People 08 May 2018
Packing up and leaving the only homeland you ever knew is no easy feat. Armed with a vision for success, immigrants bravely step out into the unknown to chase passions and follow their dreams.
For these 15 entrepreneurs from countries, America represents "the dream," and they chased it until they found it, moving here start new businesses and new lives. They didn't just pursue the American dream, they are the American dream, and we can learn a lot from their stories.
1. Mariana Hernandez, founder of White Rabbit NY, a bamboo lingerie brand
"I am originally from a small town in Northern Mexico, Torreon. It was a great, quiet place to grow up in. However, as I grew older, I started to realize I was also outgrowing my city. The typical path for a girl like me would have consisted of going to college, meeting a husband, having kids, and living a quiet life. I have nothing against this path; I am happily married and have a lot of respect for mothers, but I wanted to see more and do more with my life, besides getting married. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity of attending the University of Pennsylvania where I got a BSE and an MSE in Bioengineering. Going to Penn opened a whole new world to this small-town girl – I met people from around the world, did scientific research, volunteered in China to help children with cerebral palsy, and eventually landed in Manhattan. I worked as a Management Consulting at a firm focused on Operations & Supply Chain, where many times I was the only, or one of two, women staffed on a project and was always the youngest. I strive to always challenge myself and the role we believe we have to play, never wanting to feel limited because I am a woman, and take immense pride for 'making' it in this city. After doing consulting for a couple of years, I decided to launch White Rabbit and help empower women to feel comfortable and great in their underwear."
2. Beate Chelette, CEO Chelette Enterprises
“Everything in Germany is about the rules, and everything is very structured. I was the unruly one, and I realized that by coming to Los Angeles, I would finally fit in because the whole city is full of creative, colorful, opinionated, and driven people like me, trying to make their mark. In short, I was seeking adventure, and I have not had a boring day since. In business, I learned that there was great opportunity because many people in LA are not from there, so everyone comes with a similar mindset and you connect with that energy. The American Dream only happens in America – there is no other place in the world that would have allowed me to be a working single mom, and simultaneously sell my business to Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world. My overwhelming sense of gratitude for what this country has done for me is why I am in service of creating opportunities for other entrepreneurs."
3. Anli He, CEO and Co-founder of uSens, Inc
“I came to the U.S. in 2001 from Beijing, to earn a master's in computer science from Syracuse University and eventually an MBA from Duke University. I married my husband, also a native of China, in 2007. On our second date, we discussed our shared vision of creating a more empathetic world through Augmented and Virtual Reality technology. In 2013, I told my husband it was a waste to stay in Silicon Valley and work for big corporations. If we weren't going to create a startup, we'd be better off buying a big house in Texas where I could be a stay-at-home mom. So, we started a company together, uSens, which develops 3D human-computer interactive technologies to help make AR/VR look and feel real with natural hand and positional tracking. Last year, we raised $20M in venture capital to build the technology to realize our vision. Our hope is that our kids will be able to live in a world that embraces empathy, strives for innovation, and rewards creativity – regardless of where they live. We're best able to realize that dream through the California culture that rewards entrepreneurship and risk-taking. In the USA, people are not tied down to the past. With only a dream and a dollar, they can create world-class companies and entire industries. Although we're working in virtual reality, the American Dream of working hard and getting ahead still seems very real in Silicon Valley."
4. Chef Simone Tong, founder of Little Tong Noodle Shop
"I was born in Chengdu, the capital of China's southwestern Sichuan Province. I studied all across China and Singapore as a kid, moved to Melbourne, Australia to finish high school, and graduated from University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill in 2006 with degrees in Economics and Psychology. Needless to say, I've been around. It wasn't until my senior year helping out at my mom's restaurant in Chengdu, however, that I realized my love for food. One day in 2009, I saw Chef Wylie Dufresne's wd~50 on TV and his method inspired me to enroll at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. I went on to work at wd~50 for four years, then Wylie's second restaurant, Alder, and finally to open my own restaurant called Little Tong Noodle Shop. Moving to NYC allowed me to learn how to elevate food to the next level and think about cuisine in a novel way — something that I wouldn't have been able to do had I stayed in my hometown. Ultimately, it inspired the ability to think about food creatively and pursue it as a passion. Now, I'm bringing my culture's cuisine to NYC in the hopes of introducing the food on which I was raised to my new community."
5. Socorro Herrera, owner of Yuca's
Yuca's Hut, the Herrera family's taco stand in Los Feliz, CA, was born from a dream and a necessity. With a growing family and scarce job possibilities, my parents embarked on a journey for a better life, leaving their hometown of Mérida, Yucatán, moving to British Honduras (now Belize), and landing without fanfare in Los Angeles, CA. “Mom understood that the story of streets being paved with gold was a parable encouraging immigrants to grab the opportunities that their new country provided. She dove in with gusto and made a success of each opportunity presented: as a worker in the garment industry she excelled and became the "sample maker", working with the seamstresses she saw a need - Christmas toys and wreaths were bought by the truckload and quickly disappeared as eager women shopped in her mobile store, Avon presented opportunity but only if you sold a set minimum - Mom created a consortium of friends and was soon the #1 Avon Lady in the region.
Forty-one years ago, she fell in love with an 8' x 10' converted shoeshine stand and launched Yuca's Hut on April 1, 1976. Mama Yuca's, as she is lovingly known, created a space where everyone gets a feeling of having come home to the smell of old-time favorites and an enveloping, welcome hug. Yuca's Hut successes surpassed Mom's biggest dreams (the first taco stand to receive a James Beard Award!), and is today considered an icon in the City of Los Angeles. Today, Mama Yuca's is hugging the children of the children that grew up on her tasty Mexican cooking. She raised her family and hundreds of Los Angelenos, too!"
6. Svetlana Smither, owner of the sweetFrog frozen yogurt store
Leif and Svetlana Smither
“Last year my husband and I moved from Vancouver to Maui and opened the first sweetFrog frozen yogurt franchise store in Hawaii. It was actually the second move I made in the last five years, as I came to Canada from Russia. I was born in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk and became an accountant there. We had a wonderful opportunity to run a business in the beautiful state of Hawaii. I've been able to apply my accounting background to handle the store's finances and paperwork. It has been an amazing personal and professional journey that has taken me from growing up in Siberia to running a successful sweetFrog business in Maui."
7. Kate Morgan, Founder of Morgan Publicity, a Beauty Focused PR & Communications Firm
“I started my PR career in London, and during my ten-year tenure as a Publicist I have worked in-house for major brands and at large PR firms, managing a hefty roster of client accounts. I garnered press wins and major media attention globally for brands under my umbrella.
I relocated to the US a few years ago to start my own PR Firm, which supports the US – brands that want to break into the UK market, and vice-versa. I realized that my niche in knowing the UK media landscape was the perfect platform for my business; tapping into my UK connections and spotlighting my UK heritage from a business standpoint has proved to be lucrative. The same principal applies for UK brands seeking US representation. America has granted me a lifestyle and opportunities that would not have been possible for me back in the UK. I feel that Americans embrace the spirit of the entrepreneur, and have indeed welcomed me and my business venture with open arms."
8. Sandra Shpilberg, CEO of Seeker Health
At 16 years old, Sandra Shpilberg immigrated from placid, beachside Uruguay to Brooklyn, NY, with her parents and brothers. Today she is the CEO of Seeker Health, a rapidly growing digital health company based in Palo Alto that uses technology to bring efficiency to clinical trials developing new medicines for serious conditions. “The first two years in the US were extremely challenging," says Shpilberg, who arrived in Brooklyn in the winter of 1992. “I learned then that I could either count what I didn't have, or I could count what I had. And then put that to work." Back then, Shpilberg barely spoke English, her parents were intermittently unemployed and her brothers were getting beat up in the streets on their way home from school. Her family had come the United States in pursuit of her father's American Dream, but the reality was harsh: her family was beginning a new life from zero in every aspect – economic, professional and social. That first summer in the United States, Shpilberg and her brothers attended a camp for disadvantaged youth.
“Even though I never quite thought of myself as disadvantaged, my brothers and I technically qualified – we were immigrants from Latin America, English was our second language, and our parents' income was practically non-existent,“ Shpilberg says. “But at camp, I realized how advantaged my brothers and I were: we had two parents who cared for us, cooked dinner for us every night, and encouraged and facilitated our school work. We had a family." With the support of this tight-knit family, Shpilberg finished high school in Brooklyn, NY and then attended Pace University. When she graduated summa cum laude, she was the first in her family to graduate college, and her brothers quickly followed. After working on Wall Street for three years, Shpilberg attended The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and earned an MBA. She then began a career in biotechnology, working for Genentech, Centocor, BioMarin and Nora Therapeutics. Then in 2015, after getting an opportunity to pilot the use of social and digital media to accelerate clinical trial enrollment at Nora Therapeutics, she founded Seeker Health. She incorporated the company, rented an office, set up a website and went to talk to potential customers instead of VCs. Within two months she had three revenue generating customers.
Today, Seeker Health has grown to serve more than a dozen biotech sponsors with most running multiple clinical trials. Seeker Health's clients provide superior advice about how to improve the company, making them the best source of funds for her business. “The other important lesson I learned through immigration is that change is the only constant," Shpilberg says. She recounts fighting change in the first few years, until she realized that this effort could be put into making the best of the new situation she had at hand. Similarly, as CEO of Seeker Health, Shpilberg makes it a practice to flow with change, find the goodness that it can deliver and thrive in uncertainty. “Change is a great path to growth," she says. Shpilberg thinks of immigration as one of the most defining experiences of her life. “Overcoming those early challenges, learning to flow with change and work hard prepared me well to start and build Seeker Health." Today, Seeker Health brings innovation to global clinical trial enrollment, helping accelerate the development of new medicines. Using technology, Seeker Health helps medicines get developed faster and reach those who need them earlier with the mission of improving health outcomes around the world.
9. Michal Alter, CEO of Visit.org
Michal Alter was one of the first female pilot cadets in the Israeli Air Force and a computer science engineer. She planned to spend her career climbing corporate ladders to tech managerial positions. However, lacking a human aspect to her work, she started volunteering once a week after work hours with refugees from Darfur, and, seeing the immediate impact on human lives she had as a volunteer, she accepted an offer to become Director of Refugee Affairs for the Tel Aviv city government. This transition from the high tech to the social sector cost her a 70 percent cut in her salary. She came to America to continue her studies at Columbia University and in 2015 successfully launched Visit.org, the world's largest community-based tourism platform, with 600 immersive and impactful travel experiences in 70 countries hosted by philanthropic organizations.
“Social entrepreneurship can be very challenging – it's a sector that is still very much in its infancy, and there are not enough good case studies of successful social ventures that grew to be great companies that had positive impacts on the world, which makes investors' appetite still low and risk averse to new business models and paradigm shifts, and fewer examples for the social entrepreneur to learn from. In that sense, New York offers a very vibrant ecosystem that is more open to new ideas and where alternative funding opportunities exist if you look hard enough and long enough, such as competitions, grants, accelerators, and fellowships that can help social entrepreneurs 'buy more time' to perfect their business and impact models before reaching out to investors. Also, New York has such a diverse community of people who are innovating in any human field possible, so when you are part of this community it provides you with endless inspiration on the one hand while constantly keeping you on your toes on the other hand, making you improve and strive to be best at what you do constantly," says Alter.
10. Rena Abramoff and Julia Abasova, best friends and the creators of Bandelettes
Rena Abramoff and Julia Abasova
“Although we are both from Azerbaijan, we did not meet until 2003 here in Staten Island, NY. Coincidentally, we found that we were both in the same position of having to start from scratch in order to provide for our families, and we have been close friends ever since. When people come to America, they often find that it can be harder than they anticipated to work your way to the top. For the two of us, however, we never saw those hardships as obstacles but rather, opportunities. Having backgrounds unrelated to fashion and with so many younger people having the same goals, it didn't necessarily make sense to start a new venture in the fashion industry. We knew nothing about clothing, advertising, or manufacturing – but we decided to take that step anyways, as the possibilities far outweighed our trepidations. Clearly, we made the right decision; and in April of 2013 we launched our company Bandelettes. For fellow emigrants, we want to show what it takes to start your own business in a new country and that success is possible, even if they're starting from the ground up.
For women, we want our product to help them feel more comfortable and confident in their daily lives. Most importantly, we want to show that no matter what your age, no matter where you come from, and no matter what you are starting with, you have three choices – you can take a step back, you can remain stagnant, or you can take a step forward. From the time we moved to America, to the launch of Bandelettes, we are proof that taking one step forward and furthering your dream is absolutely worth it."
11. Renjie Chang, M.D. founder of NeuEve
Coming to America 30 years ago, I have worked various jobs. With initial training as an OB-GYN in China, I worked as a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma and a drug developer at the Abbott Laboratories. Today, I am a CEO for two companies that I established, Lavax, Inc. and NeuEve, LLC. Many women after menopause develop vaginal atrophy. The most effective treatment is the female hormone. However, hormone increases cancer risk. Millions of women, especially cancer survivors, cannot use it. Because these women cannot have intimacy with their husbands, many have lost marriages.
Luckily, I have some ideas to help these women, but I had no startup funds to develop these ideas. America is a great country that supports free enterprise, especially startup businesses. In the past 12 years, my innovative ideas have won 3 government grants from NIH and 2 private grants from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. With these grant supports, I developed a novel product called NeuEve that can reverse vaginal atrophy without hormones. It works by delivering nutrients to the shrunken soft tissue like calcium pills for bones. America has helped me to realize my dream by becoming a successful entrepreneur. In return, I would like to provide America with more innovative products that help women. To date, my product NeuEve has been on the market for 3 years and has helped tens of thousands of women to regain youth and retain marriages. These achievements would not be possible had I not come to America. Thank you America!
12. Miri Torres, founder and CEO of Arianna Skincare
Miri Torres, founder and CEO of Arianna Skincare, emigrated from Israel to start her business. “I emigrated to the US from Israel with a dream to help make a change in people's lives. It all started when I was diagnosed at the age of 17 with stage 4B Hodgkin's Lymphoma disease and underwent chemotherapy treatment in Israel. Overcoming cancer showed me how strong I am and that I can do anything, and after my experience I wanted to instill this same feeling in others. After making a full recovery I came to the US with a dream to work hard and start my own businesses to do just that," Torres says.
13. Rosalie Guillem, CEO & founder of Le Macaron French Pastries
“While I was living in Florida, my daughter Audrey was still residing in France. We had always wanted to pursue the American dream and open a family business brining a little taste of France to America. To accomplish this, as well as reunite my family in the US, I teamed up with highly acclaimed French-trained pastry chefs to create an authentic macaron recipe capturing the spirit of French culture. After spending months refining the recipe, in 2009 I developed a business model allowing my daughter and grandchildren to join me in the United States. Today, we've grown our business through franchising to satisfy sweet tooths nationwide. With more than 50 locations across the US, we have no signs of slowing down and plan on continuing to grow our European-inspired business as a family."
14. Rita Goldberg, CEO & founder of British Swim School
“In the 1960s, I was working toward becoming part of the British national swim team, having gained a place at the Olympic trials. Unfortunately, an injury ended my competitive swimming career pushing me to consider what's next. A friend reached out requesting help teaching swim lessons, and my love for teaching immediately became evident. To combine my two passions – swimming and teaching – I started a private swim school in the basement of my own home in Manchester in 1981. With my concept centered on a two-step curriculum of teaching children and adults water safety and survival skills first, and swimming skill development second, I realized the amount of lives I could potentially save by growing my business. I migrated overseas to Florida with one suitcase and $3,000 to my name and it wasn't long until the first American-based British Swim School opened in Coral Springs, Fla. Now, after 30 years and five years of franchising, I've grown the brand into an award-winning national franchise concept with more than 155 pools across the United States, Canada and Turkey."
15. Carolin Soldo, business coach
Carolin Soldo is well respected business coach, she's built a seven figure business while maintaining a healthy work-life balance b/c she's so dedicated to being fully present with her two young boys. Originally from Germany, at age 19 Carolin immigrated from Germany to the U.S. to be with the love of her life, Boris, a Croatian refugee fleeing a war-torn country. After having spent more than a year apart, Caroline made the leap to follow him with nothing but trust in her husband and BIG dreams. Struggling to get out of poverty, even though she didn't speak much English, she managed to land a low paying job in telemarketing that improved her position enough to go to school. Passionate and driven, Carolin worked extremely hard and in 2006 she received her Master's Degree in marketing. A short time later Boris had the idea to start a machining business. It was incredibly daunting for Carolin who'd worked so hard, yet had so little. But she instinctively knew that being brave and taking calculated risks will pay off - and they applied for a $350,000 loan to make their dream reality. Around that time, Carolin started to climb the corporate ladder in her chosen field of marketing. Although the job paid well, it left her feeling stuck, trapped, and completely unfulfilled. This led to a search for a new sense of purpose that came after the birth of her second son in 2009. She began studying health and dropped 80 pounds to compete in multiple bodybuilding competitions.
Carolin's fitness lead naturally into a brand new health coaching career that just couldn't get off the ground. She spent $22,000 trying to make it work by herself. Frustrated and determined to get results, she finally decided to go all-in with a top coach to help her turn the business around. After building her coaching practice to 6-figures, she applied her business know-how and expanded from the health niche into business coaching. She has a unique methodology generating high ticket sales ($5,000 and beyond) from cold traffic using Fb ads to webinars - and then of course the art is in vetting the leads and having a powerful, empathetic and compassionate sales conversation. Today, Carolin serves an international client base as a premium business coach. She's helped hundreds of new and aspiring coaches build thriving coaching practices by creating powerful brands, sharing their message with the world, designing signature programs, automating their marketing systems and more. This holistic approach allows Carolin and her clients to leverage the time they invest in their work, so they can live a life of freedom and luxury and spend time with their families and loved ones.
Being stared at by strangers is something I have become very accustomed to. Not because I am a beautiful, ethereal being that catches everyone's attention (but I will take it if that's what you're thinking), but in the way that I am a Black woman, a Black person, and people tend to notice my presence. I don't think there is a Black person out there that can deny knowing what it's like to be stared at by a random person.