When did you arrive in the United States and why did you come?
I arrived in the United States in 2000 as part of a program that allows young Austrians to work at Holocaust commemoration sites, museums, and historical research institutes. I organized guided tours and helped lead a project to digitize the archives at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
Marc Mertens, 38
Title: Chief executive
Company: A Hundred Years, downtown
At the time, did you intend to eventually return to your home country?
My intention was to return to Austria upon its completion. I ended up falling in love with the optimistic culture of the West Coast and found myself surrounded by people with big and bold ideas who encouraged and supported me to pursue my own ideas to drive greater impact in the world.
Why did you start your business in the United States instead of back home?
I started my design studio in Austria before my 14-month service sabbatical in Los Angeles. It has always been my goal to create commercially successful work while also driving a positive social and environmental impact. It was clear that Los Angeles would be bring me closer to that vision. I renamed the design studio A Hundred Years to have an openly shared commitment to partner exclusively with organizations that share our drive and determination to create long-term positive impact while creating strong business value.
What’s the hardest thing about starting a business here?
Not having gone to school here, or having any family or friends when I first arrived. I worked diligently to find the first nodes of a network of likeminded people. I’m even more lucky to stay friends with them until this day. The other challenge was breaking through the noise. There are a lot of talented people in this town, and it became clear that our studio really needed to define its unique contribution and purpose to get off the ground.
And the easiest?
Los Angeles – more than any other city I’ve spent time in – supports the type of inventive thinking required to solve some of the biggest issues of our time.
What have been the biggest surprises?
We recalibrated our mission to help organizations align their business and impact goals. I was surprised by how quickly our vision resonated with leaders from Fortune 500 to local NGOs.
Would you tell someone from your home country to start a business here or there?
Of course I have a strong affinity for Los Angeles, but I share my endorsement with a bit of caution. Los Angeles seems to promise relaxation and an easier pace – and in many ways this is true – but it’s a hard working place and a hard market to understand.
Do you go back often?
I generally return to Austria twice a year between work and visiting family.
What did you know about the United States before coming here?
I expected to find a city obsessed with the entertainment industry. Instead, I found an incredibly diverse and thriving place with some of the best minds working together to add value to the world.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you as a foreign-born entrepreneur?
Learning the hard lesson that dry sarcastic jokes better be followed by a “just kidding” here.
– Omar Shamout
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