from college at 18, she worked in the Indian banking industry for 10 years -- also learning information technology systems -- before accepting a Rotary Scholarship to study in America. Knowing nothing of Cleveland, or Ohio for that matter, she chose to pursue a master's degree at Case Western Reserve because a cousin was a professor at the college.

It was at there that she met Lynn Selzer, who would later become her business partner. Reddy's strengths were in banking and tactical planning. Selzer's was in the legal details, as an attorney and CPA.

"We were in the same dorm, and on the same team. We worked so well together. It was a left-brain, right-brain sort of situation where we complemented each other perfectly," Reddy says.

After earning her masters, Reddy abandoned plans to return to India and the baking industry, landing a job that allowed her to stay in Cleveland and secure a green card. A few years later, working with Selzer at a Cleveland toy company, Ariel Ventures began to take shape. It was there that the pair became friends with Irene Zawadiwsky, who would become Ariel's third partner.

Working together, the trio helped the toy company open foreign markets and streamline its operations. Its revenues increased from $8 million in sales to $23 million. It was then, in 2001, that they decided to leave and form Ariel Ventures, the venture capital company that specializes in economic development, with recognized expertise in public financing of projects via tax credits and incentives.

They didn't have to go far for their first client -- the toy company hired them as consultants.

Ariel quickly realized a string of successes, including turning around the fortunes of a local construction company and a plastic molding firm. Before long, the group had also developed software that eased the process of applying for tax incentives for projects looking to locate or expand in low-income communities. The program integrated with systems from the U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees reporting requirements.

It was a move that put Ariel on the national map, roping clients from across the country. It remains the premier system for economic developers looking to tap into financial resources, both private and public.

Today, Ariel Ventures touts about $2 million in revenues, providing financial and business consulting services. With its background in international business, information systems and economic development, the minority-owned company remains special in an ever-growing field.

"You don't see many (firms) who have the combination of expertise that we bring. There aren't many people out there that have the diverse background that we have," says Reddy.

Meanwhile, international business -- especially the hurdles immigrant entrepreneurs face -- remained close to Reddy's heart. After all, she could empathize.

When she left India for the United States, she had $20 in her pocket and a visa. She weathered culture shock and, like other foreign nationals, had to wait until she got a green card before she could start a business.

Reddy laughs when she thinks back to her first Cleveland experience. The route from the airport to her dorm took her past Cleveland Municipal Stadium, which still had a sign touting it as the home of the Cleveland Indians.

"I thought 'Oh, there's so many Indians here in Cleveland that they all get together here!'" she remembers.

"Before I came to Cleveland, I had no concept of what the U.S. was like, let alone Cleveland. We didn't see it on TV in India. There was no exposure. It was a very big culture shock."

She hopes the incubator, a large part of the International Center, helps ease immigrant entrepreneurs' transition, increasing the chances of their success.

"First-generation immigrants, there's something different about their work ethic," she says. "They come and they have nothing. They don't know anyone. They've given up everything they've known. It's very hard. There are language problems, there are cultural changes."

"They have a dual country perspective that helps companies grow globally. They bring together the best of both countries, which gives them a lot of potential as entrepreneurs," she adds.

But, to be a success, the International Center will also have to draw established businesses to Lake Erie's shores, says Reddy.

"You hear about trade missions from other countries going to New York or Chicago, or to California. They don't about know Ohio. They don't know what Ohio offers. It's about marketing the region," says Reddy. "This is my adoptive home, now. We hope the International Center will help bring those companies here, where we have so much to offer."

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