The Immigrant Entrepreneur: from hardship to success

5 reasons why immigrants succeed in entrepreneurship

“43 % of companies in the 2017 Fortune 500 were founded or co-founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant” — Immigrant Founders of the 2017 Fortune 500

When you leave your home country, whether this is by choice, by need or by force, you are leaving everything you have known until then. You are leaving behind friends, family, furniture, to say the less. You are going out from your comfort zone to board on a new and completely unknown adventure. You might have ideals and expectations, but what is for sure is that nothing will be like it was before, ever again.

While there are a fortunate few who have no financial issues, either because they have family backing them up or because they just have the means to start over again and again. Most of us, immigrants, leave our countries empty-handed, or like we would say in Colombia:

“con una mano por delante y la otra por detrás”.

We arrive at our new host country with just enough savings to survive the first weeks, a few must-know words in the new language, and sometimes the contact of a friend of a friend of a friend who lives there. And this is the best-case scenario, especially if you had to leave your home-country by force or by need.

Once you arrive, you have to start from zero because, unless you’re an internationally recognized personality, everything you had, earned or where in your home town means nothing abroad.

All you have is your ambition and your desire to make it through, to survive, to succeed. And this means everything!

Yes, it means everything. Because even those who leave their country by choice and have enough money to settle-in comfortably will struggle two times more than if they were back home. Without ambition, motivation, and desire, it’s really hard to put up with all the challenges and obstacles you will find all along with your life as an immigrant.

Because when you leave home to live in a foreign country you go with the ambition of finding something better. A desire of giving yourself and your family the chance of becoming the person you’d always wanted to be.

And it is precisely this ambition, desire, and motivation to make it through that make us, immigrants, more likely to become entrepreneurs and succeed at it.

Take for example Elon Musk (founder of SpaceX and Tesla) South African immigrant in the USA, or Mohamed Altrad (founder of Altrad Group) Syrian immigrant in France, or Sergey Brin (Google) Russian in the USA. All of them left their home countries looking for better opportunities abroad, dreaming big and making their path to success.

And this is just a glance at immigrant entrepreneurship. But the fact is that immigrants have an essential role in the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the country that welcomes them. Not only immigrants are creating their jobs, but they are also building companies that are creating jobs for everyone and they are giving the needed spark to their hosting economies.

So, what is it that makes immigrants potential entrepreneurs?

Well many things. But, according to research and my experience, five things make the difference:

  • Resilience: difficulties and hostility in the new host country is daily bread for almost every immigrant. Every time you have to fill in paperwork for your residency permit, or when you have to fight a system that most of the time is not made to welcome you. You have to constantly prove everyone else what you are made from and what you are capable of doing. When you have to stay on someone’s couch because you have no credit history to rent an apartment or not enough money in your bank account, or you can’t simply open a bank account because you don’t have a rental agreement (yes, the vicious cycle). Every second of immigrants’ lives it’s about dealing with hostility and hardship, and you have two choices: either you swallow that hardship and turn it into something positive, either you go back home, and going back home in many cases is not even an option. And that builds up resilience because no matter how difficult it can get the only option is to overcome those difficulties, there is no safer option, there is not even a choice to be made.
  • Cross-cultural blending and experiences: coming from a different culture means that you’ll always be regarded as an outsider that tries to integrate more or less to society. No matter where we go, or how much time we spend far from our native country, or how good we adapt to the new place, our culture will follow us endlessly. We will compare everything we see now with everything we knew then, we’ll try to continue with our habits even if they are not quite the same as back home. But as we need to adapt to a new society, we will also borrow some elements of the “host” culture and adapt our behaviors. This cultural blending other than making us feel as we don’t belong nor here nor there enhances our creative thinking as we can see things through different perspectives. Cross-cultural experiences increase people’s ability to combine and recombine knowledge, recognize unexploited opportunities, and solve problems in creative ways.
  • Opportunity alertness: as an immigrant, you are always in the search for new opportunities to get closer to your dream. Most of the time immigrants have to face the fierce competition of national skillful workforce and strong selection criteria in the recruitment processes. Regulations, working permits, and national employment programs are still far from being immigrant-friendly. On the contrary, the rate of unemployment among the immigrant population is one of the highest in the USA, France, and most other European countries. So, to survive and pay the rent, people look for innovative ways to make an income. Black or legal, the truth is that immigrants may find it easier to resort to self-employment than other people because they can’t afford to wait for the system to give them the opportunities they are looking for.
  • Adjustment and adaptability: Adaptability is a must if you want to succeed in a foreign country. No matter how known, interesting or appreciated your home-country is abroad. No one is going to adapt to your convenience, you will have to adapt to them if you want to make it through. We adapt to manners, traditions, behaviors, products, services, languages so that we are taken seriously. This constant adaptation makes us more suitable to take on the roles we have never taken, to learn to do a job we’ve never done, to effectuate with whatever that is available. Adaptation means we are more open to take criticism and embrace it, open to learn from others and see from new perspectives. Adaptability makes us more responsive to change and less afraid of uncertainty.
  • Dealing constantly with rejection and discrimination. When you arrive in a foreign country, your nationality will always be your main personality trait. When you come from Colombia to study your masters’ degree in Europe, the first thing they tell you is “Oh, Colombia! Have you seen Narcos?”. They don’t care whether you graduated with honors from the top university or that you speak 4 different languages. Every conversation will start with something to do with “Pablo Escobar”, “Guerrilla”, “Narcos” or something similar. And no matter how much you explain that Colombia is also one of the first producers of coffee, petroleum, and flowers, you still be from Narcos’ Colombia. When you get an interview for a job, most of the time they don’t see how good you speak their native language or the effort you put into it, they’ll stop at your Hispanic cute or funny accent (it depends) not suitable for what they are looking. When recruiters get your resume saying your nationality, they omit 15 years of professional experience and get stuck at imagining how tedious it will be if they had to apply for a working permit and how costly it is going to be to pay for the taxes. If you do land a job, nationals can resent you and say you are taking their jobs and opportunities. Discrimination and rejection are immigrants’ daily bread. And this is even stronger for specific communities and any other kind of activity. Immigrants simply aren’t granted the same rights as nationals, and this is just a fact. But dealing with rejection and discrimination constantly makes us find other ways, makes us question ourselves, and push us to evolve and be the person no one expects us to be. Anything that doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger, right?

So, yes, being a foreigner in a country can make you more suitable for entrepreneurship. But it doesn’t mean that just because you are a foreigner you can make it or just because you had to deal with all that hardship you are better than your native-born peers. This doesn’t mean that immigrants are more entrepreneurial and can succeed in their venturing because the environment hosting them is hostile. It doesn’t mean that because things as an immigrant can be hard that you should think of entrepreneurship path as a way to get revenge from everything you had to put up with. NO, ABSOLUTELY NO!!

Hardship for sure can make you stronger, but focusing only on how difficult it has been and resenting it can make you rigid and heavy. And being rigid and heavy won’t get you to move forward, it will just get you stucked.

The path from hardship to success

From my perspective and from the many talks I’ve had with immigrants, successful entrepreneurs differentiate from others because of three things (among many other):

Humility, Trust, and Acceptance.

Humility:

Being humble is not easy, it takes time and maturity in every sense. And it is difficult to be humble when you deal with rejection, racism, xenophobia, and bulling.

But being aware of how small and insignificant we are, can help us deal better with difficulties. Contrary to what many people think, being humble doesn’t mean being weak or feeling less than others. Being humble means we can take criticism, we can cry for help when we need it, we can stop when it’s not working, we can digest reality more easily. Being humble means we are open to learning from others, that we are aware that we can not know and do everything. Being humble means we are grateful for every small opportunity we are given, and that we can transform that small opportunity into something big. It means we don’t forget that person who gave us a hand when we needed it, and that we will pay with benefits when we can. It means that we can be kind to others that are in bad places and that we don’t forget how hard it is to get where we are and that any small shake can put us down faster than we can crawl back. And humility is essential for being a successful entrepreneur. Because one has to be aware of the limitations, weaknesses, and defects our ideas, projects, or businesses have to be able to improve, evolve, and succeed.

Trust

Trusting others is essential for business, it is the only way you can work with a team and make magical things happen. But as immigrant trusting others is something really difficult to do, because somehow when you are an immigrant you feel alone and few people have been there to help you. And since trust is a two-way feeling, it’s hard to trust others when you feel no one trusts you or that no one believes in you. But the truth is that most of the time when people (and the system) seem mean or are hard with you when you are an immigrant, they don’t do it intentionally. Most of the time they are just afraid of the unknown, but when they get to know the unknown they can be supportive and kind. So it’s important to trust people because the only way to make them trust you is making them feel safe. Trust that the people behind the desk are doing their best to serve you, even if you don’t feel it. Trust that your coworkers are trying to understand your manners, even if you feel judged. And the reality is that if you want your business to succeed in your host country, you need national colleagues on board with you because they know their country, their legislations, and their manners better than you do. If you trust them, they’ll trust you back and amazing things can happen. You’ll see open doors, you’ll see native-born peers willing to work with you, you’ll see investors being open for discussion.

Acceptance

One of the most difficult things to do when you are a foreigner is accepting that you are one and that you are living in another country that is not your native one. Accepting that you are different, that you’ll always be different. Is accepting that many times you won’t be able to see things the same way nationals do, that most of the time you won’t agree with their ways of doing or their behaviors. It is accepting that no matter how you enjoyed your traditions in your home country, you won’t have them here, at least not in the same way.

Many times, myself included, I’ve heard foreigners complain about how things in this country are not good and how good things were back home. Many times we complain about our national peers, putting them as the villains responsible for our misfortune. Some of us fight endlessly to a society that is welcoming us, feeling the victim, the misunderstood. When we could be embracing this reality, learning from them and accepting that now we are also one of them. Because this is our new home, our new country, and unless we leave, this is where our lives are going to be, this is where our child will grow and this is the culture they will know.

But, if we don’t accept this, we’ll never move forward, because every time we’ll find an obstacle we’ll blame our hosting country, our new home, our new family. And if we come to know gains, we’ll say is because we worked hard because it was our determination and we will be so arrogant that we will have no one to share. If we accept that we are now part of this new society, that we are different, that they are different, we can finally move one and do amazing things that benefit and fulfill us, but that also benefit the place and the people that welcome us, and thus we make this a better place.

So don’t stop at hardship, don’t stop at complaints, don’t stop at rejection, don’t stop at victimization. Go forward, embrace the difference, accept the change, love your new country with all the good and the bad.

Make things happen. Change what others couldn’t. Make this country a better place for newcomers. Bring the barriers down, make it a better place for everyone.

Feminist, Writer, PhD, Researcher & Professor in Innovation & Entrepreneurship U. Montpellier, editor @thefacultypub and @thebravewritter blog: mariangelf.com

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