The Importance of Immigration Reform

08/15/2013 04:49 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

No agenda is more important right now than immigration reform.

We need the hustle, the drive, the passion that immigrants bring to this country. I know, because I was one.

The recent downturn notwithstanding, it feels to me like we're all generally operating with less drive. We're not as energized, or as passionate as we could be. We're not hustling, or moving fast enough. Of course that is not true across the board, but it feels like the broader backdrop of our slow economic recovery.

I came here from Russia with my parents when I was six. We came because we're Jewish. It wasn't a religious thing, it was just that in Russia at that time, you were either Jewish or Russian, and it was not a good thing to be Jewish if you wanted to progress socially or economically.

We also came because it was the land of opportunity, and my parents wanted to give that opportunity to me. It was just the three of us--we didn't have any family here. Under today's immigration laws, most of the available visas go to people with family already here, so it's unlikely we could have come.

We had $1,000 when we got to JFK. None of us spoke English. We lived in Sheepshead Bay, in a neighborhood of immigrants.

When you don't have anything, you're always trying to think about how to get something, and we were. In America that's through capitalism, and so the opportunity discussed always was, how does the system work? What are the ways to get more than you would in a communist country where unless you are connected, most everyone gets the same thing no matter what they do?

I figured it out when I was 14. I had a paper route, delivering Newsday on my bike. With some of the money I earned, I bought baseball cards, the ones that came inside bubble gum packs. I didn't understand what this game was, but kids around the neighborhood would collect these things, and I like collecting things so I collected them too.

We would trade and sell cards amongst ourselves, and we also went to collector shows. At the shows I noticed all of these guys selling cards were a lot older, and moving slow. You could buy a card from them for $10, but if you sold it back they would give you $5 and then sell it again for $10. There was plenty of margin, but no hustle.

I called up a friend of mine, and I said, let's start doing this ourselves. We pooled our collections, which totaled close to 100,000 cards. I called up and found out what you had to do legally to have a table at one of these things, which is get a tax ID number, and we were in business.

We sold a lot at that first show because we were willing to sell for less than everybody else. Our margins were lower, but our volume more than made up for the margin hit. We probably made about $300 in profit each that day.

It's not rocket science. There are no "top three" secrets to building a business. It's obvious: Take your core competencies. What are you good at? Be real with yourself and with the people around you, and find a way to create value that someone is willing to pay for. Then, you work hard at your goal. It's known the world over that in America, if you do those things, you can succeed. A 14-year old can figure this out.

In selling baseball cards our core competencies were knowing what people wanted, hustle and ingenuity. We followed the game, and would get to the shows at 7:00 a.m., before they opened, and walk the tables and buy up the all the cards of the players that had done exceptionally well that week, or the hot new rookies that were coming up. And then the show would open and guess what? We're the only ones at the show that had the hot cards, and by the way our price isn't $10, it's $15, and we're getting it. You create value that someone is willing to pay for. It's obvious.

One day, at a particularly slow show at the Pickwick Motor Lodge in Plainview, we were sitting next to this dealer, an older guy, who was not making any money. He's whining and talking about getting out of the business. We looked his inventory over and offered him $2,000 for all of it.

Now, we didn't have $2,000. I called my mom from a payphone at this motor lodge and I said, you've got to come here and give me a check for $2,000. She did, no questions asked. It was a lot of money for us back then, and I still remember that blue check from Marine Midland Bank.

We bought all the guy's inventory except for one Dwight Gooden rookie card he wanted to keep for himself, and we went home and refactored his inventory with our inventory to create sets--rookie card sets of key players from all three card companies, Fleer, Topps and Donruss. Instead of getting $8 selling rookie cards individually, we would put a set of three in a sleeve and charge $29. People were willing to pay a premium because we did the legwork for them.

We paid my parents back in about two and half months. Then we started reinvesting in assembling complete season sets. That's the most popular thing you can do annually as a baseball card collector -- have the full set of the season's players from each major card producer.

Our dads would take turns driving us around all day so we could buy up all the bubble gum packages from every little bodega in the neighborhood. We bought whatever they had on display and all the back room stock too. We would stay up all night chewing gum and assembling sets, cards spread out all over the living room floor, our fingers raw and cut from opening packages and handling cards. By the time I was 16, my partner and I were making about $1,500 for a week's worth of hustle, and delighting a lot of card collectors in the process.

That's my immigrant story. It's just one among hundreds of thousands of immigrant stories woven together over centuries to make up the very fabric of this country. Some would say that I've "made it" as an immigrant, going from teenage baseball card dealer to Harvard Business School to the the C-suite at a company that's growing 100% year over year, and that I'm executing just fine. But I know I have never been more energized and engaged than when I was a 14-year old immigrant kid figuring out the system.

If there are any lessons to be learned, it is that there is no substitute for what immigrants bring to this country. If we are going to remain competitive in the global economy, we need to stop politicking around and figure out a way to bring in a steady stream of as many legal immigrants as we can possibly handle. That's what the country, the economy, is built on. It's obvious.