Business 02 September 2019
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.
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I don't think any of us have the right answers or know exactly what we are doing when we navigate through relationships or breakups, even if we do take every Buzzfeed quiz there is out there. What I have found out though, is by writing this book, Female. Likes Cheese. Comes with Dog: Stories about Dating, Divorce & Saying "I Do" most everyone can relate to some part of it, whether it is having an awkward date, being dumped, or falling in love. The short stories read as if we are talking over drinks at a bar gossiping about our love life. It's as if, you, reader, are one of my best friends. I hope by reading this book you are reminded that you don't have to be anybody but you and your mistakes are simply memories to learn upon. Get comfy, grab a glass of wine (or your beverage of choice), cuddle with your furry companion (pet or otherwise), and enjoy…
From the chapter "Kansas & The Firepit" from Female. Likes Cheese. Comes with Dog: Stories about Divorce, Dating & Saying "I Do"
I had lost my dog to my ex. I was a mess. I thought this man was going to be by my side the rest of my life, I had gained a lot of weight. Not the kind of weight you gain when you tell your friend "OMG, Kelly, I, like, put on five pounds this summer because of all the partying I've been doing at the rooftop bars," but real weight. The weight that makes you feel totally inadequate. The weight that makes you say, Hey I might as well keep eating because it doesn't matter anymore. I was inconsolable during that summer.
I still wasn't completely out of my trash TV and alcohol phase, but I had switched to vodka, at least. Which, let's be real, just hides the fact that you're an alcoholic. I wasn't really talking to anyone about my problems. My mom tried to take me to fat camp. Yes, fat camp. When your mother says the reason why you're not happy is because you're fat, there comes a point where you really don't know whether to laugh, cry, or drink. I think I did all three. The reason why I wasn't happy was because I was going through a divorce, and my life was unraveling. I was not only unhappy but also fat, so I guess there was some truth to that. It was just what I needed to hear to get myself back to reality.
While cleaning the kitchen one day, I walked by a pair of boxing gloves. Boxing was something I had always been interested in. Watching it on TV and having some friends that had done it professionally, I figured I would take the plunge and put this "body after breakup" into motion.
There was only one boxing club in our area for fitness. I walked into the afternoon classes knowing that I was going to be a little out of my element, but I'm not afraid of a challenge. I'm an outgoing person and being sports savvy, I knew that I would catch on quickly. The guy teaching the class, Kansas, was very attractive. Ladies, you know how in yoga when you have to do the sun god pose? Well, let's just say he was what you would hope a sun god looked like. With sweat glistening down the side of his face, it was almost as if the ceiling parted and angels started singing as he stood over you telling you, "Ten more!" as you got down for ab rounds between punches. This guy was exciting. He was energetic. He was. . . constantly checking on me during class to make sure my form was correct, since I was new, and let's face it—I was totally OK with the attention. After class I signed up for a one-year membership and became addicted, not just because I loved the workouts but also because of the hot trainer.
I started coming to class three times a week, initially taking only Kansas's classes, but not wanting to look obvious when I really started crushing on him, I had to mix it up. I mean, this is Crushing 101. This was my first crush out of the gate post-divorce, so exactly what you think would happen, happened. Kansas became my rebound guy. I would make any excuse to linger after class (which, looking back, just made me look desperate), but then sometimes I would switch it up and leave. I mean, it was a game. I was trying to figure out if he was interested or not. It was exhausting. After talking after class for a few weeks, I happened to mention a home improvement project I had been thinking of working on. Being the good listener (stalker?) that I was, I knew he just happened to be interested in home improvements, as he did many of his own. I figured that would be a great way to get to know each other better and for him to fall completely in love with me, of course. Duh. Now I had a reason to cross something off my "list". I love sitting outside and having a glass of wine and listening to music by a fire. I wasn't really sure how I was going to accomplish this task on my own, but recruiting a fine gentleman like Kansas would be a good start. So, he agreed to my firepit project, and after gathering supplies at Home Depot, he came over, and I quote to you from my journal, I kid you not:
So today he shows up, and we are in the backyard digging the hole, and he takes his shirt off. His body is a wonderland! I mean sweat is just glistening down his torso. So I had to change the subject somehow and shut my gaping mouth, so like an idiot I say, "Oh, look, a callus on my hand," and he says, "Those on a woman are sexy." FML.
Ladies and gentlemen, do you want to know what I did that day? Something so adult and so mature: I pushed him into the dirt. I pushed that beautiful body into the dirt. I couldn't take it. I was like a schoolkid on a playground. Because that is the type of tantrum this lady used to throw. Kansas took it as flirting. I took it as frustration, because I couldn't tell a boy I liked him at the time.
This whole awkward flirting game went on for a few more weeks. Kansas would come over, and we'd dig more holes (to bury my dignity in) or set stones—I don't know. I thought rebound guys were supposed to be fun, casual things, but this wasn't fun at all. This was like homework in school. Every day I'd come home from "class," and I'd strategize on what I needed to do to make better "grades." If I had actually spent half the time in real school that I spent on Kansas, I would've had a 4.0. I was having to chase him, but I almost didn't know what race I was running. After all, I hadn't dated since 1884. So I figured if the firepit thing didn't work, then I'd write him a poem... Like a moron...