CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a move likely to spark debate, a Charlotte-area CEO has given $1 million to launch a nonprofit that will help the undocumented children of immigrants pay for college in the United States.
Ric Elias, co-founder of the Red Ventures Internet marketing firm in Fort Mill, S.C., says his Golden Door Scholars program is taking applications and should award its first scholarships by the end of this year. Its unclear how many will be awarded.
Experts say the program is a rarity: a national scholarship for undocumented students that not only covers all four years at the college of their choice (including room and board), but helps with internships and job placement.
Elias understands that Golden Doors mission will prompt criticism, given the intense, often acrimonious political debate surrounding the nations immigration laws.
I dont really care, said Elias, a native of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated U.S. territory. It doesnt faze me. If we can get people talking about this, (criticism) may not actually be a bad thing, given the lack of understanding out there on this issue.
In North Carolina, as in many states, undocumented students can attend public high schools, but arent eligible for most college financial-aid programs and are required to pay out-of-state tuition, which is as much as four times higher than in-state rates.
Golden Door is being unveiled at a time when undocumented students around the country are lobbying for the Dream Act, federal legislation that would put many of them on the path to citizenship.
But conservatives argue against it, pointing out that parents of many such students are in the country in violation of immigration laws.
Leaders of Charlotte nonprofits say its not surprising for angry donors to withhold money if they find out clients helped by an agency include undocumented immigrants. (Some local agencies estimate 25 percent or more of their clients are undocumented.)
However, its a stand Elias, 45, can afford to take as CEO of a company that builds technology to market and sell products and services for some of the biggest brands in the nation.
The Lake Wylie resident co-founded Red Ventures in 2000, and it has grown to 1,400 employees in four states. It has twice been ranked among the 20 fastest-growing companies in the nation on the Inc. 500 list. Elias was also named one of the 2011 Ernst & Young National Entrepreneurs of the Year, due in part to the companys revenue increase of 40 percent per year over the past four years.
A handful of Red Ventures staffers are running Golden Door as volunteers, allowing for 100 percent of the funds to be used as student aid. Elias hopes other corporations will eventually contribute to the program, meaning thousands of students across the country could be helped in years to come.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teachers are already encouraging students to apply to Golden Door, which will present the aid partly as a grant, partly as a low-interest loan requiring nominal payments. Those payments will go toward future grants for other students.
Among those applying is Pablo Orozco, 16, a senior with a 4.4 grade point average at Garinger High. He is captain of his soccer team and is also taking night classes at Central Piedmont Community College as part of a CMS enrichment program.
I get about 15 letters a week from colleges across the country asking me to come to their school and Id love to go, but my residency status doesnt allow me to get financial aid, said Orozco, who was brought to this country from Argentina when he was 5.
To me, the people behind Golden Door are heroes. They believe in us, knowing that we stay here in this country because we want to be Americans. We want to make this country better.
Garinger teacher Alexandra Iorio says Golden Door is a game changer for students in her English as a Second Language classes. She helps coach Orozcos soccer team, which is currently first in its conference, and says 60 percent of the players are undocumented.
Just talking about (Golden Door) to these kids has given them this insane motivation, a sort of life-altering urgency about applying to college, said Iorio. Even the younger ones are hearing about it and they feel going to college is a possibility.
Elias said his own lack of understanding led to the creation of Golden Door, which borrows its name from the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
The idea first came to him four years ago, when he asked a high-performing high school student about college, and learned the teens undocumented status left few options.
He was a tremendous student who was hoping to just get a job in a kitchen, recalled Elias. It struck me how little I knew about this and opened my eyes to study this issue.
Elias said he stepped up with an offer to help pay for college, and that student is now a college senior with a 3.9 GPA.
We are calling it Golden Door because this is what our country stands for: hope and opportunity, he said. This is not a political statement. Its about helping kids, and putting those kids through college only makes this a better country.