A top 10 list of immigrant entrepreneurs in Rochester history

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The Biden administration last week announced it is rekindling the International Entrepreneur Rule, which enables startup founders meeting certain eligibility criteria to spend up to five years in the United States on a special visa developing their early stage businesses. Recent studies have indicated that immigrants are responsible for starting a disproportionately large number of new companies, and that more than half of recent startups valued at over $1 billion had at least one immigrant founder. 

This news prompted us (we are both immigrants) to look at Rochester’s history to gauge the role of immigrant entrepreneurs in growing our region. The unscientific “top 10” list below includes both familiar and esoteric names, but all of them left an indelible mark on our hometown. And it may be worth considering whether today’s Rochester should position itself as a beacon for a new crop of immigrant entrepreneurs that could headquarter their startups here.

Here is our list (in alphabetical order):  

Henry Bartholomay
  • Henry Bartholomay (1829-1906): A native of Frankfurt, Germany, Bartholomay was born into a brewing family. In 1852, he opened the Phillip Will and Henry Bartholomay Brewery in Rochester, contributing to the area’s breweries. After Bartholomay bought out his partner, the business was called the Henry Bartholomay Brewery and eventually the Bartholomay Brewing Co. It became one of the top 10 beer producers in the nation with more than 100 employees, and Bartholomay was described at the time as “perhaps the best-known brewer in America.” When Prohibition hit, the brewery sold ice cream to stay in business. In 1934, after Prohibition was repealed, the business closed its doors.
John Jacob Bausch Photo: Bausch+Lomb

  • John Jacob Bausch (1830-1926): Immigrant Bausch had first headed to a German community in Buffalo upon arriving in the U.S. in 1850. However, a cholera epidemic changed his plans, bringing him to Rochester. Born to a baker and his wife in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, Bausch moved to Switzerland as a young adult. He found work as a lens grinder in an optical shop, designing camera lenses. That experience prompted Bausch to open a retail optical store in Rochester that sold glasses, including opera and field glasses, thermometers and magnifiers. A fellow German immigrant, Henry Lomb, invested in Bausch’s shop and came aboard as partner. The business was called the Optical Institute of Rochester in 1855. An unexpected discovery of vulcanite rubber led Bausch to experiment with eyeglass frames, eventually creating high demand for these spectacles. The company went through several name changes before it became Bausch & Lomb Optical Co. in 1876. Bausch lent his expertise to the manufacturing side of the business, which expanded to make microscopes.
James Cunningham
  • James Cunningham (1815-1886): It was a trip that brought Cunningham, an Irishman, to Rochester. The city’s bustle prompted him to stay and look for work. In 1834, Hanford & Whitbeck, a carriage maker, hired him as an apprentice and later as a journeyman. Four years later, two Hanford employees and Cunningham bought out their employer to form Kerr, Cunningham & Co. Cunningham was in charge of woodwork. The company was located at 71 State St. His partners left the venture when the firm went bankrupt. Cunningham continued as sole proprietor, assuming all the debt. By 1880, Cunningham Son & Co. was supplying the country with carriages, funeral hearses and ambulances. It went on to make automobiles and chassis frames for aircraft. The company is remembered as an early car pioneer and for its contributions in the luxury automobile sector.
George Ellwanger
  • George Ellwanger (1816-1906): Notable horticulture scientist Ellwanger emigrated to the United States from Germany. He settled in Rochester where he would team up with Patrick Barry, an Irish horticulturist, to create the Mount Hope Nursery, also known as the Ellwanger and Barry Nursery, in 1840. By 1871, the nursery had expanded to 650 acres with branches in Toronto and Columbus, Ohio. The duo also entered the real estate business, developing areas such as the Linden-South Historic District in the South Wedge neighborhood. Ellwanger and Barry donated part of their property to create Highland Park. Their efforts are part of the reason Rochester is called the Flower City. Ellwanger is buried at the Mount Hope Cemetery, across from his nursery. 
Max Farash
Photo: Farash Foundation
  • Max Farash (1914-2010): Born in Macedonia, Farash came to the United States when he was five years old. An entrepreneur at a young age, Farash started out as a paperboy and then ran a small business with 14 vending machines. His ability to predict people’s tastes helped his venture grow quickly. Farash also had a business called Genesee Sales and Repair, selling and maintaining air conditioning equipment with partner Al Amico. Farash got into real estate development when he was looking for a home. When a property he developed sold quickly, Farash started to build more, earning a name in real estate. He built a large portfolio of apartment properties, amassing as estimated $500 million fortune along the way. Farash’s love for the Rochester community is still evident today through the ongoing charitable works of the Max and Marian Farash Foundation.
Jacob Freeman
  • Jacob Freeman (~1870-1925): A close friend of Jeremiah Hickey, Freeman was a Hungarian immigrant who was part of Rochester’s growing garment industry in the 19th and 20th centuries. Freeman joined Hickey, a bookkeeper, as well as Thomas Mahon and George Brayer, to create Hickey, Freeman & Mahon Co. in 1899. The company aimed to create a line of high-quality menswear. The name changed to Hickey-Freeman Co. after Mahon left the business. Located on St. Paul Street, Hickey-Freeman grew slowly and steadily. In 1902, it took over the business and site of Michael Kolb & Co. Today, the Temple Building continues to house tailors from all over the world that use their sartorial skills for an iconic brand.
William Gleason Photo: Gleason Works
  • William Gleason (1836-1922): The founder of Gleason Works was born in Ireland. Gleason came to America as a teenager, becoming an apprentice in the Rochester machine shops of Asa R. Swift and I. Angell & Sons. Gleason launched his own machine shop after a stint in Connecticut. That business would evolve into the Gleason Works and, ultimately, Gleason Corp. At first, Gleason Works made metal working tools and machines. The invention of the first bevel gear planer spawned a new industry of bevel gears, positioning Gleason’s business for growth. The company was initially located in Brown’s Race, close to industrial activity. In 1911, it moved to its current location on University Avenue.
Henry Lomb
Photo: Bausch+Lomb
  • Henry Lomb (1828-1908):  With a handshake and a $60 investment, Lomb became Bausch’s partner in a business that would grow into a recognizable, international brand. Lomb, who came to the U.S. from Germany, was involved in the sales and finances of the business. He fought in the Civil War for two years as a sergeant, lieutenant and captain. During his absence, Bausch began using vulcanite for eyeglass frames, which catapulted the company’s growth and opened up new opportunities. Lomb was a founder of the Mechanical Institute, now known as Rochester Institute of Technology, along with Ezra Andrews, Frank Ritter and others. He remained a big supporter of the institute, serving as chairman of the board until 1891.
Max Lowenthal
Photo: RIT Archives
  • Max Lowenthal (1843-1914): Born in Prussia, Lowenthal, also a founder of the Mechanical Institute, came to New York with his father to enter the textile trade. In 1864, he moved to Rochester to join Beobachter, a German newspaper. Lowenthal was associate editor. He worked as a clerk for the owner of a millinery. The business, which made ladies’ hats and fancy goods, was run by Samuel Rosenblatt. The job gave Lowenthal a taste of the garment industry. By 1870, Lowenthal had launched his own millinery, with his sister as his partner. Today, Lowenthal is mostly known for his commercial pursuits in knitting goods with Rochester Knitting Works and Max Lowenthal & Sons. At one point, Lowenthal had 100 employees making men’s and children’s wear, stockings, jackets and other clothing items. A mix of reasons, including competition, forced the business to close. Lowenthal’s sons turned to real estate.
Dilip Vellodi
Photo: Sutherland Global
  • Dilip Vellodi (1956- ): A native of India, Vellodi has grown Sutherland Global Services into one of Rochester’s largest businesses. With nearly 40,000 employees worldwide, the company helps with creating dynamic customer experiences for its clients. Sutherland’s launch in 1986 is often associated with the beginning of business process outsourcing. Vellodi began his career with Merck, and moved to Xerox to serve in various roles including operations and sales. He has often said that his time at Xerox sowed the seeds for Sutherland. Vellodi has been lauded for his entrepreneurial efforts with the Ernst & Young New York State Entrepreneur of the Year award and RIT’s Herbert W. VandenBrul Entrepreneurial Award. 

Alex Zapesochny is Rochester Beacon publisher. Smriti Jacob is managing editor.

11 thoughts on “A top 10 list of immigrant entrepreneurs in Rochester history

  1. I have admired the Rochester Beacon for its thoughtful, insightful coverage of our community. However, I was shocked to read your article allegedly showcasing the Top 10 Immigrant Entrepreneurs of Rochester History because it left out the Canadian immigrant who came to Rochester in 1882 as a servant and went on in 1892 to launch the world’s first modern retail franchise system. The Harper Method ended up with over 500 franchises around the world, but, oh, the entrepreneur was a woman, Martha Matilda Harper, who also invented the first reclining shampoo chair. Harper’s entrepreneurial vision of franchising has gone on to be the fastest growing retail segment in the world. Isn’t it time for Rochester to recognize the breathtaking historic business contribution of Harper? The American Business Hall of Fame has .

  2. Looking down one level, Kodak’s research labs were staffed with a large contingent of immigrants, starting with Kenneth Mees, director of research. Color photography was perfected by immigrants. Jewish refugees were welcomed in the 1930’s. My father, Kenneth Hickman, had more than 150 patents and figured out how to extract vitamin A from fish oils and vitamin E from vegetable oils, using vacuum distillation methods first developed for drying film. The vacuum division spun off into what became CVC industries. I would imagine that most other enterprises in Rochester had deep pools of talented immigrants making major contributions.

    • Great point, Bryan. It’s not only about the immigrant entrepreneurs. Immigrant managers and professionals have had a much deeper influence than that in driving our region’s economy forward.

  3. This is a great write-up! Love Rochester’s history. I have someone to add – Martha Matilda Harper, 1857-1950. She was born in Oakville, Ontario, Canada and worked as a domestic servant for 25 years, starting at the age of 7. She moved to Rochester as a young woman and continued to work as a servant. Along the way she perfected a hair tonic recipe handed down to her by a former employer and saved up to open her own salon in the Powers Building in 1888. This was not considered ‘proper’ at the time (women had their hair done at home) and it took some convincing of the building’s owner. That determination is why her salon eventually grew into a network of 500 salons around the world, known as The Harper Method. She’s considered the inventor of the franchise business model, many years before others who are typically thought to have invented it. Her approach to business would be considered modern even today – she groomed former servant women like herself to franchise these high-end shops in cities all over, providing child care, a training school, and a spa-like setting that used products that were free of harmful ingredients and based on science. (They were made in the company factory at 1233 East Main Street, where Tire Trax is now – you can still see her name carved at the top of the building). Her clients included celebrities, royalty, presidents, etc. The Harper Method lasted over 20 years after her death. It was sold to a competitor who essentially shut it down. Her story was forgotten until Rochester business consultant Jane Plitt rediscovered her and her company while doing research on the Powers Building. Plitt’s biography of Harper is a fascinating read. Harper is in the American Business Hall of Fame, the National Women’s HOF, and Rochester Business HOF. She is buried in Riverside Cemetery.

    • As far as immigrant women entrepreneurs that achieved great success, one that comes to mind is Elena Prokupets. I used to work for her. She founded Lenel Systems, which was eventually acquired by UTC and still employs many people in our area.

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