Immigrant-entrepreneurs: America's Greatest Asset
Immigrants: We get the job done. -- Alexander Hamilton
Last year, when I was lucky enough to see the Broadway hit Hamilton, this line delivered by the show's star character ignited raucous applause by the audience.
At this point in the play, the American rebels are about to defeat the mighty British military at the Battle of Yorktown, led by two foreign-born soldiers: Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette.
In the theater where I sat, a sense of recognition swept across the room -- acknowledgement for the hard work so many millions of immigrants have performed over the decades, to move our country forward. And while, like other audience members, I felt that this sentiment spoke to our nation's current political and cultural climate, for me there was another layer of meaning, as well.
In fact, this sentiment reminded me of my own impoverished immigrant father’s journey as an entrepreneur, and his contributions to this nation.
The sentiment further reminded me how, as a kid growing up in the United States, whenever I didn’t finish all my food, my father would swoop in and eat every last bite. He didn’t eat just my leftovers, either, but everyone’s at the table. That's because he himself grew up in pre-tourism Thailand, when food and money were hard to come by; so he learned not to take either for granted.
Niwat Kitirattragarn was the first in his family to attend college, relying on a Thai government scholarship awarded to the top student in the class. After graduating, he moved to the United States under a student visa.
Arriving without family or connections, he applied to be a waiter at the local diner and was turned down because of his poor language skills. Even after studying English for years, he was turned away again, from an entry-level restaurant job, because of his limited ability, and his limited visa prevented him from holding other, living-wage jobs (He'd later gain citizenshp status.)
Out of desperation, he shipped himself some woven reed baskets from Thailand, convinced a Manhattan Bloomingdale's manager to become his first customer and opened a small wholesale trading company. His business, which imported baskets and, later, silk flowers, grew steadily. But, then, amid this progress, a neglected cigarette started a fire that destroyed the office and inventory.
Undeterred, my father reopened his business. But the silk flower industry fizzled in the early 1990s, and his company fizzled with it. So, he tried again, starting a candle company that exists to this day, after going 25 years strong. In the 40 years since he arrived in the United States, his companies have employed hundreds have and left an indelible mark on the U.S. gift industry.
I made at least a small mark on the business myself. As a child, I was expected to help without asking anything in return: I sorted mail and delivered it to each department in the company. I filled in as a model in the company's annual catalog. I helped write orders at trade shows -- an experience that taught me how to talk to buyers.
All that early exposure taught me a way of doing business that was handed down to me by my immigrant parents: That "way" required being resourceful, family-centric and driven by family ties. At the snack company I founded and run today, we employ several lessons I learned from my immigrant father:
Companies fail when they don’t have enough cash. So, be sure every dollar spent is getting you value in return. We have a simple metric that helps us spend wisely: Dollars earned divided by dollars spent for each promotion we run. This gets us toward the most efficient use of our dollars.
We track the samples we give out at product demos to pinpoint the best times and places to perform those demos. Tweaking according to these metrics has saved us thousands of dollars.
When in need, lean on family.
While working with family has its own pros and cons, family can be trusted to protect the integrity of your company, and help you make decisions that will result in positive progress. This rings true in my own story, as well as that of Sabina Gault, an immigrant from Romania who came to the United States at the age of 18 to build a career in PR.
In the early stages of her business, Gault looked to her husband to provide guidance on business operations. While her experience and go-getter attitude made her the perfect publicist, she had no idea how to build a company from the ground up, and again relied on her husband to help with everything from accounting and IT, to insurance, hiring and more. Even today,six years, three offices and more than 50 employees later, Gault still seeks advice from her husband in running her agency, Konnect. While my company has grown significantly since I first started it, I too still rely heavily on family for help.
Do only what only you can do.
Our competitive advantage is that we have family overseas who keep an eye on our suppliers. They inspect each shipment and prevent problems before they arise. Additionally, we tap into our culinary heritage for inspiration when creating new snacks. Caue Suplicy did the same when he started Barnana, a snack company using Brazilian bananas.
Caue immigrated to the United States and saw American entrepreneurs building brands with Brazilian agriculture exports such as coconut water and acai berries. He thought he could do the same and started a line of dehydrated, USDA-certified organic banana snacks made from upcycled B-grade bananas grown in his native country.
So, those are my stories. But there are so more: Kraft, Chobani, Haagen Dazs and Budweiser are all household name-companies started by immigrants, and today these companies represent billions of dollars of revenue and thousands of American jobs.
A 2016 study of startups valued at $1 billion or more found that 51 percent of them had at least one immigrant founder. What's more, 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were started by an immigrant or their children. That's proof that immigrants don’t just contribute to our economy; they’re a driving force.
For all U.S. history, the best and brightest people from around the world have sought to come to America to nurture their talents and improve their lives. More than just being essential to America’s entrepreneurial culture, its GDP and global standing, immigrants’ cultural contributions have created and continue to create the very fabric of the American diaspora.