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Richard Herman Headshot
Robert L. Smith Headshot

Time to Think Like an Immigrant

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Carmen Castillo once fit the popular image of the daring entrepreneur.

She arrived from Spain young, single and ambitious. Knowing nothing about computers, Castillo launched her high-tech consulting agency from a one-bedroom apartment, with little more than a phone book and chutzpah.

Her humble start-up, Superior Design International, grew into a global consulting agency with more than $200 million in annual revenues.

While young dreamers like Castillo helped to launch the New Economy, a new generation is taking the driver's seat. Today's entrepreneurs are more likely to bring maturity and experience to a start-up, twinning hard-earned skills with bravado.

Research by Vivek Wadhwa, one of the leading chroniclers of the New Economy, found that the majority of entrepreneurs today are middle-class, middle-aged and married. It's the mini-van set who are taking career leaps and chasing dreams, especially in high-growth industries.

Wadhwa's research team surveyed 549 company founders in a broad range of industries and found that they launched their companies at an average age of 40. Most came to entrepreneurship from the middle to lower middle class, married (70 percent), and with children (60 percent).

Nearly half had worked for a company for at least 10 years, but sometimes more than 20, before striking out on their own.

The findings "contradict some prevailing stereotypes," the researchers concluded. "Entrepreneurs typically are well-educated and experienced...they largely come from the existing workforce and not from college."

This new generation of entrepreneurs listed a keen idea and a desire to get rich among their leading motivations. No doubt the Great Recession will encourage others to follow their path.

Of the 8 million-plus jobs lost to the recession -- in fields like manufacturing, real estate and financial services -- many are not coming back, economists warn. Suddenly, joining the likes of Bill Gates or Sergey Brin takes on a new allure. There may never have been a more tempting time to plunge into America's start-up culture.

All the more important, then, to look before you leap. Entrepreneurship is fraught with anxiety and challenges, many of them unforeseen. Add the extra burden of family responsibilities, and the new entrepreneurs face new pressures.

Where can they look for guidance, for an example to follow? How can they succeed at a quest that requires not only the right idea but the right attitude?

They can start by studying the New Economy pioneers. They can start by thinking like an immigrant.

In researching our book, "Immigrant, Inc.," we met dozens of people who shaped a dream into a business success, despite having to cross a cultural gulf to do it. They were part of the wave of high skill immigrants who fell into the New Economy like seeds into the good earth.

As Wadhawa and others have documented, immigrant founders were behind more than half the high technology companies to rise in Silicon Valley and about a quarter of the high-tech companies nationwide.

In learning their stories, we found that the high-achievers typically parlayed immigrant skills into entrepreneurship skills. To succeed in business, they tapped personality traits that propelled them to immigrate, starting with dreaming big.

"First of all, you believe in the American dream thing," said Ric Fulop, one of the founders of Boston battery-maker A123 Systems. "You get here and you say, 'OK, I have to make some happen."

Immigrant entrepreneurs know well the kinds of pressure that middle-aged entrepreneurs will face. Castillo held an expiring visitor's visa when she launched her company in the early 1990s. To obtain an immigrant visa, she needed a job. Her start-up had to succeed. She became a highly-motivated, one-woman sales force.

"The time was crushing for me," she explained. "I wanted to stay in America."

She and others say they were often aided by an advantage unique to outsiders. Looking at the landscape with fresh eyes, they could spy opportunity the natives missed.

To grow Transtar Industries into the largest transmission parts supplier in the world, Monte Ahuja introduced just-in-time delivery to neighborhood repair shops. Before him, "Everyone just kept doing things the same old way, waiting four days for parts."

Immigrants also benefit from cultural cohesion, what an experienced professional might call a contacts list. They use family to staff the business. Cultural kin become mentors, customers and suppliers.

And they reach out to strangers. Time and again, the immigrant entrepreneurs expressed surprise at how often people helped them to keep going with an encouraging word, a key contact--until success became almost inevitable.

But beware. Now closer to the age of a typical entrepreneur, Castillo has not escaped the pace she set at 21.

"When you run your own business, it's 24 hours a day, non stop," she said. "At the top of Mt. Ranier, I'm thinking of my business. Once you start, there's no way out."

Herman and Smith are co-authors of "Immigrant, Inc.: Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs are Driving the New Economy," published by John Wiley & Sons, 2009.