True Grit: How Immigrants and Veterans Are Reshaping American Entrepreneurship
Immigrants and veterans.
What comes to mind when you consider that phrase? Lately, it’s been like a war; rhetoric and spin have pitted these two groups against one another within the mainstream social narrative more times than one can count. In the “sport” of support, Americans have felt the pressure to pick a side or a player, as though political talking points have become little more than fantasy football stats.
What if we considered the narrative of opportunity instead of opposition?
Mark Rockefeller of Street Shares and Nitin Pachisia of Unshackled are both in the business of "affinity-based" investment -- that is, they come alongside their specific "tribe" and help support entrepreneurs within that community. Rockefeller helps to “de-risk” lending by using social loyalty, leveraging a veteran-operated business to give small loans to veteran entrepreneurs that banks just won’t invest in. Pachisia’s venture capital and immigration policy expertise help bring non-native entrepreneurs to the U.S. legally, and take the extra distractions out of the already complex process of building a business (and keeping it here).
This work might normally keep them separated, but, in a back room at VETCON in Silicon Valley, they sat down together with me to talk about how their often divided groups could find their similarities and work together to build up and bridge the gaps of unemployment in this country.
Situation: American job creation
At first glance, these businessmen look entirely different. Rockefeller’s family was in America even before it became America; they practically bleed red, white and blue. Pachisia went just about everywhere else before coming here on a work visa in pursuit of his own American Dream. Their companies are firmly planted on opposite coasts, and service a wide variety of businesses. However, it took less than 10 seconds to find a connection between the two; they’re both obsessed with the impact that investing in underrepresented entrepreneurs has on the economy.
"The one thing that is bi-partisan and has 100 percent approval rating is job creation. American job creation. Entrepreneurs -- immigrant, veteran, citizen, whatever label you want to put on them -- they do one thing. They create jobs," Pachisia said. "My dream is [to] invest in companies that create jobs in Kentucky. And people that are working for this company in Kentucky now can come out and say, 'Thank you, immigrants. I have a job because of you.'”
With unemployment hovering at around 5 percent in the U.S., along with technological advances, increased automation and industry changes, anxiety still remains high for Americans struggling to find work. One solution to this problem is for people to become their own bosses, and create work where there wasn’t any before in their communities. But, not everyone has the immediate ability, or access, to start a company by bootstrapping alone.
"When trying to penetrate the venture capital world . . . both are underrepresented. [They] don't arrive on the scene with the relationships and contacts to make it easier for them," Rockefeller stated.
So, how do investors find those future job-creators, and make smart investments in the right people?
Mission: Finding teams that work
Whether you’re investing six figures of venture capital or giving out a small loan, business lenders often have little to go on other than the idea they’re investing in, and the team making it happen. In that regard, both Rockefeller and Pachisia say that their tribes have some hidden strengths -- strengths that have taken an enormous amount of risk out of the lending process.
"If you make a loan to a company owned by a veteran, and that loan is backed by investment, a retail investment of individuals like us who are also veterans, then you can impact borrower behavior,” Rockefeller told me. “The borrower will feel an enhanced sense of duty or obligation to pay it back. Because if they default on it, they're not harming some monolithic bank. There's other veterans actually putting their retirement into it . . . . Both populations have this in common -- this affinity, this tightness. When you invest in those communities you tend to create a little 'critical mass' that is more sustainable and more durable, because once you get that mass going, they take care of their own."
That sense of duty has paid off: Street Shares’ veteran business bonds boast an incredible 5 percent interest gain annually. Unshackled, in turn, has pre-seeded companies and talented individuals that are attempting to solve consumer problems from student loan debt to AI development; companies and people that are determined to grow and thrive here in the U.S. -- and benefit our country first.
"To me, what's really exciting about colliding these two communities of immigrants and veterans is building teams that complement each other really, really well. As a venture capitalist, the stage at which we invest is really early; the team is what we have to go by," Pachisia told me. “Any underrepresented group today . . . 20 years from now, if we're able to support those communities today, we'll have so many role models that they would not be minorities or underrepresented. One generation later.”
But, along with that excitement, there is also trepidation. Entrepreneurship carries risk, no matter who you are or how you’re connected. Before you can even dream of success in business, you have to make the initial decision to try. For groups with fewer resources, or people that face additional obstacles, that decision is that much harder. For vets, a lack of connections, combined with a lack of access to small loans from big banks, means that a large percentage of them are forced to invest their personal savings into a dream that may or may not happen. Immigrants also face the decision to invest in coming to the U.S., and spending the funds, time and energy necessary to enter legally into the country.
"Not every immigrant is an entrepreneur, not every veteran is an entrepreneur, not every person is an entrepreneur. Very few of us are, and that's by design." Pachisia said. "One thing that gets lost in all the noise is that, if America loses its edge as the destination that I want to go to for a better life -- or, if I'm entrepreneurial, as the best place I can build my company -- we're going to stop attracting the best."
For both Rockefeller and Pachisia, investment in the groups that believe in the American system and entrepreneurial spirit is essential to keeping the future economy of this country alive. It’s a responsibility, not a luxury.
"If [immigrants or veterans] want to start a company that creates American jobs, it's our responsibility to enable them to create those jobs here. The worst form of offshoring jobs is to tell an entrepreneur, 'You're not welcome to create your company here.' You're sending jobs away." Pachisia said.
Execution: Investing in grit
So, how do you ensure that the teams that are being invested in are the right ones -- the ones that will actually become the economic powerhouses that put Americans back to work? Well, there’s no exact science, but there is a specific quality that follows the successful and can give any investor better odds: grit. Simply put, it’s the ability to press forward no matter who or what is telling you to stop.
"Anything in entrepreneurship is about passion, perseverance, grit. So, when we're investing, we're looking at people who will not just do what's easy but will stand tough in the face of adversity," Pachisia told me. "What happens when you invest in groups with a higher baseline of grit, of perseverance? You get better returns! That's what happens."
The team at Unshackled has coined this term the “adversity muscle”; companies and individuals in the best shape will have a higher chance of standing the test of time. Despite the odds, both veterans and immigrants show this particular “gritty” affinity for entrepreneurship in the U.S. A study just last year showed that the entrepreneurial rate in the U.S. contained 0.7 percent of the total immigrant population, compared to 0.28 percent of non-immigrants. In addition, a stunning 40 percent of Fortune 500 businesses in America were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants.
Veterans are just as impressive: They own 30 percent of all businesses in America, and despite being only 8 percent of the population, are twice as likely to go into business as their civilian counterparts. Rockefeller has felt this same type of muscle, and grit, from his own veteran employees.
“[They’ve told me], 'Mark, I'm with you to the end, wherever this roller coaster ride is. If we sell for $300 million, or we flame out in two years, I'm with you till the end.’ And by and large, I believe that they're going to be there."
"[Grit] is the main determinate of success in entrepreneurs. Just tough it out, just get to it," Rockefeller added. "And veterans largely have that as a function of their experience. They had to endure something to get into the military, [many] had to deploy . . . and I think immigrants have a similar thing, you know? There was some act of courage that it took to leave 'there' and come here. In a word, I would say that both are patriotic. Both appreciate America, the system that we have. It's rare, it's unique. There are opportunities to create wealth here that don't exist in a lot of other places. Veterans have deployed, and immigrants have seen many other places. So, there's an appreciation for the system here, and there isn't that complacency."
But, in entrepreneurship, and in life, making the choice is often only the first stage of development for “gritty” people. It’s the start of a series of filters that will select the best of the best, and refine those that can endure.
"Not everyone that wants to join the forces can join; the bar is set really high. Likewise, not every immigrant that makes the decision to come to the U.S. can come . . . . We're really picking the best of the best.” Pachisia said. “The responsibility that is ours, it's to create an ecosystem where they continue to flourish. Because if they don't, they will stop making this choice. People will stop making the choice to join the forces, and people will stop making the choice to pick the U.S. as a destination."
If Americans stop investing in the grittiest populations, the ones that choose to do what others won’t, they also risk losing the economic edge if and when those same people decide to take on the challenge of going into business.
An all-American Dream, for all Americans
There is ample opportunity for support to be given equally to these extra-gritty groups, and for the “tribes” themselves to invest in each other. Why, then, has it been so difficult for the American public to see past the polarizing talking points? Perhaps, it’s because polarization is all anyone’s comfortable talking about. In the meantime, more entrepreneurs -- immigrant, veteran and otherwise -- are striking out to make it in America, and simply getting to work.
Pachisia put it succinctly: "What's talked about is the .01 percent. What's not talked about is the immigrant whose head is down working on what they need to work on, the veteran whose head is down working on what they need to work on . . . . They're like, 'I've seen much worse. This is nothing! What are you talking about, life's great! Stop worrying about me; let me go back to work.' Everything else is noise."
Ultimately, while sitting in the middle of this conversation, it became clear that the dividing lines between these two populations were more blurred than one might initially think. Both “tribes” are certainly defined by their unique experiences, but they are also more inclined to work with and trust those who have also generally faced adversity. No matter your background, in America, grit recognizes grit.
"As a veteran I have more in common with an immigrant that loves America than with a born-and-raised American citizen who appreciates it less. If you fought for something you value, you're going to have more in common with those that value it too,” Rockefeller said. “We have veterans groups saying, 'We want to bring our interpreters in because of what they did for us over there.’ So, in that case, you have the two doing something together, working side by side, building trust that was enough to overcome any cultural barriers."
"If you put veterans and immigrants side by side, and you give them a goal -- a vision, a mission, a corporate goal, whatever it is -- I think you'll get that same loyalty."
Grit, it turns out, is the single binding force that helps both groups uncover their true patriotism. It is the defining factor of the American Dream, a dream that both the returning veteran and the arriving immigrant haven’t surrendered just yet.