THE BLOG
07/03/2013 04:03 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

Immigrant Women Leaders: Revitalizing American Meritocracy

Majority Treated Like Minority

It's not easy to be an immigrant, anywhere. It's also not easy to be a female leader, anywhere. Although women now constitute 51 percent of all U.S. immigrants, policymakers of all brands broadly disregard this important demographic. If we can draw public attention to holistically addressing the needs of immigrant women leaders, the whole society will benefit as we tap their enormous potential. For inspiration we look at immigrant women leaders who became part and parcel of American meritocracy despite their double liability as immigrants and as female leaders.

The Meaning of Meritocracy

Meritocracy is a system where talented individuals are rewarded; it also means an elite group of talented people. Although the concept existed for centuries, the term "meritocracy" was only coined by the British sociologist Michael Young in 1958. He argued that the creative "restless elite" are the greatest contributors to society, and not the "stolid mass."

In the U.S., the merit systems were legally enforced for government jobs since 1883. But the enforcements are not guarantees, and in his book Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy, Chris Hayes describes the deterioration of American meritocracy and its degenerative mutation into plutocracy, or the rule of the rich. Simply put, with meritocracy in place, you get rewarded for your personal intelligence and great results. But in a plutocracy, you only get fair chances when backed with money: what a shame for an alleged land of opportunity!

To Have and Have Not

Plutocracy recently got a fresh advocate: Gregory Mankiw, an economics professor at Harvard. Mankiw put the wealthy on a meritocracy pedestal -- along with their children who "inherit" meritocratic DNA. Mankiw maintains that the U.S. does provide equal opportunities; the richest 1 percent are on top simply because they are better than the rest of us.

The public has thrown many stones at him for many reasons. Get down to Earth, Professor:

1. Opportunities are not equal, and the disparities between rich and poor are getting worse, and
2. The super-rich 1 percent are not that much better. It's not only money but also connections that help them: Even the extremely talented Liza Minnelli surely benefited from having famous Hollywood parents -- actress Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli.

The immigrant have-nots enjoy significantly fewer connections/opportunities and struggle under more liabilities -- including language and cultural barriers. Female immigrants have additional family obligations on top of that. So, how do they break through the meritocracy ceiling?

Breaking Through the Meritocracy Ceiling

Although many immigrants are the have-nots facing rising inequality, in the American competitive economy -- as in a war -- some are given "field promotion" for their outstanding leadership skills. This kind of on-the-spot promotion comes to meritocratic women who work the hardest; just look at these ladies' success paths:

Rosa Santana: from Rags to Riches and Higher.

A self-made CEO and owner of Integrated Human Capital (ranked No. 177 by The Hispanic Business Magazine Top 500 List for 2011), Rosa grew her company to over 2,000 associates/employees with offices in El Paso, Austin, and San Antonio, TX. A daughter of a divorced Mexican mother who brought her five kids to the USA and scrubbed people's floors to give her children better chances in life, Rosa inherited her mother's ability to radically change course when necessary, and also develop deep-rooted relationships and never-give-up attitudes -- which helped big time in her 32-year career in the staffing business. Rosa's field knowledge allowed her to create a unique niche, serving the companies on both sides of U.S.-Mexico border, offering competitive wages, comprehensive benefits, and flexible solutions -- which she believes is a higher goal than just achieving personal financial stability. Socially responsible, she sees her major contribution to America's well-being in providing much-wanted jobs for people and the right talent for customers.

Ying McGuire: from China to Texas, with Drive to Excel.

Raised with conservative values and trained to be reserved, humble and bow to guru teachers, rebellious Ying packed her life in a suitcase and emigrated from China after the Tiananmen Square tragedy -- believing she could thrive in the Land of the Free. Although success did not happen overnight, nothing could stop her pursuit of happiness as she went through the steep learning curves of American culture, language, communication style, and divorce. She transitioned from tourism to high-tech industry, got an MBA, started a job at Dell, and put in long hours and overtime weekends. Wired to excel and used to swimming upstream, Ying evolved into a recognized leader in a male-dominated industry. She is now a VP of International Operations & Business Development for TIG and serves on several boards including the UN's International Trade Center, Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce, etc. She inspires and leads by example, from the front. Describing her fellow immigrants, Ying says, "Our intellectual horsepower, learning agility, strong work ethics, and determination help us to accelerate our path to success." Americanized to the max, Ying rebases the line every time she reaches her next goal -- on her way to entering the top rank of American meritocracy, just like her role model, Condoleezza Rice.

Two Choices

American meritocracy is not dead as long as we have the "new blood" of talented achievers--both haves and have-nots--constantly replenishing our country's creativity and productivity. To the point: starting from scratch and hungry for achievement, immigrant women leaders are the restless meritocratic engine that we badly need, to make sure--without a reasonable doubt--that we are still the best in the world. Immigrant women leaders are revitalizing American meritocracy while earning their stripes under extremely tough competition. If America is to continue to lead a globally competitive market economy, we need not to shrink away from immigrants of either gender. On the contrary: let's entice talent to immigrate and contribute to diverse areas, especially where the local talent is not enough. This will pay quicker and richer dividends than spectacularly dumping $46 billion on a fence sealing the border with Mexico.