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Immigrant Entrepreneurs

American Immigrants Are Twice as Likely to Become Entrepreneurs. Here's Why.

Finding value in change and diversity is one of the great qualities of being either -- or both -- an immigrant and an entrepreneur.
American Immigrants Are Twice as Likely to Become Entrepreneurs. Here's Why.
Image credit: Sunwoo Jung | Getty Images
5 min read

I was born and raised in South Korea, but as a teen, I was innately curious about the world outside of Korea. My father knew someone in Toronto, so I somehow talked my parents into letting me move there, by myself, at the age of 14. Determined to eventually move to the United States, I started 10th grade in Toronto knowing only basic English and not much else about life in North America.

Related: Growing Up an Iranian Immigrant Was Tough But It Taught Me How to Lead

What was this like? Well, it took me four trips to the bank to open an account for myself -- I kept getting asked questions for which I had no answers, like, "Do you want a checking account or a savings account?"

Living in a foreign country without any family, I faced countless challenges, but I overcame them because I had to. There was simply no other alternative, short of returning to Korea. I've since come to see that this stubborn resilience, which so many immigrants bring to the U.S., also is present in many of the entrepreneurs I meet. When you cut ties to a job and a paycheck to strike out on your own and start a business, failure isn't an option, just as returning to Korea wasn't an option for me.

According to a study published in Journal of Business Venturing, immigrants to the U.S. are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as native-born citizens. The authors explain that "cross-cultural experiences may increase individuals' capabilities to identify promising business ideas." I agree, but I also believe that immigrants and entrepreneurs share many traits. Both groups have to possess a high tolerance for risk and a willingness to work hard and long to achieve their dream. Often burning with ambition, both are willing to step off the conventional path and stake their future on the new and unknown.

Related: True Grit: How Immigrants and Veterans Are Reshaping American Entrepreneurship

I've also found that maintaining an immigrant's mindset has been exceedingly useful throughout my career, even as I gained credentials, including an MBA in entrepreneurial studies, and jumped into the insurance industry without any prior experience in the field.

Here are three life lessons I learned first as an immigrant and have since applied in numerous entrepreneurial contexts:

1. Recognize the value of an outsider's perspective.

When I joined Farmers Insurance, I probably knew the least about insurance out of the company's entire workforce. But I was a Chartered Public Accountant, had experience in investment banking and, above all, possessed an openness to seeking new answers for business problems. I could analyze data from a novel perspective and offer varying insights to senior management.

Entrepreneurs generally need the same type of outsider's perspective in order to succeed. The unorthodox solutions you discover can propel a static industry forward and deliver value to your investors and other stakeholders. So, appreciate the fact that coming from left field, so to speak, is one of your biggest strengths.

Related: A First-Generation American Entrepreneur Reflects on the Immigration Proposal That Would Have Barred His Parents

2. Do lots of research. And then, do some more.

When you're planning to leave behind the tried and true, you're more likely to succeed if you reject preconceived ideas and instead learn everything you can about the lay of the land. After all, a new perspective only has value if it's grounded in a solid understanding of existing conditions.

Along with research, try to deeply understand whatever product or process you plan to replace. Before creating a digital claims intake form, I first spent about a month at a contact center, listening to representatives help customers through the claims process. Then as a team we analyzed all the data to help better understand the main pain points before outlining an online form. We ended up proposing to cut the number of questions by more than 80 percent. Without the research I took part in with my team and immersion, I wouldn't have had the tools or confidence to present such a radical change in one of our core processes.

Related: 7 Core Characteristics Successful Immigrants Have in Common That All Entrepreneurs Need

3. You can't do it alone.

Almost by definition, entrepreneurs and immigrants are subsets of a larger whole. But that doesn't mean you can do without input and support from lots of other people. As a newcomer, I learned to listen to everybody because I never knew where I'd pick up important information. Today, even when I'm sketching out proposals for change, I seek out the wisdom and historical knowledge of those who've been using the existing procedures for many years.

Similarly, I've found that success is more likely to come to entrepreneurs who integrate different viewpoints, experiences and even generations into their business solutions. In today's increasingly interconnected world, it's a rare product or process that only needs to serve one set of people.

Nearly two decades after leaving Korea, I'm still excited by life in America, with its constant change and endless diversity. And being able to find value in that change and diversity is one of the great qualities of being either -- or both -- an immigrant and an entrepreneur.

The Immigrant Edge: How Immigrant Millionaires Succeed in Business