By Chelsea Eddy
“Part myth, part reality, the American dream is essential because it is what unites us. It is the shared belief that, in America, anything is possible. That people starting at the very bottom can catapult to the very top. Immigrants are the dream-keepers.”
There is danger in a single story, and for U.S. immigrants, that story has been a contentious conversation about illegal immigration and border control. But millions of immigrants live in the U.S. legally – and thousands wait to enter – who help spur business innovation and job creation. They found tech start-ups, own food trucks, revitalize downtowns and create jobs. They are entrepreneurs in every sense of the word – starting over in the U.S. in pursuit of the American dream, often elusive, but never impossible.
Immigrant, Inc. authors Richard Herman and Robert Smith illustrate immigrants’ diverse contributions through entrepreneurship, technological and creative advancement and job creation. Through interviews with dozens of refugees and immigrants who have given up lives in their native countries to seek education, success and choice in the U.S., the authors make three main arguments:
1) To remain a competitor on the frontier of STEM (Science, Technology, Education, Math) fields, the U.S. must continue to not only welcome, but attract immigrants;
2) Immigrants start new businesses at two times the rate of native-born Americans, in part due to their unique experience;
3) Immigrants are vital to America’s economic recovery and urban and rural revitalization, their diverse backgrounds breeding creativity and innovation.
The bulk of Immigrant, Inc. is told through interviews with immigrant entrepreneurs. Yet-Ming Chiang, a Taiwanese who immigrated to the U.S. to study at MIT, and Ricardo Fulop, a Venezuelan and serial entrepreneur, partnered with U.S.-born Bart Riley to launch A123Systems, producing an innovative battery that is stable, long-lasting and the “Holy Grail of clean-tech.” Partnering with Gururaj Deshpande, a prominent venture capitalist originally from India, A123 revolutionized the battery industry in Detroit, Michigan. The company created thousands of jobs in a blighted Great Lakes city and helps the U.S. remain competitive in clean technology.
For immigrants like Chiang and Fulop, who choose to leave their home countries for a multitude of reasons, the opportunities the U.S. affords them – educational pursuits, entrepreneurship, religious and political freedoms – are driving factors in their decisions to move to the U.S. over other countries. If those opportunities are taken away – or entry into the U.S. becomes too difficult – these immigrants may simply take their talents elsewhere, say the authors.
The immigrant experience and unique traits they possess, argue Herman and Smith, spur their entrepreneurial achievements. “Failure was not an option” is a recurring mantra among the entrepreneurs the authors interviewed, including Fulop. “I think an important part of being an immigrant is desperation,” says Fulop. “You’ve landed here, you’re alone, you have to make a new life for yourself.” Immigrants’ cultural values of thrift, pursuit of education and reverence for family, combined with personal motivations – that they’re dreamers, adventurers and risk takers, further prime them for success.
Herman and Smith tend to overly revere the special traits they think make immigrants flourishing entrepreneurs. For one – an assumption that all immigrants (or even just immigrant entrepreneurs) possess the same specific qualities that make them prone to successful entrepreneurship. The authors are also overly optimistic about the rate of success among immigrant entrepreneurs. They not only interview successful immigrant entrepreneurs but wildly successful ones. Immigrants are not a special breed immune to failure, and I was left wondering about the immigrant entrepreneurs who don’t succeed or those who open a small business and struggle to make a profit every year. What are their stories?
In the end, Immigrant, Inc. sheds light on an important aspect often missing from the national immigration debate – legal immigration. The authors focus on the immense contributions legal immigrants make to the American economy – particularly in academic and technological sectors – and the potential adverse effects to the U.S. if legal immigration were halted. Although it is clear Herman and Smith write with a particular agenda, their reliance on statistical data, reports from non-partisan think tanks and interviews with a wide range of immigrants, academicians and business analysts makes their book compelling for readers on all sides of the immigration debate – or those who are not sure where they fall.
Though published in 2010, Immigrant, Inc. is an especially timely read. Ultimately, the authors’ issue a call to action, encouraging Americans to consider the full spectrum of immigration and its effects on U.S. communities in the midst of a contentious national conversation.
Chelsea Eddy is the Engagement Coordinator at the American Independent Business Alliance. She previously served as the Refugee Community Liasion for the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office. You can purchase Immigrant, Inc. from your local, indie bookseller in person or via IndieBound.org
AMIBA’s Business Against Bigotry campaign
Six Steps to Speak Up is one useful reference to help you effectively counter bigotry
Refugees and Entrepreneurship fact sheet (New American Economy)
The Contributions of New Americans (individual state data)