In America today, many feel that the country is losing its unity and falling into discord. Over the past 18 months, I have undertaken a podcast and project called The Immigrant Entrepreneur, that explores how immigrants create 27% of new businesses, despite accounting for only 13% of the population. That includes a lot of dry cleaners, but also firms like Intel, PayPal, SpaceX, eBay, Google, Nordstrom, DuPont and WeWork. After interviewing over 50 immigrant entrepreneurs from 38 countries, I’ve come to believe that, in these divided times, immigrants remind us of what is grand about this country and the people who made it! Here are three reasons why.
1) They remember where they came from.
Immigrants often live in the underbelly of America. Life can be tough and feel unfair. However, they know that, here, they have a chance. When Israel Baline (Irving Berlin) was a boy, his family lived in a little windowless basement in New York City. When he was 13, things got worse when his father died. To save money for his family, Irving moved out to the street. He survived for six years selling newspapers by day and busking (singing for tips in bars) by night. He never complained about his life of hard knocks. As difficult as it was, he knew it was better than his life in Belarus, where as a young boy, he saw his house burned down by the Cossacks. He grew up to write songs like “White Christmas,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and that song we all know, “God Bless America.”
One cause of division today is the issue of wealth distribution in America. To the degree that there are barriers to wealth mobility, immigrants face them with fewer resources. Yet many immigrants don’t see walls but opportunity, because here, property rights and the rule of law exist.
For example, economist Hernando de Soto performed a famous study in which he hired his students to apply for a business permit in Peru. It took them more than 300 days and 32 times the minimum wage to gain the permit. In Egypt, he found it took 189 days and 86 steps, and cost $1,550.
Another example. One day I was complaining to an Indian immigrant friend, Nitish, about how slowly a local government agency operated. He owns a carpet distribution business here. He told me, “You have no idea. We own a large carpet factory in India. One night, there was a fire. The firemen came. The fire was blazing. They said, ‘Pay us a bribe.’ We said, ‘The banks are closed.’ They said, ‘That’s your problem. Go find the money, and we’ll turn on the hoses.'”
2) The choice to come to America is not as easy as it seems.
Immigrants — by the fact that they chose America — must believe in it, and believe it will be good for their families.
But it’s worth emphasizing that they are not choosing to come here for vacation. They are uprooting their families, their households, their families’ identities or stories, to come here. Following through on that choice may take years and demands intense commitment. That intensity can make them more invested in the success of this country and their own futures. Here are three questions they ask themselves in the process:
What can we bring?
Consider the angst of a seemingly straightforward process, deciding what to pack. For every item chosen to bring or to leave behind, there is a sense of responsibility and a declaration toward the future. When the family of an entrepreneur I interviewed, Parviz Parvizi, rode through the mountains of Iran in the early 1980s, each item was carefully chosen. He told me that, at one point on their journey, a horse stumbled, dropping its pack, and his mother’s recipe book fell down the hillside. Even though there was a war going on, and it was pitch dark, she said, “I’m not going another step without my recipe book.” After his family survived this trial and many others, they made their way to New England, where Parviz grew up. He attended Yale Law School, and created Clammr, a cool technology that makes it easy to share audio clips. He offered this reflection, “Looking across time and space — globally and across human history, I think having a chance to grow up here, in America, at this time puts you in the top 1% to 5% of human opportunity. Just from the get-go. I guess as I reflect on that — well then, what did I do with that? How did I push the ball forward for society? That sort of filters to, ‘I should do something with myself that’s additive and creative,’ rather than be worried about, ‘Did I take a financial risk?’ I think many Americans would think like me, but I guess I have a more palpable sense of the other direction in which things could have gone. ”
Who goes first?
Immigrants often must decide which family member to send first. As the violence began to unfold in Liberia’s civil war, Daphne Mallory as an 8-year-old was the only one of her family allowed by the government to leave the country, and was sent alone to England to stay with another family. A few years later, she came to America to be joined by her mother. Daphne attended an inner-city high school and got into Brown University and then into law school at the University of North Carolina. Today, she lives in Idaho, helping family businesses to grow. I asked Daphne about being sent by herself, and she said, “You grew up quick. In fact, I owe a lot of my entrepreneurial spirit to that experience, because I had to learn quickly on my feet. It was just survival mode. You excel and you advance, and that would be the way to shoulder that responsibility for everyone else I left behind. The best thing I see in America is the original vision of America … to create a place where many people could have that opportunity to build up thriving communities and excel.”
What will I do?
Perhaps the most difficult part of the choice that immigrants face is to give up the foundation they spent their life building, and looking into the unknown. Allen Vaysberg, a life coach, talked about his family leaving the Ukraine while it was under the Soviet Union. Discrimination increasingly restricted the professions they could enter. “My parents came here when they were 52 years old. My father had been a respected engineer with many patents to his name, and my mother the same. Upon arriving in America, my dad began washing dishes and cutting bread at night. My mom went to cosmetology school and became a manicurist. What will always be a driving force for me was their ability to be humble and hardworking, and choosing to start over in order to make something better for their children. Because, certainly, it wasn’t better for them. They brought me here just so I could make a better life.”
3) They have a value system.
Immigrants whom I interview often share that their parents had a well-defined understanding of what is important to them, and didn’t hesitate to impart those values to them as children. They needed those values to survive and then thrive. For example, Due Quach attended Harvard University and the Wharton School of Business, and then practiced private equity investment. Today, through the organization she founded, Calm Clarity, she teaches meditation to school kids in inner-city Philadelphia where she grew up. That she has accomplished what she has is something of a miracle, since she could not talk until she was 7 years old, due to trauma she received in Vietnam. If to be American is to believe that you as an individual, along with your family, can determine your own life, then a lot can be learned from Due. She told me, “One of the great things about being a refugee is that you have seen the worst that can happen in life. I don’t have the same sense of fear or risk avoidance that a lot of people could have. Becoming an entrepreneur for me was a bit scary, but it wasn’t as scary because of growing up with the childhood that I had.
“Even through high school, I had an entrepreneurial attitude, as I always helped my parents run their little Vietnamese takeout restaurant. One thing I learned from my parents, because the takeout was really hard work, is that, no matter how hard it is, you just have to push through, and you are doing it for something greater. You are doing it to put food on the table and to be able to take care of people. I learned to sacrifice because of my parents. My parents aren’t materialistic people. They didn’t work hard to buy Gucci handbags. One of the sacrifices my parents made was when we first came to America. The school system was so violent that, when my brother started first grade, he came back with a broken arm. The teachers didn’t care, and the administration could care less. My parents could not speak enough English to advocate for him, so they figured the best thing they could do was to put us in the Catholic school where it might not be a better education but at least we would be safe. They wouldn’t have to worry about us coming home with a broken arm.”
For these three reasons, I believe immigrants can refresh our own appreciation of the opportunities and rights that we enjoy. They see America from the perspective of where they came from. They made a choice that demanded their total investment. And they live by a value system. America can learn from her immigrants.
Kent Trabing is the founder of the podcast The Immigrant Entrepreneur, as well as of the Wharton Club of New York Magazine.