John Henry draws parallels between being an entrepreneur and the immigrant experience, and explores the ways in which so many new Americans are entrepreneurial by nature in order to work and establish a life for themselves. Henry also draws from his personal experience as a son of immigrants, to both reflect on the entrepreneurial mindset passed on to him, and broaden the mainstream concept of what it means to be an entrepreneur.
Immigrants make up a relatively small portion of the United States population, but they account for a significant portion of the entrepreneurial community. What is it that makes immigrants so well suited to succeed as entrepreneurs?
Being an outsider can give you a perspective that others simply don’t have. – John Henry
In episode 5 of “Open for Business,” host John Henry investigates the factors driving the success of immigrant small business owners and entrepreneurs. He hears the story of successful entrepreneur Chinedu Echeruo who, after moving to the U.S. from Nigeria, created a website to make navigating public transportation easier. Today, he serves as the CEO and founder of Gigameet, an online portal that allows professionals to arrange one hour meetings and consults. Chinedu shares how his immigrant experience provided him with the unique perspective that helped him to thrive as an entrepreneur.
John also catches up with Samuel Lu, owner of New Green Nutrition, and one of many immigrants who has learned to thrive as a small business owner after coming to America for a chance at a better life. Through hard work and determination, he was able to help his family launch a brick and mortar store and ecommerce presence selling herbal supplements.
We hear John’s own story about growing up with immigrant parents and how that shaped his entrepreneurial path. By the end of the episode, John and his guests outline the lessons anyone can learn from the immigrant journey, and the ways in which they can be invaluable when trying to run a business.
Listen in to hear how from those who have leveraged the components from the immigrant journey -ambition, risk and chaos - to mold themselves into entrepreneurs.
In 1994, Samuel Lu’s family left China to build a new life in America. Samuel’s father unexpectedly passed away, and his mother found herself limited to menial labor due to language barriers and lack of work experience. In 2000, Samuel’s mother decided to go into business for herself and launched a nutrition retail store. The business, YDF Health, became profitable after its first year. Samuel supported the store any way he could after school and during the weekends.
In high school, he interned for Merrill Lynch and went on to graduate one year early from New York University. After spending a decade climbing the corporate ladder in a successful finance career, Samuel took a leap to start his own online nutrition business, New Green Nutrition. Its eBay store became a top-rated seller and power seller after four months, and specializes in Chinese medicine and nutrition supplements.
JOHN HENRY: I’m John Henry, and this is Open for Business, a branded podcast from eBay and Gimlet Creative about building a business from the ground up.
JOHN HENRY: I’m John Henry, and this is Open for Business, a branded podcast from eBay and Gimlet Creative about building a business from the ground up.
The following companies all have one thing in common: Procter and Gamble, Budweiser, Clorox, Nordstrom, Google, eBay, Yahoo.
All of these iconic American companies were founded by immigrants or their children. For instance, Procter and Gamble was founded in 1837 by a candlemaker from England and a soapmaker from Ireland. Budweiser was first brewed in 1876 by a German immigrant, who intentionally picked a name that would appeal to Germans but was easy for Americans to pronounce. Google founder Sergey Brin was born in Russia. eBay founder Pierre Omidyar was born in France to Iranian parents. Yahoo founder Jerry Yang was born in Taiwan.
Immigrants are about thirteen percent of the U.S. population as a whole. And yet, they make up a disproportionately large number of American business owners. In 2011, an analysis of Fortune 500 Companies, which are the most powerful corporations in the U.S., found that immigrants or children of immigrants had founded more than forty percent of them.
Today on the show we explore why this is. It turns out, there are some really fascinating reasons for it. Reasons that all entrepreneurs can learn from.
And before we get started, we should acknowledge that there are lots of different ways to define the word immigrant. For the purposes of this episode, an immigrant is anyone who is currently living in the U.S. who was not born in the U.S. That includes naturalized citizens, undocumented immigrants, people who are here on green cards. That also includes my family. And it includes this guy...
CHINEDU ECHERUO: Hi, my name is Chinedu Echeruo. I’m the CEO and founder of a company called Gigameet.
JOHN HENRY: Gigameet is one of several companies founded by Chinedu. But it’s not the one that him famous. We’ll get to that one in a minute.
Academics who study immigrant entrepreneurs divide them into two main camps: immigrants who start high-tech firms, like Chinedu, and those who start main street businesses. And in the high-tech category, immigrants are way over-represented. Again, immigrants make up thirteen percent of the population as a whole. But in the decade between 1995 and 2005, more than half of all Silicon Valley startups had immigrant founders. Fifty-two percent to be exact. One of those founders was Chinedu. And the idea for the company that made him a household name in the tech world, came to him one night in 2004, when he was running late for a date…
CHINEDU ECHERUO: I was going on a date on the Lower East Side. I had a subway map, which is what they had at that time. And I remember getting really lost. I'm not sure if that messed up my date or not, I don't remember. But I know what I did the very next morning. I distinctly remember going to the subway station, picking out a subway map, laying it on the floor of my apartment, and then figuring, okay, there must be a solution to this problem.
JOHN HENRY: This was not an isolated incident. Chinedu was always getting lost. By his own admission, he has a horrible sense of direction. And remember, this was twelve years ago. No Google Maps, no Waze. GPS technology for a dude just trying to get to a date on time, was a thing of the future.
So here’s how Chinedu found the solution to this problem: He took that paper subway map he picked up at a station, and he rode the New York City subway system over and over. He timed how long it took the train to get from stop to stop and how long it took him to walk from a station to his destination. He mapped all of the possible entrances and exits of each station. And then he turned all that data into a website. He called it Hopstop. With Hopstop, anyone could go online, and type in their origin, their destination, and get directions and the approximate time it would take to get from point A to point B. It sounds so simple now, but back then it was revolutionary.
In 2013, Apple bought Hopstop for a rumored billion dollars. Chinedu disputes this number. He says it’s a ridiculous rumor. But for contractual reasons, he can’t tell us the exact amount. Whatever it was, it put Chinedu on the map, so to speak. The following year, in 2014, Chinedu was named one of the top ten most powerful men in Africa. That’s where he’s from…
CHINEDU ECHERUO: I grew up in the eastern part of Nigeria. Then I went to school at the oldest boarding school in Nigeria called King’s College. Then I moved to Syracuse with my parents. My dad's a professor so we'd jump from one university to the next and I ended up seeing snow for the first time when I was sixteen.
JOHN HENRY: I asked Chinedu how being an immigrant influenced him as an entrepreneur. He responded by quoting American novelist David Foster Wallace and his story about two fish…
CHINEDU ECHERUO: So these two little fish are swimming across and in the water they see this big fish. And the big fish says, “Good morning boys. How’s the water?” And the two little fish swim along. Then after a few minutes one of the small fish looks at the other fish and says, “What the heck is water?” The two fish didn't know where they were. They lacked a perspective. Right? They lacked a perspective that they were in, that there was such a thing, as water. And the only reason why they would even conceptualize that there’s such a thing as water is that you have to conceptualize what’s not water.
So in the United States if you are born in the United States and you have all the luxuries and the conveniences of life, and you haven’t seen suffering, you don't really understand where you are. And I think immigrants who’ve seen the other side of poverty, who’ve seen struggle, who’ve seen limited resources, who’ve seen all these other kinds of challenges, when they step into the water of America, they’re like, “Wow! This is water.” Right? They know it’s water, they take advantage of all that’s involved. But if this is how you’ve lived your life, you don’t even see what you have and I think that phenomena explains the difference in terms of the immigrants’ mindset and I think, what someone who’s grown up in America experiences.
JOHN HENRY: Lesson number one: being an outsider can be an advantage. Whether you’re an outsider to this country, or maybe you’re diving into a totally new industry, being an outsider can give you a perspective that others simply don’t have. You may question the status quo and identify opportunities that others just don’t see. In the end, that is how Chinedu recognized what water was for him, and became a big fish.
MTA TRAIN OPERATOR: This is a Flushing, Main Street-bound 7 local train.
JOHN HENRY: The other side of the immigrant-entrepreneur-story is set on main street, USA. Immigrants start something like twenty-eight percent of all mainstreet businesses in this country, and by main street we mean grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores. Brick and mortar retail stores.
MTA TRAIN OPERATOR: The next and last stop is Flushing, Main Street. Stand clear of the closing doors please.
JOHN HENRY: And so, we headed to Main Street to talk to one of those business owners…
Samuel Lu has a store located at 4153 Main Street in Queens, New York. It’s called New Green Nutrition and they sell Chinese medicine and herbal supplements.
SAMUEL LU: Ginseng is one of our specialty items...
JOHN HENRY: New Green Nutrition has been owned and operated by Samuel and his mom for 16 years. Inside, the store is narrow, lined from floor to ceiling with hundreds of products. There are bulk bins of ginseng and goji berries, pain relief ointments and creams. There’s a whole wall of different types of tea. At the back of the store, a Chinese medicine doctor is on site for consultations and custom mixtures of herbs.
Samuel and his parents left China in 1994. They’d waited seven years for their visa and when they finally got it, Samuel was nine years old. Back in China, his dad was a chef at a renowned restaurant and his mom was a pharmacist. Their plan was to get their bearings, and start building their new life here. But, that’s not what happened...
SAMUEL LU: A month after we landed, unfortunately my father became ill. At the time we couldn’t afford health care in the U.S. So we decided he should go back to China to get some treatment and after he gets better, come back to the U.S. But two or three months after he went back, we received the news that he passed away. So we went back to China, and did the funeral. Once we threw the funeral for him, then we came back to the U.S.
JOHN HENRY: What they came back to, were some really tough times. Samuel’s mom was the only family breadwinner. And in order to stay afloat, they had to move into a single room where they shared a bathroom and kitchen with other tenants. For years, Samuel’s mom took on whatever work she could find: she sewed clothes in garment factories, she was a caregiver, she worked as a cashier at a bakery. Until, she arrived at a decision that lots of other immigrants in her position have made. She was done working so hard, doing menial labor, for other people.
Academics who study immigrant entrepreneurship say that this is a common phenomenon. When you immigrate to the U.S., there are some built-in barriers to getting a job with even a slight chance at a promising future. Chief among them: the language barrier. But also, work experience here in the U.S. Sometimes, when you immigrate to this country, the only person who will take a risk on you...is you. One expert summed up the sentiment this way, quote: “If I have to mop floors in the U-S, at least I’ll be mopping my own company’s floors.”
And so when Samuel was 16, his mom started her own business. With no savings to fall back on, and no credit history to speak of, she turned to the only network she had here: her family. Her brother loaned her the money to open the store. It felt like her one and only chance to make it...
SAMUEL LU: Initially the business was horrible. We were only doing a hundred to two hundred dollars a day. That in itself wouldn’t even cover the rent and the electric bills. So we were really conscious of managing our budget and hoping that we could survive, making sure that whatever savings that we could do, she did. So everything went straight into the business, whatever savings and money we made. I don’t think she ever really sat down to think about, “what would happen if I fail, what should I do?” She didn’t really have a backup plan. She just said, “let’s go, let’s do this.”
JOHN HENRY: Experts who study immigrant entrepreneurship say that immigrant-owned businesses in the US often operate with a thin profit margin.
This brings us to our second lesson: Starting a business on a lean budget can result in focused and disciplined decision making. If every financial decision is make or break, your priorities become very clear, very quickly. It was really hard for Samuel’s mom, but that’s exactly how she approached her business. After three months, New Green Nutrition broke even. After a year, it was running a small profit. After three years, she’d paid her brother back in full. And here we are today, sixteen years later.
So that explains why Samuel’s mom started her own business but his path to joining her goes through some of the most mainstream, high-powered places you can imagine, and also offers another lesson about the immigrant entrepreneur experience. As a kid, Samuel got good grades, and so he got into great schools. He interned at Merrill Lynch in high school. He graduated early from NYU with a degree in economics. And, he landed on a career in finance, which was going really well...
SAMUEL LU: I climbed the ladder pretty quickly. Within a year and a half I doubled my salary. Within three years, I tripled my salary. Within five years, I quadrupled my salary.
JOHN HENRY: Samuel spent more than a decade at this high-profile, six-figure salary finance job. It was the American dream he thought he’d always wanted. But once he got it? He felt just as trapped working for someone else as his mom had felt before she started her own business.
SAMUEL LU: I was working at a thirty-two floor tower overlooking Manhattan with a glass window looking outside. It was one of the most beautiful view. I feel like I had no freedom. I feel like I was very complacent at my job even though I had a very big responsibility.
JOHN HENRY: And so, last year, Samuel quit his job. He abandoned one idea of the American dream -- high salaries, nice suits and expense accounts -- for a very different idea of the American dream: owning a business. The research suggests that there’s a reason this decision felt natural to Samuel. It’s a term coined by author Chris Raab called “invisible capital.”
It basically means that when you’re growing up, you kind of absorb some of the knowledge and skills of the people around you. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you learn from their example.
For instance, if your dad was an accountant, it’s more likely you’ll grow up with a better understanding of not just numbers and budgets but also the day-to-day work that goes into being an accountant. Likewise, if your parents start a business, you have a built-in knowledge-base about starting a business.
By helping his mom get the business up and running as a teenager, working there after school and on weekends, Samuel was training for entrepreneurship without even knowing it. And so, following in her footsteps just felt natural to him. Even if it was hard to justify to his colleagues in finance.
SAMUEL LU: My boss thought I was crazy for resigning and walking away from a job in which I was performing really well. It was a job many people would want. Everyone thought I was crazy.
JOHN HENRY: Do you ever regret leaving your old job?
SAMUEL LU: No, I do not. I’m the boss of myself, I can have a flexible schedule. I think that empowerment and being able to see the business grow and nurture is really satisfying for me. There’s growth and there’s potential and there’s unknown, and I think that’s what drives me, the unknown of what’s going to happen in the future.
JOHN HENRY: Samuel thrives in that feeling of the unknown. And that’s invisible capital at work. Being an immigrant, watching his mom head straight into the unknown, means that when faced with the unknown himself, he knows how to navigate it or at least not be afraid of it.
And that’s lesson number three: Take advantage of your invisible capital. It’s an intangible asset but a very real one. And if you didn’t grow up around entrepreneurs, worry not, there are things you can do to build up your invisible capital. You can integrate yourself into start-up communities and surround yourself with entrepreneurs, whether online or in person. And just, be a sponge. Try to learn from their successes and failures.
In the past year, Samuel’s main focus has been to expand New Green Nutrition on e-commerce sites like eBay, which means that they’re no longer just a main street store. They ship their products all over the US and internationally, too. Sales are growing month over month and this year, New Green Nutrition is projected to make more than a million dollars in revenue.
There’s a lot in Samuel’s story that I can relate to. A few years before I was born, my parents moved here from the Dominican Republic. Like Samuel’s mom, my parents worked any job they could get and when they couldn’t get a job, they created their own. My dad drove taxis and sold furniture door to door. During the summer, my mom sold water guns at the park in our neighborhood. And for a while, they even ran their own makeshift food truck...
JOHN HENRY: [in Spanish] Ma, what kind of seafood did you sell?
JOHN’S MOM: [in Spanish] Eh, shrimp, lobster…
JOHN HENRY: Shrimps, lobsters…
JOHN’S MOM: [in Spanish] Octopus, calamari…
JOHN HENRY: Octopus. All kinds of stuff. They would just like, make really slamming seafood in the house. It was like packaged in like, these styrofoam containers and just like, it was the tastiest stuff you ever tried. We would hit the streets and just like pull up in a Jeep and then pop open the doors and just, you know, sell that shit.
JOHN HENRY: It’s because of all that work, all that hustle, that I now get to have a job I love with an office in downtown Manhattan. Which my mom and dad had actually never seen, until I took them, along with my producer, Nicole...
JOHN HENRY: [In Spanish] Come in, this is the office, and this is my office where we’re gonna do the interview.
JOHN’S MOM: Okay, nice.
NICOLE WONG: Can you ask them what they think?
JOHN HENRY: [in Spanish] What do you think of the office?
JOHN’S MOM: Yes. Nice.
JOHN’S DAD: [in Spanish] It’s nice but I thought you’d have a better view.
JOHN HENRY: He said, "It's nice but he thought I had a better view." Burn.
JOHN’S DAD: The view is only, only buildings.
JOHN HENRY: Immigrant parents, like all parents, can be hard to impress. Being an entrepreneur feels second-nature to me, and I think a lot of that comes from that invisible capital my parents gave me. I consider them entrepreneurs. My producer Nicole asked if they see themselves that way…
NICOLE WONG: So the term 'la empresaria,' is that a term that your mom and dad identify with?
JOHN HENRY: [in Spanish] We want to talk a little about the term 'entrepreneur', is this a term you identify with? Like, do you classify yourselves as entrepreneurs, or what does it mean to you?
JOHN’S MOM: [in Spanish] Yes...
JOHN HENRY: [in Spanish] You don’t have to say yes.
JOHN’S MOM: [in Spanish] Small entrepreneurs. Small…
JOHN HENRY: So she says, she says she considers herself a 'pequeño empresario' like, small entrepreneur because for her when you just say the word 'empresario' it means you have a defined company and employees and blah, blah, blah. And so she obviously doesn't really identify with that because it's not her case...
JOHN’S MOM: [in Spanish] And we gave him the push…
JOHN HENRY: But, she sees the route that she took as the push to enable me to get to where I am.
JOHN’S MOM: [in Spanish] ...he continued on another level. Not so much food and the like, but on the level of technology and...
JOHN HENRY: And she says, "Instead of John dealing with like, food and super soakers, he's now dealing with technology and investments” and what have you. So, it was like the small catapult that was able to get, you know, it was able to allow me to do what I have to do. As immigrants you come to this country and it's quite literally for all those newcomers, like, the land of opportunity.
JOHN’S MOM: [in Spanish] Yes, whenever it comes to business, whatever type of business…
JOHN HENRY: My mom is really, welcoming of risks, I would say in general and she's kind of all about the green anyways. So she's like, "Ok!" Like if someone poses an idea that's like, seems logical, she'll be like, "Ok. I'll give it a shot." You know? So that's kinda, like, how it was.
JOHN’S MOM: [in Spanish] Everything presents itself in the moment...
JOHN HENRY: My parents don’t see entrepreneurship as an identity the way I do. They don’t have an emotional attachment to the word, and I think that’s because they’ve never had the luxury to romanticize entrepreneurship the way I have. For them, entrepreneurship was simply a means to a goal, it was survival. Putting food on the table. And why? To create opportunities for me and my siblings. So Lesson Number Four: Know your ‘Why.’ Of course, it’s important to have goals to work towards, but why you have those goals, that’s the drive that gets you through the inevitable tough times. And the why is powerful.
To recap this week’s lessons:
Lesson number one: being an outsider can be an advantage. It means you are in a position to seize new opportunities and question the status quo.
Lesson number two: Lean means green. Starting a business on a lean budget can help you be disciplined about your priorities.
Lesson number three: Recognize your invisible capital. Your intangible skills can also be your most invaluable ones, and the ones that set you apart.
Lesson number four: Know why you’re working towards the goals you set for yourself. This is true in life but it’s especially true for entrepreneurs embarking on a long and sometimes grueling journey.
We’ll be back next week with an episode about a trend that’s growing so quickly, it might just be the future of entrepreneurship as we know it: the gig economy. We’ll hear from entrepreneurs who ditched the traditional idea of work, and learn how they built successful businesses on gig economy platforms.
Open For Business is a branded podcast from eBay and Gimlet Creative.
A special thanks this week to the many academics and researchers who spent time talking to us. Including: Robert Fairlie from the University of California, Santa Cruz; David Kallick from the Fiscal Policy Institute; Amanda Bergson-Shilcock from the National Skills Coalition, and Steve Tobocman, from Global Detroit.
If you want to check out the studies and research we cited in this episode, we’ve posted that stuff in the show notes on the Gimlet Creative website. To hear more from Open For Business, visit ebay.com/openforbusiness, where you can find more episodes of this podcast, as well as tools and information on how to start or grow a business on eBay. Open for Business is on iTunes and Google Play. If you like the show, leave a review and tell us why! I’m John Henry. Thanks for listening.