Four Entrepreneurs: One Story; Immigrant-Owned Businesses Strengthen the Economy
What do the son of an Indian diplomat, a formerly undocumented Salvadoran, a former Chinese warehouse worker and an Iraqi refugee have in common? They are all successful entrepreneurs who created businesses in the United States. Like no other country in the world, the U.S. is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the entrepreneurial spirit of people from any country and any walk of life. Still, these entrepreneurs face stiff odds with the normal challenges of starting a business being multiplied by the difficulties of adjusting to the laws, culture and language of their adopted home country.
Francisco D’Souza of Cognizant in Teaneck, New Jersey; Saul Perlera of Perlera Real Estate in East Boston, Massachusetts; Mei Xu of Chesapeake Bay Candle Company in Glen Burnie, Maryland and Albert Yousif of A2Z Facility Maintenance in Troy, Michigan, were the featured speakers at a recent event in Washington, D.C., hosted by the U. S. Chamber of Commerce and the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Council.
The event, titled “Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Creating Jobs and Strengthening the Economy,” was based on a paper by the same name authored by Marcia Drew Hohn, director of the Public Education Institute at The Immigrant Learning Center, Inc. (ILC). In the paper, Hohn examines immigrant entrepreneurship in many different sectors, including neighborhood, growth, transnational, and science and technology firms. These four entrepreneurs well represented this spectrum of entrepreneurship as they each discussed how they are strengthening local economies and providing jobs through their businesses.
“What we do contributes to American competitiveness. Ours is a good story and one to be replicated. If we do that, the U.S. will continue to be a great country,” said D’Souza at the event.
The son of an Indian Foreign Service Officer, D’Souza has traveled across the world. He came to the United States to earn an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University in 1990. There, he was recruited by Dun & Bradstreet (D&B).
D’Souza spent two years working for D&B in the U.S. and Germany before heading to India to create a technology division from scratch. Starting with a $2 million investment from D&B, the division grew into a publicly traded Fortune 500 company, Cognizant, with a market capitalization of $20 billion.
“I’d say that’s a good return on investment,” D’Souza said
At 16 years of age, Saul Perlera left El Salvador for the United States arriving at his uncle’s house in East Boston. Within a few months, he was working three jobs: a full-time factory job and two part-time cleaning positions. Although he didn’t know a word of English when he arrived, working side-by-side with other immigrants he learned to speak English, Italian and Portuguese in addition to his native Spanish.
Given East Boston’s predominantly Italian landlords and largely Latino tenants, the value of Perlera’s language skills was recognized by the real estate agent who rented him his first apartment. The agent offered him a job on the spot. Over the next 10 years, Perlera learned the real estate business, earning his license and becoming the top agent in the office.
When he was ready, Perlera struck out on his own. He started small, hiring three people, working out of in his living room and financing the operation with equity from his own personal investment properties. Soon, he found and renovated office space and brokers came knocking. Today, even with the turmoil in the real estate market, Perlera Real Estate remains one of the top real estate firms in East Boston and is heavily invested in the community.
Mei Xu recalled for the audience her first impressions of America, landing at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. There were two immigration lines, one for those holding a U.S. passport, and the other for “aliens.” “I had seen Star Trek, so I knew what aliens were,” Xu said. “I watched to see who got in the line and who these aliens were.”
Xu grew up in China and was trained to be an English-speaking diplomat. Her fate changed in 1989 when, after the Tiananmen Square uprising, the Chinese government sent her to work in a warehouse. She resigned a month later and began making plans to move to the United States. Two years later, she was standing in that airport deciding in which line she belonged.
In 1994, based on her hunch that the home décor market had not kept up with the fashion industry, both Xu and her husband quit their jobs to start a new business, and Chesapeake Bay Candles was born. Today, Xu has grown her company out of her basement and into three large manufacturing factories, and she recently relocated one of her factories from Vietnam to Glen Burnie, Maryland.
“Needless to say, it’s been a long, 17-year journey from an alien to sitting next to President Obama during his Insourcing American Jobs Forum in January,” Xu said.
Albert Yousif, who arrived in the United States in 1993 as a refugee from Iraq, went from an employee working 18-20 hour days to owning his own business, A2Z Facility Maintenance Inc. Yousif tells his 28 employees, many of whom are former refugees just like him, “There are opportunities, but you have to educate yourself, improve your language skills and work hard.”
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) helped Yousif come to the United States. According to an LIRS press release, on the day of the event at the U.S. Chamber he shared with LIRS staff a pivotal moment in his transformation from overworked refugee to ambitious entrepreneur. “I was cleaning an office and saw that the business owner had a picture of his family on his desk,” Yousif said. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s my target.’”
He went on to explain, “I had an American mentor who helped me. I said to myself, ‘Why can’t I do that for my own people?’ Two of those people are entrepreneurs now. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for? We get them to depend on themselves and help the economy.”
Immigration is an entrepreneurial activity. Leaving everything behind to move to a new country takes the same kind of courage and vision required to leave behind the security of a paycheck and start over. These four entrepreneurs represent a microcosm of the power of immigrant entrepreneurship, from neighborhood storefronts to Fortune 500 companies, that propels the U.S. economy.
To see more stories of successful immigrant entrepreneurs, visit The ILC’s Immigrant Entrepreneur Hall of Fame where you will learn about the founders of well-known brands such as Google, Kohl’s and Capital One Financial.