“We’re moving to America so you can become a plumber!” said no immigrant to their child, ever. The medical and law school cliché is still strong amongst immigrant families.
When I moved to New York City in 2006, I was astonished at how diverse the city was. Virtually everyone I met in the streets of Manhattan was from somewhere else, be it another country, or simply another state. Everyone was in New York to "make it". For most of them, making it meant landing a well-paying job, often in an industry like IT, Finance, Engineering, or Law. For others, making it meant getting a great education from a top-rated school or university. Very few had Entrepreneurship on their radar, and I wondered why because there were so many examples of successful immigrant entrepreneurs in the city, and in the country as a whole.
Now, the job market in New York was hypercompetitive, to say the least. I remember having deep conversations with some taxi drivers, who had Masters and PhDs from their home countries and yet weren't able to land any jobs matching their qualifications. I always sympathized with them, but I was quick to point out that seeking a job wasn't necessarily the only way to make a living, and that many of the country's most successful entrepreneurs were immigrants like them who were able to create thriving businesses with very little upfront capital. Some nodded in approval, while others ignored me and continued their rant...
Before my New York move, I was quite a bit north of the Great Apple, in a much smaller, albeit quite multicultural Canadian city: Montreal. I grew up there in the ’80s and '90s. Entrepreneurship was definitely not a cool word back then, regardless of which country you lived in. In high school, my friends and I, who all came from different backgrounds—were told by everyone around us that higher education was the only way to achieve success in life. Our parents weren't flexible in that regard and wouldn't be open to hearing about any other alternative. I guess most immigrants took on a lot of risk to move to a new country, so it makes sense that they would be risk-averse...
I’m not saying higher education is bad, but in putting together this book, I couldn’t help but think of my high-school friend Elie. The only son of a Lebanese family, Elie dropped out of high school at seventeen years old to become a plumber. He did this not only against his parents’ wishes but against his schoolmates’ advice. In fact, I remember when he first announced the idea to us during lunch break. Some of us laughed, while others politely told him that it was a dumb idea and that he should focus on his education because that’s the only way to succeed and make money—or so we were told and so we believed.
“I’m sick of high school,” he said. “I want to make money right now, I don’t want to end up working for someone else, and I actually like plumbing!” were some of the last words we heard from him.
Fast forward a few years later and many of those kids who laughed at Elie were coming out of college with a six-figure debt. Meanwhile, Elie had a thriving six-figure business and a couple of other plumbers working for him. I heard that he was even able to afford to take a two month vacation every year. I have no idea how he’s doing today, but I know one thing for sure: it’s still hard to find a decent and reasonably priced plumber, no matter which city you live in! In other words, I’m not too worried about Elie….
Why this book?
I published this book to show aspiring entrepreneurs and newly arrived immigrants that Elie is definitely no exception and that America is still a great place to start a business.
This country was built by immigrants who left their homeland in the early 1600s seeking economic opportunity and religious freedom. America was seen as a new land full of opportunity, free from the crippling monarchies in Europe and other parts of the world. Today, North America is still seen as the land of opportunity as immigrants from all over the world continue to apply for entry every year.
The contributions of immigrants to the US economy is substantial. A 2017 study by the Center for American Entrepreneurship revealed that 43.2% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by a first- or second-generation immigrant. A more recent study, released in 2019 by the National Foundation for American Policy, found that 55% of the country’s $1 billion startup companies had at least one immigrant founder.
While my goal with this book is to inspire and motivate immigrants who want to pursue the path of entrepreneurship, I think that just about anyone who wants to start a business and is going through some kind of struggle will find value in it. Additionally, I wanted to write a book that younger folks can show their “old school” parents who think that going to grad school or earning a Ph.D. is the only way to succeed.
Of course, success means different things to different people, but in this book let’s define it as pursuing being financially independent while pursuing something you’re passionate about. Now, it is important to remember that becoming a successful entrepreneur is no easy undertaking. As you’ll learn from reading these stories, having a good idea and a great execution plan is important, but having perseverance, passion, and dedication is paramount.
How were the immigrant entrepreneurs selected?
I contacted dozens of top-tier marketing and PR agencies in the US and presented the project to them. I asked whether they had clients who were first-generation Immigrants running a successful business, and would be interested in being interviewed. The response was overwhelmingly positive and beyond anything I had hoped for! I received over five-hundred submissions from successful US-based immigrant entrepreneurs who were interested in taking part in the project.
Now, since I couldn’t cover all the submissions I received, I had to select only fifty for the book. You can find the other stories on my Thrive Global column. In selecting which stories would make it into the book, diversity was very important for me. I’m glad to say that I didn’t have to do much work in this regard because the submissions I had received were already very diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, religion, and industry. Every immigrant you’ll meet in this book has a unique upbringing and journey.
I hope these success stories serve as a constant reminder that the market doesn’t care who you are or where you come from, if you have a good product, the market will buy!
Company: Pandi, LLC
Originally From: Jamaica, W.I.
Sandi is currently the co-founder and Chief Learning Officer at Pandi Media, her second company. Pandi Media is a communications company that creates compelling content and actionable materials that help entrepreneurs achieve success.
Her first company, Consultants 2 Go (C2G), provides marketing and analytic consultants to Fortune 500 companies in financial services, telecom, retail, and insurance. Sandi and her partner created, built, and ended up selling C2G in 2016. At C2G, she was the Chief Operations Officer, heading up all Human Resources, Marketing, Billing, and Compliance.
Sandi and her business partner, Peggy McHale, were the featured cover story in the July 2007 issue of Money Magazine (the first women ever to be on the cover). The same year, they were awarded the National Association of Women Business Owners’ (NYC) Promise Award, and in 2016, Sandi was awarded the Outstanding Woman Entrepreneurship Award 2016 by the National Minority Business Council.
They have been listed on the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Companies seven different times, grew revenues to over $17 million, hired over 150 employees, and opened branches in New Jersey, New York, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, and Delaware.
What was life like in Jamaica?
I was born in the small town of Hayes in the parish of Clarendon, Jamaica, and was related to almost everyone in town. I knew most of them, and most everyone knew me.
Life in Hayes was fun. I lived with my grandparents, aunt, and cousins because my mom was already in the US and my father was in England. My aunt was a seamstress, and my grandparents were farmers raising animals and planting crops. Growing up with them eventually inspired me to become an entrepreneur.
My mom immigrated from Jamaica because she felt she would get better work in the US. She left to become a live-in housekeeper in Chicago, taking care of a family with eleven children. She later moved to New York. The better life never materialized the way she wanted it, and she ended up working as a piece worker in the garment industry while holding down several jobs at a time.
It was my mother's intention to bring her children to the US to get a good education. She strongly believed that education was the key to a successful life. There were excellent schools in Jamaica, but they were costly, and she did not have the money for private schools. Over the years, most of my relatives migrated to different countries such as the US, England, and Canada. Unfortunately, I don’t know most of the people who live in Hayes now, so I don’t go back there often.
What was it like coming to the US?
In 1972, when I was ten years old, I immigrated to Brooklyn, New York. I remember seeing snow for the first time and thinking it was really cold but so much fun; I spent a lot of time with my friends making snow angels. I’m sure my family struggled before we came along, but we didn’t see that struggle.
I lived in the mostly-white Canarsie neighborhood in Brooklyn where they burned crosses on people’s front lawns. I already had many relatives and friends in Brooklyn, so I never felt like a stranger—I merely felt like I lived in two places. My best memories are of going back to Jamaica for summers.
There is a tie between the most difficult thing I faced when moving to the US. The first was the weather. I arrived in October and had never been colder in my life, even though the temperature was only in the forties. The second challenge was mean children. They laughed at my accent—even though at the time I didn’t even know I had an accent—and would tell me that I came off the banana boat. I learned very quickly to give as good as I got and was quickly making friends.
As a child of the New York public school system, I was always at the top of my class, and that was expected of me by my peers. But there were only a few African-American children in my school, and I got into a lot of fights because of racial comments or ethnic slurs. When busing became prevalent, I took the brunt from both sides: from the African-American kids who said I thought I was better than them because I lived in Canarsie, and from the white/Italian/Jewish kids for not being one of them either. Later, my family moved to East Flatbush, which was a Jewish neighborhood at the time. It is now predominantly West Indian. My mother only picked neighborhoods with the best school systems, regardless of the location.
What was your entrepreneurial journey like?
I come from a family of seamstresses. Starting when I was five years old, they paid me $1 for hemming wedding dresses; I had tiny hands which made the stitches almost invisible. My first job outside my home was babysitting when I was ten years old. I went from babysitting individual children to having groups of children, and that was my first taste of entrepreneurship. I learned a lot about customer service, making people happy, how to work with people older than me, how to manage money, and best of all, learned how to leverage those skills into opportunities in future jobs.
I started my most successful business, Consultants 2 Go (now C2G Partners), with my business partner, Peggy McHale, after we were both laid off from our corporate financial services jobs following 9/11. We identified an untapped niche in our industry when we realized female marketing executives were leaving the workforce in droves, particularly after having their second child. They were torn between taking care of their children versus rising through the ranks of the corporation to make six-figure salaries. They almost always chose to leave the workforce. We started hiring these ladies to work on our teams as freelancers.
We then hired our friends who had left the workforce to use their expertise to complete short- or long-term projects. It created substantial savings for corporations because they needed the job to be done but could not afford to hire someone as a full-time employee. The consultants were able to make an excellent living, stay relevant in the marketplace, and still have a fulfilling home life.
What was the most difficult problem you faced when starting your business?
The most difficult thing I faced was being a woman. That was compounded by being a smart, black, immigrant woman—quadruple whammy. My business partner was a white woman, and it was also difficult for her. We watched less intelligent white men start businesses long after we did, win contracts with ease, and move ahead much faster than us.
However, I believe we have been successful because my business partner and I have the same shared values. Without those common values, we would not trust or understand each other. Even though our backgrounds are different, we realized that we both have a lot of integrity. Further, we are flexible, whether in our hours of work or coming to a consensus on an issue, and we both are customer-driven. We selected employees with those same values.
I know that finding financing is generally an issue for startup entrepreneurs, but I’m proud to say that I did not need to borrow any money to start my business; I started with just a computer and a phone. After that, our talent and perseverance was all we needed to succeed.
Being an entrepreneur is often stressful. How do you manage it?
I exercise and make sure that I stick to my routine. I have a personal trainer who comes to my home. For mental health, I use the weekends to ensure I get some quiet time. I also work a lot “after hours,” meaning after 8 p.m. when the phone is not ringing and I can think clearly. I send many emails late at night or early in the morning, and I do much of my writing (like this) after midnight. Having attended a performing arts high school, I also love to go to the theatre. Thankfully, I live in the city that has Broadway, and I get my fix by going at least one or two times every month. I also support my local community theatre college performances.
Do you have any tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?
More than ever before, newly arrived immigrants overall have a much better chance of starting a business and succeeding. Numerous free programs abound, particularly for women. Those programs were just being put in place in 2002 when we started. I have several pieces of advice I wish someone had told me when I first arrived.
Immigrants can work easily across borders, as many countries are looking to do business with companies in the US. Most know a second language. Take advantage of free classes; local high schools, colleges, and the city where you are located often have numerous free programs on how to start a business in this country. Make sure you have a good accountant. You can try to do it yourself, but getting an expert will save you much grief with bookkeeping, taxes, etc.
I can’t overestimate how important it is to get a mentor. Find someone who has grown a successful business similar to yours. Many people don’t like to ask their competitors for advice, but most of them are happy to help you, especially if you have a niche that they don’t have. They can refer business to you that they don’t want or for which they don’t have the skill set, and vice versa.
Until you’re on solid ground with your business, keep your day job. If you have a full-time job and have your business as a side hustle, keep your job until you can strike out on your own. And when you make that decision to start your company, fully commit to it. At every step of the process, it’s important to network with other people. Don’t stay only in your community; there’s a big world out there. Get out of your comfort zone and meet other people.
Learning English fluently is very important. Join groups like Toastmasters that can help you speak more clearly, especially if you have a heavy accent and it is difficult for people to understand you. It is a national organization with numerous chapters around the world. Or, if your English is not good, take some “English as a Second Language” classes; most are free or low cost. If that doesn’t work, get a trusted person or pay a professional to interpret for you and/or tutor you.
Finally, replicate good ideas from your home country. If there is something to which you are accustomed to in your country that you cannot find here, that’s a ready-made business opportunity for you. Re-create that idea here. For example, Black Cake (fruit cake) is a staple in Jamaica. In the ‘70s, I could not get a black cake until my family made it at Christmas time. Then, bakeries started to pop up featuring Jamaican products, and I could purchase black cake every day if I wanted to. It was not a new idea—just a new idea in this country.
In summary, I think immigrants truly are the backbone of America. We make this country great over and over again—from slavery through to today’s technology boom. As long as we know who we are, and remember why we are in this country, and why our parents made such sacrifices to move here, we are unstoppable. Within all people, regardless of their nationality, there are going to be positive influences as well as negative ones.