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.
New parents re-entering the workforce are often juggling the tangible realities of daycare logistics, sleep deprivation, and a cascade of overwhelming work. No matter how parents build their family, they often struggle with the guilt of being split between home and work and not feeling exceptionally successful in either place.
Women building their families often face a set of challenges different from men. Those who have had children biologically may be navigating the world of pumping at work. Others might feel pulled in multiple directions when bringing a child into their home after adoption. Some women are trying to learn how to care for a newborn for the first time. New parents need all the help they can get with their transition.
Women returning to work after kids sometimes have to address comments such as:
"I didn't think you'd come back."
"You must feel so guilty."
"You missed a lot while you were out."
To counteract this difficult situation, women are finding mentors and making targeting connections. Parent mentors can help new moms address integrating their new life realities with work, finding resources within the organization and local community, and create connections with peers.
There's also an important role for parent mentors to play in discussing career trajectory. Traditionally, men who have families see more promotions compared to women with children. Knowing that having kids may represent a career setback for women, they may work with their mentors to create an action plan to "back on track" or to get recognized for their contributions as quickly as possible after returning to work.
Previously, in a bid to accommodate mothers transitioning back to work, corporate managers would make a show at lessoning the workload for newly returned mothers. This approach actually did more harm than good, as the mother's skills and ambitions were marginalized by these alleged "family friendly" policies, ultimately defining her for the workplace as a mother, rather than a person focused on career.
Today, this is changing. Some larger organizations, such as JP Morgan Chase, have structured mentorship programs that specifically target these issues and provide mentors for new parents. These programs match new parents navigating a transition back to work with volunteer mentors who are interested in helping and sponsoring moms. Mentors in the programs do not need to be moms, or even parents, themselves, but are passionate about making sure the opportunities are available.
It's just one other valuable way corporations are evolving when it comes to building quality relationships with their employees – and successfully retaining them, empowering women who face their own set of special barriers to career growth and leadership success.
Mentoring will always be a two way street. In ideal situations, both parties will benefit from the relationship. It's no different when women mentor working mothers getting back on track on the job. But there a few factors to consider when embracing this new form of mentorship
How to be a good Momtor?
Listen: For those mentoring a new parent, one of the best strategies to take is active listening. Be present and aware while the mentee shares their thoughts, repeat back what you hear in your own words, and acknowledge emotions. The returning mother is facing a range of emotions and potentially complicated situations, and the last thing she wants to hear is advice about how she should be feeling about the transition. Instead, be a sounding board for her feelings and issues with returning to work. Validate her concerns and provide a space where she can express herself without fear of retribution or bull-pen politics. This will allow the mentee a safe space to sort through her feelings and focus on her real challenges as a mother returning to work.
Share: Assure the mentee that they aren't alone, that other parents just like them are navigating the transition back to work. Provide a list of ways you've coped with the transition yourself, as well as your best parenting tips. Don't be afraid to discuss mothering skills as well as career skills. Work on creative solutions to the particular issues your mentee is facing in striking her new work/life balance.
Update Work Goals: A career-minded woman often faces a new reality once a new child enters the picture. Previous career goals may appear out of reach now that she has family responsibilities at home. Each mentee is affected by this differently, but good momtors help parents update her work goals and strategies for realizing them, explaining, where applicable, where the company is in a position to help them with their dreams either through continuing education support or specific training initiatives.
Being a role model for a working mother provides a support system, at work, that they can rely on just like the one they rely on at home with family and friends. Knowing they have someone in the office, who has knowledge about both being a mom and a career woman, will go a long way towards helping them make the transition successfully themselves.