5 Important Lessons from Immigrant Entrepreneurs
Is there really an immigrant advantage for success? It is difficult to argue against it. Over 27 percent of U.S. entrepreneurs are immigrants despite being only 13.5 percent of the population. Forty-three percent of the companies on the 2017 Fortune 500 list were founded or cofounded by an immigrant or child of an immigrant. Immigrants are four times more likely to become a millionaire and two times more likely to start their own business.
Five highly successful immigrant entrepreneurs and CEOs shared the competencies and traits that contributed to their success. Their insights offer valuable guidance for everyone trying to make it to the top.
1. Develop the mindset of resiliency and ingenuity combined with a hunger for success.
Roman Martynenko, COO of Astound Commerce, the world's largest independent digital commerce agency, told me, “It’s all in our heads! We understand that nothing will be handed to us on silver platters. Every single win requires sweat and tears.” This mindset is an outgrowth of the environments from which they came.
For example, Francis Dinha, CEO of open source security provider OpenVPN, emigrated from Iraq to escape Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. “The country was incredibly dangerous,” he told me. “I lived through bombings, witnessed people executed for speaking out against the government, and much more.”
Aurimas Adomavicius, president and co-founder of custom software design company Devbridge Group, sees it as a byproduct of living in “an ecosystem of deficit” where the odds for success are stacked against you. Adomavicius, a first-generation Lithuanian immigrant, was brought to the United States by his parents. He believes that the environment in which he was raised helped create his desire for self-preservation and nurture a hunger for success.
2. Have and leverage a support system.
The idea that no one succeeds alone is especially true for immigrants. The executives with whom I spoke cited the role of parents, community and even friends with a common interest as contributing to their success.
Adomavicius described how his mother took him on drawing excursions with students twice his age when he was a child. His father built his first computer for him when he was only six.
The presence and influence of parents isn’t the only type of support system that can contribute to success. Martynenko was fortunate to find two other transplants from the Soviet Union in college. The three friends shared a passion for knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit that encouraged them to start their own business.
Martynenko says, “Without networks to rely on, my partners and I built our own from scratch. That trained us to be selective with our relationships and guard our reputation at all costs.”
3. Develop a zeal for knowledge.
Martynenko captured the sentiment expressed by all of these successful immigrants: “Although we abandoned all of our material possessions, no one could take away my parents’ education and zeal for knowledge.”
Adnan Mahmud, CEO and founder of LiveStories, echoed that sentiment. He came to the United States from Bangladesh because he understood that a great education provided the best opportunity for both him and his family.
Much has been written about the diminishing value of a college degree. In the end, each of the successful individuals with whom I spoke view educational attainment as merely a representation of the broader zeal for knowledge embodied by successful individuals.
The Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti summed it up: “There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.”
4. See and understand problems at a deeper level. Find or build a company that allows you to solve them.
Generating new ideas, recognizing previously unseen problems and overcoming challenges with unique solutions all require the creativity to see and understand problems at a deeper level.
Studying abroad for even one semester has been shown to increase creativity in college students. Imagine the benefits of adjusting to and living in an entirely new culture?
Nishu Thukral emigrated to the U.S. as a young adult from Kuwait and works today as CEO of Pangea Money Transfer. He knows first-hand the frustrations immigrants face when sending money back home, and finding a company with which he had a personal connection was crucial for inspiring him every day to do his best work.
Likewise, LiveStories’ Mahmud has a keen understanding and appreciation for the problem his company solves. His father worked in the Bangladeshi government which is consistently ranked among the most corrupt in the world. He quickly noted that while his father wasn’t corrupt, he saw many examples through him.
“I had a front row view of how information can be manipulated to benefit the few,” Mahmud says. “That picture stuck with me and subconsciously, it led me to start LiveStories as a company dedicated to helping governments around the world effectively use and communicate information.”
5. Pursue change.
Choosing to immigrate to a new country is a conscious pursuit of change. For many, it can be a matter of survival.
“Fear is a great motivator,” according to Mahmud. “Immigrants know what they are running from, and that drives them to make sure their new life doesn’t reflect their old conditions.”
Once in a new country, every aspect of the immigrant’s life continues to change and forces them to be more open-minded and adaptable.
“Immigrants must work incredibly hard to adjust to a new culture and way of life,” explains Dinha. “They often have to work harder and learn more than their native-born counterpart because of language, cultural and societal barriers.”
“We didn’t have the luxury of being able to fail,” says Martynenko. “We had to quickly pivot and change if things weren’t working, which minimized losses and identified exactly what worked.”
In the end, the immigrant advantage has less to do with any special traits and more to do with pursuing the advantages offered by freedom. Every competency that makes the immigrant successful is equally available to native-born citizens. That makes seeing, appreciating and acting on opportunities the most important lesson everyone can learn.
Dinha says it well: “An immigrant knows a good opportunity when he or she sees one; that's how they got here in the first place.”