#SWAAYthenarrative
BETA
Close

How My Immigrant Mentality Contributed To My Success As An Entrepreneur

Business

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.

Gratitude

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.

Our newsletter that womansplains the week
4min read
Lifestyle

Going Makeupless To The Office May Be Costing You More Than Just Money

Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.


Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.

Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.

As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.

Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.

So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.

Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.

For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."