Photo credit: SBS

The Misguided Lessons of Immigrant Entrepreneurs

I saw how hard my parents had to work to build their business and I don’t want to have to go through that stress and hardship…

This is something that I hear frequently from friends whose parents were refugees or immigrants. Parents that have moved to a foreign country without knowing the language and with little money or resources, working around the clock to establish a better lifestyle to support their children. The perseverance, work ethic, and pure determination of these immigrants often meant the pursuit of an entrepreneurial route, establishing businesses that would enable dreams of a better life to become reality. I myself, am a 2nd generation immigrant and it’s safe to say that we all fully respect and are inspired by the sacrifice that our parents had to make in order for us to live better lives. However, this same respect and inspiration seems to come more from necessity than by choice, we are grateful and acknowledge the path that our parents have blazed, but would not wish upon ourselves the need to walk down that same path.

This is disappointing as there is a rich history and heritage of amazing entrepreneurs that have come from an immigrant background. Scan through the BRW Rich 200 list of the past 20 years and you will see immigrants throughout. Richard Pratt ring a bell? Frank Lowy? How about Tan Le? Most recently, Ruslan Kogan has been making headlines. And these are just the mega-successful, go to any suburb in Melbourne and you will find local business owners from an immigrant background. But it seems to me that their influence and legacies aren’t entirely embraced and perhaps misunderstood by the next generation.

Not to say that everyone has to follow in their parent’s footsteps, but parents can have significant influence on their children’s values and their goals in life. And this may be part of the problem too, I’ve seen many parents actually deter their children from pursuing their own business, unwilling to see their children go through the same hardship and uncertainty that they had gone through. Perhaps a cultural difference (and with some irony), but it seems that many parents do not view entrepreneurism as a path that represents success. With startups being the rage these days, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t long ago that being an entrepreneur meant that you were a battler who wasn’t good enough to get a well-paying, corporate job. Being an entrepreneur is not easy, and our parents fully remember what they had to go through and it’s easy to understand that they want their children to live easier lives.

Showpo founder Jane Lu’s entrepreneurial journey is an endearing (and cheeky) example of immigrant parental expectations. When Jane quit her accounting career to build Showpo up, she didn’t tell her parents for six months, instead electing to suit up and leave home early everyday to pretend that she was still going to work! Jane is someone who I think could pave the way for more 2nd or younger generation immigrants to seek the entrepreneurial path that typically is not encouraged by their parents over traditional career paths like law, accounting, engineering, and medicine. In some sense, I do feel like the tide is turning, that perhaps a lot of these newer generations do actually find what their parents went through inspiring. Their entrepreneurial spirit is finally awake, all this time lying dormant and suppressed.

Then again, not everyone has to be an entrepreneur to live a fulfilling and enriched life, in fact, most aren’t. I guess it all goes back to what you believe is most important in your life, what constitutes being successful and happy. But if you are someone who wants to start their own business but feel the immense pressure of aligning to your parent’s contrarian expectations, just remind your parents how proud and inspiring their entrepreneurial journey has been to you, and that that is exactly the life you want to follow.

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