Have you ever wondered what makes the risky business of entrepreneurship so enticing for immigrants? As an immigrant entrepreneur who also happens to be the child of two immigrant entrepreneurs, I've noticed that the mindsets, habits and values practiced by immigrants largely contribute to their overall success as entrepreneurs.
After all, 25% of entrepreneurs and business owners in the United States are immigrants, and that number is steadily increasing.
As I reflect back on the lessons I've learned from my parents while growing up, watching them run their businesses in a new country and now also running a successful business of my own, I pinpointed a few of those "immigrant lessons" that were most crucial to my success and have delved deeper into them here.
Hard work is non-negotiable
From a young age, I learned that hard work is non-negotiable. When I was four, I would watch my parents load up our old Toyota pickup truck with knick knacks to sell at the flea market. This was our Saturday family activity. Wake up at 4 am, load the truck, drive to the market, set up and sell until the hot sun left sun spots on our tanned cheeks.
Hard work is non-negotiable because there is no back-up plan for first generation immigrants like my parents and myself. Moving back home for us was not an option. And besides, who would pay for the plane ticket?
I, along with my parents immigrated from China to Guam (a U.S. territory) when I was 2 years old. One month after I turned 22 years old, I moved to New York City. I freelanced as a digital marketer while working 12 hour days at a startup. This meant my days began at 7 a.m. with client meetings and ended past midnight. Weekends were for freelance work.
Rise above circumstances
My parents worked hard so we could rise above our circumstances. We were first generation Chinese immigrants living in Guam with no savings and no backup plan. My mom's engineering degree was not valid in the U.S. They worked three jobs to make ends meet, which meant that I hardly saw them together at the same time. My mom would take me to her house cleaning jobs and I would admire the vanity tables of the wealthy women.
Growing up, my mother said, "Summers are when you play catch-up so when school starts you are not behind." Thus, my summer days were packed with English and SAT tutoring sessions, vocabulary memorization, calculus worksheets, piano practice and more. Until around sixth grade, when I became more fluent in English, school work was like chicken scratch. I didn't understand it. I don't remember getting extra assistance from my teachers and I certainly don't remember how I graduated grades one through five. My parents had to work to cover the additional cost of tutoring and I had to forego play time with my peers to play catch-up with academics. That additional hard work got me into a summer advanced program at Princeton University, the Aspen Music Festival and then a triple major at Williams College.
No one is truly risk-averse. It's just a mindset. Being an immigrant, I had nothing to lose and everything to lose at the same time. Nothing to lose because I was starting from the bottom. The best of life was in front of me. Everything to lose because if I failed, I was the only person who could pick myself back up. With no financial back-up plan, I had to "make it." Immigrants rise above circumstances each and every day. We see a possibility or opportunity and think to ourselves, "we can get there."
Harness a quiet strength
From a young age, immigrant children assume adult responsibilities. I remember explaining what a field trip release form was to my mother and eventually signing all of them for her. Any school related activity that required a parent's signature ended with up being poorly signed by me. This continued into high school when I had to fill out financial aid forms for college, peruse tax documents, and make sure my parents weren't being scammed in their real estate paperwork.
Heading into college, my sense of self-sufficiency felt more evolved than those around me. When holidays came and roommates went home, I burrowed myself in my dorm room to prevent getting into trouble for staying on campus. I propped first floor windows open with books to let myself into my dorm building because campus security shut off swipe card access. I remember thinking how resourceful I had become.
Through these setbacks, I learned to harness a quiet strength within me to propel me forward. Not a strength that came from whispering self-affirmations, but one that was required for the survival of my American dream. Today, I use it to negotiate client contracts, command board rooms and champion other female entrepreneurs.
Resilient Optimism & Courage
We all experience small changes in our environment on a daily basis. Some go through big moves in their lives and career pivots. But immigrants experience the unfamiliar in every part of their daily existence.
They are uprooted from a place of familiarity and plopped down in an unknown, and at times unwelcoming, environment. Young children experience this going to school for the first time. As adults, we experience this with job changes, moving to a new city and even trying a new hobby or club. The unfamiliar can be stressful no matter the scale of the event. Often times, we have a say in the daily changes in our lives, but as an immigrant, everything becomes unfamiliar overnight.
Immigrants with a language and cultural barrier have to do what they are afraid of every day in order to survive. Communicating with the cashier could make going to the grocery store a dreaded experience. They combat difficulties with courage and optimism. Having already developed this increased sense of courage and optimism benefits me as an entrepreneur throughout the many decisions and risks that need to be taken when growing a business.
Coming from a low-income Chinese immigrant family, I was grateful for the little things like fresh fruit in the school cafeteria to bigger things like studying at the top liberal arts college in America. I was grateful to be among the brilliant minds of my professors. I was grateful for computer labs with rows and rows of computers any student could access. The hard work my parents and I put into our choices paid off and we get to reap the benefits.
I truly believe gratitude is one of the most important traits to develop for success in entrepreneurship. While there is always another goal or target that needs to be hit, and even though the perceived danger of failing is everywhere, the key to keeping a clear, centered mind that can make intelligent decisions is keeping yourself present by being grateful for everything you already have, no matter how large or small.
Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.
When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.
2016: What rules?
Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.
Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.
And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.
And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?
Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.
Digital policies for 2020 and beyond
While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.
Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy
Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:
- If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
- While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
- If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
- Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
- Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?
Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.
Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply
The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:
- Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
- Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
- Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
- Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
- Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
- Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
- Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
- Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.
Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles
Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.