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March 14, 2019 7 min read

To Succeed, Adopt an "Immigrant Mentality"

 

 

The United States, known for its entrepreneurial spirit, is also known as a nation of immigrants. Coincidence, not at all, because immigrants are wired to be entrepreneurial.

 

But don't take our word for it. A report by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that 90 companies, or 18%, of the Fortune 500 were founded by immigrants. That's a lot more than their 10.5% share of the US population. Add the children of immigrants to the list and the share of Fortune 500 companies rises to 40%. These brands include Google, Apple, AT&T, eBay--even McDonalds.

 

The phrase "immigrant mentality" has turned from a pejorative into a positive term. Even if your family has lived in the US for generations, you too can adopt an "immigrant mentality" in business and in daily life. Cuban-American entrepreneur Glenn Llopis identified six traits of this mentality.

 

Let's go through these six traits, using examples from oral histories of real Ellis Island immigrants to the United States. None of the immigrants you will meet below founded Fortune 500 companies. Some struggled their whole lives. Yet their determination and ultimate success can inspire anyone to learn from the six traits of "immigrant mentality."

 

Dream, But Hustle

 

Like all of us, immigrants have dreams. These dreams must sometimes change as circumstances change, but immigrants are wired to make the most of their opportunities.

 

Doukenie Babayanie Bacos came to America to become a doctor so that she could help her family back in Thrace, part of Turkey. When she first saw the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor,

 

"I said to myself, 'Lady, you're such a beautiful. You opened your arms, and you get all the foreigners here. Give me a chance to prove that I am worth it, to do something, to become somebody in America.' Always that statue was in my mind. When I passed in front of this statue, I was so enthusiastic."

 

Doukenie, whom we will revisit later on, had already gone through a lot to get to the US. She would experience several rough patches and ruptures. Yet she saw opportunities and chose them wisely. Her circumstances changed; her perspective--her dream--did not.

 

Anticipate the Future

 

Where others see obstacles, immigrants find opportunities. The crises immigrants experienced in their home countries and in their adopted countries gives them a wisdom to foresee change and manage crises before they get worse.

 

Vera Clarke Ifill came from Barbados as a child in 1921. After her father's murder, the family endured a period of homelessness. As an adult, when she and her husband started the Caribbean-American Credit Union, she turned a big problem into an opportunity.

 

The loan financial institutions, banks, would discriminate against [Vera's fellow immigrants] because they were blacks and they were foreigners and they had no credit... Some of the lending rates were as high as 25 percent, while [at] the bank [it] might have been [only] three or four or five percent. So, my husband started the credit union.

 

It would be easy to let this experience embitter your soul. Instead, the Ifills' Caribbean-American Credit Union gave credit to people who had trouble getting credit anywhere else. More than 35 years later, the credit union was still in business.

 

What obstacles stand in your way? What would it take to convert the obstacle into an opportunity?

 

Passion

 

It takes a lot of passion to leave one's home country and embrace a new nation. Often immigrants left their country of origin because of war, famine, even genocide.

 

When Manny Steen arrived in New York from Ireland in 1925, with $20 in his shoe, which eventually turned into more than a million dollars. His family had sent him to America after his father's untimely death forced him to leave college. Manny said, "I was willing to work, without quibble, any hours. I would do anything. And I was eager, bright and willing and not stupid, you know. Maybe not brilliant but not stupid." Manny moved up the ladder from a shop worker to a store manager when radio was in its first full bloom.

 

Steen was no cock-eyed optimist. He saw his application to one promising job ripped up in front of him because he had written "Hebrew" as his religion. This happened in America, not Ireland. What did he do? Looked for another job. He found that job in a radio store, which hired him because he had taken a class in wireless telegraphy back in Ireland. He merely was following his interests, which turned into a career.

 

Maintain an Entrepreneurial Outlook

 

In developing countries, an entrepreneurial attitude is a necessity. Chances for success are few and must be taken when they walk in--say, when someone needs a shoe shine.

 

James Apanomith came from Greece in 1911 when he was 16 years old. At first, he worked for a man who had sent the money to bring him to New York, shining shoes and dry cleaning clothes. One of the men who came in for a shoe shine was a coffee salesman, working for the Aroma Coffee Company. They became friendly and the man gave James a job offer. James took the risk, selling his business to work on commission. He stopped at cafeterias and luncheonettes all over Elizabeth, New Jersey in hopes of making sales. "I say, 'God bless you, God bless your time for spending five minutes with me. And it's my duty there as a salesman to stop and say hello to you anyhow, buy or not.'" Soon he had 36 stops, with individual sales of a hundred pounds of coffee a week.

 

By being friendly but persistent, James created good feeling, which led to sales. He moved on to other businesses that rewarded his tenacity, his friendliness and his constant lookout for a better deal.

 

Group Generosity

 

Immigrants give to others because they know that, sometime, it might be that they are the ones in need. Generosity is the glue that keeps the community together.

 

Josephine Garzieri Calloway should never have been allowed on board the boat that took her to Ellis Island. She had trachoma, a clearly identifiable disease that marked her for deportation. To be treated at the Ellis Island hospital required a $1,000 bond. Her father could not pay the money. But the Italian population of Paterson, New Jersey contributed the money to him on loan. After a year of painful treatments, Josephine was cured. She was released to a home in Paterson that she had never seen before.

 

"When I came home, because of... the bond that everybody donated [to]—my father was grateful to have it, but he repaid them all—the street was closed, because I was coming home. I asked, 'What's going on? Is there a feast?' In Italy, when they have a feast for Saint Joseph, whatever, they get together. But I had no idea. 'They're waiting for you.'”

 

Generous communities stick together in tough times so they can share the prosperity later. Josephine would have been deported had it not been for the generosity of her fellow immigrants. They had never met her, but their generosity allowed her to stay and get the treatment she needed. When she went home healed, they celebrated with her.

 

Not Just a Living, But a Legacy

 

Success comes most when others around you want you to succeed. When everyone in the workplace is thought of as family, the loyalty created by that bond strengthens the success of all concerned. In immigrant circles, the business is often a family business.

 

For some immigrants, the promise of a new life in a new country would bear fruit only in the second generation. Remember Doukenie and her reaction to the Statue of Liberty? She needed that resolve when her personal dream failed. She would not be going to school to learn to be a doctor. The uncle who bought her a one-way ticket to the US tried to marry his niece off to one of several wealthy middle-aged immigrant men. She had other ideas; Doukenie eloped with a boy closer to her age and started her own family. Still, the sting of her failure haunted her. Late in life, she reflected on those dark days. "I told myself... I would starve, scrub floors, do what I could not do for myself, see my kids go to college. That was my dream. And I still feel it."

 

But even that did not keep her down. Doukenie's passion "to be somebody in America" carried her through the hard times. When civil war in Turkey pushed her family into exile in Greece, she managed to get them to the US. Her dream, meanwhile, lived on. Her children did go to college. Both her son and grandson became doctors.

 

Remember Vera Clarke Ifill and her husband? The credit union she started with her husband not only raised up her family but gave back to her community.

 

The immigrant mentality values creating opportunities for the group at least as much, if not more, than the individual. Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant from another time, spent half his life making money. He spent the other half giving it away to build libraries, museums and concert halls.

 

These six traits are not for immigrants alone. Anyone can be inspired by them and follow their example. Passion, generosity of spirit, building a legacy, entrepreneurial attitude, directed dreaming and staying aware of the opportunities around you are all lessons we can emulate. If they can do it, so can we all.


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