Keepers of the Dream
America has always been a magnet for talented entrepreneurs. It still is.
Dilip Barot, from Gujarat, India, was trained as a pharmacist, but learned within days of landing in the United States that he would have to start at the bottom. He went to work for another Gujarati at a motel in New Jersey for $100 a week. A year later he got a job as a pharmacy intern. Then he read in an Indian-American newspaper that the 18-unit Rock Garden in Riviera Beach, Florida, was for sale. The modest motel needed expensive repairs and a hefty down payment $60,000.
Barot had saved $8,000 and got help from two Gujaratis for the rest. Together they bought the motel. To save money, Barot did the repairs himself and bought used furniture from other hotel owners. Within a year Barot bought a second motel. Today Barot's Naimisha Group owns hotels and apartments in seven American states and grosses more than $50 million per year.
Patricia Pliego Stout is another immigrant entrepreneur who worked hard to succeed. When she tried to start a travel agency in San Antonio, Texas, she couldn't get a loan. Friends said that she had three strikes against her: she was single, Hispanic and female.
Stout, a former university administrator born in Mexico City, wasn't buying that. Pouring her life's savings of more than $65,000 into the venture, she worked nights and weekends. Unable to pay for a courier, she delivered airline tickets to her clients before and after work.
Today The Alamo Travel Group has 18 employees in six offices. "What saw me through was my individual will," she says. "I got gutsy because I had to."
Why are so many immigrants succeeding in business? Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and author of The Future Once Happened Here, points to three factors: their work ethic and values, the strength of their families and communities, and their belief in the American dream.
Paying Their Dues. Rose Hwang escaped Vietnam with her family in a tiny boat. Eventually they arrived in Mission Viejo, California, in 1976, when Rose was 17.
Rose studied hard in university and became a Vietnamese-language interpreter for the Orange County courts. Then, with her savings and those of her husband, Mitchell Phan, also a Vietnamese refugee, they started Alpha Systems Lab and soon found a niche the competition had overlooked: remote digital video surveillance for corporate security. Rose's equipment allows business owners to monitor their facilities, inventory and cash around the clock, from any location.
Americans who believe that immigrants burden their economy often focus on what immigrants may lack when they get here — English, education and money. More important for success in the long run, however, is moral capital.
Zubair Kazi was 23 when he left India in 1969 and moved to Los Angeles. He took a $2-an-hour job as a cook's helper at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. The work was hard. Mostly he scoured 16-quart pressure cookers, burning his hands when the hot grease splattered.
One day two co-workers didn't show up, and Kazi had to do the work of three men. His supervisor noticed Kazi's determination and trained him to be an assistant manager. After a few months in that job, he was asked to run a money-losing operation in Culver City, California. Kazi's vigorous management soon made the store profitable.
In 1976 Kazi decided to buy his own franchise. But with $6,000 of his own and $14,000 from friends, he was still short of $65,000. So he carried a suitcase full of his Kentucky Fried Chicken awards into the local bank, got a loan and bought the franchise. That store was losing $3,000 per month when Kazi bought it. He worked seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.. Within six months Kazi and his wife, Khatija, who also worked there, were $50,000 in the black. Today Zubair Kazi owns 109 KFC franchises with total annual sales in excess of $80 million.
Ethnic Banks. Immigrants often succeed by focusing on relatively neglected niches in the economy. Afghanis are becoming a major factor in New York fried-chicken outlets, for example, and Koreans have long dominated the green-grocer business.
Because relatively few immigrants qualify for bank loans, many, like Dilip Barot, create businesses with help from other immigrants. Korean-Americans often turn to churches and community networks for help in starting businesses. Newcomers receive valuable training and information, and in some cases money, from established business owners.
West Indians use an informal network called susu, or Turn of the Wheel. Commonly about 20 of them will agree to contribute a set amount (typically $100) per week. Each takes his turn receiving the weekly payout of $2,000 — enough to help buy a truck or put a down payment on a storefront. With creative mechanisms like this, immigrants start on the road to financial independence.
Great Mall of China. "Immigrants are playing an important role in reviving our cities," says Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Institute for Public at California's Pepperdine University.
Waves of New Yorkers left the city in the 1970s, and immigrants flooded in. Now so many Asians have moved into the outer boroughs of New York that the No. 7 subway train snaking through northern Queens is nicknamed "the Orient Express." Boston's Dorchester Avenue was built by immigrants: Irish bakeries and pub at first, Vietnamese pharmacies and eateries many decades later. Immigrants are also resurrecting suburbs. The San Gabriel Valley in the early 1970a was well on its way to meeting the fate of other Los Angeles suburbs. Storefronts were emptying as middle-class residents moved up to newer suburbs. Then the ethnic Chinese from Taiwan and Hong Kong moved in, renovating houses, opening supermarkets and restaurants.
Today the sidewalks are clean, and the parking lots are filled with late-model cars. San Gabriel Square, in the town of San Gabriel, is now nicknamed the "Great Mall of China." Hundreds of technology firms dot the valley, with annual sales estimated at more than $4 billion. What was once derided as a "smog slum," the Los Angeles Times now calls the "Chinese Silicon Valley."
(Selected from Reader's Digest, April 1999, written by Richard Miniter)