JobMakers Podcast

Production of Pioneer Institute + The Immigrant Learning Center

JobMakers is a podcast collaboration between The Immigrant Learning Center and the Pioneer Institute. In each episode, Director of the Public Education Institute Denzil Mohammed interviews an immigrant entrepreneur about their story, their business and their contributions to their community. The project highlights the unique resilience and journeys of foreign-born entrepreneurs. Explore the story of a refugee child who escaped pirates and grew up to found a law firm, a woman of color who opened a hedge fund in her dorm room and much more.

To learn more about immigrant entrepreneurship, explore our page of resources, our Immigrant Entrepreneur Hall of Fame or our video interviews with immigrant entrepreneurs.


Episode 81: Lindsay Milliken

JobMakers Graphic - Lindsay Milliken: Navigating Labor ShortagesLindsay Milliken addresses the vital role immigrants play in the workforce in the face of an unprecedented combination of low unemployment and high job openings, particularly in sectors like hospitality, healthcare and education.

Denzil, Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers. [music]

Denzil Mohammed: There are about a million international students at U.S. colleges and universities at this very moment, many of whom would love to use the skills and knowledge they gain at our schools in jobs available here in this country. At the same time, there are way more job openings than there are candidates with unemployment at a record low, but a dire need for more talent, more people. What are we missing here? For Lindsay Milliken, immigration fellow at the Institute for Progress, a Washington, D.C. based, nonpartisan think tank that researches industrial and scientific progress, there is a clear way to bridge this gap. It’s called Schedule A out of the Department of Labor, a list of in-demand occupations where employers can more easily and quickly hire immigrant professionals. But not only is it not being used to ease today’s scarcity, it also hasn’t been updated in more than 30 years. Lindsay believes that with immigration such a contentious issue, the inaction around Schedule A is all but predictable. But this does not serve America’s interests as you’ll learn in today’s episode of JobMakers. [music]

Denzil Mohammed: Lindsey Milliken, immigration fellow at the Institute for Progress in Washington, D.C., welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Lindsay Milliken: Great. Thank you so much for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: So we often talk to entrepreneurs on this podcast, but the economic integration of immigrants is a huge topic and it affects every corner of this country. And the state of the economy and employment is very interesting in the U.S. right now. What exactly is the state of employment and jobs in the U.S. today and have we seen anything like this before?

Lindsay Milliken: It’s a really great question and we’re at a really unique point in history right now as we’re transitioning away from the COVID-19 pandemic, the height of lockdown. And I think that a lot of people are feeling a lot of whiplash from that and the economy certainly is. In April 2020, for example, the unemployment rate was actually almost 15 percent, which is the highest it’s been in 75 years. So that is crazy. And now in threeish years, we have rebounded and our employment rate is holding very steady at 3.8 percent. And the last time that we saw an employment rate low like that was in 2000. And then before that, it was 1969. It’s not common to be in such a strong market for labor in this country. And in addition to the unemployment rate, we’re also seeing record high job openings. Since the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Department of Labor started their job openings and labor turnover survey in 2002, the greatest number of job openings was in November 2018, which was 7.6 million. If you look at it today, we are at 9.6 million job openings, so record low unemployment and record high job openings.

Denzil Mohammed: What are some of the occupations or industries where you, where the forecast is most dire, where the job openings are projected to just increase and we don’t have the people to fill those jobs?

Lindsay Milliken: The high level national even industry focused data doesn’t really capture what people are feeling in the trenches, so to speak. But based on the information that we do have from the data and also from employers, the biggest hits have been in hospitality. There’s been a huge demand in hospitality workers recently, and there’s also significant need in healthcare. Particularly related to elder care and in education, which we’ve heard a lot about recently as being a teacher in this country can be quite challenging. One industry that we think is probably going to see more demand in the future is probably going to be manufacturing. There’s been a lot of effort at the Biden administration level to jumpstart manufacturing in this country, particularly in semiconductor manufacturing. So this is something we think is going to be a growing area of focus in the next few years.

Denzil Mohammed: I live in Massachusetts and during the summer the Cape doesn’t have enough workers to support the tourism industry. So it’s a very valid point you’re making there and, of course, healthcare, eldercare, as you said, is hugely important and it’s only going to become a larger and larger industry as the Boomers age into retirement and beyond. We’re talking about this as an American issue, but it’s also an immigration issue. How do immigrants fit into this situation, or how do they not fit into this situation?

Lindsay Milliken: Immigrants play a really important role in our economy, and there’s a growing focus on their role as the U.S. is grappling with this very high level of labor demand.Just to take healthcare as an example again, in 2021 there was a survey conducted and they found that 18 percent of healthcare workers were immigrants. Twenty-six percent of physicians and surgeons were actually born in a foreign country. And when you think about home health aides for our aging population, almost 40 percent of those are foreign born. So this is in even just looking at healthcare a massive role for immigrants in this country. And not only, we want to think also about not just the current workers that we have, but the pipeline. We want to think about our international students because that is a very valuable font of talent that the U.S. has that we are not taking advantage of as well as we could. It’s very challenging to transition from being an international student to being a worker here in this country. And so there’s a lot of people who are being educated here, but then going home. For example, the Department of. Education found that international students earn 40 percent of the STEM master’s degrees and 43 percent of the STEM PhDs. And a significant portion of these people want to stay and work and build their career here, but it’s quite challenging for them to stay here.

Denzil Mohammed: So you’ve written. co-authored, an op-ed with Josh Smith from the Center of Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, where you spoke about one tiny thing that most people don’t know about that could be incredibly useful in filling these jobs, and it’s not going to be complicated to do it. It’s called Schedule A. What is it and how is it supposed to be used?

Lindsay Milliken: Schedule A is a regulation that the Department of Labor oversees. And to better understand how it is placed within the immigration system, I want to just back up slightly and talk a little bit about how DOL interacts with the immigration system in general. So there are three agencies that deal with the immigration system here in the United States. It’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, Department of State, and those two are the ones that we think about the most. But when it comes to employment based immigration, the Department of Labor actually plays a very important role on the employer side of the immigration system. So there are two elements that DOL oversees: They’re called the PERM process and the prevailing wage process. So PERM stands for prevailing permanent labor certification and this is essentially a way that the Department of Labor determines whether hiring a foreign worker is going to negatively impact American workers who are already here. When an employer wants to hire a foreign worker, they have to prove to the Department of Labor that they can’t hire an American to do this job. They’ve tried to hire, but they can’t find one. And prevailing wage essentially is the employer proving that they can pay the immigrant the wage that is appropriate for the job, and also matches the wage for that particular geographic area. Schedule A itself deals with the PERM process. And this process is only for green cards, it doesn’t increase the number of green cards per year, but it essentially says We, the Department of Labor, have looked at the data and have found that there are some occupations that have such a high demand for labor that you employers don’t have to prove that you can’t hire an American because we are already acknowledging that there aren’t enough workers in these areas. So this Schedule A list is a list of those occupations. It originated in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and it used to consider occupations like engineers, nuclear scientists, physicists, people with advanced degrees. This was like cutting edge talent that we wanted to bring to the U.S. But currently the list hasn’t been updated in 30 years and only contains nurses and physical therapists right now.

Denzil Mohammed: Now, and as you said, it’s not an increase in the number of green cards, it’s an increase in the expediting of that process, right?

Lindsay Milliken: Yes, that’s correct. So the PERM process takes about a year and several thousands of dollars of work by the business itself. So imagine you meet a person that you want to hire, but then you actually have to wait a year and a half to actually get them working in your office. This is something that helps streamline that process a little bit and also reduces administrative burden on the Department of Labor side because then the people at the agency don’t have to go through a bunch of paperwork for a job where everyone acknowledges there are not enough Americans to do it.

Denzil Mohammed: So how do you suggest we use Schedule A in this current economy?

Lindsay Milliken: It’s a great question. What we are working on at IFP is we want the Department of Labor to update this and make sure that they put in a process that’s data-driven and also ensures that the list is updated regularly from now on.

Denzil Mohammed: And you make it clear that this is, these are situations where they just aren’t enough American workers. But does the whole concept of bringing in foreign trained talent put American workers at any sort of disadvantage?

Lindsay Milliken: It’s a great question and this is really important and at IFP we care a lot about this, this question itself, which is why right now we’re working on a research publication to develop a data-driven approach that the Department of Labor could use to update Schedule A while not negatively impacting Americans who are already here and also immigrants who have come here previously who are working here now. Individuals working in occupations eligible for Schedule A still have to meet the requirements for their green card, and the employer still has to prove that they are paying the person a prevailing wage, the appropriate wage for that job that matches the wage of other people employed in that job. It’s still a very rigorous process and it still takes quite a long time. They’re still screening at USCIS, the Department of State, and the Department of Labor. So this is something that we’re really taking very seriously. And the list itself, by its own nature, is only supposed to include occupations that do not negatively impact U.S. workers. And this is something that’s very important to us because as occupations go on to the list, we think that they also should come off when there is a lower demand. This is something that should be a living list of occupations and having, while it is small right now, having only two occupations on the list for 30 years is not accurately representing the demand that we’re experiencing now, and we don’t want this to be updated and then never updated again. We want to make sure that we’re responsive to the needs of the economy and also make sure that we’re not harming the economic standing of workers who are already here.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m thinking of the responsiveness of certain other countries when it comes to job opportunities and immigration. I think of Canada, who, with their point system, are able to do in a sense, do exactly what Schedule A would do, which is be responsive to the economy and fill in the gaps when those gaps arise. Now, particularly in the op-ed that you wrote, you present an argument for both sides of the immigration divide. It’s very easy to have to come up with anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-immigrant arguments when you think of the economy as a very simplistic thing, which of course it is not. It is incredibly complex. How would you explain this to someone who perhaps has anti-immigrant views, may be a bit ambivalent. And I’m thinking of more doctors having access to more people. Everyone benefits from that. How does the wider community benefit from more foreign trade workers participating in our economy when needed?

Lindsay Milliken: This is a very important question to ask, and it’s something that I think about a lot coming from a rather blue collar area of New York State, is that when we’re talking about immigration, we really need to, and a lot of other policy areas, but for immigration in particular, we have to really meet people where they are and acknowledge the fact that there is a lot of uncertainty today in the world and that uncertainty just seems to increase. And there are a lot of people who are concerned about their future and the future of their children. As we acknowledge that we need to emphasize the fact that, as you say, the economy is very complicated, it’s not a static system and it’s not a zero sum situation. The people who come here also increase demand, so they have to buy the same types of things that we buy. They go to the dentist, they get their hair cut, they buy cars, go to restaurants. So they’re not only doing a job here and fulfilling demand for a worker, but they’re also creating more demand so businesses can be growing with the addition of immigrants to our communities. They create more jobs. So that’s … and immigrants themselves could also be starting their own businesses. Research shows that immigrants are 80 percent more likely to start their own businesses than Americans, and almost 44 percent of the 2022 Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants. This is a significant number of immigrants who are not only fulfilling demand for workers, but they’re also generating their own demand. And, as I said before, they’re people who are incredibly talented and who have passed numerous screening and background checks done by the agencies. So this is something that’s expensive and time consuming. And they came here because they really identify with our values and they want to contribute to the economy and build lives for themselves and for their community.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s a wonderful illustration of who an immigrant is. It’s someone who wants to create a better life. It’s someone who is not coming here as a blank slate, they’re coming with talents and skills already, and as you describe Schedule A and the different departments that are involved, we can see that it’s basically a foolproof process. There are checks and balances, there are screenings, and they take the livelihood of the American worker very seriously. This is not something that the government takes flippantly, and we’ve been doing this a long time. We have processes and systems in place, and as you so wonderfully demonstrate, the wider community benefits from this increased economic output and the fact that immigrants are inherently entrepreneurial. So they’re creating jobs, they’re providing goods and services that we need. They are innovating and creating these incredible Fortune 500 companies. So in this op-ed that you co-wrote that I’ve been referencing, which is in the Salt Lake Tribune, you cite the example of Utah and the way that the state integrates its foreign trained workers. Do you want to just flesh out this example? What is Utah doing that is benefiting Utah when it comes to immigrants?

Lindsay Milliken: I think Utah is a great case study for this because after we spend so much effort and money to get an immigrant here to the country, it’s a big culture shock still for this person. I mean they’ve moved to a completely different place. The culture is completely different and Utah in particular is spending a lot of effort to help them assimilate, to help them get jump-started into their job quickly, and one example of this is that professional licensing is a big challenge for people who have very important skills who are coming here, like doctors for example. To continue the healthcare example is that these people are trained often extensively in their own home countries, but those licenses don’t transfer to the United States. To get a U.S. license a lot of times you have to do additional training. It can be very expensive taking the licensing exams, can be very expensive for doctors. You have to go to medical school all over again. And in Utah this year, Governor Cox signed a bill that allows the state agencies to issue professional licenses to foreign professionals who can prove that they have the relevant skills without having to go through all this extensive training. Another example of things that Utah is doing to help immigrants settle into their new communities is that Utah actually is one of the only, one of the few states in the U.S. that has an office dedicated to immigration and the integration of new Americans into the workforce. So these types, this office does a myriad of services such as navigating healthcare, the housing, making sure that you can find a place to live; education for your kids; pursuing citizenship and the whole process, that is, other challenges that come up when you settle in a new country. This is something they’re very hands on with. And it’s kind of shocking to me, but there are actually fewer than 20 of these offices in the whole country. So there are not, there is no office of new Americans in every single state. But there is some momentum this year, I think, to try to establish offices that can help with integration at the congressional level. In July of this year [2023] actually, Senator Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Meng of New York reintroduced bills to create a national Office of New Americans situated at the White House level to harmonize this type of support across the country. And this is something that I think is a very valuable idea because, as I said before, bringing someone here from a new country is a big change and we want to make sure that they can really feel comfortable, hit the ground running and stay here for the long term.

Denzil Mohammed: And I want to emphasize that immigration has always been contentious, but before it became this contentious Utah in 2002 signed in a bill that gave undocumented immigrants in-state tuition. And we can draw a lot of contradictions with Texas but Texas did the same thing in 2001. So states know how to integrate their immigrants in order to get the best out of them and benefit from them. And there are many things that states can do, but also at the federal level regarding Schedule A. Lindsey, if we want to step back and take a broader view of the role of immigrants in American society and economy, has it been a net benefit to the U.S.? And how can we see it shaping our future going forward.

Lindsay Milliken: It’s a great question. I think immigrants play such an important role in our society and in our economy. And other countries are recognizing this, that immigrants are playing major roles in their economies as well and are making adjustments actively as we speak to their own immigration systems to attract new workers. We’ve always been a powerhouse of research, economic and cultural development, thanks to these immigrants that we’ve attracted. A recent example is Katalin Karico from Hungary, who, she just won the Nobel Prize for her research on mRNA vaccines. Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, was Russian. Andrew Carnegie, the magnate from the early 20th century, was Scottish and for people who are really interested in fashion, Oscar de la Renta, who is very popular with the First Ladies, is from the Dominican Republic. And these are just economic examples. Cultural examples, there are so many people who’ve played such a huge role. Alex Trebek, big favorite of mine, was Canadian. Jackie Chan is from China, and Audrey Hepburn is Belgian. And Arnold Schwarzenegger was from Austria. I mean, there’s so many examples of people playing huge roles in U.S. development and just cultural advancement that are coming from other countries. And I think the important part about this is that these people were the successful ones. These ones were the lucky people who actually made it through our immigration system. And I mean a lot of people talk about how broken the immigration system is today and how impossible it is to fix. So just imagine if we actually were able to make changes to our immigration system, what sorts of really interesting, innovative people we could attract here. And, I want to hammer this point really home, that the people that we know and the immigrants that are our neighbors and our friends, were the lucky ones. There are so many people who don’t have the means or don’t know how to navigate our immigration system. Many people need to hire a lawyer to navigate our immigration system, and that’s so expensive. So we’re really missing out a lot on this really interesting group of people, this really talented group of people that don’t have the means to apply or are not sure where to start or have been scared off by how the system is designed. And so we need to really think critically about how we can make changes even when it seems like the political situation is not conducive to immigration changes, particularly at the legislative level. And I think Schedule A is like one of these concrete improvements that we can work on now that is at the executive level, it’s something Department of Labor could do tomorrow and just hasn’t worked on in decades. This is something that is concrete and could improve the lives of a bunch of people trying to come here tomorrow. So the immigration system is full of different solutions like this. And that’s something that IFP, we’re really working on very hard, is trying to come up with these concrete solutions so that we can get more innovative people to come here that wouldn’t have otherwise.

Denzil Mohammed: The op-ed is called, “The U.S. Government Can Help Solve Labor Shortages Today. Why Won’t It?” It’s in the Salt Lake Tribune. Lindsey Milliken, immigration fellow at the Institute for Progress in Washington, D.C., thank you for joining us on the JobMakers Podcast.

Lindsay Milliken: Thank you so much.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, the think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for today’s deep dive into the many ways high skilled immigrants are needed to keep the U.S. on the leading edge of innovation. If you know an outstanding immigrant we should talk to email Denzil, that’s [email protected]. I’m Denzil Mohammad. See you next time for another episode of JobMakers. [music]

Episode 80: Natalia Frois

Natalia Frois is an immigrant from Brazil who created the Latino Business Network on Cape Cod. She shares how and why she built a network to help immigrant and Latino entrepreneurs thrive in their new country.

Episode 79: Brad Brown

JobMakers podcast graphic: Brad Brown: Immigration and Community ImpactBrad Brown discusses his arrival in the U.S., the founding and growth of Blue Frog Bakery, community engagement and the broader impact of immigration in local neighborhoods and beyond.

Episode 78: Adam Ozimek

JobMakers podcast graphic: Adam Ozimek: Immigration policy in innovation policyAs chief economist at the bipartisan public policy organization Economic Innovation Group, Adam Ozimek has conducted research to prove the benefits of high-skilled immigrants. He believes that people across the political spectrum should recognize the immense benefits these foreign-born Americans bring to the U.S. Tune in to learn why he thinks immigration policy is also innovation policy.

Episode 77: Sebastian Corbat

JobMakers podcast graphic: Sebastian Corbat, Del Sure Empanadas: Healthy foods from South AmericaA health crisis prompted Argentinian American Sebastian Corbat’s journey to the U.S. to receive treatment. It also sparked a business idea he launched once he was better. Corbat founded Del Sur Empanadas to help make healthy, organic food accessible to everyone. Listen to learn how the food of his mother’s kitchen inspired his approach to promoting wellness.

Episode 76: Benjamin F. Jones

JobMakers podcast graphic: Benjamin F. Jones shows how immigrants are a boon for the U.S.Dr. Benjamin F. Jones’ research uses data to demonstrate the tremendous benefits that immigrant entrepreneurs bring to the U.S. As a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy, he’s an expert in how immigrant founders create jobs for all Americans. Listen to learn why he believes immigrants innovate at high rates.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers! Immigrants are job makers. It’s the premise of this podcast. We get the stories of immigrants from everywhere from Burundi to France, hear their journeys and recognize their impact. But does this bear out in the data? Do the numbers show that immigrant business owners from high tech to main streets really grow the economy for everyone? But Professor Benjamin. F Jones, former economic adviser in the U.S Treasury and the White House and now professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, not only do the data show that immigrants are far more likely to start a business in the U.S, they’re innovating at a higher rate, and we are all benefiting from it. His research shows how greatly determined immigrants are a boon for the U.S. Whether they’re opening local restaurants or starting revolutionary multinationals, immigrants of all kinds capitalize on entrepreneurial ecosystem and spirit in the U.S and have real impact. Not only is this the case today, but according to him looking at the data, he shows how immigrants have been doing this for as long as they’ve been coming here as you’ll learn in this week’s episode of JobMakers. Benjamin Jones, Gund family professor of entrepreneurship and professor of strategy at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast! How are you?

Benjamin Jones: Very well, my pleasure to join Denzil.

Denzil Mohammed: So, tell us, what is the real narrative when it comes to the U.S economy, jobs and immigration? Are immigrants, as the name of this podcast suggests, job makers?

Benjamin Jones: It turns out. Yeah, absolutely. The usual narrative is that immigrants come to your country, people come to your community, and they take jobs and that is a very common view, and it’s actually quite reasonable view when you first think about it, because of course, people do come to your community and they do find work. So where do those jobs come from! But if you dig a little deeper, you realize that when immigrants come to your community, they may not just take jobs; they might also create jobs. They might be job makers and one way they can do that is simply because when someone, called an immigrant or no, but when new people come to your community, they also demand more services. They need places to live, they need food. And so, there’s going to be an increase in demand for construction workers and plumbers. And there’s going to be an increase in demand for restaurant workers and grocery store clerks and medical professionals, all these things. But much more directly, and perhaps much more importantly, immigrants also create jobs directly because they create companies, and these companies create lots of new jobs.

Denzil Mohammed: So simplistically, you just said it. People coming into a community. You would think that the addition of a person means a job is taken away. So simplistically, the average Joe, might think that adding immigrants to a society and economy means the labor pool worsens, but the economy is complex. Explain to us as simply as you can how immigrants affect job opportunities and wages for the U.S. born from your research?

Benjamin Jones: Right. So, the traditional narrative is acting as if immigrants only do one thing, they are only new workers, that’s all they do. They come in and compete for existing jobs, and people often have this idea that there’s a fixed number of jobs. Where do jobs come from? There’s just a fixed number of jobs, and if you add more people into that labor market, it’s just going to make it harder on everyone as workers because they’re all competing for this limited number of jobs. But when you think about it and you say the economy is complex, it’s complex in a very natural and good way, which is that there isn’t a fixed number of jobs. Where do jobs come from? Well, they come from people starting companies and not just taking jobs but opening vacancies and employing people and they come … why do we have jobs anyway, well, because people want stuff. They come from the fact we need things. So, I need to see a dentist so we have dentists. I need a lawyer. I go to a restaurant, etc., etc., etc. So, when you scale up the population in a place, you don’t just create unemployment. You scale all the population in a place, you just sort of more or less have it like it was before but with more people. One way to think about this is if you were in Canada, which has around 1/10 the population of the U.S., you might say they look south of the border, and they say, oh my gosh! How do they employ all those people! Well, because the number of jobs will naturally scale with the population. Because we’re all going to demand more services, so we need more plumbers and moreover people are going to start companies. And in fact, when you start thinking about it, adding the population in or out to a place, it’s really going to just scale it up or down. What gets really interesting is when you think about job creation. Who’s creating the jobs? Who are the entrepreneurs? And are these good jobs? And where are good jobs coming from?

Denzil Mohammed: Who is creating these jobs? We like to say on this podcast that the act of migrating is itself an entrepreneurial act. You leave everything you know behind; you take a risk; you hope for the best journey into the unknown, and as a result they tend to be inherently entrepreneurial. This is what we’re saying based on what we know on this podcast. Is that reflected in the data?

Benjamin Jones: It’s absolutely reflected in the data in the sense that immigrants to the United States are absolutely, exceptionally entrepreneurial and to put it in simple terms, an immigrant to the United States is 80 percent more likely to start a business than a native-born American. They’re just very much more entrepreneurial on average than the average person born in the U.S., and as you’re pointing out, a very natural explanation for this is because who are immigrants? Well, they’re people who wherever they were decided to take the bold, risky, dramatic action that changed their live, they think for the better like, crossing an ocean, walking across the desert, coming up through Panama over the Darién Gap, or whatever else they had to do, these are people who work hard, are looking for a better life, and they’re bold. That’s exactly the kind of traits you would think describe entrepreneurs. People who start new businesses. They try the bold thing, looking for a better way of doing things, a better life for themselves, and that’s only one interpretation of why immigrants are more entrepreneurial. But it’s very natural one. We’re selecting our entrepreneurial oriented people. And sure, enough than they get here, they’re far more entrepreneurial than the average person who was born in the United States.

Denzil Mohammed: You use the language there that the immigrant inclusion field tries to avoid. This crossing a desert, the crossing into Panama and into the forest. But that sounds threatening, it sounds bad, it sounds evil, but the language that you’re using to ascribe to these people is much different. Could you just talk about that a little bit?

Benjamin Jones: Well, I think what we’re seeing are people who have enormous fortitude, that they’re dreamers, they’re gritty, they’re tough. I mean, these are the kind of people who are going to drive your economy. If I were hiring somebody, I’d want someone who’s committed, tough, willing to try new things. These are the kind of activities, I mean, so many Americans come from the history of immigration, right? And the American identity is very much based in looking for liberty and looking for better opportunity and economic opportunity as well as political opportunity or political freedom. I think, the narrative even within the U.S. of going west in American history is very much about going to the frontier in early American history and celebrating this kind of entrepreneurial spirit and this independence and this ability to make your own fate, and these are people who I think are the kinds of people who are going to do great things. And so, it’s perhaps not surprising that they start so many companies. If you look at immigrants in America, it’s not just that they start all these companies and many of these companies are incredibly successful companies. But they are also very innovative. If you look at immigrant entrepreneurs, their companies are much more likely, for example, to have a patent. Immigrants are much more likely to be pushing the frontiers of technology and science in the United States and those kind of benefits in addition to the job creation, they have this kind of search for novelty, this kind of boldness, this newness, that of course, opens new doors for so many, not just for themselves. I mean, the beauty of someone who is that risk taker, innovator, entrepreneur is that they’re in the job market, they’re creating jobs for other people, and they’re bringing new ideas into the environment, into the economy and they’re propelling the overall standard of living in the economy in a meaningful way.

Denzil Mohammed: You know one of the things I was getting at with that question is for the people in the U.S who say, well, my ancestors did it this way or whatever. Same qualities that you just ascribed to the people coming to the U.S. today, whether it’s by land or sea, by visa or not, are the same kind of qualities that drove the ancestors of many people who live in the U.S to come to the U.S, where this was from Sicily or from Ireland or from Germany, from Poland, people who just had nothing to lose and had just this determination to come here. So, the qualities are just extremely similar, just maybe the countries of origin might be a little bit different and this sort of brings you to my next question. Because we’re talking about entrepreneurship as it is happening in the U.S. today, but this is not a new phenomenon. The qualities that brought immigrants here century ago or two centuries ago led them to found businesses way back then. So, Corsair, Budweiser, TJ Maxx, Nordstrom, Levi’s jeans, all the way up to PayPal and eBay today. This has always been the case with the U.S., is that correct?

Benjamin Jones: Well, I can tell you what we know in the data so, first historically one way to look at that is, we can look at the Fortune 500 companies now, some of them of course are relatively new like at Google, but many of them of course have older roots like some of those you mentioned and, if you look at who founded the Fortune 500 companies, you see that they’re, just in the U.S., they’re disproportionately, the  founders are disproportionately immigrant. So, you do see that same pattern if you look using kind of representative surveys of businesses in the U.S. back to the 1970s or so, you also see that immigrants are overrepresented as founders, and then some of the facts that I’ve already been alluding to in our conversation are coming from a study of every single business in the United States where we have government data tracking every establishment in United States, that was over a decade from around 2007 to 2017. So, we can say that it is true historically they think that we can measure it with things like the Fortune 500. It’s true kind of in the late 20th century, and it’s true today. So, it does seem to be a very general pattern. And I think you speculate exactly why I think again, goes to the point that what one natural explanation is that we’re just selecting on people coming into this country who are looking for a new and better way of doing things in their own lives. That’s why they came and so not surprisingly they have these entrepreneurial traits.

Denzil Mohammed: So, we’re talking about Fortune 500 companies, and I mentioned that several of them, but immigrants found all sorts of businesses across the spectrum, and you sort of mentioned that earlier. They need services, they go to restaurants, but they also found some of these services and nail salons, grocery stores, transportation companies, hospitality, they open hotels. Can you just sort of describe the spectrum of businesses that you found that immigrants start?

Benjamin Jones: Yes, it’s a great question. It’s actually a really important question because when I talk about the job creation effects of immigrants as entrepreneurs, and I say that immigrants are 80 percent more likely to start businesses than native-born Americans. They still might not start that many jobs if like most immigrant businesses were very small. They didn’t really have that many employees. So, it actually really depends on what the distribution of businesses are to understand the overall employment effects of immigrants in creating jobs in the U.S. economy.  So, if you look at it based on size, absolutely there’s lots of immigrants who start restaurants and small single establishment companies and retail or whatever else. But as you look at any employment size, so whether it’s one employee, 10 employees, 100, a thousand, 10s of thousands of employees, you see that immigrants are overrepresented in every single size. So basically, they’re more entrepreneurial in general and they produce kind of more forms of all sizes. So that’s why in the end, it’s because they’re just kind of a systematic upward shift in entrepreneur propensity and you get the Googles or you get Tesla, kind of in top end employers. And then you get lots and lots of small businesses and medium0sized businesses. You get to kind of a little bit of everything and that ultimately adds up into an enormous number of jobs that they create through these businesses and that’s how actually at the end, remarkably, the number of jobs created in businesses founded by immigrants, that number of jobs is greater than the number of immigrants in the U.S economy. So, in a sense that’s on net. They do take jobs and they also create jobs, but on net immigrants create more jobs than they take on net. In short, immigrants create jobs.

Denzil Mohammed: You mentioned earlier that immigrant companies are more likely to have patents, and so I want to take it to something that you said a few years ago. At the start of the pandemic, you argued that like in the early 1940s, when innovators were marshalled to create inventions, really from the atomic bomb to penicillin. And that quote, ‘’The country again needs this sort of bold innovation policy in order to fight the coronavirus,’’ endquote. Needless to say, two companies who have immigrant founders, Pfizer and Moderna, were on the forefront of creating the first vaccines. So, in your view, based on your research, what role do immigrants play in innovation generally, but especially in times of crises?

Benjamin Jones: Well, in my research but also a number of other people’s research, it’s well known that immigrants are more likely to be in STEM jobs and careers. So if you look at PhD’s or undergraduate degrees or master’s degrees in the U.S., you see a lot of immigrants who are migrating towards engineering and computer science and biomedicine and these things.

Denzil Mohammed: And just immigrants actually sustaining, international students are actually sustaining many STEM programs across the U.S., you know?

Benjamin Jones: That’s right, and that’s an interesting question as to why, you know, of course there are many people born in the U.S who also go into those careers and do incredibly great work, just like there are many people in the U.S. to start great companies, but it is interesting that for whatever reason, as a proportion of the respective population size, the U.S.-born people are less likely to gravitate to those more technical, scientific subjects, and that immigrants are more likely to do that, but for whatever reason, that’s true. We end up with a large part of our technical, innovative scientific workforce being not in the United States, not being born in the United States, but yet of course, contributing to this growth engine and to an economist, what actually drives, improved health generally, obviously the COVID vaccine in your example, but just generally any kind of improved health technologies or medical devices, pharmaceuticals, vaccines or just innovation more broadly, inventions, patents throughout the economy, you’re actually just going to see that immigrants are overrepresented once again in producing these advances in science and technology.  So, they really are essential to economic growth in the U.S, they’re essential to keeping the U.S. as a leading economy in the world. And of course, you can spell this in many other ways, obviously national security for example. It’s important to be ahead of your competitors and technology and of course the immigrants are driving our scientific technological advances in the U.S, they’re actually an essential part of keeping the U.S. ahead as we are entering a world that is increasingly fraught with conflict in very sad and troubling ways. I think the idea that you’re being ahead in security and defense technology is a whole another reason that this is important. So, when you start thinking about the productivity slowdown that’s been going on in the U.S., we’ve had a challenge in this century with sort of not growing as fast as we’d like in terms of output per worker, and that means not the same kind of wage growth and productivity growth in our workforce in general. This is a time to be pushing in general on science and innovation and doing the kinds of things and entrepreneurship, the things that really drive our increasing productivity, and so that’s all the more reasons that an immigration policy that recognizes how critical immigrants are as an input to that growth engine that we seek those policies that embrace immigration and its power in that direction.

Denzil Mohammed: What is your message when it comes to dealing with immigration policy in the U.S.? Like how do you talk to people and frame the narrative that is not only accurate and based on evidence, but can probably shift the needle a little bit?

Benjamin Jones: Well, to crystallize it, I think that the debate in immigration policy in the U.S is often set up as being between sort of our humanitarian ideals, kind of recognizing the desire for liberty and new opportunity and immigrants that Americans sort of want themselves and sort of kind of, it’s a humanitarian thing to let immigrants into the country in the same way foreign aid might be humanitarian, and then it’s sort of pitted against in the conversation, this economic or perceived economic burdens that letting in immigrants into the economy is going to create economic costs. So, it’s kind of our humanitarian ideals versus these perceived economic costs.  And the message I think it really comes when you stare at the data and the research, is these economic costs that’s the mirage immigrants fundamentally are good for the economy? And they are not just really good in some average sense, they’re really good for job creation because of course the main economics here you hear, are immigrants are going to take our jobs, but when you realize that actually immigrants are net job creators in your community, in your country, then this whole debate between sort of our humanitarian instincts and the economic burdens is misplaced. It’s actually backwards. I really hope that people will begin to recognize that immigration is a really powerful input to our economic success, that they make us richer, not poorer, and they can help solve a lot of challenges and keep maintaining the United States role as a leading economy in the world with a strong national defense and these benefits are extraordinarily important. And when we restrain immigration, we’re actually hurting our economic interests, not helping them. So, I think I would like to see the immigration policy debate move towards something that’s more consistent with the evidence. Yes, you have to have the policy should be how do you onboard immigrants, what rate can you absorb immigrants? What are you onboarding them to give them the best chance of success? Policies where you can come here as a refugee, but you’re not allowed to work, that’s not helping the economy. We need to follow the law. I appreciate the aspects of the innovation policy debate that we should pass laws and we should maintain the rule of law, but we should pass policies and laws that are recognizing the amazing benefits of immigration and make the most of it, as opposed to arguing kind of on the false premise that immigrants are bad for the economy. 

Denzil Mohammed: Gund family professor of entrepreneurship and professor of strategy at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Benjamin Jones. Thank you so much for making the time to talk with us on the JobMakers podcast!

Benjamin Jones: Thanks for this great dialogue.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, and think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in northern Massachusetts, anot-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s discussion into how immigrants to the U.S actually do create businesses, generate jobs, and innovate at higher-than-average rates. If you know an outstanding immigrant entrepreneur we should talk to, email Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L at I am Denzil Mohammed, see you next time for another episode of JobMakers.

Episode 75: Chening Duker

JobMakers podcast graphic: Duker cultivates nourishing solutionsEnglish American founder Chening Duker was inspired by his love of farmers markets to build, a platform that makes selling farm-to-table food more efficient and profitable. Duker wanted to make healthy, eco-friendly produce accessible to the average consumer. Tune in to learn how his connections to Ghana and Singapore strengthened his business.

Episode 74: Miriam Kattumuri

JobMakers podcast graphic: Miriam Kattumuri keeps us healthy and greenIndian American entrepreneur Miriam Kattumuri sells clay pots to offer a more eco-friendly, healthy method of preparing and consuming food. She believes that being mission-driven is essential to a productive, valuable business. Listen to learn how she bounced back after a fire destroyed her products and workshop.

Episode 73: Erick Widman, Esq.

JobMakers podcast graphic: Immigrants can ease worker shortageErick Widman is an immigration attorney who has seen firsthand how the immigration system in the United States fails to attract and retain innovators, leaders and entrepreneurs. His experience marrying a Hungarian American woman gave him a personal perspective on the importance of this issue. Listen to learn how he believes the U.S. could better serve the immigrants who enrich our country.

Denzil MohammedWelcome back to JobMakers. The immigration system in the United states is complex, to say the least. Visa categories for nearly every letter of the alphabet, exemptions, restrictions, rule changes with every new administration. We need more workers, innovators and entrepreneurs in an increasingly competitive world and amid an historic worker shortage and cash strapped social safety systems due to a graying workforce. So does the United States’ immigration system work in its favor? For Erik Widman, immigration lawyer and founder of Passage Immigration Law in Portland, Oregon says it does not. We routinely turn away ambitious, risk-taking people at all skill levels high and low, which the country needs. From vaccine creators to crop pickers, the U.S. throughout its history has depended on the sweat and brainpower of immigrants who largely go on to become the next crop of Americans. Erik guides us through the immigration process for agricultural workers, international students, high school workers, and people with extraordinary ability. He shows us the myriad ways Americans benefit from their work and he shows us where we fall short, shooting ourselves in the foot because of a hijacked immigration discussion, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers podcast. Erik Widman, founding attorney at Passage Immigration Law in Portland, Oregon, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.

Erik WidmanThank you so much, it’s a real privilege to be here.

Denzil MohammedTo be clear you’re not an immigrant, but you have a lot of experience with immigration both in and outside of the U.S., is that right?

Erik WidmanYes, yes. My grandpa Sven came from Sweden, but I was born in the U.S. and we’ll discuss it later, I’m sure, how I immigrated to Hungary periodically, for a couple years prior.

Denzil MohammedSo who exactly is Erik Widman?

Erik WidmanYes, so I’m from California. I’m an immigration lawyer who grew up in a really diverse environment in Cupertino, CA. In my high school, caucasians were the minority. We had lots of lots of Asians there, so there’s a lot of diversity that I experienced growing up and I got to spend a summer, really formative experience, in Japan living there as a junior hire and that led me to study international relations, focus on international business law in law school and then I taught in Hungary after that and met a Hungarian woman who is now my wife and we have three dual-citizen kids. 

Denzil Mohammed: That’s terrific. So, as I mentioned, you have tremendous experience with immigration both here and abroad. As someone who’s gone through the immigration process both as an immigration attorney and with your wife in Hungary, tell us a little bit about the immigration process, and how is it different?

Erik WidmanYes, so the U.S. system is known as an incredibly complex set of rules and changing priorities and it’s similar to the U.S. tax code in that it keeps expanding in complexity. No one ever reduces complexity, it’s just more and more tricky and it’s very politicized. So there are policies that seem to bounce back from one direction to the other depending on which administration is in power and so the timeline is quite long for immigrants in general, even before COVID for immigrants to go through the process in the U.S. and comparing ourselves to Canada or most European countries, they’re more efficient and they can get people permanent residence, work permits faster. So that’s why it’s really a real competitive issue for the U.S. 

Denzil MohammedYou bring up the tax system. You know, byzantine is one way to describe the immigration process here. You have visas from A-Z with, you know, numbers and everything in between. It’s so much to digest. It’s not just in terms of speed, right, with these other countries, it’s targeting who they want, right?

Erik WidmanRight, yes, yes. The U.S. has a quota system which, in many ways, is unfair and certain nationalities have a very long wait time. So Indians, Mexicans, those from the Philippines, Chinese, have a really long wait time to get green cards because there’s a cap on how many from each nation can be allowed into the U.S. So that definitely impacts the type of the nationality, the type of immigrant we have. And so it’s not just a long wait, it’s an insurmountably long wait period for those who have one of those nationalities that’s got a massive backlog. 

Denzil Mohammed: And it doesn’t work in their favor, the immigrants’ favor, and it just doesn’t work in America’s favor either. And I want to point out specifically the crisis that we’re facing right now, and I really want to get your comments on it. The U.S. is facing historic woes in terms of the current labor shortage, they’re more than 10 million job openings and only 5.7 million unemployed people to fill them. Now at the start of the pandemic necessarily perhaps the Department of State canceled all visa services at embassies across the world, but even when they started reopening later that summer, processing was so slow and sluggish that the U.S. missed out on 2 million working age immigrants who would have come here with certain skill sets with educational backgrounds, and would have eased the labor shortage we’re experiencing right now. So, again, two things stand out about this, firstly that we could have had two million more immigrants who could have significantly eased this worker shortage and the little known fact that one visa category did, in fact, keep going throughout the suspension of all other categories; the H-2A visa for temporary agricultural workers. They kept us fed, they kept picking fruits, they kept all groceries supplied. Tell us a little bit about the importance of low skilled workers, and why do you think they kept that one visa category going? 

Erik WidmanYes. Thankfully, Congress listened to our farmers, the agricultural companies that produce our food and we would have been in big trouble as a nation, especially under COVID we still would be in big trouble if we didn’t have this flow of H-2A workers or immigrant, non-immigrant workers who come in for a season, a temporary period of time and do the really tough work that we drive by most people who are not in the agricultural industry. We can see them working the fields, they’re bent over. Incredibly difficult work that some people even die in the really hot conditions out there, so these jobs are tough, they’re not desirable and part of the American dream is that people don’t want to do these jobs long term. The immigrant comes in because he or she’s willing at that skill level to do that really tough work and then they’re thinking about their family and their kids. They think, “Well, my kids will be able to get an education, do more.” But it is a true win-win when we have our agricultural needs met and people who live in essentially absolute poverty throughout the south of the border in various countries are happy to do this tough work. They can save up money and buy a house and support their grandparents with this money. 

Denzil MohammedSo you started to describe this kind of worker and you’ve done some immigration work in this field as well, so could you sort of describe more about who these agricultural workers are, how they end up in the U.S., how they’re recruited, what are some of their characteristics?

Erik WidmanYeah, so the H-2A agricultural worker is someone who has experience. They go through recruitment agencies, individual recruiters, they work directly with farms to bring in these folks who are really a stellar group of people. They are searching for any opportunity they can get, but by and large, wonderful family people and the recruiters are choosing those who don’t have a criminal record. Those who are great hardworking people with a track record of being really diligent.

Denzil MohammedSo we need those workers who can pick the fruits that we eat, but of course as you know and I know, we also need workers and innovators who can perform feats of science and keep the U.S. at the cutting edge of technology innovation, don’t we?

Erik WidmanYes and the businesses that are competing globally and are really tough environment, Intel for example, is here in almost like a life or death struggle against other companies trying to create the best possible microprocessors. And the founder of Intel said, “You always have to be paranoid. Only the paranoid survive,” and interestingly, he was an immigrant from Hungary. So I’ve got the Hungarian connection there. But Andy Grove, the founder or cofounder of Intel was a Hungarian immigrant. So the paranoid survive, it’s a brutal capitalistic clash of companies and we need people who are amazing at math, science, STEM fields, and right now, we’re not graduating enough native-born Americans with these intense PhD programs, computer science, chemistry, physics. When I worked at Philips Electronics, I was asking some of the LED lighting PHDs, “Is what you do more physics or chemistry?” and they love describing the details, but it’s both at the microprocessor level, they’re getting into just like things I don’t understand, nanometers of complexity. So we need super smart people to do this and we’re not graduating enough, and so the companies are hungry for them and they’re typically from countries all over the world that are traditionally strong as science; Chinese, Taiwanese, many Europeans. There’s a big need for this.

Denzil MohammedI like the example you just rolled up because one thing that’s often brought up on this podcast is the need for diversity of thought, diversity of backgrounds in order to come up with a finished product. And you talk about Intel and its co-founders, I would bring up Pfizer and Moderna in the U.S., right here in Boston actually where foreign-born and U.S.-born people co-founded these companies and together they come up with the most brilliant things like the COVID-19 vaccine. Similarly in Germany, it was German and immigrant inventors who came up with, was it the biotech vaccine over there. So there is truly magic that can be created by having this diversity of thought, we need more people in STEM, we need more Americans in STEM, certainly. But frankly, and the data bears this out, without immigrants, without international students, STEM programs across the country would be suffering and probably have to close. 

Erik Widman: To our credit the university system is attracting them, we want to attract them, we want to be known as the best university system, we want to be known to be the best environment to really grow your career. And so I love stories exactly like the development of the COVID vaccine where you have the best and brightest from each country participating to provide the best product. That’s what our sports teams do, you encourage labor mobility, the best people who can perform. 

Denzil MohammedAnd that’s inherently capitalistic, right, just an economy that attracts the best and the brightest in order to succeed.

Erik Widman: Yes. Yes and I think one of my main messages to those who are more skeptical of the value of immigration is that if we’re in favor of a free market, if we’re in favor of the best can achieve and succeed, we should be in favor of labor mobility so that we can allow the best people from around the world to come in and compete and get those jobs as we need them because our companies will certainly benefit. 

Denzil MohammedYou talk about labor mobility. What is our current system to allow the best and the brightest or those who want to come and study or work here and what are some of the shortcomings? 

Erik WidmanThe pathway to come to the U.S. as a student knowing you’re going to get a great education in any state in the union, even if you don’t have a Ivy League brand name, many people from all over the world, it’s still prestigious just to go to a small town school because it’s an American school so we have to maintain that prestige and after that they often do this what’s called OPT: Optional Practical Training and they can work in their degree field for a year, either pre-completion OPT, post-completion and they work for a company for a year then if that company is impressed, which they often are, they file for an H-1B, petition for H-1B professional worker visa to give that immigrant a chance to work for them. Right now unfortunately, there’s only a 30 percent chance that they’ll be selected in the lottery. So it’s more likely than not, that because of the the cap, because of the limited number of H-1B visas and the increase in demand that exceeds that, so then they have to look at other options and many keep going to college and get a higher degree. But there’s also an extraordinary ability visa, which is an increasingly positive option for, and something that we’ve had to rely upon, when people can’t get an H-1B for example. But it’s hard to be extraordinary in your career when you have all this potential but you’re only 23, what can you accomplish at that point? So sometimes we can connect the dots for USCIS and show them that they are extraordinary even with just a couple of years under their belt of work experience. 

Denzil MohammedAnd just to be clear, when you talk about the  H-1B high skilled worker visa there is a cap, there is a certain number that are issued and because there are so many applications they actually have to have a lottery system in order to choose and meet that cap. So thousands upon thousands of other people, high skilled immigrants, are deliberately-they’re just tossed away they left out. 

Erik WidmanThere’s an element of luck and this seems very un-American. It doesn’t seem like we’re choosing the best and allowing the best to work for us. We want to give more opportunities to these people. It’s a free market, that’s what we should support more, but it’s not a free market for the immigrant. 

Denzil MohammedAnd it’s not advantageous to us if we are deliberately telling people, “Nope! You have to go back. No more room.” And you mentioned the extraordinary ability visa, tell us a little bit more about this visa and the kinds of people who may qualify and some of the things that they accomplish in the U.S.

Erik Widman: Yes, and everyone would love to be called extraordinary and so it’s, there’s a high bar. Most of us unfortunately cannot be cost truly classified as extraordinary …

Denzil MohammedHey!

Erik Widman: … but with, yeah, it’s, we all should aim for it, that’s for certain. But, the challenge is to show why this particular applicant truly is at the top of his or her field. A Taekwondo expert from Hungary, so that was someone else we helped. He was world champion, he was happy to teach Oregonian kids and build his business and help his employer with that. We’ve also had the O-1 approved for an amazing Chinese artist, for example. He was rather young, recent graduate from school, but a world class painter. And so we were able to show, please give this person a visa. He is going to make an amazing contribution, his employer wants him and please grant this pathway to this amazing, extraordinary individual. 

Denzil MohammedAnd indeed these incredible people, the best and the brightest come to this country and keep it innovative and entrepreneurial, and I really admire the diversity of people you’ve described from Taekwondo champions to artists, I mean that’s pretty incredible. But research from our own partners at the Institute for Immigration Research at George Mason University shows that even up to one-third of our Nobel Prize winners are immigrants. Is that incredible?

Erik Widman: That statistic stuns me and it’s remarkable to hear it and it’s a beautiful thing too, to look at the way, for example historically we welcomed Albert Einstein, we’ve welcomed all these individuals who went on to do amazing things for our country and the entire world. So I’m always moved by statistics like that because we enable the greatest people, people who are amazing at their fields to achieve to their full potential and that is what makes the U.S. the land of opportunity, is where we give people a platform to really thrive and get access to resources and government funding for in some cases. 

Denzil MuhammedSo it’s not just industries that are attracting people, it’s our higher education system, people who come here and do postdocs and they collab, importantly, they collaborate with U.S.-born researchers at these universities and they come up with the most incredible inventions and theories and they win the Nobel Prize for it. But it’s America who gets the credit and rightfully so because we are the ones attracting these bright people, right?

Erik WidmanAbsolutely. 

Denzil Mohammed: So before I get to my last question, just comment on what we’ve spoken about so far, about the need for high skilled and low skilled immigrants, on the inherently entrepreneurial nature of immigrants. Just sort of comment on that for a little bit before we close.

Erik WidmanYes, the need for immigrant labor is strong on both the higher end of the spectrum, lower end, in the middle and listen to these thought leaders like Elon Musk, like many who have credibility would … I know he’s a controversial figure these days … but who understand groundbreaking big thinkers and they see that if as a population continues to age we’re going to need people to take care of them. We’re not going to have the tax base, Social Security is in big trouble, we’re not having enough kids to fund all of the money we’re gonna have to pay for our health care system. So one of the few pathways open to us is more immigrant labor and historically, we have done a great job of welcoming people from all over the world and incorporating them into our society and their kids go on to be amazing contributors on their own and they are 100 percent American. 

Denzil Mohammed: It speaks to what or who is an American. It’s not defined by how you look, how you speak, what you wear, it’s something much more intrinsic about being an American, and that is something multitudes of people can share. And that’s what American society is and has always been. 

Erik WidmanYes and I encourage people to look at the oath of allegiance when people are becoming citizens and people are proudly saying, yes, I’m willing to support the U.S. Constitution. And I think fundamentally that is what unites us, is our core commitment to one another through these founding principles of liberty, democracy, fair opportunity, the rule of law, those things are what unite us and it’s too bad we’ve been sidetracked by more peripheral things these days, but the core of what unites new Americans and native-born Americans, it’s still there.

Denzil MohammedThis was a really good conversation. Erick Widman, immigration attorney, founding attorney at Passage Immigration Law in Portland Oregon, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast to talk about immigrant workers, immigrant entrepreneurs, immigrant innovators and immigrants in general.

Erik WidmanThank you so much, Denzil. It was a real pleasure.

Denzil MohammedJobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s discussion and how our immigration system falls short when we need it most and the glimpse into what we should do about it. If you know an outstanding immigrant business owner or innovator we should talk to, e-mail Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L at I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers. 

Episode 72: Julianne Zimmerman

JobMakers podcast graphic: Julianne Zimmerman on the inventive legacies of immigrantsJulianne Zimmerman is leveling the playing field for marginalized founders through her work as managing director of Reinventure Capital, a venture capital firm that only invests in people of color and women. As a supporter of The ILC, she has long championed the contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs. Listen to learn why she believes that it is crucial that we work together to bring about much-needed social and economic change.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers.

Denzil Mohammed: If ever we were to have an intellectual conversation about U.S. immigration, what would we talk about and what would result? The data shows without a doubt that all the people of this country benefit from the dynamic influence of drive and talent, particularly in STEM and as innovators and business owners. So what are we doing here? For Julianne Zimmerman, managing director at Reinventure Capital, lecturer on social entrepreneurship at Tufts University and named to Forbes’s 2022 50 list, she sees firsthand how immigrants collaborate with the U.S.-born to create meaningful inventions that solve real problems, but also how rhetoric, policy and an outdated system can shut them out. In her storied, nearly 40 year career, Julianne, who now heads a firm that invests solely in companies led and controlled by black, indigenous, people of color and female founders, has come to a place where it is crucial that we work together to bring about much needed social and economic change. But this won’t happen if we close ourselves off. It’s time to have a real, intellectual conversation on immigration, she says, as you’ll hear in this week’s JobMakers.

Denzil Mohammed: Julianne Zimmerman, managing director at Reinventure Capital in Boston, lecturer at Tufts University on social entrepreneurship, and most recently, Forbes 50 over 50 when it comes to money in 2022. Welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Julianne Zimmerman: Thank you so much, Denzil. I’m delighted to be here with you today.

Denzil Mohammed: So your resume is very, very long. It’s several legal-size pages long.

Julianne Zimmerman: [Laughs]

Denzil Mohammed: But one thing that caught me in one of your bios is you included a quote from the late, great Leila Janah.

Julianne Zimmerman: Yes.

Denzil Mohammed: And she says, “Our best hope for a bright future for all the citizens of the world, and for our planet, lies in dissolving the traditional barriers we’ve drawn between doing good and doing good business.”

Julianne Zimmerman: Yeah.

Denzil Mohammed: What does that mean, and why is that important now?

Julianne Zimmerman: Well, I think first of all, Leila was fantastic. She was a brilliant entrepreneur, and she was an unapologetic social entrepreneur, both as a founder of a for-profit social enterprise, and as the founder of a nonprofit social enterprise. She was extraordinarily articulate in naming these issues, but also, she was extremely effective in demonstrating that it is not only possible, but that is a fantastically valuable way to approach the premise and the operation of enterprise in general. And why it’s important is because I think that, collectively, we all swallowed whole the dictum that Friedman laid out more than a half century ago when he said that the one and only purpose of business is to return value to shareholders. That was an idiotic statement when he made it. It was obviously not true, and yet somehow, it became dogma. I think we know from experience that the very best companies are ones which create value for all of their stakeholders, not merely for their shareholders. And I think that we are just now kind of, depending on how you think about it, waking up from that delusion or maybe, you know, coming to terms with the fact that we swallowed something that didn’t agree with us [laughs]. But there are so many examples, not only Leila’s excellent example, but so many examples that show us that in fact the best companies are the ones which focus on the value they create for all of their stakeholders.

Denzil Mohammed: As a managing director at Reinventure Capital, how does Leila’s sentiment, what is relationship and why is it important for us to invest for better financial returns and better social outcomes?

Julianne Zimmerman: The fact is, we have a large and ever expanding body of analysis and research at this point, from the likes of McKinsey and Morgan Stanley and numerous others, that fairly consistently concludes that the existing status quo, our systems of finance, focused as they are, narrowly, exclusively on this notion of business only to generate financial returns, have not only underperformed financially as a result, but have also left economic, social and environmental harms in their wake. And so, the premise that companies have no responsibility or that investors have no responsibility for those harms is increasingly coming into question, and I think should be scrutinized very skeptically, right? I think that for us at Reinventure, we know, again, that not only is it possible, but it’s the best scenario to invest in companies that become economic engines, companies that create economic value, that create positive impacts, not only for their investors and their founders, but equally importantly, for their customers and their partners and their employees and the communities in which they operate.

Denzil Mohammed: So Reinventure seeks to level the playing field in a sense, because we know through the research and just through day-to-day interactions that women and people of color generally don’t figure in as highly in the c-suite offices. So what does Reinventure Capital do? And tell us a little bit about some of the people you’ve invested in.

Julianne Zimmerman: Sure. So first of all, our investment thesis, our strategy, is very nearly orthogonal to the rest of the venture community. We are a venture investment practice, but we use venture capital in a very different way than our conventional VC peers. So, Reinventure invests exclusively in U.S.-based companies that are both led and controlled by BIPOC and/or female founders. And we invest in those companies when they are at or on the cusp of break even, and we work with them to help them grow more profitably. Moreover, as part of our investment terms, we also bind ourselves and the companies we invest in, that they will continue to hire, promote and compensate equitably at all levels of the organization as they grow. And we also commit to their strategic impact objectives, whatever those may be. And one of the things we find is that, very often, founders are actively discouraged by other investors from even talking about impact objectives. And that discouragement often comes in the form of a statement like, “Listen, it’s hard enough to grow a successful business. Don’t load on extra difficulties or distractions. Just grow a company and make a lot of money, and then you can give it away as much as you wish.” Right? Which is a very narrow and we think ultimately unproductive way to think about growing high value businesses. And if you look at companies like Uber, for example, often held up as examples of merit, right? Here’s a company that is riddled with scandal and has a litany of complaints from employees and customers alike about mistreatment, right? We see that as part and parcel of that notion of, just make as much money as you can and then, you know, figure out how to be a decent human being or a positive force as a company later. And so we invest very explicitly in a very different direction. So the companies we invest in, we’ve invested in seven so far in this portfolio. We’re about halfway through investing this fund. And the companies we’ve invested in are in wide variety of sectors, and they are scattered across the U.S. geographically. So we have invested in companies in digital media and in clean energy and in clean water and in fintech. And we’ve also invested in a VR/AR company. We are looking at companies in edtech and in health-related propositions, services and technologies, and we see a really fantastically rich deal flow.

Denzil Mohammed: How do immigrant founders fit into your work, into your portfolio?

Julianne Zimmerman: Well, as you know, Denzil, immigrant founders punch above their weight statistically, right? So a significant fraction of successful companies founded in the U.S., whether we’re talking about high growth companies like the kinds we invest in, or whether we’re talking about the kinds of companies that are really the anchors of local economies, those brick and mortar businesses that really give and sustain the life of communities, right? So immigrant entrepreneurs are, you know, a significant fraction of the founders we encounter and contemplate investing behind. Specifically in our portfolio so far, I’d love to highlight two women. One, Isabel Rafferty Zavala, who is the founder and CEO of Canela Media. She’s, by the way, born in Mexico. Canela Media is a digital media company serving Spanish-language audiences in the U.S. and across the Americas. And she has just been doing a phenomenal job of growing that company in a sector which many people said was already too crowded for any new entrance to be successful. So not only has she demonstrated a unique vision and an extraordinary ability to execute, but she’s also racking up significant honors for her accomplishments as the founder CEO in the digital media sector as well. Most recently, she was an EY entrepreneur of the year and was named the U.S. National Entrepreneur of the Year for Emerging Enterprises, just last week. The other person I’d love to highlight is Dr. Fatemeh Shirazi, who’s the founder and CEO of Microvi. Microvi is a clean water and broader technology platform company to provide what they call a micro-niche platform, using microbes to process a wide variety of industrial or municipal or other outflows. And Dr. Shirazi is originally from Iran, and her team, again, has developed an extraordinary platform already in the water and wastewater segment. It provides a solution that delivers superior performance to all the available alternatives at about an eighth of the price. So when we think about the issues of water and wastewater that are already severely impacting many of our communities and that are predicted to begin severely impacting many more of our communities in just the next few years, this is an extremely important innovation.

Denzil Mohammed: Given your observations having been in this field for more than 25 years, given the fact that these immigrants come from entirely different countries, so you know, you mentioned Iran as one of them for sure, they have different challenges, but they also have different skills that they come with. What have been some of your observations for the immigrant founders that you’ve worked with over the years?

Julianne Zimmerman: Well, I will say that this is a kind of bad news, good news story. So first of all, many of the immigrant entrepreneurs I know, separate from the two I’ve mentioned and represented in our portfolio, are extraordinarily gifted as founders, in part because they have had to overcome extremely difficult circumstances. And so that’s why I think of it as a bad news good news thing, because the fact that they’ve had to overcome extraordinarily difficult circumstances is not great. We would not like for people to come to the U.S. because they are coming from difficult circumstances. And to be clear, obviously not all immigrants come from difficult circumstances, but many I’ve met have come to the states because they, or because their parents, were fleeing their home countries. And so I think that’s a part of it. But also one of the things that I see over and over again, whether people came to the U.S. voluntarily or whether they came to the U.S. in distress, either way, as families, they have demonstrated over and over again an abidingly strong commitment to create value, to create legacy, to create something of lasting significance and not necessarily, or not merely, to figure out how to get wealthy very quickly, although obviously creating wealth matters, but there’s a very consistent commitment to creating something that has meaning and purpose and lasting significance, not something merely transient. And again, you know, when I think about what the very best companies have in common, it’s that principle or that philosophy that these companies exist not merely to find a way to generate a profit, but also to generate that profit by doing good in the world, by creating solutions to unmet needs or unsolved problems.

Denzil Mohammed: But you talk about inflows and the benefits of that constant inflow of talent and determination and drive. They’re up against something called the U.S. immigration system.

Julianne Zimmerman: Oh yes.

Denzil Mohammed: Which has not been transformed in so many years. It’s clearly very outdated. And the benefits to immigrants and to the receiving communities is so well established that, you know, the idea of putting America first, meaning to restrict everyone else, we know that that shoots us in the foot. It is not to our benefit at all. Do you really think that restrictionist policies put Americans first, given the high rates of entrepreneurship and innovation and the increase in U.S.-born innovation as a result of multiple talents being around?

Julianne Zimmerman: I think that’s the xenophobia that is often tied to a kind of nationalism that likes to whitewash American identity and American history, is very narrowly self-serving for a very, very small segment of the population. But even then, and this is sort of embedded in your question I think, even then, that narrow self-interest is ultimately defeated by the simple fact that were we to completely close our borders, were we to completely shut down immigration, that would harm everyone in the United States. It would harm all of us. And I think that unfortunately, we don’t typically have a very grown up conversation about immigration in the United States. It’s usually like, immigration bad, immigration good [laughs], and we don’t typically have a conversation about why and how and where and when immigration is vitally important and why and how and where and when it’s challenging. And I think we tend not to have that conversation in an intellectually honest way, right? About, how do we practice immigration in a way which is thoughtful and and practical and which takes into account the fact that we are dependent on immigration, but does so in a way which is humane for immigrants and which actually encourages and enables the receiving communities to embrace immigrants and thrive together with them, with their new neighbors, as opposed to seeing them as, you know, arriving foes or enemies.

Denzil Mohammed: [laughs] An intellectual conversation. Immigrants are the reason many schools can sustain their STEM programs.

Julianne Zimmerman: Mm-hmm.

Denzil Mohammed: I mean, think about that. We are a nation that has always been innovating, but we’ve depended on people from everywhere who wanted to innovate, but innovate here. My boss came here when she was three years old, and she started an incredible organization that celebrated 30 years this year.

Julianne Zimmerman: Congratulations again, by the way. It’s fantastic.

Denzil Mohammed: Julianne Zimmerman, managing director at Reinventure Capital, lecturer in social entrepreneurship at Tufts University, and of course, Forbes 50 over 50 list. Thank you so much for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.

Julianne Zimmerman: Thank you, Denzil.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is the weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s exploration of how immigration enriches us all. If you know an outstanding immigrant business owner or innovator we should talk to, email Denzil. That’s d-e-n-z-i-l I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 71: Joséphine Erni

JobMakers podcast graphic: Josephine Erni on bringing Swiss innovation to the U.S. marketWhile working as the innovation lead at Swissnex, the world’s first “science consulate,” Swiss American immigrant Joséphine Erni has learned the value of the free exchange of people and ideas. Their work has fostered collaborative businesses that benefit both countries. Listen to learn why she believes being open to diversity brings creative solutions.

Episode 70: Josh Bedi

JobMakers podcast graphic: Josh Bedi on how immigrants boost native entrepreneurship

After watching his immigrant father run a small business as a child, Josh Bedi grew up to study how immigrants strengthen the economy and increase rates of entrepreneurship. Listen to learn how his research shows that both “high-” and  “low-skilled” immigrants financially benefit their new homes.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: We’ve looked at the research on immigrants and entrepreneurship before. In the U.S. they’re twice as likely to start a business, innovate and create jobs. Why is that? One big reason is who immigrants are, their qualities and strengths, the things that make them take a risk and move to a new land in the first place. But that’s not all they do. For Dr. Joshua Bedi, child of an immigrant and a post-doctoral researcher in entrepreneurship in the Department of Strategy and Innovation at Copenhagen Business School in Denmark, not only are immigrants more adept at entrepreneurship in the U.S. and worldwide, they also boost the innovation and business generation of citizens in host countries. That’s a huge net benefit to the countries to which immigrants and refugees move. And the research proves it. Joshua sees this not only in the data, but also in his own personal experience. The son of an immigrant to Jackson, Mississippi, from India, his father started a business himself. It was a simple neighborhood gas station, but also a symbol of what hardworking immigrants can do when they move to new lands, and their backs are against the wall as you learn in this week’s JobMakers podcast.

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Denzil Mohammed: Dr. Joshua Bedi, postdoc in entrepreneurship at the Department of Strategy and Innovation at Copenhagen Business School and alum from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Josh Bedi: I’m great, Denzil. Thanks for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: So you study immigrant entrepreneurship, academically, of course, but it’s also part of your family history, right?

Josh Bedi: Yes, absolutely. So I’m, I guess, the second generation immigrant. My dad came over here from Punjab, India, my mom’s from the U.S. so I had kind of a mixed family background.

Denzil Mohammed: And your father ended up owning his own business as an immigrant entrepreneur?

Josh Bedi: Yes, exactly. So a few of my relatives ended up owning their own businesses as immigrant entrepreneurs, and that’s how he got into owning his own business. So my great uncle owned a few gas stations and that’s how my dad got into it.

Denzil Mohammed: And what was it like for you as a child of immigrants actually working in that business? What was that like?

Josh Bedi: Well, so I thought it was pretty fun at the time. Not a lot of people had parents who owned their own business. And so I thought that was pretty novel. I always felt pretty American. I have a bunch of Indian family, but it wasn’t so much that my dad was an immigrant entrepreneur that was novel to me, but it was that he was an entrepreneur. I even remember one day in class we were talking about entrepreneurship in elementary school and one of the teachers asked if any of us knew an entrepreneur. And I was like, Oh, you know my dad’s an entrepreneur. And she made sure that I knew what the definition of an entrepreneur was, because she didn’t believe me at first. And so, yes, I thought that was cool, and I liked working behind the register and stocking up the beer and all that stuff.

Denzil Mohammed: So tell me a little bit about your research as specifically on immigrant entrepreneurship. I know you look into the factors that affect entrepreneurship activity in a host country.

Josh Bedi: Well, so generally we find that immigrants are more entrepreneurial, but that’s kind of an obvious thing. But right now in this newest research that I’m looking at, we’re starting to find that it’s the immigrants who have Danish citizenship that are driving these higher entrepreneurship rates. And, in fact, the negative impact of not having Danish citizenship on the likelihood of becoming an entrepreneur we’re finding is greatest for immigrants as opposed to other types of individuals. Because in Denmark you can be born in Denmark and not have Danish citizenship. So we can compare non-movers with people who move internally, with international immigrants and also with return immigrants. So we can look at people who left Denmark and came back and see if they’re more entrepreneurial and see how citizenship affects their entrepreneurship rates. And so we find immigrants are the most entrepreneurial, followed by return immigrants, which is really interesting. And we also find that having foreign citizenship, particularly foreign citizenship that’s very restrictive, we find that that negatively moderates the relationship. So we find that that makes it less likely for immigrants to be entrepreneurial, particularly immigrants. So it has a more negative impact for immigrants than it does for, say, return immigrants or internal migrants. And, in fact, what I’m seeing is, we’re finding that the non-movers who are foreign citizens are actually more entrepreneurial than the non-movers who are Danish citizens. So that’s the only exception and that probably has to do with the fact that if you are born in Denmark and you don’t have foreign citizenship, at least one of your parents has to be an immigrant. And so it could be that they’re just getting foreign exposure secondhand from their parents, and that’s causing them to be more entrepreneurial. But I mean that’s kind of a guess.

Denzil Mohammed: So immigration is driving entrepreneurship no matter what angle you look at it, right?

Josh Bedi: That’s what it looks like.

Denzil Mohammed: Given that that is your finding about immigration driving entrepreneurship is so clear …

Josh Bedi: Uh-huh. [affirmative]

Denzil Mohammed: … are there visas built into the immigration system that are specifically for entrepreneurs?

Josh Bedi: Yes, so there are in the U.S. Now the problem with those is they require a lot of upfront capital in order for the person to be eligible for the visa. So you’re excluding a lot of your sole proprietorships, say, from being able to come in on that visa. In Denmark, I don’t know about self-employment visas in particular, but there are definitely visas for, say, high-skill managers who might play entrepreneurial roles inside of a company. And I actually benefit from a type of visa like that. So you have these high-skilled managers, but you also have researchers, and they have a special visa for those two people. And we actually get a lower tax rate than the average Danish person. So there’s even a tax incentive, at least in Denmark, to kind of attract top-level managers and researchers to come.

Denzil Mohammed: And in that pool you work on you find people who end up starting their own businesses, whether it’s a push factor or pull factor. So if you were to speculate as to why people who move are more likely to engage in entrepreneurship, generating businesses, creating jobs, what do you think it would be? Why?

Josh Bedi: I think it’s a couple reasons. So my first theory when I first got into this is that, and I think I’ve heard you say this before, is that immigration is an inherently entrepreneurial action. If we think of entrepreneurship as trying to better your circumstances in the face of radical uncertainty, that’s exactly what immigration is. It’s a huge upfront investment that you’re making. There’s a lot of risk involved, even for low-skilled immigrants, especially for, say, undocumented immigrants. There’s a ton of risk involved, because you could get sent back and that’s you putting down years worth of your wages, maybe to hire a coyote, get sent back. And so you’re taking a huge risk. And so there’s kind of this selection bias that the type of person it takes to immigrate and to take this kind of risk and to try these new things is also the type of person who’s willing to be open minded, to try new business ideas and to engage in a certain level of risk. But I also think there are things that happen after the migration process, or maybe during the migration process, after you come into the country, into the host country, that causes you to be more entrepreneurial. And so there’s a certain type of adaptation that has to take place after you come into the host country. And I know from personal experience coming from the U.S. to Denmark, which are two relatively similar countries, by the way, I can get around speaking English, but there’s still a little bit of a culture shock. And you have to adapt to your new environment. You have to figure out how to get basic essentials like toiletries and where those are in the stores because they’re in different types of stores and you have to figure out how to find them on the shelves. And so you’re forced to learn how to adapt. And then there’s also cross-cultural experience. And I think that partly explains why we see that return immigrants are entrepreneurial in similar ways that immigrants are, because maybe they’re not born outside of the host country, but they get that cross-cultural experience by going abroad. And all entrepreneurship is opportunity identification. And when you get more cross-cultural experience, you see more different ways of doing things. You’re able to expand your knowledge set. You’re able to draw on these different experiences and relate them to your home country and try out new ideas that maybe natives haven’t thought to try out before.

Denzil Mohammed: So I often say that diversity is a huge strength of the United States. And what you’re telling me, this diversity of experiences, cross-cultural experiences, is a net benefit when it comes to the economy, right?

Josh Bedi: Absolutely. Absolutely. There’s a ton of research on the benefits of immigration generally for the economy. Michael Clemens has a famous paper (he actually just started, or he’s going to start soon, at George Mason University), Trillion Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk, where he estimates, he does a survey of the literature, and we see estimates of the benefits of open borders, anywhere from multiplying GDP by 1.5 to doubling it. So, yes, absolutely. And it doesn’t have to just be the immigrants themselves who are entrepreneurs to kind of lead this innovative process. We can have gains from even letting low-skill immigrants in. So we can have indirect benefits because these low-skill immigrants are willing to work for less pay, and the immigrant who mows the lawn of the nuclear physicist indirectly helps to unlock the secrets of the universe. I heard that quote. Alex Tabarrok gave a TED Talk, and gave that quote, and it stuck with me, because we see a lot of research that shows all these indirect impacts of immigration that could influence entrepreneurship. So another example of that is we see a decrease in the gender wage gap in the U.S. when we see influxes of immigrants who work in industries that are traditionally female dominated by cleaning industries, because it frees up women’s time to be able to go do the things that they want to do, and that decreases the gender gap. And so, absolutely, I think it’s that benefit for the economy.

Denzil Mohammed: And do you see immigrant entrepreneurship positively affecting native entrepreneurship?

Josh Bedi: Oh, yes. So we have direct evidence of this depending on what kind of proxy of entrepreneurship we’re looking at. So I know that there’s research by Jennifer Hunt, and that looks at patent rates among foreign-born people in STEM fields, and they find that there’s a positive spillover effect. And so we see that it’s not the fact that it’s not the case that these immigrants are replacing native inventors. Instead, they’re kind of collaborating with native inventors. They’re bringing out the best of native inventors, they’re increasing the productivity of those native inventors. There are also other other studies that look at kind of natural experiments, like a sudden death of someone working on a patent. And so they looked at native patent holders who were partners with immigrant patent holders, or at least people working on a patent, and they found that when the immigrant, if the immigrant died suddenly the probability of that patent being accepted later decreased significantly. And the same is not true if the native founder dies suddenly. And so there’s a huge positive spillover.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s pretty incredible. And you think of the most obvious example in my head is Moderna, which has multiple founders. Some are foreign-born, some are U.S. -born. And so that collaboration you’re talking about does engender innovation and productivity in the real world jobs and vaccines. As a researcher, have you seen this as any sort of similar kind of research innovation when it comes to collaborating with different people, with different perspectives, different backgrounds?

Josh Bedi: Absolutely. I mean, you see it all the time. So we’re basically talking about different comparative advantages. All we’re saying is something that every economist knows from the beginning of their training, is that there’s gains from trade because we all have a comparative advantage in something different. And so when it comes to research, nowadays you have to have a really good empirical method to get published well, and you have to have a really good story, a really good theory behind it. And so a lot of times I see foreign researchers, who maybe aren’t as good at English but they do very well in mathematics, pair up with native researchers who aren’t as good at mathematics, but obviously they’re good at English because it’s their native language, and they collaborate and come up with awesome research together. And so we see that often. And even people from different countries, you often see people collaborating from different countries who can get different perspectives. I know there are a lot of things that I don’t consider right off the bat coming from the U.S. compared to somebody who comes from, say, Europe.

Denzil Mohammed: And if someone were to come to you and say, “Well, you’re saying this, fine, but what about countries like Japan?”

Josh Bedi: Well, I mean, we’ll never know the counterfactual, right? So how innovative would they have been if they had opened up their borders because they are a very restrictive country when it comes to immigration? And if someone brought up Japan, I would just point to demographic worries. They’re losing population, which isn’t good for their long-term growth. And, yes, so I would say, “What is the counterfactual?” Do we think they would’ve been less innovative if we had allowed immigration? Or would they have experienced the same level of innovation or even more? And for me, it’s not just a practical issue. So if we’re going to restrict the freedom of movement of a bunch of people, then we need to do so with a lot of justification. So I think if we’re gonna do so, then it needs to be because we think they would’ve been a lot less innovative had they allowed that immigration to happen. And I don’t think there’s any kind of evidence that points to that being the case.

Denzil Mohammed: And we just have to look at the size of our economy versus other countries that immigration was able to foster. I want to just emphasize, you mentioned that we are not just talking about high-skilled workers.

Josh Bedi: Mm-hmm. [affirmative]

Denzil Mohammed: We’re talking about low-skilled workers as well who may start a nail salon or a hairdressing salon, and who as workers also help to grow the economy. Can you speak a little bit to that, that it’s not just that we need the best and the brightest, we just need people who are hardworking, right?

Josh Bedi: Yes, exactly. So there are those people who are low-skilled, who are going to become entrepreneurs themselves and are gonna contribute to the economy. Maybe they hire natives. I know in the case of my Indian relatives who have opened up gas stations and hotels, they hire natives. It is true that they do pull from their social pool or from their social capital in that they hire other Indians, other people who come from their family and things like this. But they also hire natives too. So they help in that way, and they also provide goods and services. I have heard people complain about immigrant businesses saying, oh, they only hire other immigrants, or they only hire their family, so they don’t contribute to the economy, but then they go eat at the restaurant. And so my answer to that is, is you eating at this restaurant not a contribution to the economy? Are they not filling up some unmet need? And so there’s that, and there’s also the idea that immigrants aren’t, to some of the points you’ve made, and that we’ve been making, immigrants aren’t perfect substitutes for natives. They complement natives in different ways. The average skill set of immigrants from different places is gonna be different than the average skill set of natives. And so we can have complementarities, and those complementarities could be in the form of immigrants hiring natives, but they also could be in the form of, say, a native who has a construction crew. And he’s a private contractor, and he hires a bunch of immigrants. And, in fact, we even see there’s some working papers, or at least one working paper that shows there was a Mexican repatriation act in the ’20s or ’30s. And they find it was a mass deportation, basically. And they find that this mass deportation decreased native employment. And so, that completely cuts against the idea that they’re taking jobs from natives.

Denzil Mohammed: And I want to push back on that idea of, oh, they only hire their own. Social capital is really important to foreign-born people in a host country. They don’t have a lot more to rely on. They will not be the ones who may easily get loans or may not know how to navigate city hall in order to find some sort of assistance. So, you know, hiring your own has a lot of benefits when it comes to the entrepreneur and people that he hires. It’s a sense of community. And so many communities, foreign-born communities who have come to the U.S. have grown in that way. And, as you said, they may need to hire a contractor to expand their business, which may be a U.S.-born person. They may need cleaners. They may need their foods to be delivered by truck drivers who are U.S.-born. So in this satellite and downstream industries, you create more jobs. If we were to close by some sort of reflection personally on your family’s history with entrepreneurship and the kind of things that you are seeing in your research, what is special about that person who starts a gas station or comes up with a vaccine who is in a country that he was not born in, or she was not born in, they didn’t know all the rules, they didn’t know all the laws, they didn’t know the culture, but they still were able to innovate or create something. Reflect on that for a little bit, given your father’s side of the family.

Josh Bedi: Well, so I think that kind of person is somebody who is comfortable with uncertainty, which is something that an entrepreneur has to be very comfortable with. I think it’s somebody who is adaptable. I think they do not allow barriers, be they legal barriers or cultural barriers or language barriers, I think it’s someone that doesn’t allow those barriers to dissuade them, right? If anything, they may find it to be a challenge to overcome. And so, yes, I think it’s someone who’s ultra adaptable, and very, very okay with uncertainty. Really, I think if there’s a closing sentiment, it’s be nice to the local immigrant, because he has a lot more to deal with than you give him credit for.

Denzil Mohammed: If we were to be welcoming, our communities would really thrive, right?

Josh Bedi: Yes, yes, I absolutely think so. Both communities.

Denzil Mohammed: Precisely. Dr. Joshua Bedi, postdoc in entrepreneurship at the Department of Strategy and Innovation at the Copenhagen Business School, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.

Josh Bedi: Thanks for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for this week’s deep dive into the research and personal experiences of immigrant entrepreneurship. If you know an outstanding business owner or innovator we should interview, please email Denzil, that’s d-e-n-z-i-l, I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 69: Steve Tobocman and Mamba Hamissi

JobMakers podcast graphic: How refugees are revitalizing Detroit

Mamba Hamissi came to the U.S. from Burundi as an impoverished refugee and now runs a James Beard-nominated restaurant. Steve Tobocman, the executive director of Global Detroit, describes how Hamissi represents countless immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs who have helped to strengthen and rebuild Detroit’s economy. Listen to learn how small investments in a newcomer’s business can pay significant dividends for a community.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome back to JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Few cities have fallen as far as Detroit did in the early 2000s. Population lost and the spiral in economic vitality caused the city to make the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history. Tough spot, but that’s where immigrants and refugees come in as they’ve done for generations. Immigrants move into places in economic decline because that’s where they can afford the rents, or, in the case of refugees, are settled where other refugees have settled in the past, and they build it back up. For Steve Tobocman, head of the economic development nonprofit Global Detroit, and Mamba Hamissi, refugee from Burundi and co-founder of Baobab Fare, an East African Restaurant, they see it and they’re doing it: building back Detroit and infusing it with life, culture and that immigrant work ethic. Immigrants and refugees often have no choice but to start a small business when they move to a new country. It’s no wonder then that immigrants and refugees even more so have higher than average rates of business generation. We hear from the economic development leader, Steve, and one of the thousands of refugee-business owners he’s assisted, Mamba, on how a little help to a newcomer can help build up the entire community, in this week’s JobMakers podcast.

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Denzil Mohammed: Mamba Hamissi, co-founder and CEO of Baobab Fare in Detroit, and Steve Tobocman, executive director of Global Detroit in Detroit, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Mamba Hamissi: Good. Thank you.

Denzil Mohammed: So, Mamba, I want to start with you. You have an incredible story. You and your wife and your twin kids have an incredible journey from Central Africa to the U.S. Tell us how you got here and why you had to move in the first place.

Mamba Hamissi: Yes, so the journey started with my wife in 2013, through the country Burundi where we were born and raised. And then she was a human rights activist. And then she has to flee the country because she was in trouble from the report that she made. And then we end up in Detroit. So Nadia, my wife, found herself in Freedom House. That was 2013. And after a couple months she found out she was pregnant, and she was pregnant with twins. I tried to join them and unfortunately I got denied a visa two times, and so I saw them for the first time, Nadia and my kids, in November 2015. I started a new life at the same moment. I didn’t speak the language, of course. I didn’t have a work authorization. Very hard time as a migrant and refugee to be in Detroit because Donald Trump was becoming the president of the United States. So there was a lot of hate messages around. So was not easy emotionally. Same time, I could not then even get a job because seeking asylum was even tougher then, what would be in the normal days and normal time. I got my work authorization in 2017. So I stay home, start learning the language, watch cartoons with the girls, and using a lot of Google translation so then I can hear how the word sounds. And that’s, I didn’t take a class, so that’s the only way I could start speaking and listening, which was not easy. But by the time you get in a new country, the only thing is to learn the language. That’s how, that’s the only way you want to communicate. At the moment, we tried to get a job around Detroit, there was not any jobs. So I end up working in a factory like 45, 50 minutes away from Detroit. And then I realized right away that that is no way I would end up my life or this is not something I want to do all my life. And then, meantime, I was staying home. There was a program at Freedom House that Steve and Global Detroit, I think they started with Prosperous Detroit. So it was an entrepreneurship program that I took classes. And then that program opened my eyes that it’s possible to open a business. It’s possible to be an entrepreneur in this country. I was like, Oh, wow, this is great. So the dream started there. I was like, one day I want to own my own business. Around that time, there was not that many African restaurants. Data shows 75 percent of people who live in Detroit are Black. You can’t go wrong with that, but the reality was not that. The reality was people didn’t know anything about Burundi, didn’t know anything about East Central Africa. So we have to teach again. And then this is how we started. And then 2017, July, we won the [inaudible] Detroit, which was $50,000 prize to open the new business.

Denzil Mohammed: I want to get to that. But, I mean, just in such a short space of time you arrived here and your wife arrived in 2013. You got here in 2015. Donald Trump became president. There was a lot of hate, as you say, toward refugees and immigrants and the learning process as well. You said you had to start over. I mean, to start a whole new life again at 35, don’t even know the language. You don’t know the legal structure. You don’t know the culture. You’re depending on the kindness of strangers. That’s just an absolutely, absolutely fascinating story. Tell me a little bit about this idea for entrepreneurship.

Mamba Hamissi: So I grow up. My mom owned a small restaurant. The restaurant was in the markets, so she would sell food, and then the main goal, main purpose of selling food for her was to make sure, we have some food on the table so we can eat. So, coming in this country, now that she’s an amazing cook, and I have that background. My mom owned the restaurant. I used to tell her, You can cook, I can sell. I know how to sell, but I don’t have the chance to have something I can sell. What can we do? We don’t enjoy the food around. And then there is a lot of things that I don’t like, a lot of restaurants. How can I change these things? I want to be responsible for that. I want to change the behavior, how people eat. Because you don’t want to go out there and just complain for everything without taking action, so you have to go and make changes. I felt I had that responsibility, that my motivation was I knew I’m not going to be a Burundian anymore. And I knew I’m not going, people even in Burundi they don’t want to see me again as someone from there. Same to my kids. I knew my kids since day one they are American. And then I have to give them a [legacy] of knowledge, a [legacy] of confidence, and then have to build it right now. And then the only way you can build it is to share what you have. The only thing I had was my culture. The only thing I have is my education. And that’s, I was like, let me transform this education in this culture so then I can have something strong I can handle to my kids.

Denzil Mohammed: You’ve failed a test. You’re supposed to be in love with Chicken McNuggets. I don’t understand how you didn’t like the food here. [laugh] Steve, you’ve seen this a lot over the years. I know that you grew out of the local Chamber of Commerce there in 2010. What did you see at that time and what have you seen since then with the immigrants and refugees coming into Detroit?

Steve Tobocman: Well, what we’ve seen for a community like Detroit and Southeast Michigan is really strong contributions to our economy. You know, Mamba’s story is like so many other immigrant entrepreneurs. We sometimes call it entrepreneurship out of necessity, that they’re not able to get hired for jobs that they’re trained for or skilled for. They don’t have the networks that many of us have growing up in this country or in this region. And so then they find a way on their own to really leverage their labor, their contribution, their intellectual contributions. And they’re innovative. The same kinds of drive that would have them escape or even seek out human rights abuses in their home country are some of the assets they use to build their businesses. So when we launched Global Detroit, it was the Detroit Regional Chamber looking around and saying, what are the economic contributions of immigrants and how do we step in at a time in 2010 where our state economy and our regional economy and our city’s economy were in free fall? We had the worst decade of probably any state in American history between 2000 and 2010. We went from the 17th wealthiest state in per capita income to the 41st. This was just a year before Detroit declared itself bankrupt, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, where we lost a quarter of the population in the city of Detroit between 2000 and the 2010 census. And so what we saw was that immigrants of all walks, whether they’re asylum seekers who don’t speak the language to high tech entrepreneurs and graduates and with electrical engineering master’s degrees, that we need to be the automotive design capital of the world going forward. And we designed a series of programs and opportunities to support those folks we saw in Detroit neighborhoods, which were grossly under-retailed. Across America 28 percent of all the main-street business owners are immigrant born. And that is true in restaurants where they’re close to 38 percent of the restaurant owners. But also when you look at grocery stores, they’re over 50 percent of the grocery store owners. And these are critical economic development and community development issues for a city like Detroit. We designed programs. There’s one that Global Detroit was intimately involved with called Prosperous Detroit, which has trained over a thousand Detroiters in basic business planning sessions. Those are African-American Detroiters. Those are Latinx Detroiters who have been here for three or four generations. But it’s also newer Yemeni, Bangladeshi, African immigrants who come to the city. They’ve also lent out over three and a half million dollars in micro loans to small businesses and created over 2,500 jobs in the city. So it seems like a small strategy to help an asylee apply for their first grant and maybe to give them a small loan to open their business, but when that gets magnified across the city, it becomes a real significant industrial or economic development strategy.

Denzil Mohammed: You talk about the city being in freefall, and those are some really awful statistics that you put out there. But I think of the idea of neighborhood revitalization, and if Detroit was in such a terrible spot and you have this new blood coming in, as desperate as they may have been, that played a huge role in revitalizing the city.

Steve Tobocman: Absolutely. You know, last year we came out with a really seminal study with an urban researcher named Alan Malik and one of our data partners at Data Driven Detroit called Building Inclusive Cities. You can find it at We believe it’s the first study of its kind that looked at an urban neighborhood that had seen relatively rapid immigration growth and not what are the impact for, and how do the immigrants gain an income and get integrated and acculturated over time. It really looked at the long-term residents. So what did it mean for the long-term African-American residents in a neighborhood we call Bongo Town, East Davison Village, as well as one called Cass Corridor. And what we found is that by almost every metric that you would net measure neighborhood health by, whether it’s vacancy, tax foreclosure, mortgage foreclosure, blight, retail opportunities, crime, fires, all the bad statistics went down much faster than in the rest of the city of Detroit. And all the good statistics went up much faster. Moreover, we found that all residents, including long-term, African-American residents, felt that things in their neighborhood were better than on average in other neighborhoods, felt their neighborhood was going in the right direction and largely actually felt good about newcomers.

Denzil Mohammed: So, Mamba, tell us about your role in the city in terms of bringing in culture, using your background, growing a business, and the odd way in which that started vis-à-vis the pandemic.

Mamba Hamissi: Yes, the role is huge because, as I said, I look forward in the only city, in the only home, I have now is Detroit for me and for my family, for my kids. And then that is something that I wanted to point out. Every single immigrant, when we are coming in this country, so we look forward, we don’t look back. So we have to, it’s a responsibility to build where we are. First of all, because there is that cliché that, Oh, you are coming here to steal a job, and then that is very sometimes heavy on our shoulders. We want to prove wrong. No, no, no, no, no. We are here to build the economy. Only not that one is powering other [inaudible]. Sometimes this country still big and may be scary to start a new business or to dream about something. And then we show them that, hey, it’s possible. The American dream is there, but you have to work hard. You have to work hard. Come in this country, 2015, look where am I now. It’s because I didn’t do nothing magic. I work hard. I listened, I followed the rule. I tried to be, to not be in trouble. So there is a formula. It’s very easy, and once they see that formula, you use it and you’re succeeding. Everybody say, Oh, okay, so I can make my own contribution. So I can do something. I can be like Mamba. I think that is the responsibility that we have. And then above that is the role that we’re trying to play. Also, hiring other immigrants and refugees who are coming in this country. Sometime they don’t speak the language. So it’s great to have a space like Baobab Fare where they can start or dream or see how things can be, and then be the one who will understand them more. And sometimes you see people coming at work without the jackets in the winters. [inaudible] Man, you gonna die. You can’t do that. But if it’s coming from me. They feel like, Oh, you understand. You’ve been there. But if it’s coming from somebody else, they may feel offended. But we play that role to help with the mistakes that we made in the past, so then somebody doesn’t make the same mistakes.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s a huge responsibility you have going on there. And I want to point out again, in less than seven years, you acquired the language, you acquired the skills. You already had a huge skill set coming in, and then you won grants, you won $50,000, another $50,000, in order to start your business. And you started your business around the same time as the pandemic started, and, therefore, you know you had big dreams, but then that came crashing down. How did you find a way to maintain the momentum in order to see your business finally open? And how did you do any sort of outreach when everything was locked down?

Mamba Hamissi: I feel like for someone like me as a refugee coming in this country, the first thing is to appreciate the life that you’re living. In any ways you have better life here than what you can have back home. When you’re a refugee, because you’re fleeing the country, then you have another chance in your life. So you take that one with a lot of appreciation. And then when you see something like a pandemic, and then you in a country where you can get the vaccine, in a country where the police is not trying to kill you and try to protect you, you’re getting in a country where you have all these amazing things, that you have a lot, [inaudible] you have around. That’s only things you are winning in any battle you can go through. So for us, the pandemic was not easy, but we’ve been always making sure people they know what we are doing. We cry, we make friends, we support people. And then that’s what we did by make meals for the health care workers, make meals for people who were needed at that time. When we, once the restaurant was open, we start seeing that a lot. People wanted to give back. And then it is not about the family, it’s not about us. It’s about what you do for others. And then I think that I want people to understand this: It’s very important when you are in business, you have to be generous. Don’t just look for money. Look for the contribution that you’re making. You are changing things, and then talk to people, remind people, ask for help. It’s possible. And then that is the only way we will succeed. So opening the middle of the pandemic for us was scary, very scary. But the help, the support, was amazing.

Denzil Mohammed: Steve, this is one of many, many stories you’ve encountered over the years. Can you just reflect on that a little bit and what would be your message to other municipalities across the nation?

Steve Tobocman: Well, I think one of the things I have found working with the immigrant community is a half step forward in welcoming them and supporting them and helping them connect with their dreams and their ambitions is rewarded multiple-fold. And so we set up a session at Freedom House to talk to people about starting businesses, and now we have a James Beard nominated, nationally known amazing restaurant that is not only contributing to our economy but contributes to our culture, contributes to the food scene. I remember one of my trips in Detroit a few months ago, and I think I ended up at Mamba’s restaurant three nights in a row, in part because everybody wants to go there. And I would encourage anybody listening to this podcast next time you’re in Detroit, Baobab Fare is something you should check out. But my advice to other municipalities is that there are now in 2022, a number of partners, whether it’s Global Detroit or Welcoming America or the American Immigration Council and others, who are dedicated to assisting communities to think through the economic opportunities of being inclusive to the immigrant and refugee populations that are growing in your midst, that integration is, there’s federal immigration policies, but integration is a local experience. And rather than burying your heads in the sand, this is not the third rail of American politics. These are your neighbor, immigrants and refugees are your neighbors. They’re the future of your community. And there are plenty of things that you can do to leverage their contributions in ways that benefit everybody in the community. And so what you’re seeing is that numerous communities are rebuilding themselves, are tooling for the future, and creating prosperity, securing their own prosperity into the future through immigrant and refugee inclusion. And there’s a lot of folks out there now to assist communities to think through these challenges and how to and how to take advantage of them.

Denzil Mohammed: And it’s for everyone’s benefit. All Americans, new and old, everyone in that community benefits when people are given the opportunity to thrive. Mamba, you were forced to adapt and start over again at a really difficult time in American history when it comes to immigration. If you had one message to the American public about who refugees and asylees are, what do you think that would be?

Mamba Hamissi: Just, we just need love, and then I promise we going to give you back the same love. And, again, when we are coming in this country as refugees, especially, we don’t, the only house, the only home, the only future is here. You know, be patient with [inaudible], there is a lot of things we have to learn, but just be patient with us. One thing only, I’m sure a hundred percent we love this country, and then that’s the only country we have. And then we are more than happy, honored and appreciative every single day that we spend in this country.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s an incredible message, Mamba. Mamba Hamissi, co-founder and CEO of Baobab Fare in Detroit, and Steve Tobocman, executive director of Global Detroit, thank you for joining us on JobMakers.

Steve Tobocman: Thanks for having us.

Mamba Hamissi:Thank you.

Denzil Mohammed:JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s incredible story of one refugee entrepreneur. If you know a similarly outstanding immigrant or refugee business owner or innovator, email Denzil, that’s d-e-n-z-i-l @ I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers podcast.

Episode 68: Sheetal Bahirat

JobMakers podcast graphic: Sheetal Bahirat turns a profit on food waste

Indian American entrepreneur Sheetal Bahirat is reducing food waste via her company Hidden Gems Beverage Company, which turns avocado pits into delicious, healthy drinks. Bahirat combined her backgrounds in entrepreneurship and food science to create a sustainable and profitable business. Tune in to learn how Bahirat navigated building her startup as a female, minority, immigrant founder.

Episode 67: Patrick Anquetil

JobMakers podcast graphic: Patrick Anquetil on America's freedom to innovateFrench American biotech founder Patrick Anquetil says he would never have been able to launch his medical device company Portal Instruments in his country of origin. The spirit of entrepreneurship in the United States enabled him and his organization to develop a needle-free drug delivery system that could benefit countless Americans. Listen to learn how he believes his product can improve vaccine rates. A video interview with Anquetil is also available here.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, and welcome back to JobMakers.

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Perhaps the most special characteristic of the United States is its entrepreneurial spirit. Many immigrants grab onto that to innovate, start businesses and create jobs. It is, in fact, a story as old as time, from Levi’s jeans and Kraft cheese to SpaceX rockets and Gmail accounts. We take this as a given here in the U.S., but this is not something that exists everywhere. In many countries, there isn’t the infrastructure to support entrepreneurship and taking the risks to start a business is actually frowned upon. For Dr. Patrick Anquetil, immigrant from France and co-founder and CEO of Portal Instruments in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a clinical stage medical device company developing a needle-free drug delivery platform, there was no way he could have started a business like this in his home country. At that time, entrepreneurship was not viewed as a path to success. So he traveled to MIT, which he says gave him quote, “a sense of great possibilities as if he broke free.” That freedom to innovate will lead in Patrick’s case to a transformative patient experience in a needle-free world. Something we should all be grateful for, but it could only have been conceived and created in a place that fosters an entrepreneurial spirit in its people, old or new, as you’ll learn in this week’s JobMakers podcast.

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Patrick Anquetil, co-founder and CEO of Portal Instruments based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, welcome to the JobMakers podcast.

Patrick Anquetil: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here and we love job creation. So thank you for the opportunity.

Denzil Mohammed: We love it too. So who is Patrick Anquetil and what is Portal Instruments?

Patrick Anquetil: Sure. So as you probably can tell from my accent, I’m from France originally. I came to the US about 20+ years ago. I loved it and basically stayed, became an American citizen as a result and been delighted to be so. My background is, I have a degree in engineering, mechanical engineering to be more precise. Also went to Harvard business school where I got my MBA and really what I like to do is create companies and really make a contribution there to create products or services that have a high need and hopefully help make the world better. Portal Instruments is the latest company I co-founded. It’s a device out of MIT that can inject medicines without needles. So really solving a huge problem that’s clinically relevant, but unfortunately overlooked by our industry. And so that creates the environment for us to be there and change that.

Denzil Mohammed: Yeah. You’re gonna have to explain how the medicine becomes the needle.

Patrick Anquetil: Correct.

Denzil Mohammed: I’ve known you for a long time and I’ve read a lot about you and you’ve often associated being an immigrant with being an entrepreneur. Let’s talk about that. The first part of that, being an immigrant. You said you were here from France. What was life like growing up in your arrondissement in Paris?

Patrick Anquetil: It was great. I think I was extremely fortunate. I had a very blessed childhood. I lived in a very nice area in Paris not too far away from the Eiffel Tower. At the same time though the idea to create a company was as remote as I could imagine. I always thought that this was something for someone else, that this is stuff that you read basically in the newspapers, in profiles, but certainly, with a French context at the time, there was no way I could be that guy or that guy who had started a company. And then I came to the U.S. and that really changed. And I realized anyone can do it. And in fact, that’s really the center piece of it is that you realize, well, gee, if she can do it, so can I, right? And I think the role of role models is so important. I think at the time in France, there were no role models at all. In fact, if you had started a company and done really, really well it was almost frowned upon, that there was something malicious about you, that you maybe had a shady past, so to say. Of course we’re talking 30, 40+ years ago. Probably 40+ years ago. And it’s changed quite radically now, but, but I think at the time it was true that there was no true role models as we have today that we could associate with. And I always thought starting a company would be something for someone else.

Denzil Mohammed: Isn’t that crazy?

Patrick Anquetil: It is crazy. Yes.

Denzil Mohammed: How could you not encourage entrepreneurship and innovation and job creation? So you’re thrice over an immigrant because you first moved to study in Switzerland, and then you spent time in Japan. And then of course, as you said, 20 something years ago, you moved to the U.S., what were those experiences like? Very disparate sort of places, right?

Patrick Anquetil: Yeah. You know, I think what’s interesting is they all had the same thing in common, that you had to be on your own and be responsible. Right? You know what I actually loved about the experience in Zurich? I was tremendously fortunate that I knew German because my mother is German. So I had no issue studying in German. And I’m still amazed to this day that my parents supported that idea. And I mean, it wasn’t trivial. Again, this was pre-internet [laughs], so moving to another country was actually quite an adventure. And I think as a result, because my parents gave me so much trust there was just no way I was going to come back. And so it had to be successful. I had to find a way to be successful. And I think that is the immigrant story. And it’s the same thing in Japan. I mean, I remember arriving after, I think it’s a 13-hour flight from Zurich, arriving in Tokyo and finally making it to my dorm room and it was dark and literally crying the first day, like what am I doing? And then you wake up the next day and it’s like, okay, no, time’s up, back to work, you gotta figure it out and make it happen. And so I think that’s the immigrant story. I think that’s what makes it unique. And so if you compare it with entrepreneurship, it is a form of entrepreneurship as well. It happens to be the entrepreneurship of you. And then I think those lessons conversely can be also applied when you start your own company, right. It’s the same thing. Failure is not an option. And you’re gonna try to make it work because there is no turning back. Right, and so I think that it’s no question that those experiences really transformed me and probably made me want to be an entrepreneur as a result.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow. And fluent in German, fluent in English, fluent in French, you learned a little bit of Japanese too. I read that you taught yourself English by reading dungeon and dragons books.

Patrick Anquetil: Oh my God, that’s true. I’m amazed you know that. That’s really true.

Denzil Mohammed: That is very unique. Most people will say MTV or Michael Jackson, things like that. But I did read that you always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but as you mentioned, the ecosystem in France at the time, didn’t allow for that or dissuaded that. And when you started your doctorate at MIT, you said people were starting businesses left and right. And you felt a great sense of a sense of great possibilities. You felt like you broke free. Explain that.

Patrick Anquetil: Well, there were many things actually going on. The thing I remember vividly from those days is how in the U.S., it’s almost the ultimate immigrant story because no one’s got your back, plus I had no family here on top of that. So it’s interesting. Maybe some people can be different, but I think for me having no safety net kind of was liberating in a way, because it meant that there was only one path. It’s interesting. The safety net is great, but it’s also a distraction as well, because now you’re focusing on the safety net instead of focusing on what you’re building. I also felt that at the time at MIT, this was during the dot com boom, everyone was starting companies left and right. And so there were role models that were there that you could actually talk to and observe. And in fact, it was almost the opposite, that if you weren’t starting something then there must be something wrong about you. Right. It was more the odd thing that you didn’t do anything versus the opposite. So I think that environment were actually quite unique as well. On campus there was a lot of support for those types of endeavors. There was, of course, the business plan competition, which was the MIT 50K at that time. Now the 100K I guess, maybe even more. Inflation is real AF even in that sector, I guess. And there were also courses that you could take or classes you could take. There were after hours activities actually as well. So there was a whole ecosystem there too, to support it.

Denzil Mohammed: In a recent episode, I interviewed a guy called Aki Balogh from Hungary who founded a tech marketing company called MarketMuse. And he said, “50 percent of our startup is emotional control.”

Patrick Anquetil: Yes.

Denzil Mohammed: Given your experience, do you agree?

Patrick Anquetil: I think it’s a 100 percent not 50 [laughs]. Yeah. First of all, one thinks that it’s like the hockey stick, the J-curve it’s called. So, you’re going to the negative and then woof. You sort of shut out as an exponential out. That’s really the myth. The reality is more, it’s a constant up and down and it’s like, for one up you get three down. It really becomes an exercise in managing your own psyche and then as CEO or someone from the senior team really, it’s important to show how those ups and down don’t phase you, that you don’t panic. Cause of course, everyone’s looking at you if you’re the leader of the company. So I think interestingly a lot of it is not being too emotional about the challenges and being, I guess soft food, for lack of a better word. It’s more deposed and realize that, look, this is just another problem we’re gonna solve it. This is what we do.

Denzil Mohammed: So let’s bring it into today. Portal Instruments. I saw some pretty alarming statistics about needles, that across the world there are about 10 million people who contract some form of disease because of an incident involving a needle, that the CDC puts needle fear at 25 percent among U.S. adults. I’m about 20 of that 25 percent. And that needle phobia accounts for about 10 percent of COVID vaccine hesitancy in the UK. My, my, my, there’s a problem.

Patrick Anquetil: Yeah, it’s crazy. And by the way, we’ve done our own surveys. It’s even worse in our sample than what you just described. It’s pretty amazing. We ran a survey. This was back in in September. 400 U.S. respondents. We had a 30 percent not vaccinated rate, which is not pretty good, I think the population was a bit worse than that. Maybe around 40 percent at the time, but still, kind of directionally the same. We asked that 30 percent. Well, if you had any free option would you have done it? And we had 45 percent who said, yes. It’s crazy. Even though I was very enthusiastic and a believer in what we do really, I would’ve guessed, five to 10 percent max, so very high. And then we asked the 70 percent that was vaccinated if they would’ve spent $10 for needle free option and there, we had 70 percent who said yes. The pharmaceutical industry is really measured, from an FDA regulatory perspective, fully only on two measures, which is safety and efficacy, right. And those two metrics don’t really involve what the patients feel in terms of the experience. And I think we look at this as, there’s a screaming opportunity. If you can introduce an orthogonal metric around patient preference, patient tolerance, ease of use, it’s typically you’d be ridiculed to look at patient convenience as something driving a health care product. It’s safety and efficacy and that’s it. To me, this highlights how we’ve got again, a clinically relevant problem that’s completely overlooked as well. And I think it’s important to change that, in particular with newer medicines being predominantly administered by an Eland syringes. There is a huge burden that’s there for the patient. There’s also a huge burden on society around how you dispose of those needles. These are contaminated. A friend of mine runs Parks and Recreation in Boston and once in a while they clean the muddy river. And you would think that they’re getting one or two syringes throughout that course … it’s bags of syringes.

Denzil Mohammed: Oh no.

Patrick Anquetil: It’s interesting. Bags, it’s crazy. It’s striking that no one talks about that, the fact that we’ve got devices that kill people, most of them of course, in the developing world, unfortunately. But it’s not uncommon for, in particular, the medical staff to get exposed to pathogens via an accidental needle break. It happens so many, so many times and I think in this day and age, that should not happen at all. You’ve been to our offices. On our wall, it says a needle-free world and that’s truly what the aspiration is of the company. We will focus first on chronic diseases, high value therapies that really drive tremendous benefits to patients. We want to help those patients further, for those suffering from chronic diseases, make the burden of the injection less of a burden and something just more easy to use to do the injection and then go on with your life. Don’t have to worry about getting someone accidentally pricked with the syringe and so on.

Denzil Mohammed: So when do you see this happening? Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?

Patrick Anquetil: I think in five to 10 years we will have a few of those powerful therapies for chronic diseases will be on the market. I think one area I’m extremely interested to have an impact on is vaccination. Because this needle-free world vision pretty much won’t happen until we can address vaccination, which is a bit of a different device. It’s a device that can be used across multiple patients. And also one that’s gonna be in office and so on. One for which we need to find a way, not just to have one manufacturer’s vaccine compatible with the device, but all vaccines should be compatible with this device as well. So we’re not there yet from a dealmaking perspective, also from an FDA perspective as well. But because everyone in a developed world has had multiple shots in their lives, some get it now every year we see the flu, who knows with COVID, maybe it’s twice a year that you need a vaccination. It’s still early, too early to tell. So I think, to me, this is the easiest way for us to have an impact is to basically solve this problem. So in 10 years I hope we become the standard for vaccination.

Denzil Mohammed: I remember seeing kids faint, or allegedly fainted when they got shots, nurses had to whip out the smelling salts.

Patrick Anquetil: Yes. These are all true, actually. Yeah.

Denzil Mohammed: On behalf of all the millions and millions of people out there who resent and fear needles, please, we, I wish for your continued success.

Patrick Anquetil: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that

Denzil Mohammed: The next device needs to do blood draws. Now you’d spoke a little bit earlier about how being an immigrant and being an entrepreneur sort of aligned with each other, and you talked about not having a safety net and an American, listening to this, probably wouldn’t understand. Describe that fear of not having a safety net or thrill, in your case, perhaps of having nothing to rely on, so you must do it yourself.

Patrick Anquetil: From a visa status. I mean so I’ve had quite a few H-1Bs, then I got a green card to one of the companies I started and then I became a U.S. citizen. That was kind of my journey with the H-1B. First, nowadays it’s actually a lottery to get it, which wasn’t the case during my time. So step one is a bit of chance that’s there as well. And then, if you get fired then you’ve got to almost immediately find another job or your H-1B basically expires, so to say. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but you gotta find some always place to learn very quickly. And at least at the time used to be a little bad. I actually don’t know what it is today. I had friends actually to whom that happened and they had to return back to their homes. So I think maybe some of us say, Americans, don’t maybe realize that there are kind of consequences to failure, right? And I think that in turn though, also acts as a motivator to do two things. One is to do, of course, a good job, but one is to also create a situation where you have options, that you’re never in a situation where this is kind of a last resort, and you have to leave.

Denzil Mohammed: It sounds like a luxury to have options as someone who has been through the immigration system.

Patrick Anquetil: Yeah.

Denzil Mohammed: There weren’t really many options. It was just one or nothing. It felt like that, and that uncertainty really does a number on your brain and your emotional state.

Patrick Anquetil: Definitely, and I wanna emphasize that what you describe is exactly my experience as well.

Denzil Mohammed: So you said you hold both French and American citizenship, congratulations on becoming an American citizen by the way. Can someone be patriotic to, or love two countries at once. Could that be a thing?

Patrick Anquetil: I think it’s interesting. I think first of all, to me and to my French compatriots, it would probably be shocking, but I think I was an American all my life. I just didn’t know it until I came here. I think I feel much more American than I feel French. And to me, the association with countries is more cultural, right? What do you have in common? What do you associate with? And what I love about America is there’s no limit, right. You can be anyone. I think it’s probably more a state of mind than really reality. But that’s enough, and I think the spirit is so strong and such a crucial thing in what we do. And so this growth mindset that you’ve got in the U.S. from the founding fathers up to now, it’s still there. I think it’s a commonly agreed upon ethos that we have as Americans that is radically different than in France. And again, I don’t spend enough time there anymore. So I just don’t know and I may hopefully not offend too many people there, but I think the growth mindset is limited in France, if not nonexistent, if you’re a little bit sanguine. From a cultural standpoint the success is not a good thing. First of all, if you’re successful you shouldn’t brag ’cause people get jealous very easily. And if you’re successful, that’s probably because you stole from someone else, right. It’s a zero sum game. You’re good so someone else probably suffered because of you. There’s nothing wrong against this, but I just didn’t want to live my life there for that reason, and I love France. In spirit, I was just closer to the American spirit and that’s why I’m here. I think it’s wonderful that we have this path as immigrants, to be accepted in this country as who we are. I think we need to keep that and cherish that as Americans. It is really unique. You know, oftentimes I think societies are much more afraid of other cultures versus here, you come as you are, and you become an American. And that melting pot so to say is what makes us all Americans as well as a result because that’s how the country is. It’s not by mistake or coincidence that just happened over the centuries, right? It’s an immigrant country. I think it always will be and we need to keep that in mind. And I think that’s also what makes us strength actually as well.

Denzil Mohammed: So that brings me to my final question. Why is it important to be welcoming?

Patrick Anquetil: Immigrants who come here have a tremendous desire to succeed because they came here against all odds. Because of that, they have an ethos and values that they wanna contribute to that can only make the country better. That’s why I think immigrants are so, so important, hardworking, great values. They want to help the country as a result, become better as well.

Denzil Mohammed: Very well said. Patrick Anquetil, co-founder and CEO of Portal Instruments, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast. This was really a delight talking to you.

Patrick Anquetil: Thank you, Denzil for having us.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for this week’s incredible story of one immigrant’s innovation and entrepreneurship. If you know a similarly outstanding immigrant business owner or innovator we should talk to, email Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L at JobMakerspodcast dot org. I’m Denzil Mohammed, see you next week for another JobMakers.

Episode 66: Giovanni Ruscitti

JobMakers podcast graphic: Giovanni Ruscitti on how Italian immigrants built successIn his new book, Cobblestones, Conversations and Corks: A Son’s Discovery of His Italian Heritage, Giovanni Ruscitti traces his family’s immigration story and how it has shaped his own life. He describes how today’s immigrants embody the same entrepreneurial grit of his Italian American parents. Listen to learn how he used his own entrepreneurial drive to found a law firm.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, welcome to JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: One of the primary reasons immigrants flee to the United States, historically and today, is war, instability, the inability to see a future in your own land, be they migrants today from Central America fleeing gangs or migrants from Southern Europe a century ago fleeing fascism. The story is the same, the journey just as hard, the ambitions and willingness to survive indistinguishable, but perhaps for skin color. For Giovanni Ruscitti, son of immigrants from Italy, founding partner at the law firm of Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti in Boulder, Colorado, an author of the just released Cobblestones, Conversations & Corks: A Son’s Discovery of His Italian Heritage, he saw that hard work and ambition firsthand with his grandparents who worked the coal mines and his father who did whatever work was available until he was able to start not one but two businesses in the U.S. Giovanni tells us his family’s story of being forced to leave the land they loved, coming here with virtually nothing, bringing with them a diligent work ethic and how they were able eventually to thrive and pave the way for his own entrepreneurial success and job making. Crucially though, Giovanni explains that immigrants from all time periods, including today, bring value, innovation, culture, and strength, and working alongside them builds up our communities for everyone’s benefit, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Giovanni Ruscitti, descendant of Italian immigrants, founding partner of Berg Hill Greeley Ruscitti LLP law firm in Boulder, Colorado, and author of Cobblestones, Conversations & Corks: A Son’s Discovery of His Italian Heritage, welcome to the JobMakers podcast.

Giovanni Ruscitti: Denzil, thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure to be here. I’m really honored.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s a beautiful book with beautiful pictures. Why did you want to write this book? What was important for you to tell and why?

Giovanni Ruscitti: Great question. My father passed away in 2019 and my dad lived this pretty remarkable life of the immigrant American Dream story. He was the guy who came here with literally the shirt on his back at 21 with no education and retired at 62, very successful however you define the word success. And he taught me a lot of things about hard work and entrepreneurs. But one of the things that he said right before he passed was he was a deeply, like a lot of immigrants, deeply proud person of his family, his heritage, how he got here, how he became who he was. And he said two weeks before he passed somebody should tell my story, our story, you should write a book. Yes, Denzil, as a very busy attorney and arbitrator and mediator and managing partner in my law firm, I didn’t really think I was going to be able to do it, but I said, “Yes, dad, I’ll do that.” And so I made that promise to him. 2020 then came around and with obviously COVID, but then, more importantly, BLM and the social unrest and the political unrest. And then really a lot of the targeting towards immigrants that started a few years before. I just felt compelled to sit down and just fulfill that promise. I had no intention to write a book. I certainly had no intent to write a memoir. I just was going to honor my promise to my father. And his story came to life for me. It’d be 2013 when I did my first trip back to Italy to my parents’ hometown. And the stories that he had shared with me so many times as a little boy, which had no context and meaning in the past, suddenly came to life. And it was this confluence of things that just came together, and here we are. Yesterday, the book came out and received a lot of great reviews and doing really well on Amazon, hitting number one new releases already. So very honored and pleased by that. But really what I wanted to do is tell this story. It’s, at the end of the day, a love story about a father-son relationship that evolves over time. Father-son relationships have their peaks, their valleys. And ours was like that, got really strong, but it’s also a love story about my parents and their relationship, my falling in love with their town, in my ancestral hometown. And then of course we’re Italian so love of food and wine that really emerged exactly over my entire lifetime.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s terrific. And it’s written in such a personal and easy to understand way. I could feel like I’m walking with you through the town. Yours and those of the other people you grew up with are the immigrant stories that span generations, guide us through some of those stories. What was fascinating or noteworthy about those stories and these immigrants?

Giovanni Ruscitti: They worked hard. My father and my grandfathers, my mom, my grandmothers, they had very little back in Italy. They were poor by any definition before World War II. And then they lived through extreme poverty and misery. And these were people who lived very simple, basic lives. And they took that kind of work ethic with them to the United States after they left. But for my family, it all started in 1943 when the Nazis invaded their central part of Italy, because what they were doing is they were trying to get themselves positioned for the Americans and Polish who were coming up through Sicily. And my dad was seven, mom was four and they had to make a choice. The choice was fight and be killed or sent to prisoner of war camp, give in and be servants to the Nazi soldiers, or leave and abandon their homes and all their possessions. They chose the latter, they left. And they struggled for a long time and family members, one at a time, started coming over and it’s a traditional kind of story that you’ve heard many times. Somebody would come over, typically one of the men, and get a job. And for my family, they worked in coal mines in Colorado, and they would send money back. And one family member at a time would come over. And my mom came in ’54. She went back and married my dad in ‘57. And he came over in ‘58. And, like I told you before, he was truly the shirt-on-his-back story. But when they got here they moved to a town where most of the people from Cansano had moved to. So my first language growing up was not English. It was Italian. And so I spent a lot of time with all these old men doing things that none of my friends were doing. We were butchering goats and lamb. We were making wine and prosciutto. We were drawing out sausage and making cheese. And I didn’t really get to have the same kind of upbringing that a lot of my friends had, which I kind of resented at the time to be honest with you, because you want to be out playing. But I spent all this amazing time with these great men and great strong women. And it really framed who I became. But I didn’t know, you don’t really appreciate those things until you’re older. But my dad always said, “Hey, you can do it. If I was able to succeed, you can do it.” I was the first person in my family to go to college and I got my MBA. Then I went to law school. My dad and I got very close in 2013 through this trip and got to spend a lot of quality time together in another trip. And then, just talking about his upbringing, there’s so many stories. And my dad was a storyteller. He would talk about, like the first part of the book talks about, the road it’s called, and the winding road up to the town, which I’d heard about a million times. My dad told a story about how he was 10 or 11, and they would be cutting down wood. They didn’t have any other resources, their assets were the timber in the mountains. So they would cut down wood, take it down to a town named Simona, sell it for either food or they’d trade it for provisions that they needed or money. My dad would have a sandwich somewhere in town there, a little glass of wine because that’s part of the culture. And then he would walk back. So it was six or seven miles, one way with all the wood, and then he’d walk back. And I heard that story, Denzil, so many times. But it came to life that day in June when I was doing that drive. And he was telling the story again. He’s like, “That’s where we used to cut down the wood.” And there’s so many stories like that that really defined him, and I have a million more of who he was and my memories as a boy and his hard work and just the things that he used to do that were funny. He was a charming, charismatic guy, but he was also a tough Italian machismo kind of guy. And so he had all those things coming together.

Denzil Mohammed: And he knew how to negotiate. He knew how to do that.

Giovanni Ruscitti: He did.

Denzil Mohammed: And so much of what you’re saying resonates with me because we hear these stories generation after generation. And it’s not so dissimilar to families who are forced to flee Guatemala or El Salvador, because they face death or having to surrender to gangs and things like that. It’s a similar story. It’s very fascinating for me, the children of immigrants. I think the children of immigrants are just the most awesome people. They can straddle two cultures, they’re multilingual, multicultural. And they do so much exponentially better than their parents did. What was it like for your parents when they first moved here? They came with very little, they came with no English skills. I imagine their priority was just to work and to try and find some stability.

Giovanni Ruscitti: Yes, totally. I mean, when my dad got here in ‘58 he had no education, so it was any job that he could get. And literally he took any job that he could get. And a lot of it was in very difficult kind of construction work. He did not want to be in the mine like my grandfathers were. He just did not want to work in a coal mine. But he was a custodian. He did lots of things like that. He would take any job. My mom also was working and then my sisters were born and I was born in ‘66. But one of the jobs that my dad had was he worked for a company where one of the things he got to do or had the opportunity to do, and said I’ve got to do, because that’s the way he viewed it, was he got to work with the executives and clean out their suites. He was, one of his tasks was being a custodian. So, Denzil, what do you think he did? He took home the Wall Street Journal from their offices, and he learned how to read and write from reading the Wall Street Journal. So he was very entrepreneurial. And what he did was he went to my grandfather and my great uncles and said, “Hey, instead of us working for these other guys, helping them make all this money, why don’t we form our own construction company?” They’re like, “Oh, Emilio, you don’t know what you’re talking about. We just got here. We barely speak the language.” And my dad’s like, “No, we can do it.” And so they started doing some of that. Later, he and his brother formed a construction company, but he also learned how to buy and sell stock. He learned about real estate. And so he started working two or three jobs, and amassing a lot of assets. And you mentioned learning how to negotiate. There’s some great stories in the book that I tell that really framed me when I was a kid. So in the seventies, there was a department store in the town where I was from that was going out of business. And so it was like a Kmart. It wasn’t Kmart. It was called Gibsons. And my dad and my uncle had this construction company. They walk in and I think things were like 70 percent off at this point. So they walk into the paint department and my dad says, “Okay, I’ll give you $200 for all this.” The kid is like an 18-year-old, pimpled kid. And I was a kid myself. I was like seven or eight. The kid was like, “Sir, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s 70 percent off.” [laugh] And then my uncle kind of swoops in. I think they had this great plan. I didn’t realize this until later. My uncle comes in and then offers another number. And then the kid goes back to his supervisor. Next thing you know, my dad and uncle bought thousands of cans of paint that they were going to use for their painting business. But if I go to my mom’s house, hundreds of those bottles of paint, 40 plus years later, are still there. [laugh] And I would tell my dad, “Dad, you’re not going to use all this paint.” He wasn’t a hoarder or anything. So he was just this great negotiator. So he loved going to the markets. He loved negotiating. And for him, it was, like we walked into Kmart and he wanted to buy a table saw, and it was 200 bucks. He said, he tells the kid, “I’ll give you 150.” The kid’s like, “It’s $200.” But he was a negotiator and that taught me, and actually it’s a tool that I use now as an attorney, don’t be afraid to ask. Worst anyone can do is say no.

Denzil Mohammed: Yes, he had no boundaries when it came to this kind of thing. [laugh] He didn’t exactly know the American way all the time. One thing that is fascinating in your book is you mentioned that many of the immigrants to that [Colorado] town were from the same city in Italy.

Giovanni Ruscitti: Yes.

Denzil Mohammed: What is the value of having an enclave of people from your home country? Because the narrative in the U.S. is they’re isolating. They don’t want to learn the language. They’re not integrating, but there is a tremendous value of having people from your home country to support you. That’s social capital, right?

Giovanni Ruscitti: Oh, absolutely. I mean it was this community that was right there. These people all really supported each other. And I remember as a young kid, my dad, when he wasn’t working a job, was at one of these other, they were called cansanesi. So the people of Cansano called themselves cansanesi. He was at another cansanesi person’s house, helping them fix something in their kitchen or their bathroom or building something. And they didn’t pay each other. They were helping each other. My dad always helped others. And his greatest gift was he knew how to help people. He was good with his hands and he realized that was his gift, and he gave it to other people. He would help whenever he could. And so much of that being a servant is lost. But you know, when you have that tight culture, yes, there are some negative things that happened. I didn’t speak English until I was five or six, even though I was born here in 1966. But, man, you felt very safe. You had people there who were from the exact same experience as you, who knew what you went through and were going through the exact same things here at the same time. And it was that sense of community that I think is missing in this country. Unfortunately, if you look at what things bring people true joy, one of them is community. It’s being with family or a close-knit group of friends.

Denzil Mohammed: And to be clear, community does not mean that you’re all the same, but you probably share similar experience or have a similar ambition. Let’s get into the entrepreneurship. As you know, many immigrants start businesses in the U.S. Often it’s their only option. What were some of the businesses started by the immigrants and their descendants around you? And do you see parallels with today’s immigrants? Is today’s story sort of similar to when you guys first came here?

Giovanni Ruscitti: Yes. When I was a kid, I talked about this in the book, we didn’t have a lot in the early seventies, but I didn’t know it. We always had enough. We had food and we had a house, the house that my dad built. But my dad started off, his first business was a construction company and he and his brother Luciano would go around and they would build homes. And they built a lot of homes in the town I was in. So my cousin and I would go around and help. We thought we were helping. We were probably more of a nuisance, but they wanted us there to help them. And they were very successful. And then, as I mentioned, he used his experience in Wall Street to start buying real estate. So he started buying some rental properties and he would take his experience as a construction worker to remodel these homes. So he was building new homes. He was not flipping the property. He was using them as rental property. He just viewed, and by the way, a lot of the people that he was renting to were immigrants, and he was helping them. The rent was very cheap, but he was building capital. One of the people who reviewed my book is Hernando de Soto, a famous economist who wrote The Mystery of Capital and his whole view about giving people rights is through property.  And my dad lived that. He became empowered through property. Now, by the way, all this time, he had a full-time job or two, and he worked for a company that was about to go through an acquisition and they wanted to move him to West Virginia or Texas. And he said no. His mom was still alive. His siblings were all around. And he said, “No, I’m going to stay.” And so he started over again, this was in the early eighties, and started a grocery store, no experience as a grocer. My dad had the viewpoint that you can do it, which is the way he told us all the time. And so then he became a grocer and he just, he never stopped building and being an entrepreneur. And talking about negotiations, he would go to the local, I mean, this is truly local organic farms, not like what you see nowadays. He would go to the local farmers, say during corn season. And the guy would say, “Okay, well, we’re selling at whatever a dozen or a dozen corn for a dollar.” And my dad said, “Okay, I’ll buy the entire truckload.” So he had this old, beat-up white Ford pickup for a hundred dollars. And the guy would look at him, [laugh] and he would do it. And then we’d take the truck back, go in front of the store, park it there. And then he would sell so much corn. He does this with everything. But he was always an entrepreneur. He had that spirit and nothing phased him at all, nothing. I mean, he could do anything. And so he was immensely successful doing that. And it taught me a lot about taking risks, not risk in the sense of what a lot of people do nowadays, but betting on yourself and hard work. And that’s the way I built my legal career.

Denzil Mohammed: So let’s get to your business. Now, you went on to found your own business, a law firm. From my experience, immigrant business owners don’t usually want their children to go into business because they know how hard it is. But what has the experience been like for you and your experience with your father help you in any way?

Giovanni Ruscitti: Completely. So I’ve been practicing law almost 30 years. In November 2001 me and the other founding partners of our firm, [inaudible]. I was young. I was 35. I was leaving a solid kind of job. And I had three kids and told my wife. I said, “Hey, I think I’m going to go out and start a new firm.” And that was risky. And my dad had taught me that I could do it. I mean, that was his phrase. You can do it. And he always preached about controlling your own destiny, making your own decisions, you being your own boss. And so we set out. There were five attorneys at the time. We were going to be a boutique construction / real estate firm. Now we have almost 60 attorneys, offices in Boulder, Denver, Cheyenne, Irvine, San Diego, truly a national practice. And definitely the teachings of my father I use every day. And when I’m mentoring young lawyers, some of the phrases that he used with me, I use with them. And, no, I would not have the work ethic to do what I do without some of his, really, teachings. Obviously very different work what I do, but, Denzil, the common theme is being willing to work, the willingness to do what it takes to make something successful. And I got that from him.

Denzil Mohammed: And the willingness to accept risk. Risk is part of the deal. I often say the act of migrating is itself an entrepreneurial act. And that’s part of the reason why immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses here in the U.S. They are job makers, not job takers.

Giovanni Ruscitti: Exactly.

Denzil Mohammed: You can do it. And you did. Finally, your family’s experience is both unique and storied and yet also very much the immigrant story. What would you say to Americans today about welcoming new, ambitious entrepreneurial immigrants to their communities?

Giovanni Ruscitti: Please, please, please be open and nonjudgmental. You know, our country was built on, no matter how you define it, the immigrant story. For some it was just a year or two ago. For others, it was three or four hundred years ago, but we’re all at some point in time, we come from that same kind of story and background. And we don’t know what these other people are going through. We don’t know what they’re escaping. But I do know this: We are blessed in this country. We have so many resources available to us, whether it be our educational system, our health care system, our jobs. Just the stuff that we have around us, that 80, 90 percent of the population of our planet don’t have. And they’re looking for something better and that’s all they’re trying to do. And you know what, Denzil? There’s enough abundance to go around for everyone. Certainly everywhere I believe, but in this country it’s not like they’re taking something from you. They’re looking to better their lives. And as you said before, and it’s so true, they’re usually building something.

Denzil Mohammed: Thank you so much for joining me on this podcast. It’s an incredible book, Cobblestones, Conversations & Corks: A Son’s Discovery of His Italian Heritage. Giovanni Ruscitti, descendant of immigrants from Italy, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.

Giovanni Ruscitti: Denzil, thank you very much for having me. I’ve been really humbled by the reception to the book and honored to be on your show.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s special episode on one family’s ambitious journey to success in the U.S., the story of all immigrants, really. We’ll be taking a break next week, and we’ll be back with you again on September 8th for another JobMakers podcast. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you then.

Episode 65: Liya Palagashvili

JobMakers podcast graphic: Liya PalagashviliAs an immigrant from the former Soviet Union and a researcher with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Liya Palagashvili deeply understands the accomplishments and contributions of foreign-born Americans. She shares how her research reveals the importance of attracting and retaining international students to the United States. Tune in to discover how she believes the loss of foreign-born talent may impact national security.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: You may have heard about the H-1B skilled worker visa that permits foreign-born talent to work at U.S. companies. But have you heard about the OPT or Optional Practical Training program that comes in between studying in the U.S. as an international student and working on a work visa? It’s existed since the post world-war years, allows us to retain this [inaudible]. And it’s often the time when immigrants come up with ideas and start businesses. It helps the U.S. Yet recent proposed legislation seeks to end the program completely under the guise of sticking it to Big Tech. For Dr. Liya Palagashvili – immigrant from the former Soviet Union, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and affiliated research fellow at NYU Law – wiping out this program is not only counterproductive, it’s also a national security threat. In a policy brief co-authored with Jack Salmon, also at the Mercatus Center, she argues that reforming and making it easier to access Optional Practical Training would build this country’s edge in the global search for talent. The brief, titled “Reforming Optional Practical Training to Enhance Technological Progress and Innovation,” demonstrates how we all benefit from having foreign-born talent working and innovating alongside U.S.-born talent. Yet lately, that talent has been moving to Canada, the U.K., other countries, and this undermines our ability to keep up and be safe, as you’ll learn in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Liya Palagashvili, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and affiliated research fellow at NYU Law, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Liya Palagashvili: Thank you so much for having me on.

Denzil Mohammed: So you’re here because you wrote a policy brief on what’s called the OPT or Optional Practical Training program that is afforded to foreign-born university students in the U.S. So maybe just more broadly tell us about the impact of international students on U.S. college campuses and the wider economy.

Liya Palagashvili: So international students make up a large share of programs at universities and especially in graduate programs. If we just look at some examples in the U.S., University of Southern California and New York University, international students make up at least a third of the student body. At Columbia international students make up over half of the entire student body. And actually what should really be celebrated is that they play a huge role as contributors to STEM programs in particular. So STEM programs are those that are science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees. And about half of all international students in the United States are enrolled in STEM programs. And also if we look at some specific programs, some specific STEM programs across U.S. colleges, we see that international students are making up even a larger share of those programs. So, for example, if we look at petroleum engineering, international students account for 82 percent of graduate students at petroleum engineering, 74 percent and in something like electrical engineering, 71 percent in computer information sciences. So they really are driving STEM programs at universities. And I think it’s pretty important to point out because sometimes there’s a concern about whether international students are quote-unquote crowding out American students, whether their presence in these programs means some American student is unable to attend that particular college. And that’s just simply not the case. So in many research studies we actually find that international students have a positive effect on enrollment of American students because international students are paying such a high tuition that it actually helps subsidize the cost of enrolling additional domestic students. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at tuition-rate differences between international and domestic students, but you’ll see that international students are often paying four or five times the tuition rate of American students.

Denzil Mohammed: I am very well aware of that because I was one of those international students. [Laugh] And, yes, we paid a lot. And we talked about universities in California and New York but it’s all across the country. I mean, University of Alabama, UT Austin, immigrants are making up a large portion of STEM programs everywhere, and they’re helping to maintain these STEM programs as we’ll talk about a little bit more. So the American Tech Workforce Act of 2021 calls for the end of Optional Practical Training as it quote “mostly benefits Big Tech companies by providing tax breaks and allowing them to hire workers at a lower cost,” so they say. The bill is introduced by Republican Rep. Jim Banks, as part of a Republican study committee initiative to quote “hold Big Tech accountable.” This is something we hear about all the time. So you and your colleague, Jack Salmon, argue in your policy brief that, quote, “bolstering the OPT or Optional Practical Training program rather than undermining the United States’ edge in the global race for talent is what needs to be done.” And you recommend a series of reforms. So let’s back up a little bit. What is the Optional Practical Training program and why has it been singled out?

Liya Palagashvili: The OPT program, the Optional Practical Training program, it’s designed to allow foreign students to work for at least one year upon graduation from a U.S. college or university. And recently they’ve allowed a maximum up to three years if you graduate from a STEM field. So, again, the STEM extension is relatively new. Basically the OPT program acts as a primary on-ramp for highly educated foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities and colleges to enter the U.S. labor force. And over the years, it has grown significantly. And that’s part of the reason it has been singled out as well, because they’re like, “Look at all these international students coming in on the OPT program who are taking quote-unquote American jobs.” So over the past 20 years, the number of foreign students participating in OPT has grown almost tenfold. There were under 25,000 participants from 1999 to 2000 so in that academic year. And then in the last few years, we’ve had upwards of over 200,000 OPT participants. And some of these OPT participants will seek H-1B employment sponsorship through their respective employers after.

Denzil Mohammed: And this, the rationale behind this, is not an act of good will to international students. Obviously there’s some benefit or great benefit to the U.S. by retaining this talent, right?

Liya Palagashvili: Yes, absolutely. So they’re retaining the talent. And that’s another thing that we can have a little bit of more of a deep dive on, but international students and particularly they’ve played a significant role in our economy as inventors and also patenting new ideas especially in science and technology, in technology fields, which is great for U.S. economy because that helps boost innovation and productivity if we look at something like patent rates. So we know that. We have studies that show that immigrant graduates with science and engineering degrees have historically had a patent rate double the average American rate. And there are several studies that try to parse this out further. So there’s one influential study that found that since 1940, a one percent increase in immigrant college graduates, as a share of the population, increases the number of patents per capita by about nine to 18 percent. This is broadly the case for all immigrants, not only international students in particular, because if we look at immigrants’ share of U.S. patents that has also risen significantly over the years. So, again, not only international students, but immigrants as well. In one study, we know that in 1975 immigrants’ share of patents was only nine percent, but by 2015 immigrant patents represented 28 percent of all patents in the U.S.

Denzil Mohammed: There’s a wealth of data and examples all over the U.S. history and across the media today that points to exactly what you’re talking about and shows us who this talent is and what they do that benefits, not just them, but the country as a whole. So you just said overall immigrants, international students are more likely to raise the rate of patents. You also state in your policy brief that they’re more likely to start a successful company when compared to U.S. born students. I like to say that the act of migrating is itself an entrepreneurial act. So it sort of comes naturally to many of these students. What are some of the other data points you find in your research that sort of speaks to this?

Liya Palagashvili: Yes, that’s exactly right. It is important to point out that these international students contribute not only through employment and patents, but they later end up as entrepreneurs and innovators in the technology industry. Actually, if we look at all of the billion dollar startups in the United States, 22 percent of them, so think about companies like Zoom, Tesla, SpaceX, Instagram, right? They had at least one immigrant founder who came to the country as an international student. And then one that even found that international students are more likely to start a successful company when compared to domestic students. And, by the way, we just want to emphasize this again, it’s not only international students, but we’re seeing this among immigrants in general. This is the case for immigrants in general, too. So we know that immigrants show an 80 percent higher rate of entrepreneurship than native-born individuals. And they start companies quite quickly after entering the United States.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow. That’s incredible. Immigrants are job makers, not job takers.

Liya Palagashvili: Exactly.

Denzil Mohammed: And is there something about the U.S. that brings out this entrepreneurship in people?

Liya Palagashvili: Well, we have good institutions that are pretty supportive and conducive for entrepreneurship in general. It’s relatively easy to start a business here. We actually also have a culture that is open to experimentation and failure. That’s not always the case in other countries. Sometimes in other countries if you start a business and you fail, it’s frowned upon. So society does not like that. Your social status goes down. If you start a business and fail, I think that’s important to highlight that in the U.S., as people, as individuals, society, we don’t frown upon failures. And we are open, we are a culture that is open to experimentation and just to see where it goes.

Denzil Mohammed: So in a future episode we’re gonna hear from an entrepreneur from France who specifically says that that culture for entrepreneurship does not exist. They don’t even want you to start businesses. They just want you to enter the government and have a conventional life. And that failure is indeed frowned upon. So there is something special about the U.S. and that something special has always existed in the U.S. to allow for entrepreneurship from U.S.-born people and from immigrants. But you also state that this OPT, Optional Practical Training, is a national security necessity. So to the untrained eye, this seemed a little bit absurd. Explain, what have we got to lose?

Liya Palagashvili: So that was a statement from the Department of Homeland Security, actually. It was in a 2008 report. They concluded that the expansion of OPT is a national security necessity. And I’ll quote directly from the Department of Homeland Security on this. So they said, quote, with their large and growing populations of STEM, graduate scientists, high-tech industries in Russia, China and India and others in the OECD now compete much more effectively against the U.S. high technology industry, end quote. So then the DHS goes on to acknowledge that the OPT STEM extension should be justified on the grounds that American companies are harmed when they cannot recruit high skilled foreign workers. So, again, I think that’s really important to point out as well, that the DHS sees this as a national security reason. And, by the way, America has been an active recruiter in global talent. You know, we have recognized that when the best and the brightest minds blend their ideas and talents, innovation follows. And I think this type of national security reasoning is coming back in our minds. As we’re thinking about competition with China, we’re trying to be a little bit more thoughtful about our competition with China, and maybe we’re starting to remember our old methods that worked in the past, which is okay. Bring the best and the brightest minds to America and innovation will flow. And it’s also a very low cost and effective way to increase America’s edge over China; let America access the world’s most talented people.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s a very, very important point. So we don’t want to teach and educate people and then just send them elsewhere. We want to keep that talent here. You spoke earlier about companies that had at least one immigrant founder, so that foreign-born talent mixes with the U.S. born talent to found incredible companies of innovation. So not only do we benefit from them, but we collaborate with foreign-born talent in the U.S. and that helps us keep our competitive edge. And in a world that is not only much more competitive and globalized, but cybersecurity threats, as one issue, we do need to have a competitive advantage.

Liya Palagashvili: There is a University of Pennsylvania study that examined over 2,000 U.S. companies from 1994 to 2014. And they found when these U.S. multinational companies face H-1B visa restrictions, which prevented them from hiring the high-skilled foreign workers that they needed in the U.S., these companies increased employment in their overseas locations. And, ironically, the top three locations were Canada, India and China. And, by the way, we see this anecdotally, too. So Microsoft has continued to open up research and development offices, affiliate offices, in Canada. They did this in 2007, they did it again in 2018. And if you look at their announcements, just read them, and they actually say we’re doing this to attract top talent because in Canada their immigration system is much more favorable and open to high skilled workers.

Denzil Mohammed: So “America First” nationalism is not going to get you far when it comes to attracting and keeping the talent that is going to make us competitive and have an edge over other countries. We have to go wherever the talent is. So what have been the trends recently? You talked about Canada, you talk of Eastern Europe, Russia, China, India. What has been the trends recently both here in the U.S. and among our competitors when it comes to attracting high skilled foreign talent in general?

Liya Palagashvili: So we have seen declining rates of international students to the U.S. And this has been since 2015. And when we look at survey questions about why this is the case, they point to the difficulty in being able to enter the U.S. labor force, post-graduation. On the other hand, if we look at what’s happening in Canada and in the U.K., both of those countries have actually revamped their immigration policies to attract more international students and to streamline and to make it easier to have those international students get jobs. And in Canada and in the U.K., post-graduation, in fact, we’re seeing more international students in the U.K. and in Canada.

Denzil Mohammed: Interesting. So it’s declining in the U.S., and it’s increasing among our competitors, even our closest neighbor to the north. That seems like a bit of a tragedy. So what do you recommend we do about the Optional Practical Training program. Whereas Jim Banks wants to cut it entirely, you say that we need to actually foster it and increase it.

Liya Palagashvili: Yes. So my co-author Jack Salmon and I have a set of proposals that we think will help reform the OPT program. I think first and foremost, and this will be one of the easiest things we can do, is just extend those eligible years from one year to three years, which is already what’s happening in the STEM program. So if you graduated with a STEM degree, you have three years to work on the OPT. We can make that the case for all graduates, not only STEM, so increase eligible years of work for non-STEM graduates on OPT from one year to three years. The second thing is, as I mentioned before, in the beginning we didn’t have this restriction on the OPT program that said graduate students who [are] international students have to work in industries that are related to their field. So we can change that to go back to the original part of the program, which is allow these foreign graduates to work in industries unrelated to their field of study. Another reform idea we have is eliminating the minimum working hour requirements for employment authorization, and then also removing outdated employer sponsorship requirements. So some of these other ones are just basically streamlining the process because it takes a long time, and a lot of paperwork in the U.S. to authorize employment for the OPT. And then in the policy brief, you’ll actually see we have a little table where you can see the differences; how long it takes in the same type of requirements in Canada and the U.K., and they’re much faster and much easier than it is in the U.S. So, again, to compete with our competitors, Canada and the U.K., we can just basically streamline some of these things, make it easier.

Denzil Mohammed: And many of these things do require Congress to act or the president. It’s statutory under the Department of Homeland Security, right?

Liya Palagashvili: Yes, yes, that’s correct.

Denzil Mohammed: So there are things that we can be doing right now that would be easier to implement and beneficial to us, but we’re not doing it. We’re not doing it. And clearly this is gonna be a tough sell to some Americans, even though what you outline here has been very, very compelling both in this interview with you and in your policy brief. What should skeptical Americans keep in mind by considering your proposal in this time of heightened restrictionist and nationalistic sentiments?

Liya Palagashvili: I think one framework that we as Americans could utilize that I mentioned earlier is just if we think about America first. I’m going to use that motto, America first. Well, for America first, it helps America to have the best and the brightest talent come to America and work in America and come up with inventions in America and boost productivity in America, and basically make America a global leader in technology. And so I think, again, if you’re thinking about America first, and you don’t want to, you’re not thinking about we’re helping these immigrants, then this is one of the best ways you can help America, is allow high skilled talent to come in.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s what’s going to keep America first or ahead. And as you mentioned, since 2015 that entry of foreign, of high, of best and the brightest has been declining. So we are really in danger of losing that edge. And it is something that we really do need to keep in mind, especially as we see tensions with places like Russia and China escalating. You have your own immigration story, don’t you?

Liya Palagashvili: I do.

Denzil Mohammed: Tell us a little bit about it.

Liya Palagashvili: So this is not a high skilled immigration story. This is a pure luck immigration story. So I was born in the Soviet Union as it was collapsing. And we were, my family and I, refugees from Azerbaijan to Armenia. Unfortunately, after the Soviet Union was collapsing, there were wars that broke out in all the different countries that were part of the Soviet Union. And so I’m part Georgian, part Armenian. We moved to Armenia and were living there for basically five years of war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. There were a lot of blockades, food shortages. It was a very dark period as my parents describe it. I don’t remember too much because they tried to keep it very light inside of the house, and I was young, but it was a pretty bad time. So one day we received invitation, we received a letter in the mail and basically said we had won the green card lottery to come to United States. And that was in 1995. So we moved to the United States in 1995. I was seven years old at the time and it just completely changed our lives, the trajectory of our lives. And I know by comparison, because I have cousins and family who are still there, and they’re nowhere near where we are. They don’t have the same opportunities and they’re almost still stuck in the same place where they were 30 years ago.

Denzil Mohammed: So Liya Palagashvili, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, thank you so much for joining us on the JobMakers podcast and for your research for us.

Liya Palagashvili: Thank you so much for having me on. It was great to chat with you about this.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for this week’s special policy episode on retaining immigrant talent to benefit this country. If you know an outstanding immigrant business owner or innovator or researcher we should talk to, email Denzil, that’s d-e-n-z-i-l, @jobmakerspodcast. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 64: Josh Smith

JobMakers podcast graphic: Josh Smith on immigrants' role in economic recoveryStudies conducted by researcher Josh Smith demonstrate the crucial role that immigrants play in the United States’ economy and culture. He describes how immigrants are often “othered” and subjected to negative messages, despite their vital contributions to U.S. communities. Listen to learn how he believes immigrants are the United States’ “secret sauce.”

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and welcome to JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Immigrants have always benefited from and benefited the United States. The evidence is everywhere. Without immigrants we wouldn’t have those Levi’s 501s, that cold Budweiser or the ability for kids to learn during a pandemic with Zoom. Immigrants can help fill the millions of vacancies today, enrich us with all their foods and cultures, and they take advantage of America’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to innovate and start the greatest companies. So why is it such a tough sell? For Josh Smith, research manager at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, the negative narratives on immigration that we’re fed and the othering of immigrants, even though they’re part of a community just like everyone else, is easy to take hold. And it’s not a new story. In fact, it’s as American as America is a nation of immigrants. The work of Josh and others demonstrates not only the outsized impact immigrants have on our economy and our culture, but also the repeated fears that each new migrant group who would never assimilate, even though they did and that working together, American, new or old, benefits everyone. It’s America’s not-so-secret sauce. But we will all lose out If we give into the fear and the othering, as you learn in this week’s JobMaker’s podcast.

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Denzil Mohammed: Josh T. Smith, research manager at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Josh Smith: I’m doing great, Denzil. Thank you so much for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: So tell us a little bit about your center and the work that you do.

Josh Smith: The Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University is a nonpartisan research center based at Utah State University. We work on a variety of issues, mostly public policy, and how we can use research to solve those. My interest is in immigration policy, so I work on immigration and how we make that system work for the entire country.

Denzil Mohammed: I see. So therefore what is your special interest in immigration? Why did you choose that? And is it really related to growth and opportunity?

Josh Smith: I always have felt an affinity for immigrants because my birth mother was 15 when I was born. And so I see immigration as the same sort of opportunity that I had because my birth mother chose to give me up for adoption. If she would’ve tried to raise me in a home where her parents said, “If you keep this child, you can’t live under our roof,” and my opportunities would’ve been dramatically different. And so I see immigration through that sort of adoption lens. How do we get people into places where they can be successful? Give them the tools that they can actually be successful in whatever way they want to take their life. Immigration is exactly that. That’s all the research boils down to, those simple points. If you give people the opportunity to grow, they’re going to do so. People bring prosperity.

Denzil Mohammed: So let’s bring it into the present. What role do immigrants play in the country’s recovery from the pandemic and our current sort of dire economic situation? So let’s start with immigrant business orders. I know that nine percent of the Utah population is foreign born, but 11 percent of entrepreneurs are foreign-born. So that’s a higher rate, which is something we see across the board, across the country. What was it like for them pre-pandemic and during the pandemic, and how did they impact your economy in normal times?

Josh Smith: Immigration here has been a big benefit. Like we talked about, lots of entrepreneurs, lots of immigrant entrepreneurs have found success in Utah. And before the pandemic, they were finding success. During the pandemic, they faced all the same problems that everyone did. My father-in-law runs a chocolate factory. He had all sorts of problems: finding workers, running the factory safely during the first stages of COVID. And for immigrant entrepreneurs, immigrant business owners, you add on an additional level of difficulty where local governments can do a lot of good by trying to do outreach, providing the kinds of training, the kinds of information, a trusted information source, so that people know simple ways to run a meat packing factory cleanly and carefully during COVID. In particular, those are the kinds of issues that here in Logan, there were a lot of problems with, at first, and local community members really stepped up. There was a great story in the Washington Post about the local refugee center here working on just communicating to both immigrants and the refugees that they serve, how to deal with COVID, where to find medical care. And that’s something that I’m really excited to say Utah did well.

Denzil Mohammed: And I’m just curious. As the kinds of businesses that immigrants tend to found in Utah, is it a lot of retail, accommodations, things like that?

Josh Smith: That’s right. It’s about the same as national trends, as far as I know. We’re lucky, I’m really lucky to have the best Indian place in the entire world just down the street from Utah State’s campus here, Tandoori Oven, routinely. It’s in a gas station. So we love when people come out to visit, taking them there, because it’s not exactly the kind of pompous looking, very fancy kind of place, but it has the best Indian food that I’ve had anywhere in the world. Without immigrants, we would have a lot of places that sell hamburgers and hot dogs, but maybe not the kind of variety. So there’s a great Mexican place in town here, several, because of the Hispanic immigration influence, great French food, great Italian, all because immigrants come in and that’s part of why we say immigration brings prosperity, that people bring prosperity because of their differences. We all are better off sharing and discovering new ideas or new cuisines even.

Denzil Mohammed: And it’s something Americans really take for granted that we have access to all these different kinds of cuisines. I mean, it has enriched our culture so tremendously, not to mention our economy.

Josh Smith: We have about 15 percent of the entire country is foreign born, but 25 percent of the country’s entrepreneurs are foreign-born immigrants.

Denzil Mohammed: So that’s at the very local level. How exactly do these entrepreneurs help their communities and the country overall, especially in our recovery from the pandemic?

Josh Smith: That’s right. Well, right now we’re recording this conversation over Zoom. Zoom is famously started by Eric Yuan and he was actually denied eight times before his ninth, final try he was admitted into the U.S. to start his business. And you can think about a lot of entrepreneurs who might be facing the same kinds of questions. I wanted to come to the U.S. I’m trying to get in, but I just can’t find a way. And those kinds of stories are really troubling. If you want to have Zoom employees be here in the U.S., businesses that grow the U.S. pie, the U.S. economic growth pie. There’s a lot to be said for finding ways to expand the entire economy so that everyone is better off. And that’s the story. I mean, it’s not just recent with Zoom and Eric Yuan, you have Google, you have AT&T, all have immigration connections in some sense. And historically, and this is one example, but Andrew Carnegie is, of course, another famous example. And even though the town I grew up in had more cows than people, it also had a Carnegie public library. This is the library set up by Andrew Carnegie as one of the wealthiest men ever lived. And that’s the kind of impact on both the economy and also to cultural sorts of conversations beyond just food. Those kinds of successes boil over from business sectors that are cold, capitalist competitive sort of stories into much more human stories, where even in a world where I live in a tiny little town, I can sit on the steps of a library that an immigrant made possible.

Denzil Mohammed: And you mentioned the founder of Zoom. So this is not, Andrew Carnegie’s story, it is not an unfamiliar story that continues to happen generation after generation, right?

Josh Smith: That’s right. We have this, we have a fun story. America’s a nation of immigrants, but it’s also a nation of people who say it’s not a nation of immigrants. One of our research papers here at the center by Paul Sharp and one coauthor shows that when Danish people came to the U.S., they brought dairy techniques that no one else really had except the Danes. And that made the U.S. dairy industry really strong other than it would’ve been otherwise. But they also show these great little quotes from that time period saying, “Well, we can’t let the Danes in because they won’t assimilate.” And if you fast forward 20, 25 years, you see Danes used as the example of model immigrants, people who will obviously assimilate. But those Hispanic immigrants are never going to assimilate. And Leah Boutsan and Ran Abramitzky have this great book called Streets of Gold that details that history and gives a lot of, should give you a lot of comfort if you do worry that we’re going to lose something to immigration. We should take lots of comfort in the stories, that actually we’ve always had these fears, and immigrants have always, always assimilated, always become American and always made the country a stronger and more prosperous place.

Denzil Mohammed: Well said. Bravo! You all released a paper recently looking at immigrants, legalization and manufacturing.

Josh Smith: That’s right.

Denzil Mohammed: Tell me a little bit about this paper.

Josh Smith: Yeah. That’s a really exciting paper. What it basically shows at root is that providing some kind of legal pathway to citizenship makes the economy work more productively. So in the case of manufacturing, you have the grant of legal health citizenship that was available because of the Reagan amnesty bill or the Reagan compromise. You had lots of people who suddenly had a pathway to legalization. And because of that, what we see is manufacturing got more productive. That’s really important in a world where we have high inflation, because if we want our store shelves to be full of low-cost, affordable goods, we also need to be more productive. So manufacturing, seeing that immigration has made manufacturing companies more successful, is a really promising area for dealing with today’s problems. Maybe there’s ways to account for the same kinds of legalization issues that people face. So the central story there is that if you are in the country and don’t have legal status, you may take positions that you’re not well suited for, or that there are better positions that would use your training and skills. And so legalization, two other researchers in a new paper published in [Journal of] Labor Economics, estimate that some kind of legal work option would increase the U.S. GDP by about $202 billion a year, which boils down to about $600 additional in your pocket each year, which is great if you think about the fiscal stimulus bills during COVID, the COVID cash, those were about $1400, $1200. So we’re talking about half of that, but just for free, because we’re getting people to do better work faster.

Denzil Mohammed: So you’re saying they were still here as workers, they were working, but legalization, it gave them a one up, right?

Josh Smith: That’s right. Legalization gave them a step up out of the shadows and into positions that they’re better suited for.

Denzil Mohammed: I see. Okay. That makes a lot of sense to me and such a boon to us. And as you said earlier, this is a really important point, we’re talking about immigrants, but this is really, it’s a story of the economy, society, culture. It’s immigration feeds into everything in the United States. So working alongside immigrants is how we generate prosperity locally and beyond. That was a really, really great point. And of course we’re in a period now of serious inflation. Do you see a parallel there with immigrant workers and inflation and legalization?

Josh Smith: I think it’s clear that inflation doesn’t have a silver bullet. There’s no one policy that’s going to eliminate it. There’s tons of researchers who have proposals, and I think most of them have some amount of value. But, that said, immigration’s got to be a part of that conversation. And not just because people are sometimes only making the argument that we need more immigration because wages are rising. I think wages should definitely go up as people become more productive. So I’m hesitant to say we should just have more immigration to reduce wages. But, in particular, what we should do is find ways to bring back the workers who never came because of COVID. So Giovanni Perry and economists at UC Davis estimated we have about two million missing workers in the economy just because of the COVID immigration cuts, it’s a lot of workers, but overall that we have about 11 million job openings in the country and about six to five million people who are unemployed. So, basically, anyway you cut it, we have about five million missing workers. Maybe we can bring in two million immigrants to make up that shortfall, but we’re still going to need lots of policies to make sure that we feed the U.S. economy what it needs to keep, to stay productive.

Denzil Mohammed: So we closed off during the pandemic and the result of that is more job openings, less job seekers and immigration is where we can really make a dent in that. So what do you say to those who are skeptical of your research on these positive impacts of immigrants and immigration? How would you frame that discussion? And what would you say?

Josh Smith: I think that the people who are skeptical of immigration often have good reasons. So you can think about maybe Tim. Tim is a high school dropout. He dropped out at 16 or 17 to work at a local plant because he thought $15 an hour was a lot of good money. Now that he is 25, wants to start a family. Well, what options does Tim have? Does he just go get a GED? Will that solve his problems and open doors? I think critics of immigration are entirely right on that point, to think about, well, how are we helping the small portion of people who do lose from immigration? Because all of the statistical debates, you can read hundreds of economic papers about how wages are affected by immigration. And they all boil down to a really simple finding that, in the short run, people without a high-school education seem to lose a small bit of wages for some amount of time between five and seven years. That’s a long time to lose four to 10 percent of your wages, depending on the estimate that you choose. And so I think there’s lots of room for us as researchers to tackle that central question: How do we actually help someone like Tim who is losing out from immigration? But the good news is that Tims only make up about 10 percent of the U.S. population. There’s only about 10 percent. One out of 10 people doesn’t have a high school degree. So the real question is why would we make policy based on just those 10 percent? That’s why economists like Brian Kaplan and Giovanni Perry, again, often advocate keyhole solutions. So let’s help those people out. But I do think we haven’t done a good job as researchers figuring out what those problems are. So I’m entirely on board with many of the critiques of immigration policy in the abstract. But at the same time, just this year, the Department of Labor gave out $145 million in grants for retraining and reskilling programs that were funded by H-1B visa application dollars. And I think opportunities like that to make the immigration system work for the entire country. They’re prevalent throughout. There just are opportunities abound to find ways to make immigration work for everyone. And I think there’s a lot of good that we can do just in taking seriously those sorts of concerns.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s interesting you bring up Tim because those anecdotal stories really have a powerful impact on people. They get shared and spread widely, and it really has a huge impact on people so that when we come up with research that says something else that does not register at all. So you mentioned a book earlier called Streets of Gold. It’s Streets of Gold, America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success. I’m actually hoping to get the authors of this book on this podcast. But what is, what impression were you left with from this book?

Josh Smith: I think everyone ought to run out and buy Streets of Gold. I don’t get any kind of kickbacks or anything. I’m not connected to the authors, but Leah Boustan and Ran Abramitzky are two economic historians who’ve been writing about immigration for years. And …

Denzil Mohammed: Ran, by the way, is an immigrant from Israel, right?

Josh Smith: That’s right. And one of the stories that they tell in the book is about that story. So for context, Streets of Gold is about that age-old contest between America as a nation of immigrants and America as a nation of people who want to build walls and put up keep-out signs. It’s about the kinds of cultural contests and economic worries that have been the story of immigration throughout history. And Ran’s story, he talks about their research project, which is looking at millions of genealogical records and seeing what happens to someone once they arrive here in the U.S. And you can trace people through time. And in particular, you can sort of see what happens to their thinking about America. You can see what happens to their thinking about their identity. So, for example, Ran’s an immigrant from Israel. He lands in the U.S. I think he gets married here in the U.S., but maybe he comes married. But their first son they named Roe, which is a Hebrew word for shepherd. And he tells the story in the book, in Streets of Gold, saying, well, actually we meet all the babysitters, all the teachers, no one knew how to say it. But for their next child, or their third child, I think, they name him Tom, which is still got a Hebrew sort of connection, but is much more Americanized. And what they find in their research, Leah and Ran, is that that’s a common story. Immigrants, when they come to the U.S., they start off with very traditional immigrant sorts of behaviors. But as time goes on, they Americanize quite quickly. And that shows up primarily as a change in both their names. So changing something like Drumpf to Trump, as a famous example, but also in changing the names that they give to their children. And I think that reflects a sort of interest and desire to fit in and a fundamental reflection of immigration’s importance to the immigrants in the U.S. It’s a story about helping their children become American, become successful and obtain the American dream. So Streets of Gold is a beautiful book, wonderfully written, quite accessible for a book that’s about analyzing millions of genealogical records. But in a time where people are thinking or discussing cutting off immigration, even more than we already have, it’s important to keep their historical perspective in mind. What they show is, really, we’ve had these kinds of debates that immigrants don’t assimilate. We had it in 1882 just before we passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. We had it just recently with the proposal to ban immigrants from Muslim countries. We had it all throughout COVID, the implication that immigrants are carrying diseases has a great reflection in one of the stories they tell in Streets of Gold, where a representative in Congress says we can’t let in Chinese immigrants because they all have smallpox. And that kind of story is quite common, but all of their research findings are so, so optimistic. They find that people learn English quite quickly, both in the past and today. They find that people Americanize not just in measures of children, but in the types of behaviors that they have. People economically assimilate as well. So people come here and their children quickly climb up the income ladder. And those are beautiful stories of the American dream. And Leah and Ran did this great job of making the case from just the simple findings of their economic research project saying we don’t have reason to fear that people will lose out in jobs. We don’t have reason to fear people will lose wages. But we do, and we have lots of reasons to think that bringing immigrants to the U.S. strengthens and promotes the U.S. culture instead of denigrating it.

Denzil Mohammed: We’ve always been fed by immigrants and we are the greatest economy in the world. Maybe one has to do with the other, these hungry immigrants.

Josh Smith: That’s right. I think it’s impossible to view America’s history without thinking about how immigration has really seeded the success of future success. So there’s a great research paper called, titled Immigrants and the Making of America, where they analyze historical rates of immigration at the county level. And so they can look at how many counties got, how much counties got in immigration, and then they can look at the future outcomes. And what they find is that immigration, high immigration in the past, predicts future success. and all sorts of measures, both increased income on a per capita level, lower poverty rates, higher education. People are just wealthier and better off because of immigration. You see that in, that might be happening because people are moving into successful areas, but it’s also because immigrants bring new ideas. So Eric Yuan made us all better off by coming here, inventing Zoom and allowing us to have these conversations, whether it happens after the pandemic or in the middle of the pandemic. I can’t imagine not having seen many of my friends for months during COVID, but we watched movies over Zoom together. We played video games. We played board games, all possible because of an immigrant’s invention brought here to the U.S. And that’s really the story we’ve always had in economic research. It boils down to the simple phrase: People bring prosperity.

Denzil Mohammed: People bring prosperity. Josh Smith, research manager at the Center for Growth and  Opportunity at Utah State University, thank you for joining us in this podcast.

Josh Smith: Hey, thank you, Denzil. Happy to come anytime.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for this week’s engaging conversation on the positive impact of immigration on the U.S. If you know an outstanding immigrant business owner or innovator or researcher that we should talk to email, Denzil, that’s d-e-n-z-i-l at I’m Denzil Mohammed. Tune in next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 63: Khamzat Asabaev

After fleeing Chechnya as a young refugee, Khamzat Asabaev couldn’t access basic dental care. This difficult experience inspired Asabaev to found SoftSmile, a software tool that makes it easier for dentists to provide affordable, accessible orthodontic care to all. Listen to learn how his story exemplifies refugees’ entrepreneurial spirit.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Imagine celebrating the holiday season with family and friends, and then your country gets invaded. Scary. But as we see on the news, it’s real. No one wants to be a refugee, but the resilience and fortitude of refugees to withstand catastrophic displacement like that and come out the other side is something remarkable, something worthy of our respect and something that ultimately benefits the country they’re resettled in. For Khamzat Asabeav, refugee from Chechnya and co-founder of SoftSmile, which produces pioneering software for dentists to make advanced treatment plans for patients without relying on third parties, not only was he displaced, but he had to grow up in the country that invaded his, Russia. His experiences shaped his life in profound ways. In response to the lawlessness of the invasion, Khamzat first pursued law, becoming a top mergers and acquisitions attorney in the U.K. and the Middle East. Lack of access to basic care as a refugee and a minority prompted him to pursue entrepreneurship, to make basic services accessible to all. Khamzat’s story is not unique, but it’s rarely told. Refugees go through terrible things, but ultimately make significant contributions to their adopted homeland, having higher rates of employment and entrepreneurship. What does that mean? They give back far more than we give them, as you’ll discover in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Khamzat Asabeav, founder and CEO of SoftSmile and immigrant from Chechnya, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Khamzat Asabaev: Thank you. Doing fine and really honored to be a guest here.

Denzil Mohammed: So tell us a little bit about your business and what makes it special.

Khamzat Asabaev: Sure. SoftSmile is a software company and I’ll give you an example. Imagine you are visiting a doctor, an orthodontist, and you want to make your smile perfect. So that doctor will take some measurements, will scan your teeth, and she will upload that information into a certain portal. So usually she, a doctor, has to wait for weeks until someone somewhere usually oversees, prepares a treatment plan and sends back this information for coordination, again, with the doctor, then there will be manufacturing. So it usually takes four, five, six weeks to have a digital treatment plan ready. But before that, upfront, you paid a few thousand dollars and it’s a very lengthy, costly process. What we are doing with our software, a doctor will do everything in-house and can deliver to you as a patient, a treatment plan just in one day. And we believe this will lead to making orthodontics affordable and accessible. That’s basically what we’re doing.

Denzil Mohammed: Incredible. And this entrepreneurial journey began a very long time ago when you, your family was forced to move. And so not just the idea of entrepreneurship, but the thing that you’re doing, which is making health care more accessible, comes from that experience of being forced to move and, hoping for better on the other side. So I know you were born in Chechnya, but you ended up having to grow up in Moscow. Tell me about that experience.

Khamzat Asabaev: Sure. I was born in Chechnya in Grozny. In 1994, New Year’s Eve actually, when Russia invaded Chechnya with full force, and we, my parents took me and [their] daughter and we moved to Moscow because we had some relatives there. That’s where I grew up. And I saw some discrimination and some, let’s say, bad things being a Chechen kid in Moscow, in Russia. And there was a lot of injustice back there. So this, even when I was a child, got me thinking that maybe something more fair would be possible with even my efforts. And regarding health care, there were cases when Chechens were rejected from getting simple health care in Moscow, in Russia. And when you see that you just get this idea, How’s it possible? And that instills your notion that actually health care is an absolutely fundamental right, and it shall be provided to everyone regardless of their skin color or ethnicity or face. So it just should, must be, fundamental. And when you see some injustice, especially biased injustice, let’s say, you are trying, growing up, you are trying to fix it. And maybe that’s led to a situation when I saw an opportunity to change healthcare a little bit. I really grasped it.

Denzil Mohammed: And that experience also influenced your first choice in a career because you first entered into law, you were a lawyer, just like your father and your grandfather.

Khamzat Asabaev: Yes, I was, actually, I still consider myself a lawyer because once a lawyer, always a lawyer and my counterparts in my business, they don’t understand it [laugh]. But, yes, you’re absolutely right. Because law of people is the only alternative to the law of jungle. And I saw law of jungle being a kid where some powerful and mighty country can completely destroy lives and entire cities [inaudible]. And, again, law is the only alternative.

Denzil Mohammed: And how did this, how did the dental care, how did that happen? Was it just serendipitous? Was it just your friend happened to be working on this?

Khamzat Asabaev: There are, as always, various events converging in some particular point. First, again, maybe from my childhood experience, I knew that dental care, orthodontics, are extremely expensive and not everyone can afford it. Second, my friend who is also from Chechnya, but who didn’t leave Chechnya through the wars, actually, his story, absolutely impressive. He inspired me to start SoftSmile because he was an orthodontist who after graduating, after getting his dental education, he got back to Chechnya and started helping people who would never be able to afford some famous brands like Invisalign or [inaudible], or something like that. So he started making those aligners and braces in-house, and I followed his career. I knew that he’s doing great. And at some point, seeing how great he’s doing, we just decided to join forces and maybe do something together. And I, being a lawyer in a very famous international firm, was able to attract investors and that’s how we started.

Denzil Mohammed: So therefore your pivot into entrepreneurship was not a difficult one. Or was it? I know you had a bad experience starting a business in Switzerland, right?

Khamzat Asabaev: Yes, yes, actually you are right. I wanted to say that there is no particular skill set for entrepreneurship and anyone can do that. But actually, absolutely right. My first experience demonstrates that there are always some mistakes and if you don’t have some safety net, some ability to continue, even though you made some strategic mistakes, it can be really devastating for the entire business. That’s what happened with our small manufacturing lab in Switzerland. We were not ready. We made some strategic mistakes and it failed, which actually was good because SoftSmile now is way bigger, way more successful. We learned from our mistakes. We’re doing things carefully. Now we’re trying to close our weak spots. So it was good experience anyway. Even though it failed, but still we learned.

Denzil Mohammed: Failure is almost like a prerequisite, right?

Khamzat Asabaev: Sometimes, yes. We were lucky to have those failures as a lesson. But, unfortunately, sometimes people bet everything and lose it. And this also happens. And that’s why I think everyone shall be careful measuring how much they’re investing, of their efforts, of their resources, and where. Because failure can always happen. It just doesn’t matter how hard you are working. It will happen if something changes. We just, so went through COVID. We just, in the middle recession, we see that there are a lot of bad things happening without our involvement, just not depending on us. And you should be ready mentally and, let’s say, financially. If something happens, it’s not your fault. Just try again. And this phrase, let’s try again, is what my friend told me when we, after the company was called [inaudible]. So when it failed just in few months, I already left Linklaters, so I didn’t have any job. And my friend told me, let’s try again. And we founded SoftSmile.

Denzil Mohammed: So how is SoftSmile doing today and how do you see its growth?

Khamzat Asabaev: SoftSmile is doing pretty well. We are a product-led company. We are very proud of our product. It’s just amazing software with dozens of intricate algorithms, which make the job, which would take hours, being done in just a few minutes. So it’s 30, 35 times faster, more efficient than any alternatives on the market. And you can imagine it just transforms the entire practice of digital orthodontics. And most importantly people out there know it. So we are getting many requests from them or from contacts. Unfortunately, I cannot due to contractual restrictions disclose names of our clients, but what I can say is about 2,000 patients every day are being treated with our software. So I know the theme of this podcast, creating jobs. So we are creating jobs globally, not only through SoftSmile, but also helping our clients to change their practice and attract more people and work with more doctors. That’s what we’re doing. And regarding the growth right now, we’re focused on the software, but the next step will be working directly with doctors and probably patients so that we will manufacture and design and we will go directly to consumers. So we, I have good confidence in the growth of the business.

Denzil Mohammed: As a business leader, you’ve developed some thoughts over the years. And this is something I’ve heard from other entrepreneurs. But you once said only after getting the product on the market, as you really see who your client base is and what level of demand looks like. I’ve heard this from many different entrepreneurs. Can you describe this a little bit more on how it might work with different kinds of companies versus a software company?

Khamzat Asabaev: Sure. So, you, as an entrepreneur, have this choice, kind of balance. One thing you want to make everything perfect or as close to the perfection as possible before you show it to even your friends. And on the other hand, you want real feedback. You want to understand whether what you’re building is worth it and here where the problem happens. So if you’re insecure, if you’re, let’s say, scared of showing your product to the market, you will find any opportunity to delay the launch and try to make it as great as possible. But the problem which usually happens, that the market evolves and your clients’ needs evolve and your competitors, they are not sleeping, so they’re also doing something. That’s why I believe, although it’s a bit scary, but you shall try to give your product to as many people as possible, provided always you protected from IP perspective, from tech perspective, because there are various strange stories where technology from a young startup is stolen by someone. So you should always think about it. But without real feedback from your customers it’s difficult to build something worth it or what people would expect. The problem we have, we gave demo to the market about 18 months ago and the real problem, that I’m chased by doctors all around the world with questions, when you finally give us a commercial product, when you give it to us. And demo was so good that people thought that everything is ready. But our software is a very complex and intricate product. And that’s why one of my problems, just to explain doctors, please wait a little bit, it’ll be way better. Just give us some time to finalize it. And finally we are at stage where it is finalized and we are getting amazing feedback from leaders of the market. And that’s what we’re proud of.

Denzil Mohammed: I see. So another thing you’ve talked about is having support that allows you to take risks. Even our own research bears that out, that having family or other social support is key to the success of immigrants. If you’re here by yourself, it’s a lot harder. But not everyone has that luxury of having family or a network of support or fellow countrymen. So how can entrepreneurial immigrants build up a support system if they don’t have direct family contacts there.

Khamzat Asabaev: There are various angles to this. You are right. Not everyone has a family, and not everyone has family which can help or support you, especially when you are overseas. But entrepreneurs, so what I would suggest, you should look toward, if you can say, what communities you belong. I’ll give you an example. To me, it was very help that I could approach lawyers or my classmates in the United States or my former colleagues. I also could approach Chechens who live in America just to get some advice from them. I also could approach some doctors and orthodontists saying that, “Look, I’m building this product for you. Could you advise me?” And a few orthodontists actually wrote recommendation letters for my green card, the same few lawyers did. So, it was helpful. So what I’m trying to say that it’s always helpful to have someone around like your family, your friends, even for moral support. But I am not buying that there is no support at all because what you are doing, for instance, helping immigrants, helping people with everything, is one of those examples that those who seek they will find. So I believe people just shall look into themself and see, okay, what kind of community will help me here? Because we all are part of some communities. There is no one completely alone. You can always find some support. There’s so many examples in my life where complete strangers help me so much. And you may say, someone may say, I am a relatively successful guy, but this wouldn’t be possible without complete strangers who were in my life, lending a hand, helping you with advice, not even mentioning friends, family, colleagues, all of them. So nothing in my life would be possible, nothing good would be possible without help of other people. And that’s my motto. We always shall look around. And also there is in law, if you expect some help from people, it is also expected that you will help them. So, not getting into details, I hope there are people who will probably remember that I helped them some point and who can say, “Yes, Khamzat was good, Khamzat was there at certain part of our life.”

Denzil Mohammed: That Khamzat was there. [laugh]. And do you think that the United States entrepreneurial ecosystem lends itself to the things that you’re talking about, that people want to support others in their endeavors?

Khamzat Asabaev: I would say the most advanced entrepreneurial ecosystem in the world, because, as I said, I’ve worked in the U.K., in the Emirates, in Russia, traveled a lot. And entrepreneurs all around the world kind of close community, helping each other, knowing that when you help someone today, they will get back to you with some response later on. But the United States simply because it’s the biggest market in the world and the biggest number of entrepreneurs and the most developed entrepreneurship ecosystem, everyone can find support, I believe.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s really good for you to say. And especially for budding entrepreneurs who may not be in the United States as yet, they have something positive to look forward to. So you spoke very highly of the entrepreneurial ecosystem here in the U.S. But you have started businesses elsewhere and even your current business, it’s cross continental. But the United States has given you, what is to date, your most successful business. How do you feel about the United States as the country that took you in, gave you a second education and allowed you to start and grow a business?

Khamzat Asabaev: I love the United States. And of course there are many problems in the United States, but those problems, if you compare to other countries, you just shall always compare what … As you know, I lived in Russia. I lived in U.K. I lived in some other countries. And I think, although there is some impact right now, I think the core of United States’ success is rule of law. And I’m saying as a lawyer, because one amazing, really amazing thing in the United States is me being a small guy, an entrepreneur, you can always seek some protection of justice in any court, and you can be sure that it will be unbiased and fair judgment. So if you are wrong, that’s fine. You will never say someone bought a judge or there was a corruption or something like that. Just everything is based on law, let’s say, on the principles introduced by the founding fathers and by the constitution. And I highly respect the U.S. commercial and corporate law systems.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s fascinating that you say rule of law is what really makes this country distinctive. Thank you for that perspective, because you certainly come from a place where rule of law probably didn’t always apply. So Khamzat …

Khamzat Asabaev: To say mildly, let’s say [laugh].

Denzil Mohammed: Khamzat Asabaev, founder and CEO of SoftSmile, immigrant from Chechnya, thank you so much for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.

Khamzat Asabaev: Thank you very much, Denzil. It was great talking to you and really honored to talk to your audience. Thank you.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and at The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s inspiring story of one incredible refugee entrepreneur. If you know an outstanding foreign born business owner or innovator we should talk to, email Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L, at I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 62: April Ryan

JobMakers podcast graphic: April Ryan paints her way to success

Russian-born entrepreneur April Ryan worried about constantly exposing her own hands to ultraviolet light for her nail painting tutorials. Her solution, a set of silicone hands for nail artists to practice upon, turned into a multi-million dollar business that countless nail professionals have benefited from. Tune in to learn how she achieved her goals despite coming to the U.S. with no English skills.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and welcome to JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Coming to the United States from nothing is not an uncommon story. After all, It’s the people with their backs against the wall who have to figure out a way to eat, feel safe and maybe just thrive. But America’s pot-holed streets of gold provide a stark reality that newcomers to the country must reckon with, and then overcome. For April Ryan, immigrant from Russia and founder and CEO of Red Iguana Nail Art Products and nail art influencer to hundreds of thousands, coming to the U.S. from a poor town where growing up her family had to grow the food they ate, the bright lights of Beverly Hills show that harsh reality so many immigrants face. Nothing is given to you. You have to work to get it without a lick of English. April tapped into her tenacity and inventiveness. When she realized video tutorials of nail art could make her famous, she went all in. When she realized working on her hands for those videos repeatedly actually ruined her nails [and skin], she developed a breakthrough silicone practice hand, which became a bestseller for nail artists in now 19 countries. April’s story is the immigrant’s story and it shows just the kind of people who take that risk to move here and use their pluck and scrappiness to succeed, as you hear in this week’s JobMakers podcast.

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Denzil Mohammed: April Ryan, CEO and founder of Red Iguana and immigrant from Russia, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

April Ryan: Good. And thank you for having me today.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s our pleasure. So tell us a little bit about your business. It’s a very unique business, but it’s certainly booming right now. And where did the idea come from?

April Ryan: In the past, I’ve been a nail art creator and influencer, and I used my own hands a lot for videos, but after some time I started to see some damage of my skin. Because when I do nails a lot, of course you filing, you put your hands to UV light, which is not good for skin. And I started to talk, What if I will have some model for my videos? But I really loved my hands. So I decided to try and create copies of my actual hands and created silicon practice hands for nail artists, which is very popular right now.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow. And then that took you like six months to perfect, right?

April Ryan: Yes. It’s long process. It’s not like you make it today and tomorrow it’s done. It’s lot of details, a lot of things you need to follow and see if it’s working, especially from first tries. It’s never perfect. So right now working on second generation of hands, because it’s always some improvement in that.

Denzil Mohammed: Oh, wow. That’s incredible. So you invented a silicone practice hand for nail artists to practice on. That’s an excellent idea.

April Ryan: Thank you.

Denzil Mohammed: But your business journey and your personal journey both started in Russia. What was life like growing up there? And did you have any good career prospects?

April Ryan: So growing in Russia, especially in small towns like mine is not easy, because it’s not much resources for everything. So I started to be interested in beauty industry when I been 14 years young. But when you don’t have money, because it’s Russia [laugh], you don’t have money, you don’t have resources. You don’t have even ways to be closer to this industry, because where you will find it, if you in small city and it’s no schools, no stores, nothing? Even internet we hadn’t. You cannot even see what happens in the world because you don’t have good internet.

Denzil Mohammed: I read that you, your family had to grow your own vegetables. You had to wear hand me downs from your brothers.

April Ryan: Yes. Yes, because it was the only way to get some food, because it’s endless financial crisis in Russia. No job, no money. And, of course, we had our own vegetables and livestock just to be able to eat something. And, of course, when I don’t have money for new clothes, I wore my brothers’ clothes because I had no choice [laugh], actually. But I’m not thinking about something bad because it’s made me stronger. And even now I have my own house. It helped me, because I remember what I did with my parents’ own house. Yeah, it’s just experience and [inaudible]. So, yeah …

Denzil Mohammed: So obviously there was no beauty school nearby. But then something happened when you were 18.

April Ryan: Yes. My mom, she found like newspaper and it say that independent educator coming to our town with classes and she knew I loved everything about beauty. And she said, “You should try.” And I tried. It’s been very expensive. It’s like one month’s paycheck cost. But my dad helped me. He actually borrowed me this money. And I became the best student and I got the job in one of the best nail salons in my little town. It’s nothing to brag about, but [laugh], it’s how my journey started.

Denzil Mohammed: And so you got to this position and then you branched out as a businesswoman in Russia. Right?

April Ryan: So I started as nail technician. But it’s become very important for me to be the best nail artist in my small city. And I moved from my little town [inaudible] to bigger city Rostov-on-Don and started my journey there. First I worked in nail bar, like nail salon in the mall. But then I decided to open my own nail studio and this is how my journey of business owner started. And I think about two years later, I had three nail salons.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow. And how old were you when the first one opened?

April Ryan: Twenty-one.

Denzil Mohammed: Twenty-one years old and a business owner. That’s incredible. That’s really, really cool.

April Ryan: Thank you.

Denzil Mohammed: But then you and your husband made a very important, life-changing decision. You bought a one-way ticket to the United States. What was behind that? And what was the experience of moving like?

April Ryan: It’d been just one evening in November of 2013 and I felt so like big fish, when you have more opportunities but not here, not in this place. And I saw I have no future in Russia anymore. And I knew my husband always wanted to move to Canada or to the United States and just ask him, “Maybe we should move?” And he said, “Okay.” And as I said in November. And from January, we started to work on our visa. We got temporary visas in March and we moved in May. Process of getting visa and moving in Los Angeles has been easy. But of course the process when you new in county, it’s been not easy for us. So we worked. I worked for very low price for nails. My husband worked at Uber. And so I would say first year for us been very hard, very hard. But then when we figure out how everything is working. It’s new culture, new people, new business model, so it’s become better.

Denzil Mohammed: I mean you landed not even knowing English, which astonishes me!

April Ryan: [Laugh] Yes, I knew zero English and I had language barrier when I can’t even start, because you are afraid to say something wrong. But it’s because of Russian culture. if somebody speak not good in Russian, everybody starts to like, “Hey, you go [inaudible].” [Laugh] But American people they’re great. They’re so helpful. And I remember everybody like, “Your English is great,” when they know that’s just three words. [Laugh]

Denzil Mohammed: It’s a nation full of accents to be honest. [Laugh] Let’s face it. There are accents everywhere. So your career had a rocky start. You didn’t come here with a ton of money ready to open a business. As you said, that first year you needed to figure things out, see how things worked, find out, I guess, where resources were. So what was it, what happened when you were able to start your business? Was it that moment of, well, my hands are not looking great because of this so let me invent this?

April Ryan: No, I’m the person who trying a lot different ways to make money. So it’s not been like, okay, this is perfect way and this will work, no. Our first ever try to make money here in United States been to open our nail salon because it’s worked back to Russia, right? But it didn’t work for us. And after six months we closed our business in the United States and we lost a lot of money. Then my next step was I worked in well-known nail salon in Beverly Hills with Instagram influencers, with celebrities, movie stars. But when you understand it’s not what you want again, it’s another try to make money, right? I left and become Instagram influencer instead, started to make videos. And companies started to pay me. I’m like, okay, this is better money. And when you have a lot of orders for videos you need the models. And this is how I started to thinking about hands. So it was something like, okay, this is great business idea. I made it first for me just as helper for my videos. And we put, when people from Instagram started to ask me, where did you get this hand or wanted it, oh, maybe I should sell it. And it was really by accident. It was great idea.

Denzil Mohammed: So you started out as the influencer and then the problem of the hand came up. I see. And I did a little digging. I mean, 399,000 followers on Instagram is mind blowing. Two-hundred seventy-five thousand people follow you on Facebook. Did you know that you had five and a half million views on YouTube?

April Ryan: No. [Laugh]. It’s great news for me.

Denzil Mohammed: I mean, come on. So I think you were very scrappy and agile and inventive in the way that you started your business, and so successful. So what does your career in business look like now?

April Ryan: At this moment, our main product is silicone hands, of course, because it will be always main product. Even we have competitors now, and of course China copy our hands completely, not even hands, but business idea, like packaging, colors, everything. China always copying good ideas. I’m not mad at them, because it always happens. We have professional nail products like [inaudible]. They’re very high quality and the best ingredients because I’m very picky about quality. But at this moment I’m also working on education platform, because I know people want to learn from me But it’s taken too much time to make live classes in person. So I want to start, to move an education way, which is my future steps.

Denzil Mohammed: And you’ll be doing that virtually.

April Ryan: Yes.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow. So what do you think has been the secret to your success with your business Red Iguana? It seems to me as though you’ve just adapted really well to all the differences that you …

April Ryan: Yes, this is one of reasons. And I’m not afraid. I’m always trying something new and if it’s not working, I’m not stressing about it. It didn’t work. I will try something new because I know a lot of people trying, once it’s not working and they stop to try. It’s not me. I knew if it would be not working, I would try something new. Not working again, like from a hundred different ways, at least one will work.

Denzil Mohammed: Right. If you were to go back and give your younger self some advice about starting a business and growing a business, what do you think it would be?

April Ryan: I would say her hire people because people, it’s very important for business. Making everything by yourself and multitasking and you making a million different things at the same time and it not helps to grow your business. I would say her trust people more. Find your perfect employees and you will see how your business booming. So yeah, I would say people, it’s very important for business.

Denzil Mohammed: But you support fellow female entrepreneurs, and you have, for instance, several different brands on your site that don’t belong to you, but belong to other women and you’re lifting them up. What do you think is the state of female entrepreneurship in the U.S.? What do you see happening or not happening?

April Ryan: I see, I love current situation, where female entrepreneurship in U.S.A., because it’s still friendly and still supportive. I don’t see that it’s, would be very aggressive to each other. No, I love that it’s become better every year and it’s become popular because back when I started to push this movement in my industry, we didn’t have friends between professionals, between company owners. But now I more see that it’s working and it’s possible to be friends with your, I can’t even say competitors because when you making your own business, you have your own people. It’s not competition. So I love this situation right now. It’s look great to me.

Denzil Mohammed: So you’re seeing more networks of women supporting each other?

April Ryan: Yes. Yes, and I love to see.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m gonna ask a little bit of a delicate question here.

April Ryan: Okay.

Denzil Mohammed: First, how were you received as a business owner by the opposite sex?

April Ryan: Oh. [Laugh]  I wouldn’t say I had problem with my gender. So, no, actually I had. So I had disrespect from older male because in their mind they’re really traditional and they think woman cannot be smart enough to run her own business. And actually, I also met people who told if I’m speaking with accent, I’m not smart enough too. They even try to act that they didn’t understand me, what I’m talking about. So it’s mostly men but I’m used to it back from Russia, because in Russia women have less rights than here. But my husband is very supportive. If I need his help, he’s always with me. And if I don’t want to talk with some men because of disrespect, my husband talk with them and I feel great. So I’m not keep some bad emotions about it because I’m used to it. It’s our world. It’s true every day.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s your reality.

April Ryan: Yeah. It’s reality, everyday reality. But of course I get it. But not much, not like being sad about it every day.

Denzil Mohammed: Yeah, I don’t see that being in your personality at all. [Laugh] And so tell me what is next for April Ryan?

April Ryan: I don’t know. [Laugh]

Denzil Mohammed: You told me earlier that when we were talking that you didn’t even think you’d be this big in so many, what, 17 countries?

April Ryan: Nineteen. [Laugh]

Denzil Mohammed: [Laugh] Sorry.

April Ryan: You know, actually about five years ago, I talked with company owner. And company owner, he asked me, “How do you see yourself in five years?” I said, “I have no idea, but not as business owner.” Five years later, I’m the business owner! I have so many idea in my mind and I’m still artist, even though I am mainly company owner, I’m still artist. I started from art and I have million ideas. And I’m trying something new every day and every month. So of course I will have my business and I will move to a new way. But as April Ryan, as person, I want to be more grounded, I would say.

Denzil Mohammed: Well, yours has been a really fascinating and interesting story from your beginnings in Russia to where you are now in the U.S.. Thank you so much for joining us on this podcast. And if I had to ask a last question, how do you feel about the United States that took you in?

April Ryan: It’s great. It’s absolutely great country, and American Dream still exist. And I have my American Dream. I moved here. I’m successful. I bought my house and I have so much opportunity, support from this country. So I love it. I love it. And I wish well for this country, even though this current situation in the world. I love this country and think it is absolutely great.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s incredible. April Ryan, founder, CEO of Red Iguana, immigrant from Russia, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.

April Ryan: Thank you so much for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for this week’s inspiring story of one incredible immigrant entrepreneur. If you know an outstanding immigrant business owner or innovator that we should talk to, please email Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L, at I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 61: Aki Balogh

JobMakers podcast graphic: Aki Balogh on how U.S. diversity drives business

Aki Balogh’s family fled Hungary when Balogh was a child, leading him to embrace entrepreneurship as a young teenager to help support his family. As an adult, Balogh co-founded MarketMuse, an AI-powered content intelligence and strategy platform, and has created almost 100 jobs. Listen to learn how a diverse group of collaborators was essential to his achievements.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and welcome to JobMakers.

[music playing]

Denzil Mohammed: You often hear me say how inherently entrepreneurial most immigrants are. The propensity to take risks, try out something new, dive all in to fix something or find a solution, or to make a better life. That’s an immigrant. So I say again, it’s no wonder immigrants are more likely to start businesses and create jobs in the United States. For Aki Balogh, immigrant from Hungary and co-founder of MarketMuse, which created an artificial intelligence-powered content intelligence and strategy platform, and co-founder of DLC link, which aims to decentralize Bitcoin, he was an entrepreneur from the start moving to the U.S. after fleeing post-communist Hungary. Aki and his family did whatever they could do to survive, and that included as a young teen Aki delivering newspapers, phones, books and even starting a computer repair business at 15. Today, Aki Balogh is a pioneer in content intelligence technology and has created more than 90 jobs in the past eight years, but he didn’t come up with groundbreaking software, build a successful business alone. He had help from a diverse group of collaborators, who altogether built something great. As you’ll discover in this week’s Jobmaker’s podcast, Aki Balogh, co-founder and president of MarketMuse and co-founder & CEO of DLC.Link.

[music playing]

Denzil Mohammed: Welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Aki Balogh: Great, thanks for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: So tell us a little bit about your two companies.

Aki Balogh: Yeah, absolutely. So MarketMuse, I founded eight years ago and the goal in the beginning was to build an AI application that actually uses, you know, large amounts of data and does something that is beneficial to society like helps solve a business problem and originally wanted to do something in health care. And I did five months of research around that, and some of my mentors came and said, “Hey, health care’s really hard for the first one. Why don’t you do something a little easier?” So I switched to content marketing because it is MarTech. So it is, you know, was sort of easier to show value, but the content side was education. And so at Market Muse, essentially we working, I worked with a scientist, Richard Mala and we invented a way of optimizing articles for improved kind of comprehensibility improved, you know, for more kind of information or topic, topical relevance. And that turned out to be the most impactful way to optimize articles for SEO, for search engines. And so we built an engine around that and that created a whole wave of SEO optimization around topics and relevance and that created a kind of a niche industry and just changed SEO. So, that was the first company I built. For over eight years, we raised 50 million in funding over the years. We have over 30,000 users that have registered. We have over 150, 200, you know, larger customers. So, so that was that. And then after actually about a year ago, I stepped back from that. We had promoted his CEO, Charles Frydenborg, internally, and I was just able to think of new products. So I started my second company DLC.Link, which is focused on building Bitcoin escrow, which lets the user basically use the Bitcoin in their wallet and they get to lock it and use it for applications like lending or trading or whatever, you know, financial applications. They might want to do bidding for NFTs, but the key is because the Bitcoin is locked in escrow, you don’t have to actually send it to a custodian. So, you know, unlike every other solution the only way to use Bitcoin right now in decentralized finance is you have to send it to a custodian and you kinda hope that they don’t blow up or they don’t get hacked, but if you lock the collateral in your wallet it’s, you know, self custody, which is kind of the goal. And the promise of Bitcoin is to give you control over your own future. So that’s what we’re building now.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow, that sounds great. And I’ve read that entrepreneurship. You talked about, you know, several of your mentors sat you down they knew you wanted to start something. So entrepreneurship was something that always interested you. And I would say that your journey and that of your parents was in itself entrepreneurial. You moved from one part of the world to the polar opposite. You left Hungary when you were just five years old. Tell us a little bit about why your family decided to make that journey and what that journey was like.

Aki Balogh: Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, I was five when we moved. So my parents kind of shielded me from some of the, you know, those initial impacts, but essentially my father was a research professor in chemistry, chemical technology. My mother was completing her PhD and Hungarian and Russian literature and pedagogy. So she had, you know, combined degrees and it was just a tough time in 1991 especially for teachers or educators or researchers. It just was not a lot of, you know, grant funding to go around. My father couldn’t do his research because the university could not afford the reagents or his work. So it just was a tough time. We were wearing a lot of hand-me-down clothing. I think that broke my mother’s heart. And so we decided to come out to the U.S for two years. My father got an initial kind of job in Lowell, Massachusetts at UMass Lowell. And yeah, we moved. Yeah. He moved in 1990, you know, two suitcases, 50 bucks, lived in an attic for a while to save on rent. And then in 91, the three of us, my brother and my mom and I joined him. And you know, we just, we didn’t speak English, but, you know, we were delivering phone books in the Groton, MA, area as a kid you know, we were just doing whatever jobs to make ends meet and, and that’s how we got started. And whether it was that or something genetic, but I started building kind of businesses and I started new projects, you know, early on. By the time I started MarketMuse, I had founded about seven different things. A computer repair company with my friends at 15, a European conference series at the University of Michigan that we ran for three years, a tech club for Michigan business school undergrads, and just a bunch of different kinds of projects. So I’ve always been just trying to find new opportunities. But MarketMuse was the first tech company where I actually, you know, were actually just wanted to create something new.

Denzil Mohammed: So the only thing you haven’t done so far is delivering newspapers.

Aki Balogh: I delivered newspapers at 13. That was my first paid job. Yeah. In, the Lowell area. So that’s funny, I forgot to mention that [laughs]

Denzil Mohammed: And just to be clear, your family was escaping, you know, Hungary was a communist nation up until the end of the eighties, right?

Aki Balogh: Yes. Yes. Then, the implementation of communism was a little different in Hungary, was a little bit more like it was a different type than they had in Russia, but it was part of that Soviet bloc.

Denzil Mohammed: And arguably things aren’t much different right now. Right.

Aki Balogh: It’s a tough time in Hungary right now. Their currency is devalued and they’ve pretty much off the EU in every way possible. There’s no free press. So yeah, it’s tough. Yeah, there’s a lot of structural change that needs to happen.

Denzil Mohammed: So you mentioned that you started one of your early businesses when you were 15. Something else happened when you were 15. So your trajectory, on the whole, is not entirely normal or orthodox, but your educational trajectory was also non-orthodox. How did you end up in community college at age 15?

Aki Balogh: Yeah. It wasn’t my invention. It was a great opportunity that we saw when we lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, there’s a college called Washtenaw Technical Middle College, WTMC. And basically, a group of people set that up to take high school students. You could not apply as a freshman, but as a sophomore you could apply. And they basically took the state funding for high school and applied it to college courses. So I became a full-time Washtenaw Community College student in my sophomore year. I just had one high school class. They wanted to keep an eye on me, make sure that I’m, you know, able to perform, but, but from then on, I had WCC classes and over the next, you know, three years, I pursued a degree in an associate’s degree in business, computer programming. All of those college courses also counted as high school credit. And I graduated with that degree, received a high school diploma. And I was actually selected to be the graduating speaker at the community college. So I spoke to an audience of like 4,000 college students as an 18 year old. So it was quite a, you know, an experience.

Denzil Mohammed: So to walk us through the beginnings of MarketMuse, you said you were going to try something in health care, then you decided to focus on this. What problem was it that you wanted to solve? And what were those first few years like?

Aki Balogh: Yeah, we basically wanted to create an AI engine that analyzes all of the articles on the web and shows writers how to write comprehensively to cover a topic. So if you want to talk about X, Y, Z topic, you know, what are the facets of that you should cover in your content just to write more well informed articles and the net result would’ve been, or is creating more informed content that uses all of the knowledge of humanity that has been written down on the web. If we analyze all the knowledge, you know, thousands or tens of thousands of articles on each topic we’re going to create more rich content, which will then just have a multiplier effect on the amount of knowledge that is on the web. And, you know, also makes it better able to train AI systems in the future to interpret that and so on. And so we just wanted to make the quality of content better. And the first step to that was actually, we could for the first time we could measure the quality of content with a numerical score, because, you know, let’s say the engine reads 5,000 articles in 30 seconds gives you an outline. And there are things you’ve mentioned in the outline. There are things you have not mentioned. We can basically say, all right, out of a hundred points, you know, right now your quality score is 50. And you can, you know, by adding these other pieces to it, you can improve the score. So that made it easy to follow. And that had just a lot of implications and kind of interesting aspects as well. But we wanted to make the quality of content measurable and improvable.

Denzil Mohammed: I see, but the first few years must have been a little bit rocky. And I remember you saying that it’s better if you start out with not with the whole big clump of money, but with less, that it sort of keeps you agile, right?

Aki Balogh: Yes. It was hard. It was very hard for a lot of reasons. I was also hard on myself. I tried to be kinder to myself these days as a 37-year-old. I wanted to create something new that also has a business surrounded. And actually the first two years, I also wanted to just really learn how to code better. At that point, I had not coded for six or seven years because of my consulting and venture stuff. I just was away from software development. So I just sat down and I learned Python. And then I learned Skyla and go, and front end design and Ruby and Angular and just all the kind of languages that were used today. And then I build systems that I learned how to build systems that were, you know, concurrent and you could do handle a lot of network IO or handle a lot of load. And, so I just wanted to do that by hand. So I did that for like a year and a half in my apartment, just kind of coding six days a week, you know, three shifts a day. So there’s a morning shift, lunch, an afternoon shift, a nap, then an evening shift till 2:00 AM. Monday through Saturday. I mean, Saturday was a lighter day. I did it, it was a very creative, but very hard, you know, we didn’t have any money. I was living off of unemployment, but when my last startup that I was at went under it wasn’t one that I started, but I was working for the CEO of a database company for two years. When that went under, I was out of a job.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s a real steep learning curve and you rattled off all of those languages. I don’t know any of them [laughs] but also you mentioned that it was hard for you emotionally as well, and you wanted to try to be kinder to yourself. And I read that you said 50 percent of a startup is emotional control. What do you mean by that?

Aki Balogh: Yes. startups are a bunch of ups and downs that are wild swings that I never experienced when I had a company job or was in school. You know, you will literally have events that look like you’re about to die as a company and events that you look like you’re gonna be super successful. And you’re really just kind of doing this OST installation around kind of a flat loop trajectory over 10 years, but it feels like a roller coaster.

Denzil Mohammad: So your new company also seems to be a bit of a first in its field. What, where are you with it?

Aki Balogh: Yeah, so early days we were seven people. We have about 15 initial pilots. We have our first prototype coming out this quarter. We’ve been working on this idea for about seven months, raised close to a million in funding in a tough bear market in crypto early on. I would say the connecting kind of piece is that we’re taking new IP that was developed. This IP was actually developed at MIT four years ago, and we’re applying it, we’re commercializing it, finding the applications and getting it to where it needs to go. So it’s moving a lot faster on, on every front, like instead of, you know, learning how to code the language. I was able to, you know, jump in with both feet. I was able to find my CTO very early on. Right at the outset versus four years later, we were able to raise some initial funding within the first six months, not within the two, three years from start for like funding. You know, we have, like I said, over a dozen pilots, so it’s just a lot faster. We have a lot better partnerships and the crypto community has been super supportive. They’re very interested in the idea of letting people own their own future and letting people use their Bitcoin in non-custodial ways, which is kind of like the big rallying cry in crypto is you need to own what you own and not just trust other entities to have your best interest at heart.

Denzil Mohammed: So one of the really important things that you do, you just mentioned Hungary, is that you’ve been mentoring budding entrepreneurs in Hungary, your home country. Why do you do this? And what has the experience been like?

Aki Balogh: For Hungarians? I feel like people like me have a responsibility to give back because we’ve seen people who have seen Hungary and another country like the U.S. I have been fortunate to be able to travel. I’ve been to over 40 countries. So, you know, I have perspectives that I can kind of translate, or maybe I come across as more credible to a Hungarian entrepreneur audience. And the thing about Hungary is there tremendously hardworking, smart people there. They just don’t have the natural access to the networks in New York and San Francisco and things that we enjoy, Boston, you know, things that we enjoy here. And so sometimes it’s as easier as just making a connection. I’ll give you a quick example. Last year I connected with a Hungarian developer, a friend of mine who runs a dev shop, tremendously talented. I connected him to a friend of mine here in New York, and when El Salvador was adopting Bitcoin and they needed a new Bitcoin wallet, my friend actually won that job and went to El Salvador and with his team built the Bitcoin wallet.

Denzil Mohammed: You talk about the diversity of your teams. They’re located all over the place, your brothers are on the other side of the world and you now have a Hungarian office. Not all Americans will agree that a diversity of thought is a good thing.

Aki Balogh: Yeah. You know, I’m not sure all Hungarians would agree that unfortunately, given the immigration and the attitudes toward LGBT the government’s showcase right now. I’m not sure that a major and the majority of people don’t even have to agree, but it’s still the right thing to do. You know, it’s the right thing to do to have different you know, people, different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, genders, you know, whatever you know, and diversity of thought, you know, it really encompasses like, not just racial diversity, although that is an important part of it. Especially as the company grows, we end up, you know, in the beginning, we’re just looking for specific technical talent. Especially in the crypto landscape, you don’t even know somebody’s name, they’re just anonymous, have an anonymous identifier, and you can work with them and they can even get funded that way, which is pretty cool. But the diversity of thought does show through. And in order to build a company, we need people with analytical dev skills like me, or you know, marketing skills, the ability to explain things to a large group of people, the ability to visualize things like a designer and describe it in, you know, a visually simple way. I mean, there are people who kind of love breaking new ground. There are people who love kind of organizing existing operations and making sure things are running smoothly and not falling through the cracks. So it really does take a large group of people. And that’s one thing I love about startups, that literally the only way it will work, is if, you know, if everybody is represented. There was one story of a company I don’t know, 10 plus years ago that only wanted to hire Princeton graduates. And it did not work out super well because, you know, just because someone went to a particular school, that’s not the best way to, you know, look at it. It was not a diverse group in, in many ways too correlated or they were prone to group think. And, you know, the only way to create a high performing team is to have different views, have openness, have radical kind of transparency, radical candor, and allow people to express their views and explore things and you know, make their viewpoint known and respected. And a hundred percent, you know, where what we are looking to do

Denzil Mohammed: That was very, very well said. Thank you for that, Aki. Thank you so much for joining us in this podcast Aki, and thank you for all the jobs that you’ve created over the years, all the technology that you’ve created, and your commitment to entrepreneurship across continents. Thank you for all that.

Aki Balogh: Hey, thank you for taking the time to welcome me. Thanks for the listeners. Yeah, I’m just looking to create more so, you know, I hope I can do it more faster over the rest through the rest of my life. Really.

Denzil Mohammed: Aki Balogh immigrant from Hungary co-founded the president of Market Muse and the CEO of DLC.Link. Thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.

Aki Balogh: Thanks for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute. A think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a non-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s compelling story of one incredible immigrant entrepreneur. If you know, an outstanding immigrant business owner or innovator we should talk to, please email Denzil, that’s D E N Z I L @ jobmakerspodcast. See you next Thursday for another JobMakers!

Episode 60: Chet Manikantan

JobMakers podcast graphic: Chet Manikantan: innovation machine

India-born Chet Manikantan has co-founded multiple successful start-ups and worked as a partner at two venture capital firms. His highly promising career was almost cut short, however, by an immigration system that didn’t offer foreign-born entrepreneurs many opportunities. Listen to learn how Manikantan managed to stay in the U.S. and why he’s grateful for the chance to give back.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers. Freedom and opportunity; these are the two words that most often spring up when I ask immigrants why they chose to move to the United States. And these two words can be interpreted in many ways. The freedom to think however you want to come up with ideas, unencumbered by laws or culture or other norms is something we take for granted, but is truly appreciated by our newest Americans. For Chet Manikantan, immigrant from India and founder of Aegis Studios, which builds crypto-games, that freedom and opportunity to ideate is what drew him here. Founder for a string of companies and a partner at two venture firms, Chet is an innovation machine, but he was almost denied the opportunity to innovate and create jobs in the U.S. by our outdated immigration system. If not for a chance encounter that led him to a fledgling initiative that offered a workaround for select foreign-born entrepreneurs, the talent Chet possesses could have benefited another country. And while we are strictly lucky to have him here, he’s also keenly aware and grateful that this country gave him what he needed to succeed, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers podcast. Chet Manikantan, founder and CEO of Aegis Studios, which builds crypto games, you’re an immigrant from India. Welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you? 

Chet Manikantan: Hey, Denzil. I’m doing great. Thanks for having me today.

Denzil Mohammed: So you’re a serial entrepreneur spanning two continents including your country of origin, India and your adopted homeland, the United States. So without getting to specifics, but what sort of the common thread among all the companies that you’ve helped to found, what connects them all since you are doing such different things?

Chet Manikantan: Technology at the core of it, primarily because I’m a software engineer and I’ve found technology is something that democratizes things. It scales pretty quickly, and it is easily adopted by people. It simplifies things sort of abstract, complicated human society problems into simplified solutions in the form of a user experience on a phone or a computer screen. So pretty much everything I’ve done has some level of technology involved. Maybe different industries, different kind of problem sets, but the core of it’s always been technology and innovation, if that makes sense.

Denzil Mohammed: Now your journey to the U.S. is unlike probably everyone I’ve interviewed on this podcast. Most of them came here seeking an education, but you came here on a business visa, right?

Chet Manikantan: Yeah. So it’s a long story. So which really kind of, I had visited the United States before when I was working at Microsoft, a research back in India, for some of the Microsoft events and to visit their offices in the United States prior to moving to the U.S. officially. What really changed was one of my earliest startups back in India was Guruji, it’s an education technology platform. We were selected to be part of an accelerator that was called unreasonable and to see, it selected 10 companies from around the world to be on a board to go to about 14 countries over a hundred days. We met all kinds of fantastic people, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Megan Smith, who was the former CTO for America, WordPress founder, Richard Branson almost made it, but it was a fantastic experience. The culmination of all that was at Washington D.C. So we presented at the United States state department in D.C. And that experience was kind of what shifted my thinking because I, for the most part, had decided to stay in my home country, build businesses and make an impact, but what I really recognized was that the sheer innovation, the sheer willingness of the community to support ideas from regardless of where you’re coming from and the ecosystem is set up for innovation and entrepreneurship in the United States, like no other place in the, in the world. And that experience started to have an influence over my perception of what I wanted to do next. And when I went back home, I took about six months to think about the potential ways I wanted to move forward with my career. One of them was to say, “Okay, maybe it’s time for me to consider moving to the United States.” It’s sort of like an example that I use that, you know, you can’t grow grapes in New England, it’s, that doesn’t really work very well. The climate has to be the right place for it to be good. Napa Valley is where we get some of the finest wines like California wines. So for an entrepreneur, for a startup, you need to be in an ecosystem that is well set up for that. United States has been a center for innovation, entrepreneurship for hundreds of years for a reason and I recognized it during my trip. So I sold everything I had, whatever I had earned back in India, just told my family that I’m going to go and see what happened. So I just used my business visa to jump on a plane and landed in the U.S. In fact, I first landed in San Francisco, which is the backup startup and that’s the story. And it’s very different, like you said, unorthodox compared to most people. 

Denzil Mohammed: And as a result, I mean, you came here by yourself, you didn’t come here with family. You didn’t come here to start school and, and build friendships. So you started out sort of with a really blank slate. And I imagine that made it a lot more difficult for you to get a solid footing here. I read that you used tools like Meetup and Eventbrite to network and establish a name for yourself. What was that experience like? I mean, networking in and of itself is a sort of uniquely American thing in certain regards, right?

Chet Manikantan: End of the day when you start something, whether your life or startup or anything anywhere, a job, you have to start from the scratch. So for me, coming into the U.S. I realized that the first thing I need to have is a support system of like-minded people and people that are willing to listen to what I have to offer. So obviously a lot of tools, technology comes back to sort of helping people like me, Google Maps obviously to navigate, Meetups and Eventbrites where you can find free events where other people are present with some sort of a theme that you think is going to be useful to you and vice versa. So it became an easy way to get started, but I also used some of my connections or my old acquaintances I’d made during my trip to the U.S. the prior year to sort of get some ideas of where I should go and what I should do. And people said, go to Meetup and go to these events. So that’s how it started and frankly, when I first came to San Francisco my expectations were very high. I was very quickly made to realize that it’s harder than I’d imagined. Having said that, there were fantastic people that I met along the way. I was able to, I was staying in a host for a week trying to find accommodations to figuring out what I’m gonna do. And I met this German researcher at MIT media lab, who was visiting San Francisco for his PhD interview at Stanford. And he really liked what I was looking to build and so he invited me up to Boston saying, you can crash on my couch and, you know, see if it makes sense for you to be in Boston for a week or so. So in the middle of Snowmageddon 2015 in Boston, I took a flight to Boston because it was so cold and snow everywhere, people kept meeting indoors and there were a lot of events that was going on and Boston’s a perfect, like everything’s so small that you can get anywhere to anywhere. So in that 10 days, I met everyone including people at the MIT media lab, various entrepreneurs at the Cambridge Innovation Center. It really sort of changed my view of where and how I wanted to go build my next startup. So I ended up in Boston, so I never went back to San Francisco,

Denzil Mohammed: How fortuitous and how lucky you are that you met a fellow immigrant, but from Germany who is in Boston and it made it happen. And I like that reality check. You know, we, a lot of people outside of the U.S. do believe that the money grows on trees and that the streets are paved with gold. They should come to Boston and see our streets they’re really, really bad. So around that time that you came to the U.S. an innovative initiative was launched by several people in Boston, including someone I interviewed on this podcast last year, attorney Jeff Goldman. Describe this global entrepreneur in residence program. And what was being part of, what did that entail for you?

Chet ManikantanI did not know about it. I think it was, like I said, fortuitous for me to have met somebody who invited me up to Boston. Had I stayed back in California, I would’ve had to find other means to stay there. So being in Boston helped me make connections. I was able to speak to some investors for my startup at the time. And I kept hitting a wall where everybody said that I love what you’re doing, I wanna support it, I cannot invest in a company where I don’t know if you’re going to be able to remain in the country. So at a Meetup, which I think was organized by this organization called or, which is sort of an advocacy group trying to help immigrants in the U.S., the person there told me about the GIR program. And so the next thing I did, I hopped on the red line and I went straight to UMass. I had no appointment, no meeting, I just showed up to the center and I said, “Hey, so I want to talk to the person in concern and I wanna see if I can be qualified for this.” 

Denzil Mohammed: The audacity of immigrants like you. 

Chet Manikantan: Yeah, I you know, it was sort of, I guess, you know, what else, what am I, what else am I gonna do? There is an opening, right at the end of the whole knocking on 20 doors, I finally find there’s a door that might open, so I wanted to take every chance I could get. And that door was the GIR program, which I found out when I met the person there that it’s only for immigrant students from universities in the U.S. At least that’s the way it was framed. So I was a little disheartened because I was like, I didn’t go to school in the U.S. and maybe I’m not gonna be qualified for this. So what I did is I went back home, I thought about it, I wrote a long email to the director of the program, Bill Broad at the time, and sort of explained to him what I’m building and what it is that I’ve accomplished before coming to the U.S and that I qualify for the program. And I would like him to consider my application. So I think I was a 32nd or 33rd person but probably the only non-student GIR that was accepted into the program at the time. And I didn’t take it lightly, obviously that was a great opportunity, the university provided me a type of a concurrent visa program that allowed me to build my startup while contributing to the university ecosystem. And yeah, it took me a few months, but I finally was able to, you know, stay in the country and build my startup. 

Denzil Mohammed: Again, what luck. And just to be clear, that program is, it came into existence as a way to allow entrepreneurial foreign-born university students to remain in the country and start businesses without having to go through the typical work visa lottery system, which is, you know, it’s not a great system. It doesn’t there aren’t enough of those visas and it’s tough to get those visas. As you say, you kept hitting a wall. And that uncertainty of not knowing whether you stay or not. And I mean, I’ve been there, it’s not a great feeling to want to build a life, but having this great uncertainty. So you were able to start a company, one of several, perhaps describe to us one or two of your favorite companies. 

Chet Manikantan: Well my favorite company was the first one was really Guruji, which is an educational technology company that we, I helped co-found back in India. It was primarily focused on teachers and the impact that it creates is having better teachers means you’re better student outcomes. And it’s something that gets largely ignored in the discourse around improving quality of education. And especially in countries like India and Mexico and South of Africa, and other parts where the resources are so limited that the teachers are usually just the most ignored section of the our component of the education system. So we built this platform, which is an educational technology platform, which is like a gamified platform, which adapts to the teaching style of the teacher, sort of acts as a mentor for novice teachers and a sort of an assistant for expert teachers. But it’s really focused entirely on providing lesson plans and guidance for teachers to be able to make sure that they’re able to teach the topics to their children effectively. And one of the best outcomes, my favorite moments was when we first piloted it at a tiger reserve protection area in India, where there is a national tiger reserve that is created by the government of India to protect wildlife. And one of the ways it has accomplished is to make sure that the tribal communities remain in the wildlife, because for them, they care about their biodiversity. If the sanitation, health care and education is not good, they typically migrate to the big cities, but you want them to stay there, but you wanna provide them better schooling and better outcomes. So we piloted it at a tiger reserve first, and the kids there outperformed some of the best school kids in the city. So that was my favorite moment. And we finally sold the company, part of the company to one of the Indian government arms to become the national teacher platform. So it’s definitely been my favorite. The next favorite is the one that I’m working on right now is sort of gamifying that process of same sort of taking some of those artifacts of gamification and applying it to the new age financial literacy that people are struggling with, especially when it comes to introduction of new assets, like digital assets, like cryptocurrencies and NFTs. A lot of people don’t know what they’re doing, they make a lot of mistakes, they learn from the bad actors. So we are building a platform that gamifies the process and helps people become better traders and better educated financially to, to take control of their own finances. So, yeah, those are my two at this point.

Denzil MohammedSo all of this goes to show you, you’ve talked about the connections between the United States and other countries and the kind of brain gain that we receive through this foreign talent. So it all goes to show this outsized impact immigrants are having in U.S. innovation yet without that global entrepreneur residence program, it is unlikely an innovative and entrepreneur job creator like you would’ve been able to stay in this country. And it is not an uncommon story of job creators from foreign countries, unable to stay here because there’s not a visa for them, there’s not a visa for entrepreneurs. How can the United States fix this?

Chet Manikantan: So the GIR program, while it helped me and I think there is a lot to be said about how good it has been for many founders, it is an imperfect solution. It is specific to a particular state, it is specific to a particular university system. It also has a high barrier to entry for many immigrant founders. I think that an entrepreneurial visa could do fantastic. Right now I’m in a space which is highly innovative, very global in nature just because of the fact that it’s a technology that doesn’t require any kind of credentials. So I’m constantly frustrated myself, but I’m seeing that the talent is currently now going out of the U.S. because the current immigration is very hard for people whether to find jobs or to start companies. We’re seeing capital flight, we’re seeing an innovation flight, we are seeing, you know, a lot of the things that attracted me to the United States. Some of them are not entirely being protected in the manner that it should be. We’re seeing many, many companies that are billion dollars worth currently domiciled and foreign shores, hiring people from different places. And all of that, all those jobs can be created here in the U.S. all that capital can be brought to the United States. There’s tax revenues, there is so much of, what do you call it, if you do have investments, then, you know, you have office spaces, people then rent places. So much economic activity can be created out of it. And I’m very surprised that a lot of the policymakers are not able to recognize this. And I think there’s a great frustration amongst the technology innovators as well as founders. And frankly, a lot of people that I speak to on a regular basis are unhappy with the current sort of disposition. So an entrepreneur visa would be fantastic, perhaps an immigration reform would be perfect. But, you know, we can keep advocating and I think the work that you do is definitely helping change that narrative.

Denzil Mohammed: Ultimately that’s a hope. But yes, those frustrations are not restricted to any particular place across the country. People from all over the world who have things to offer and yet there’s nothing in place for them to be able to remain here. And we are shooting ourselves in the foot, especially for those students who go through our university system and gain more skills and knowledge. We want to keep that here, right? So you chose the United States and this country allowed you to flourish as an immigrant entrepreneur, apart from the fact that you did this by yourself, which I cannot emphasize enough. You didn’t have a social safety net, you didn’t have family here, you didn’t have, you know, your friend’s car to borrow to take you to this place or that, you did this all on your own. How do you feel about the United States as a place that allowed you to flourish as an entrepreneur? 

Chet Manikantan: Oh, I love it. I mean, every aspect of it, right. I think the core of which I think is current, there’s a current discourse around this topic which is kind of controversial so I’ll try to stay within the lines of what is potentially more tolerable or acceptable for a lot of people, but really the fact that there are two sort of natural rights that most of us have as humans, it’s before human laws. The natural law is that being able to express yourself is something that is very human. That is very much unique to the mankind, right? And also of course, regardless of the species, being able to protect yourself, your like the right to self defense, like those are some of the things that are natural laws. Unlike many other countries and throughout history, those things have always been somehow infringed upon by certain kind of manmade laws which is typically saying you cannot take censorship, or you cannot say certain things, you cannot do certain things, you have to conform. In the United States when the founding fathers created the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and everything, the first amendment or the freedom of speech is a right that cannot be changed by anybody, which is an absolute amazing thing which is what creates opportunities for ingenuity. People can think people can have ideas. People can present it to people. Some of them are terrible ideas, a lot of fantastic ideas come out of them. And those have resulted in the kind of economic powerhouse, the innovation powerhouse that America has been and many countries try to emulate that by creating sort of these economic free zones or certain kinds of incentives provided for entrepreneurs. But why is innovation still coming out of the United States? It’s because people are able to think and people are allowed to express themselves. It’s the idea that matters and ideas spread and not being subject to any kind of social, cultural or legal restrictions is why people come to the U.S. I don’t know if that makes sense. 

Denzil Mohammed: It makes tremendous sense. We’re a nation of immigrants in a nation of ideas. And I just love how you brought it all the way back to the Constitution and the founding fathers and what this country was built on. Chet Manikantan, thank you so much for joining us on the JobMakers podcast. It was a real pleasure talking to you. 

Chet Manikantan: Thank you so much, Denzil, I appreciate you having me on this podcast.

Denzil MohammedJobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s fascinating journey into one outstanding immigrant story. If you know another outstanding immigrant business owner we should talk to, email Denzil, that’s D E N Z I L at I’m Denzil Mohammed, see you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 59: Pedro Zamora

JobMakers podcast graphic: Pedro Zamora on immigrant entrepreneurs in Kansas City

Pedro Zamora has blazed a trail in Kansas City through his work helping immigrant entrepreneurs create thriving businesses that have revitalized the city. As an entrepreneur himself, he understands how localities can capitalize on the hidden strengths of foreign-born business owners. Listen to learn how he’s helped more than 4,700 businesses through the Hispanic Economic Development Corporation.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and welcome to JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: I have some really special memories of Kansas City, Missouri. There, I had the warmest, sweetest churros, the most incredible barbecue, of course, and even gourmet handmade chocolates from a Swiss confectionery topped off by what? Watching a beautiful Chinese dragon boat festival. In 2000, immigrants made about four and a half percent of the Kansas City metro area population. By 2019 that had grown to seven percent. And, importantly, the area’s immigrants had $3.5 billion dollars in spending power. More than 80 percent of them were in their prime working age. And there were more than 11,000 immigrant business owners. For Pedro Zamora, executive director of the Hispanic Economic Development Corporation of Greater Kansas City, these immigrant entrepreneurs are increasingly crucial to the economic vitality of the area. Not only are they powerful economic drivers and job creators, the wealth of cuisines, cultures and art make the area vibrant, exciting, and flourishing. Pedro and his organization work to develop and implement economic development initiatives that contribute to the quality of life for Latinos in the greater Kansas City area. And to date they’ve helped more than 4,700 businesses. Immigrants there are having an outsized economic and cultural impact. And so Kansas City is yet another example of how localities can bounce back and benefit from immigrants and refugees, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers podcast.

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Denzil Mohammed: Pedro Zamora, executive director of the Hispanic Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City, Missouri. Welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Pedro Zamora: I’m doing well this morning, Denzil. Thank you for the invitation.

Denzil Mohammed: So tell us a little bit about the Hispanic Economic Development Corporation and the kind of work that you do and the people that you serve.

Pedro Zamora: HEDC, the Hispanic Economic Development Corporation, was founded in 1993 for the sole purpose as a pass-through entity to receive $30 million of EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, dollars to clean up a brownfield site, a 26 acre brownfield site in the heart of the Latino community here in Kansas City, Missouri. There were several nonprofit organizations that were doing social work and education and health, but no one was addressing the environmental contamination that was right in the heart of our neighborhood. As a child I used to play in that area and throw rocks and break windows and things like that. Little did I know what the toxicity ground we were walking on. Then Mayor Manuel Cleaver was a great friend of the Latino community, he pulled together some grassroot leaders and formed HEDC to give us ownership and the right to organize, to get the community and the business industries to come to the table to talk about what should we do at this location? It was an abandoned railroad maintenance yard. And today it’s home to a high-tech warehouse that employs roughly 600 employees from across the city. About 375 of those employees come from our neighborhood still today.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow, that’s terrific. And so bring us up to today, the work that you do now, and the kind of impact that you had.

Pedro Zamora: The Latino population in Kansas City began in the west side and it’s grown into all 17 counties. We see a 33 percent increase in the past census that was completed, a 33 percent increase in a 10 year cycle of Latinos migrating into our greater Kansas City metropolitan area. HEDC’s responsibility is definitely focused in entrepreneurship development. We couldn’t do just entrepreneurship development unless we took a snapshot of that individual and got them comfortable with where the world’s going today, online. Today, we focus on our digital literacy, integrated financial and business training. Our clients don’t come in for one siloed initiative activity. It’s integrated. And through our modularly designed program where we take the client through a very interesting wake-up call of assessing themselves in the first 12 hours of our program. They come into a 40 hour program, they’re gonna take 12 hours to think about who they really are. They’ll turn on the computer. They’re gonna be responsible for capturing their own story and then build out their strategy of where they want to go and who they want to bring with them are. Through this model of helping the individual reestablish trust in themselves, trust with our organizations, we find a common theme amongst all our clients. And then we create these small cohorts so these cohorts can now trust one another and stay together and become part of the community and create their own community in their community. So if you can see, we’re just trying to put people together to help them support one another and support other folks within the community to elevate them. We don’t market. All our services are done word of mouth. And we’re pretty busy.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s not uncommon because The Immigrant Learning Center has a free English language program. We’ve never had to advertise.

Pedro Zamora: Yeah, that’s fantastic.

Denzil Mohammed: And we always have a waiting list of several hundred, sometimes over a thousand. So immigrants, and, again, counter to the prevailing narrative of not wanting to learn English, not wanting to integrate, immigrants are signing up.

Pedro Zamora: Well, the interesting part about our focus is we do not want to be known as an English learning facility because our clients don’t have the time to learn and to master the English language because they’re trying to survive as they’re building and scaling their business they’re surviving as well as their employees. So we just don’t touch the business owner. We touch the employees of the business owner. We have relationships that tell them, bring us in before your restaurant opens up. We’ll give you a two hour training on financials, digital literacy, communications to the school systems so the workers are talking to the schools and learning about the students, looking at the reports. So it’s pretty in depth. The importance in taking 100 words in business. finance, marketing concepts and building off those 100 words in these categories has proven and has now taken our clients to well over 2000 words in each one of those categories. So their conversation learning is definitely built beyond that.

Denzil Mohammed: Therefore describe to me the entrepreneurial ecosystem in areas that you serve. Who are the job makers? What kind of businesses do they have? What are they like? Where do they come from?

Pedro Zamora: Well, the high number of job makers are always those fantastic restaurants that we get to frequent from time to time. And those restaurants are no longer the Tex-Mex style. You’re seeing everything from seafood to really unique dishes. We have a lot of local, I call them food artists that are coming in, delivering fantastic cuisines. That was pre-pandemic. During the pandemic, they had to rethink themselves. Restaurants got closed. Keep in mind, the first round of assistance from the federal government did not include non-U.S. nationals. They weren’t a part of that help assistance. So they had to rethink themselves. So pop-up restaurants and pop-up markets have popped up in our communities across the city in Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. And it’s a different menu, but the street tacos are still prominent there. The second largest industry we see that we support both with our financial business development training, and as well as our loan portfolio that we lend to through our CDFI fund, we’ve seen a lot of landscaping, yard maintenance companies come to fruition. And then, of course, the third one that’s high in numbers and high employer is our construction field. Our job is to try to move them out of those three high industries and to try to get them into coding or other forms of business work. We are accomplishing this through our integrated digital literacy courses that we teach. We have three courses certified by the U.S. Department of Labor, as well as our University of Missouri school system, postsecondary educational system. These are career stackable credentials, and they go into financial processing, entrepreneurship, financial management, risk management, learning all the Microsoft Excel tools. And then we have a third one that is for networking, becoming a network using these modern skill sets that will help the first generation or a second generation, a family that has a second generation within their business model to think of the new industries that they would like to expand in. Now that they’re comfortable with their operating capital, they should be thinking of a secondary market to spread out their risk in earned incomes. What we saw during the pandemic is if you have mom and dad and the children all working in the restaurant, it was very painful during the pandemic. What we did in 2020 was take 77 small businesses that were in the restaurant industries that we knew were not getting support from the federal government and our local relief assistance programs. And they spun up, they had to go back. As I mentioned, we’d like to see them move into the technology sector. We took them back into the construction market. Now they, the men were now back in the construction field, the women were waiting to see if the restaurants were gonna be able to reinvent themselves and do to-go orders as the regulations opened up. Now, we’re having these families, these business owners think of how they can balance their risk of where they’re gonna earn their income. The conversation doesn’t stop there. They’re still looking at the technology.

Denzil Mohammed: What are some of the success stories that you can tell us about, some of your favorite businesses perhaps, or some of the businesses that really grew into the ways that you wanted them to?

Pedro Zamora: I would say those 77 families were a great success, but they’re not just businesses. The individuals are ones that we really are making an impact with. And one great success: I can use his first name, Josh. He was 82 when he started working with us, could not read or write in his native language, Spanish, had lived in, had worked in the agricultural field, picking fruits and vegetables his whole life while he was in the United States, and never learned to read or write in English or Spanish. We were introduced to him during our research development phase of our digital literacy program through a parents / teachers program. He had no children, but he was the only living survivor of his niece and nephew that his [inaudible] parents got killed in an auto accident here in Kansas City. And Joshua became the parent to raise these kids. He had to learn real fast, how to extend his skill sets and communication. Using technology we were able to teach him how to read and write in English and in Spanish. Joshua today, he’s probably 85, 86. The kids are doing great in high school today. But he’s dealing with dementia, early-stage dementia, but using technology, he keeps his mind refreshed. And that to me is to take an individual who has sacrificed so much in his life to work and grow his assets, his net worth, but then also to be put in a position where of the unknown, raising kids. It’s an amazing story in how he has been able to communicate better with his doctors, better with extended family members and his community. He’s been a leader. We call him one of our lits, Latino and technology. He’s one of our leaders. He gives a great speech, very articulate individual.

Denzil Mohammed: So a lot of what you’re talking about taps into the American dream, this concept you state explicitly that your organization is an institution that significantly contributes to enabling the Latino community to realize its full participation in the American dream. How alive is the American Dream among the people you serve?

Pedro Zamora: A great question. It is amazing observing how we go about measuring that. Economically there’s not one individual that we run across that’s either documented or undocumented that do not want to show that they’re paying their fair share. And we help them achieve that with our online bookkeeping platform, as well as the financial risk management courses. Not all businesses are perfect. It was tough during the pandemic and it was even more important to see how their financials were in order. For our community, the Latino community, the immigrant community, they trust very few people, but they trust their churches, their families, and they trust the first kid that may go get Financing 101 done at college or high school [laugh] and they become the financial leader. What we saw, the American Dream is alive and working, but if they really want to participate, we gotta get their financials and their tax consequences in order too, and I honestly will sit here and tell you that 100 percent of every person that we talk about in the financial business as an entrepreneur in the Latino community, want to fully pay their way. They’re not here to cheat the system. They’re not depending on the system, they can’t get access to the system. So the American Dream to them? Have a good tax return submitted [laugh]. So those are words that I can’t pull out in my head. We had a pop up this past Saturday, 35 small businesses. The temperature was well in its 90s. The humidity is high, but these folks were having a fantastic time, and getting a chance to meet some of them for the first time and visit with them. They showed their ledgers that they were keeping on their phones and whether they were using an online fintech product or not, they were keeping sure, they wanted to make sure they were tracking their expenses and their earnings for that day.

Denzil Mohammed: You raised a really important point there that undocumented immigrants really want to be, to pay their fair share, to be on the straight narrow. I remember experiencing that heat of humidity in June, in Kansas City was not pleasant. But I also was there when they had this beautiful Chinese dragon festival one day, I think it was a Saturday in Kansas City. Can you talk about the broader demographics of Kansas City? You mentioned the change in just 10 years in the Latino population. And how are the different groups getting along? It’s pretty diverse, right?

Pedro Zamora: It’s very diverse. We have one sector of our community, which is the Northeast not far from my office here, Northeast. It’s called the Northeast neighborhood. Independence Avenue has roughly 69 different countries represented on that corridor. It’s about a three-mile corridor. And that’s where the immigrants settle. That’s where they start their businesses. They go to these vacant storefronts and they pull their money together and they begin their journey of contributing. And they’re settled by other nationalities from their country and who take these old homes and they start refurbishing these old homes. What happens then is that they get along together. But what happens? Other high investors want to come into those communities because they see the economic boom that’s taking place there and it’s eclectic. It becomes desirable and they start using their high level dollars and powerful lawyers to come in and work with our city to be, to talk about building other forms of development projects in those communities. So it’s a challenge, it’s a double edged sword. So it’s not the immigrants that don’t get along. It’s the system that once we do good, once we stabilize the community and we uplift a community, then it’s that gentrification steam shovel that comes rolling over right behind us, very close. It’s happening faster and faster with us today.

Denzil Mohammed: One thing that Americans take for granted is the tremendous variety of cuisines and cultures that we have access to. We really take for granted that we can have Thai food tonight and Mexican food tomorrow and Ethiopian food the following day. The most popular fast food chain here is Taco Bell for crying out loud. Can you speak a little bit to the value of all these? You mentioned all the different kinds of cuisines that we’ve had. I remember having the best churros of my life in Kansas City and then having Peruvian food from somewhere else. What is the value of that kind of diversity to the United States?

Pedro Zamora: See, it’s an amazing journey to come down Independence Avenue or Southwest Boulevard or Minnesota Avenue today, and Central Avenue. These corridors are known for their diverse cuisines and you can go from Tex-Mex all the way to rich seafood dishes out of Mexico and other Latin American countries. We don’t have any national franchise chains like the wonderful Taco Bell you mentioned. And we have to go out of our community to go there, which is a blessing. It’s a blessing to have everything from A to Z in the cuisine space in these communities we’re talking about. It’s important because life journey experiences are pretty exciting when you don’t have to leave. You know, you can go five miles and you’re hitting all these very elegant dining experiences. And that’s important because we all are struggling in from the different ethnic groups that we are settling in, but we have one common theme: family and creating community. And if we can maintain that cultural arts and demonstrate the economic impacts that we bring with that I think folks really find it a journey when they come visit our communities.

Denzil Mohammed: Your role in immigration story goes back, really far back. Would you mind just sort of sharing your immigration story?

Pedro Zamora: Yeah, I’m a son of an immigrant family. My dad was born in Mexico and brought into the United States, even though my grandmother had already been living in the United States since the late 1800s and early 1900s. My grandmother arrived in the late 1890s into Kansas City. She settled here. There was unrest in Mexico and she was, my grandfather and her were just victims of being the landowners that were, they had to do something. And they came to Kansas City because of the railroad. On my dad’s side, my ancestors are all railroaders on the men’s side. My mom is a third generation Nebraskan Latina, who was in a migrant family. So there’s three generations of migrant workers that finally obtained success and bought farmland in Nebraska. And that’s how my grandfather raised 21 children in Nebraska on my mom’s side. So I’m a sibling of 17. I’m one of 17 in my family with my parents.

Denzil Mohammed: And it’s what makes this country special. It really is. And the fact that we all have these common threads despite incredibly diverse backgrounds. Thanks for sharing about the diversity of Kansas City and even your own immigrant story. We all have these immigrant stories, whether they’re short or long. Pedro Zamora, executive director of the Hispanic Economic Development Corporation in Kansas City, Missouri, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers.

Pedro Zamora: Denzil, thank you for the invitation. It was my pleasure.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s story on how immigrants are building up Kansas City. Remember you can subscribe to JobMakers on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And please leave us a review. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 58: Mei Xu

JobMakers podcast graphic: Mei Xu on the slow burn to success

Chinese American entrepreneur Mei Xu’s career began with struggle, bad timing and failure. With determination and hard work, Xu turned her fortunes around and built Chesapeake Bay Candle, a company she ultimately sold for $75 million. Tune in to learn how Xu now dedicates her time to supporting women entrepreneurs around the world. You can learn more about Xu from her profile in The ILC’s Immigrant Entrepreneur Hall of Fame.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers.


Denzil Mohammed: I was once given some interesting career advice. Create your own job, bit of a daunting task if you ask me. Yet for millions of immigrants to the U.S., that’s exactly what they do. They become entrepreneurs. For Mei Xu, immigrant from China and founder of Chesapeake Bay Candle, which was acquired by Yankee Candle parent company, Newell Brands, for $75 million, dashed dreams and miserable timing forced her to create opportunities for herself. She describes this journey to entrepreneurship and what it takes to be successful. Today, she seeks to empower women business owners around the world so that they too can expand economies and horizons with a little guidance. As she says in her new book, Burn: How Grit, Innovation, and a Dash of Luck Ignited a Multimillion Dollar Success Story. She’s come to convince you that the American Dream remains vital and accessible to all of us, as you’ll discover in this week’s JobMakers.


Denzil Mohammed: Mei Xu, founder of Chesapeake Bay Candle, and YesSheMay and author of Burn: How Grit, Innovation, and a Dash of Luck Ignited a Multimillion Dollar Success Story, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Mei Xu: Very good. And thank you for inviting me, Denzil.

Denzil Mohammed: We’re honored to have you. So tell us who is Mei and what does your company stand for?

Mei Xu: Mei is someone that’s passionate about creating a little bit better things that we use on a daily basis, while doing so providing a better experience to consumers. That’s what I did with my first company, Chesapeake Bay Candle, and what I’m trying to do is building on that. I also want to be able to help other women entrepreneurs.

Denzil Mohammed: Could you just sort of give us, paint us a picture of what life was like back in China when you were growing up?

Mei Xu: I actually moved here after Tiananmen Square, after 1989. I moved January of 1991, when I was growing up. I was born in 1967 so you can see how old I am. It was an era when China was completely blocked off from the rest of the world. It was very singular. The race of the country is all Han mostly. There are 50 other minorities. But you listen to the way that people talk. You look at the way they dress. You look at everyone’s salary, it’s all transparent. You see exactly how much everybody’s making. Everybody’s living exactly the same style. Buildings, you used shared bathrooms and kitchens. So it’s a very interesting time when there’s not a lot of desires, but there’s also not a lot of comparisons because everyone gets exactly the same. Remember, it is socialism after all.

Denzil Mohammed: Very interesting. It’s a life that I can’t even begin to imagine what that was like, shared bathrooms and kitchens.

Mei Xu: You know, I grew up … in my book I mentioned I grew up until age eight sharing a room with my mom and dad and my sister, one room and my sister and I squeeze into a little bed. And my mom and dad is on the other bed. And then we don’t even have much furniture. So there is a table for food. And that also serves as our desk. And we have one cabinet for clothing because we don’t have that much clothing and one trunk. That’s about everything I can remember.

Denzil Mohammed: So when China opened up after President Nixon’s visit in 1972, you’ve said the government needed diplomats to all these countries that were suddenly going to do business with. Mei, you were one of those selected for the very first batch and you enrolled in a boarding school where you were taught English and learned all about American culture and ideology. That must have opened up a whole new world for you to learn about other cultures like that. Especially since growing up, it was so insular and parochial.

Mei Xu: Isolated.

Denzil Mohammed: Exactly.

Mei Xu: Exactly.

Denzil Mohammed: So, therefore, what prompted you to start Chesapeake Bay Candle? It seems like a whole other world compared to diplomacy.

Mei Xu: So I met a very interesting sociology professor who was teaching at that time in Beijing, but a visiting scholar from Dartmouth College. And she recommended me to work for her husband who is in charge of one of the offices affiliated with the World Bank mission in Beijing. So that’s when I started to work part-time for the Bank as a translator in the beginning, but later on taking on more coordination roles. And I loved it and I wanna work for the bank after I graduate. But I graduated in 1989. If everybody remember, the world witnessed in the summer of 1989 the brutal incident on the Square. What the world didn’t know is that those of us who graduated that year got the worst bargain, because we were all sent away from Beijing or Shanghai, so that students won’t gather immediately again. And I was assigned to look after a warehouse of minerals for export to other countries, and it would not allow me to practice any foreign language, let alone diplomacy. So I resigned, which in 1989 was unheard of, particularly with such a training and such a prospect of being a diplomat in the future. But I resigned because I just feel miserable and I felt I’m going to lose my 10 years of learning. And I always wanted to advance my degree anyway and the United States is always my numbered one choice because I was majoring in American Studies. That’s how I ended up in Maryland. University of Maryland saw me in the beginning of 1991 because I want to learn mass communication and journalism so that I can go back to help the World Bank missions, where they work with the local community and the government to achieve their goals. But again, I graduated with unfortunate events. In 1992, when our country, the United States, was fighting Iraq, and because U.S. is the biggest donor for the World Bank, they did not have enough money to make their pledge. So I instead took myself to New York City, very exciting, but the job was not very exciting. And it, the salary, is even worse, $19,000 to be an assistant export manager, helping a company export medical equipment to China. That’s when, although I wasn’t happy with my job, I was put next to an amazing place called Bloomingdale’s. And Bloomingdale’s to me is like paradise. Imagine I grow up without much of a material indulgence. So Bloomingdale to me is like a fairy land. You look at the perfumes and the fashion, and I loved the fashion at that time because it already had a very strong point of view. I don’t know if you remember, the shoulder pads were very in for the nineties. But then as I went up the floors on Bloomingdale’s escalator, I recognized that more floors I went up the more ordinary and mundane and unattractive the merchandise become until I went to the top floor. And it’s the worst, that’s the home product floor. And it’s just like you entered what in the movies would be some old, very antique home. So I just asked myself, I said, if someone was wearing this powerful Donna Karan power suit, why would she wanna go back to such a dark and old fashioned home? So I talked to my then husband, David, who’s working in D.C. and I was in New York during the week, so I was commuting, every night on the phone. And we also have a lot of friends in China at that time who’s now dealing in foreign trade. So one day he just said, “Mei, you’re so unhappy. I’m very unhappy that you’re not here with me. Why don’t you just quit? And I will quit too. We’ll just start a business. And we’ll maybe do something with home products because you seem to have a lot to say about what you don’t see and why is that the case.” So that’s how we started because we don’t find any opportunities for ourselves. So we created opportunities. And that’s what I think going back to your immigrant story is probably what happened to be the decision. A lot of us made … we’ll just have to risk it all because we don’t have a lot to lose. So as China become the factory of the world, what they really need is also a lot of people that can be in foreign trade. So that’s what happened. A lot of my friends end up being foreign trade for the country as a lot of those initial foreign trade organizations are government owned. And I asked them for help. I said, “Do you guys have any home-related products?” So they sent me a lot of product. We resigned, both in 1994, and I moved back from New York to Maryland. And we went back to China and we took with us a ton of samples ranging from silk flowers, those fake trees and fake flowers so that people don’t have to water them, to cushions for your car seats, to musical dolls and decorative fence on the, with the Chinese calligraphy, to some very unassuming candles. They’re shaped like a ball and they have patterns like stain glass, stainless steel, a stain glass. So we didn’t know what to do with it. We just brought everything with us to a trade show. And until today, I still tell everyone who come to me and say, “How can I validate an idea if I have a great idea for product? How can I validate a service?” I always say, “Stop asking your parents. Stop asking your friends.” They’re not gonna be as helpful as taking it to the market, because the market is very efficient in this country. It will tell you whether they like it or not. So when I came back with all the samples, it was already in September. So I scrambled and I found one trade show is in North Carolina, in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s a very, very small regional cash and carry, which means it’s so late that people will pay you and you ship them right away so they can make it to the product for holiday. It’s a cash carry trove. We drove all the way there with our borrowed van. And we put all the silk flowers, all the seat cushions, fans, music dolls and the box of candles. And we arrived and set up a 10 by 10 booth, but we don’t really know how to set up. We just put small items in the front, bigger items in the back, and we just wait for orders. And guess how much orders did we get in five days of trade shows? Just take a guess.

Denzil Mohammed: A hundred.

Mei Xu: A hundred orders, yeah. Worth how much? Take another guess. The candles cost about $5 wholesale, the most expensive item, maybe $20 wholesale.

Denzil Mohammed: A thousand dollars.

Mei Xu: Take a wild guess. No. Much more, $52,000. Probably you are right, about 100 orders. I would say probably a little bit more than that. That is 100 small retail stores trusting us to provide them product before Christmas so they can sell them. And that’s not a small change even after our business is much bigger. We went to New York, which is an international trade show, $52,000 for five days. It’s a fantastic number. Not only did we get a lot of good feedback, but we know what we should focus on after that, because most of the orders were placed for the candles. And it was the least expected because it’s so small. And we just don’t know because we are from China. We don’t use candles to enhance the mood or to set a romantic dinner. We just use them when the light went out. And guess how much we sold the first year from September to December?

Denzil Mohammed: Given the 50,000, 100,000 dollars.

Mei Xu: $550,000. So it’s an amazing … even for now I can’t believe how fortunate we are. It just shows to you, if you have observations, if you see a gap, if you see an opportunity and you bring it out at the right moment, with the right pricing, you get rewarded. And that’s how good we got rewarded. First year, people love the candles. As a result, we learned that they buy those candles to give each other a gift. Everybody has 20, 30 people on their list. Ten dollars, it’s not a big gift, but it’s very special. You light it up. It is a topic for conversation.

Denzil Mohammed: You know what I gave my boss for Christmas last year, I sent a candle. I can …

Mei Xu: [Laughs] Okay. Now, you know, right?

Denzil Mohammed: And one thing that really strikes me in just having this conversation with you is that you did not have a business background. You didn’t study business, you didn’t get an MBA, but all of this business savvy is just flowing out of you right now. And that’s quite incredible.

Mei Xu: Finance is always part of my work as well, because I’m very customer-facing. I was the one that negotiated most of our first relationships with big companies. And when you deal with them, you have to understand your numbers. You have to understand how to ask questions. You have to be able to digest information in a way that you see trends so one of the things I say I’m very good at.

Denzil Mohammed: But your latest endeavor, YesSheMay, is a very unique business. Why did you choose this particular kind of business and what makes it special?

Mei Xu: I think I’m the only one that is doing a for-profit business for women. We have a lot of nonprofit that advocate women’s entrepreneurship that are investing in women-owned companies in funding, or help them in connecting with major buyers. There are … I can name a lot of them. What is different in what I’m trying to do is that I often see what their restraints are. So I have a very good friend in Elizabeth Vazquez, who is the founder of WeConnect. It’s an organization that promotes big companies like IBM or Target or Walmart to buy from international women-owned businesses so that they can help them to grow their business savviness and their economic power. That has implications. When women are more economically independent, they can send their kids to school and they can take those kids out of the streets. They can provide opportunity for them to become entrepreneurs or have a regular job. That means they’re not fighting on the street. They provide stability and growth. So that’s why a lot of big corporations work with her to certify those companies and then train those women to work with bigger companies. The problem is even when they are making that connection, can a Target really work with someone in Tanzania that’s never even made $100,000 worth of product? Because the first order, most likely is gonna be a million dollars for a 1,800 store chain. Can they figure out how to teach them all these things in a short period of time, so they can graduate, have the best practices and continually supply them? It’s very hard. So to make that leap frog of a development, they need people like me, people that are incubators, that can train them to first work with smaller companies or smaller businesses, that can be patient, that can let them learn their ropes, even translate their instructions into English, take good photos. And then gradually, if they continually have product that people want, then they get to the next level to work with bigger companies, such as a 10 store chain or website that has more traffic. Eventually, if they get everything right, they may have a shot to work with a Macy’s. So to me, this is fundamentally an incubator.

Denzil Mohammed: From your writing, it is that the connection between being an immigrant and being an entrepreneur is something that is very, very real. Can you expand on this? And what is the connection between being an immigrant and being an entrepreneur?

Mei Xu: I would say, Look at how many major companies started by immigrants. So if you look at Google, if you look at Zoom, DoorDash, sure. I can go on and on. And I think it’s not accidental, it’s because I think they do have something they share in that they’re not afraid to abandon what’s known, what’s arranged for them, what everyone else is doing. They’re willing to take a risk to give their passion and their dream a real shot. I do see the similarities between entrepreneurs and immigrants. And I do see that that’s one of the reasons why they create companies because often they have nothing that is offered to them on a silver platter.

Denzil Mohammed: One thing that has occurred to me in hosting this podcast is that that thing called the American Dream appears to be stronger outside of our borders than it is among its residents. In your book Burn: How Grit, Innovation, and a Dash of Luck Ignited a Multimillion Dollar Success Story, it’s inspirational and optimistic but you do write that the world has become more pessimistic, protectionist and insular and that ultimately you hope to convince the reader that the American Dream remains vital and accessible to all of us. How do you go from pessimistic, protectionist and insular to believing in the American Dream?

Mei Xu: When I was writing the book I had just came out of four years of being under this president who was very undiplomatic, not very democratic himself, but for the first time, really put into the very front, a national dialogue about the dislike of immigrants, the displeasure of other cultures, the judgment of other races, which is so, to me, so blatant. So I would not ever imagine when I came here in 1991 that this could happen. I know they existed. You know, we see the KKK’s demonstrations. We know that African Americans being lynched. The Asian Americans called names. Our Chinese Americans being called the chinks. These things didn’t happen to me, fortunately, but I can relate to those. So to hear your own president talking like them is shocking to me. It’s a real wake up call that not only those sentiments exist, that it exists and it’s alive and it’s actually growing at that time. I’m very hopeful that our children … that’s where I find hope, is that my children and many other children that I’ve known since I have children … I think they do recognize that we cannot go back just like China, cannot close its door and pretend that nothing will ever happen the way that it was for the last 40 years. People have tasted the power of freedom, the power of free speech, the power of free economy. And they have benefited. Why would they go back to an era where they can barely afford to have meat every day? They can barely afford to have new clothes when they really wanted it. So innately I feel we are always making progress as a race. We’re just taking two steps back, maybe three back, three steps forward. And at the core of this nation is that fundamentally, we are a nation of immigrants.

Denzil Mohammed: This was a really, really incredible and fascinating conversation. I so thank you for making the time to do this. I know how busy you are.

Mei Xu: No, Denzil.

Denzil Mohammed: Mei Xu, founder of Chesapeake Bay Candle and YesSheMay and author of Burn: How Grit, Innovation, and a Dash of Luck Ignited a Multimillion Dollar Success Story, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers.

Mei Xu: Thank you, Denzil.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and at The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s inspiring story of immigrant entrepreneurship. Remember, you can subscribe to JobMakers on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, and please leave us a review. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 57: Cris Ramón

JobMakers podcast graphic: Cris Ramon on how to build up immigrant businesses

As the son of El Salvadoran immigrants, Cris Ramón understands the entrepreneurial spirit of migrants firsthand. The new report he co-authored, Immigrant Entrepreneurship: Economic Potential and Obstacles to Success, highlights ways that municipalities could capitalize on the amazing contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs. Listen to learn why he believes immigrant entrepreneurs benefit all Americans.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammad and welcome to a special edition of JobMakers. 


Denzil Mohammed: If you haven’t heard me say it yet, you haven’t been listening. Immigrants are twice as likely than average to start a business here in the U.S. And these businesses are having a real local and national impact, but the reception to these business owners is uneven. And there are many municipalities that can learn from places that actively and authentically engaged with their newest residents and helped build up their entrepreneurial capacity to the benefit of all residents. For Cris Ramon, son of immigrants from El Salvador, immigration policy analyst, and co-author of the new report, Immigration Entrepreneurship, Economic Potential and Obstacles to Success published by the Bipartisan Policy Center. He scoured the nation to learn not only what immigrant entrepreneurs need, but what municipalities and the federal government can do to help build up these businesses. The report shows that immigrants are primed to take risks due to their willingness to move to the United States. But politicians aren’t doing much to facilitate that entrepreneurial spirit. The report offers case studies, recommendations and stories that demonstrate the value and impact immigrant business owners can bring, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers. 


Denzil Mohammed: Cris Ramon, an independent researcher and policy expert on immigration, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you? 

Cris Ramon: Thank you. Great to be here and very much open to having this great conversation with you and obviously happy to chat with you. You’ve been doing amazing work that I’ve been following for many years now, so it’s great to be here. 

Denzil Mohammed: Yeah, thank you for that. You have been studying immigration for a very, very long time. You are a Fulbright Scholar studying migration as well in Spain. And you recently co-wrote a report for the Bipartisan Policy Center called Immigration Entrepreneurship, Economic Potential and Obstacles to Success. Could you just, just give a little background about you and then this project? 

Cris Ramon: Sure. So, my folks are Salvador immigrants. I was born in LA. My folks actually met in Los Angeles, so they didn’t immigrate together, but they came here actually the same year in 1974 through some pretty different routes. You know, my mom was an undocumented immigrant and my dad came here because my grandmother who immigrated to the United States in 1968 was able to get him and my uncle you know, helped with processing their immigration cases because she cleaned the house of an immigration attorney. So, they got really lucky in the lottery of life to be able to get be able to come here. So, you know very much immigration’s a part of my story. But you know, in terms of you know, the work that I do in this report, you know, I had an opportunity to really look into you know why immigrants become entrepreneurs? What are the challenges they face? Sort of the policy responses that you see at the federal and local level and then policy recommendations to do that? 

Denzil Mohammed: So just give us an idea of the landscape of immigrant entrepreneurship. What, why did you find generally speaking, what kind of sectors are immigrants concentrated in? Do they have a higher rate of entrepreneurship? How are they impacting their localities and regions? 

Cris Ramon: Yeah, so I think the key thing is that you know, immigrants are, you know, immigrants can, are represented across different industries. You always hear the story about the immigrant entrepreneur that starts a high-tech startup in Silicon Valley. But also you see immigrant entrepreneurs in main street businesses particularly restaurants and service industries. And so you do have this broad distribution. I think one thing to note with the distribution is oftentimes, particularly immigrants who are here they will sometimes start businesses that represent or reflect the cultures that they came from. So, restaurants obviously is a major story that comes up when you see these folks in terms of products, you know, one of the interesting stories that we heard about, you know, in this sort of vein is that there was a Syrian soap maker who wanted to make their soaps in the United States. And so they were able to put together their business in the St. Louis area to be able to do that. So I think that that’s something that’s important, but the key thing there is that immigrants do start businesses at much higher rates than even native-born Americans. And the data really backs this up. It’s just incredible to see how active they are in building the businesses. You know, it’s not to say that native-born Americans aren’t like creating businesses. It’s just that immigrants are doing this at much higher rates. I think the last thing is in terms of the impacts, you know, we didn’t dive into that information as much, but overall there is a sizable impact to be considered in terms of the because there are just more immigrants, foreign businesses that the impact has to be strong and significant because they are creating jobs that are employing individuals and they’re paying taxes. So I think that that’s really something to consider. It’s a, it’s definitely a win for the national economy, but for local economies as well. 

Denzil Mohammed: And we are recording this podcast over Zoom. Guess who founded Zoom? An immigrant. Yeah, you paint a really good picture here. And, you know, if we open our eyes just to main streets and see the variety of businesses that we have the variety of cuisines that we have access to, that’s really unique and important for us. So you said you found that I read that rates of entrepreneurship for immigrants increased over the past few years and actually decreased among the U.S-born, but, you know, COVID obviously affected many of these businesses in a very, very significant way. And you found that minority-owned businesses and immigrant business owners suffered some of the highest losses. Can you tell us a little bit about that? 

Cris Ramon: Yeah. And I think, you know, the reason you see that those losses suffered is that particularly service industries or industries were minority business owners and immigrant business owners were really hit hard especially during the first year with the pandemic because obviously individuals largely remained at home. And so the fact is that if you have individuals who are using these services at lower rates, you’re gonna have businesses going under a lot more at higher rates. So I think that the distribution of these individuals and their businesses, unfortunately, really put them in a tough spot when it came back from the pandemic. 

Denzil Mohammed: Well, I interviewed a guy called Daniel Perez. He’s an entrepreneur here in Massachusetts. He has a very successful transportation business. So transporting businessmen from the airport to their meetings, to their hotels. And obviously, when the pandemic happened, people weren’t moving, people weren’t going anywhere. People were confined to their homes and he found a way to be able to use his vehicles in a profitable way during the pandemic. They became mobile health clinics during the pandemic. So some immigrants did find ways to navigate successfully throughout this very trying time. So when it comes to some of the hurdles you found, you know, obviously immigration status, the stagnant immigration policy, there are many, many reasons why immigrants should not be able to start businesses. What are some of the hurdles you found? 

Cris Ramon: Yeah. So to your point, I think with the immigration system, I mean, first and foremost, we do not have a visa expressly designed for immigrant entrepreneurs. You’re an individual who needs to get funding from a venture capitalist to be able to start your, startup for instance, or you’re an individual who wants to start a main street business. There isn’t a visa for you to be able to come to the United States to do that. And so that’s kind of the first problem is that the ability to attract talent, at least through those channels just simply do not exist. You know, and the second issue with the immigration system is we’re not really designed to retain talent particularly, you know, not just simply, you know, workers who can bring in their skills and stay here. I’m thinking obviously foreign students are one example who are here on a student visa. And then, you know, if they don’t have a job lined up and get sponsored and be able to get a visa to stay here the, you know, their dire straits, we just do not have a status for these individuals to adjust into, to be able to become entrepreneurs. So, we have this dual problem where we’re not able to attract talent or in this case, the ambitions, the skills, the knowledge, and the drive for immigrant entrepreneurs to come here and to be able to retain those individuals that they’re already here, but they’re on a temporary visa. That’s, that’s a major issue. You know, another issue is access to resources. So, it’s interesting because one of the drivers of immigrant entrepreneurship is social capital. So, the networks that you have you know, this is why you say you’re sort of seen over the course of American history, these immigrant enclaves emerge. And one of the reasons that, you know, those communities you know, have been able to really sustain themselves financially is because a newcomer comes to the United States and they’re able to sort of navigate the business starting process. And this is obviously a long-term project, you know, for, for many, you know, for decades even centuries in the United States with the history of immigration. But of course, those social networks allow individuals to be able to navigate the system to be able to set up their businesses. But the issue of course, is that if you’re a newcomer and you’re trying to start a business, now those issues around say accessing alone, maybe you don’t have a credit history in the United States. You don’t have assets to be able to offer to a bank. And so that can kind of put you at a disadvantage especially if you’re coming in and, and maybe you may not have the savings to do that. It’s not to say that it makes starting businesses impossible for immigrants, but it certainly is a major challenge. So those are the two things to consider with the major, major obstacles that immigrant entrepreneurs face here in the United States.

Denzil Mohammed: And despite this. So again, immigration status, immigration policy, as you say having a credit history, you know, 90 percent of immigrants who come here don’t even have a clue about a credit score. That’s something unique to the U.S language barriers, as you say, collateral having social capital is so important for anyone to succeed anywhere, having parents or children or cousins or family, or for any kind there. And yet still they have a higher rate of business generation, is that astonishing, 

Cris Ramon: You know, individuals come here and that’s a risky move. I mean, I recently just moved to Chicago. And, you know, there was a cost-benefit analysis that I made. And it was still risky, but if you’re moving from one country to another oftentimes permanently, you’re, you’re your, your ability to be able to assess risk and, and your willingness to do that, kind of primes you already to be able to take other risky steps, particularly start in businesses. And so I think that that, that the, that mitigate the experience of migrating to the United States really does mitigate the awareness you might have towards taking risks. So that’s one factor. Another important factor is a lot of these individuals who come to the United States are, you know, they have knowledge, experience and skills, whether it’s formal channels that they want to university or trade school, or it’s informal. You know, and sometimes it’s very hard to find jobs that can, you know, really fully use this in the United States. And especially if you’re, you’re coming in from licensed professions, you need to get credentials renewed or, or need to take up additional study. And so these individuals oftentimes start their own businesses to be able to use the experiences that they’ve gained over a lifetime to be able to do the work that’s meaningful for them, and also probably to get paid at a decent rate. And, and so I think that there’s that also the drive saying I can’t find a way to integrate into the labor market. I will create my own path to do so. 

Denzil Mohammed: So, what are some of the ways that we can address these issues? Let’s say let’s start at the federal level and then come down to the local level. 

Cris Ramon: Yeah. So, so Congress has recognized this issue. So, I’m gonna give them pride upfront that they’ve recognized that this issue is something that we need to focus on, and they’ve proposed Democrats and Republicans. So, it has been a bipartisan issue have proposed bills to be able to create an immigrant visa and an immigrant status that people can adjust into if they’re already here and the visa will allow people to come here. But I think one of the key things that need to be done is they just simply need to pass it. And I think that as much as I think that you know, that a comprehensive immigration reform bill, that addresses those multiple issues is the most ideal. I’m also being, you know, you have to be a little bit of a pragmatist and a realist and recognize that you may need to do reforms in a piecemeal fashion and get the wins where you can get the bipartisan consensus where you can and do that. At the municipal level, you are seeing cities really stepping up in, in some big ways to be able to provide technical assistance. And in some instances, you know, loan programs for minority-owned businesses and immigrants. So, you are seeing that there are these municipalities that are doing this. One of the interesting things in the conversations that I had with the experts on this, though, is that you wanna be able to, first of all, you don’t wanna have services. And, I didn’t really dive too deeply into this, into the report, but I can say this a little bit more now here. One of the things that somebody who works in the mid-Atlantic city, he mentioned that one of the well-intentioned efforts is to have a lot of funding to be able to provide technical services for minority, potential minority business owners and immigrants. And that’s good naturally want the funding. The problem is that the funding actually started going into duplicative technical services that didn’t really adjust to the needs of the communities. It was just simply the same program. He literally almost said it’s basically almost like a copy and paste job, and, and that doesn’t benefit anybody. So, one of the things that he said that municipalities really need to do is they do, you know, their services and, and see where they can try to reduce redundancies and adjust the services to meet the actual needs of the individuals that they’re meant to serve. Another issue is obviously language services providing them in languages and also recognizing that the immigrant populations are gonna shift. So just because you are providing languages language services and five languages in you know, 2018, that’s not to say that in 2022, the population hasn’t shifted. So that’s something else to consider. There are trusted community navigators that are an important component of this is that you need to be able to reach out to the community and have the folks that people trust to be able to sort of do outreach to immigrant entrepreneurs and to know what their needs are and how you can access them. Some of these can be, you know, a mayor who goes out and actually connects with the community with other members of important leaders in their communities, whether it’s police chiefs or representatives of chambers of commerce. But it can also be you know, nonprofits, chambers of commerce and community development corporations that can help you get a little bit more in the sense of what the actual needs are. I will say I will point to one interesting example of, I did think was really interesting in terms of particular kind of doing this all well, is that you know, the city of Philadelphia ended up kind of canceling all these grants for these programs and actually just brought in, they had a common pot and they brought in consultants 1099 experts who could provide targeted services depending on the needs of the community at any given time and pairing them up with individuals. Not only are they saving money because they don’t have to pay into health care or pensions, or what have you. They’re able to bring in individuals that are targeted to specific needs and the needs and the things that are important for these communities. 

Denzil Mohammed: Could you probably give us some cities that have been doing have been successful in building up the entrepreneurial capacity of the immigrant populations? 

Cris Ramon: St. Louis to me is actually something that’s just fascinating because and we mentioned this in, in our report, we highlight St. Louis. There’s just a high propensity of nonprofits that are doing very good and long-standing work on providing immigrant entrepreneurs with technical services with loans and with just being able to connect with them. One organization that I’ve known about since at least 2012 is the Mosaic Institute in St. Louis, Betsy Cohen, I think is the individual who works in that. And, and so she’s been doing groundbreaking work in this whole area, for now, at least 10 years. You know, we mentioned the city of Chicago. I think one of the interesting things there is that you’ve been seeing the little village chamber of commerce. So that’s a community in Western Chicago that’s largely Latino. And they’ve, you’ve been seeing, you know, little village, the little village chamber of commerce the foundation of little village setting up some interesting programs. One is sort of a 12-week class for new and existing business owners that are offered in English and Spanish. There’s also the chamber of commerce is starting this project which is like a commercial cultural center that will actually have a business incubator. So, individuals can start their own businesses and there will actually be a kitchen there to be able to allow food vendors to sell their items and learn from that. You know, we did mention Malden, Massachusetts you know, is one of those interesting examples where you did see the mayor really doing some great outreach work, largely under like a nonpartisan banner of say, we’re just gonna reach out to immigrant entrepreneurs, get secure support from all sectors of society to be able to support these individuals and doing it in I think a non-political way, because sometimes you’ll see cities, municipality saying we’re a Welcoming City. They’ll do that under the auspices of Welcoming America, which is an amazing organization really appreciate their work, but they’ll say, oh, we’re a Welcoming City, or they’ll pass policies, like say we’re a sanctuary city, which of course, there’s no definition of what a sanctuary city is, but they’re, they’re saying that to try to, you know, whether or not it actually proves outcomes limit cooperation with immigration enforcement. There are these things that can symbolize that there there’s an openness, but I think molding Massachusetts is interesting because the mayor was deliberately non-political on this. And you can show that you can actually kind of approach this issue in a less, in a less polarizing way and, and get a community buy-in, which is, I think is so vital to ensuring that people feel secure and support 

Denzil Mohammed: At the local level. How do we move the needle on this? How do we spur some change so that we can foster the entrepreneurial capacity of immigrants in our communities, which is obviously to everyone’s benefit? 

Cris Ramon: These issues of competition for resources with other minority groups always come up. And I think there’s feelings that are, are related to that, that people feel that this might be a disadvantage. This might disadvantage minority business orders from other communities, but oftentimes minority business owners have immigrants in their ranks. So, it’s not to say that it’s a competition for resources, but that I think is a very real concern. So, I think the first thing is just ensuring that you know, municipalities nonprofits, community development corporations all are ensuring that minority business owners feel like they’re being supported and that they’re also that their needs are being met, and really acknowledging that. So, people don’t feel like there’s a competition, even if there isn’t necessarily one just to ensure that that concern is addressed. And you know, what you see in cities and municipalities is sometimes they’ll just offer services for minority business owners. And that might be the assumption is that some immigrant immigrants might be incorporated into that minority group, because they’re already a large number of immigrants there. I think that’s one thing that’s incredibly important to build in that stakeholder relationship. I think another thing to consider too, is that, whether it’s at the national level, the state level, the local level is trying to sort of delink immigration as an issue that is a single issue. You know, I think, and specifically related to the border, like I said, there’s a legitimate policy conversation to be had there. You know I’m more critical of the politics around it, but I think in terms of effective policies, certainly there’s a discussion there to be had. I think though that when you’re talking about immigrant entrepreneurs, the thing is that you wanna, you know, it’s to say these are individuals who are here right now that are contributing to our communities. And they are a vital part of the economic and the community life here in these areas. And they think that you really need to be very intentional in understanding that you have to delink this, there are people who won’t at the end of the day, everybody, there will be people who you can’t change. There are views on this, but I do think that you are, if you’re able to at least get people to think through that immigration as an issue, whether it’s policy or political it isn’t just simply the border even though that’s natural default, so really being intentional to do this. And I think that as a part of that, and we go back to like said Malden, Massachusetts is to really get a read on the community and how they view these issues. Particularly the non-immigrant individuals. You know, like I said, it might be the case that in a very blue city stating that you’re a Welcoming City or you’re a sanctuary city might run a little bit better with some of the residents, but I do think that a depoliticized approach that doesn’t try to make this already a polarizing issue more. So, I think with the issue around a sanctuary declaration, as opposed to the “Welcoming” one, because I think Welcoming America does good bipartisan work and works across the entire country. But I do think that kind of more hard-line political stance on we’re here to protect immigrants from immigration enforcement and so forth. I don’t think that actually does anybody any favors in the end, especially if you’re dealing with areas where people might have more, I think complex views around immigration. So I think it’s more depoliticize it, delink it from some other issues that make consensus very hard to find and ensuring that all community members feel like they can get services that they need. I think those are sort of three things that you can do to feel like to get people, to support these individuals already, if they’re not, you know, at least among the individuals who are worried about it and but are willing to have a conversation to see if their minds can be changed. 

Denzil Mohammed: I love that idea of decoupling immigration immigrants are part of our community. So, our neighbors, they’re employers, they are workers. They’re our friends, they’re soccer players. So, it’s not a separate issue from anything else in the community. It’s a community issue. It’s an economic issue. It’s a social issue. It’s not just an immigration issue. And I’m glad that you, you made that point. So, Cris Ramon, immigration policy researcher and analyst, and co-author of Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Economic Potential and Obstacles to Success. Thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast. 

Cris Ramon: Thank you so much. Appreciate the invitation 

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and the Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for this week’s look into how we can better grow our immigrant-owned businesses for the benefit of all Americans. Remember, you can subscribe to JobMakers on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 56: Julie King

JobMakers podcast logo: Julie King brings authentic Mexican cuisine to Boston

Julie King was a high-powered attorney in her native Mexico. That ended when she married and moved to the U.S. The only way she could practice law in the United States was to earn a second law degree from a U.S. school. Starting over, King went from delivering newspapers at 3 AM to eventually becoming a successful business owner in the financial district of Boston. That journey was anything but easy, but her perseverance paid off. 

Denzil MohammedI’m Denzil Mohammed and welcome to JobMakers. Moving to a new country is usually hard, emotionally, financially, even health-wise. And it’s not atypical for the immigrant to start at a lower rung of the economic and social ladder than they previously enjoyed. But it’s a win when he or she perseveres despite the pains and is able to thrive. For Julie King, immigrant from Mexico and founder of Villa Mexico Cafe in the financial district of Boston, that step down was steep. A powerful lawyer in Mexico city, she ended up delivering newspapers at 3:00 a.m. for work in the U.S. A widowed mother of one, the American Dream to her was a nightmare. That was until an opportunity, driven by a yearning for real Mexican food, collided. Even then the nightmares didn’t entirely stop, but she kept at it, and after 20-something years is full of admiration and respect for the country that allowed her to become a business owner. Respect for sure, but maybe not love as she tells her tale, she gives a nuanced take on the idea that you can love both of your home countries the same, as you hear in this week’s JobMakers. Julie King, founder and owner of Villa Mexico Cafe, Water Street, Boston. Welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Julie King: Good, good, thank you, my dear. To be honest with you, I’m a little tired because I have been working today since six o’clock in the morning.

Denzil Mohammed: I was about to say it’s a Friday afternoon, you must be really exhausted. Tell us a little bit about your business and why do you think it’s special? 

Julie King: Okay. Villa Mexico Cafe, it started in 1999. Why? Because I wanted to show the people what is the authentic Mexican food. It is special because we serve authentic Mexican food in this place. And since I opened it day one, they know that I don’t serve nachos because they are not from Mexico, they are from Texas. We don’t serve nachos and we don’t serve, for example, avocado with lobster, because we are not a food place. We are authentic. That’s what makes my place special, because I think that we are one of the few authentic Mexican restaurants in the whole New England.

Denzil Mohammed: I would imagine so. And a lot of people in America, I’m sure they’re feeding new Mexican food.

Julie King: For example, today the lady told me, do you put lettuce and onion in your burrito? I said, no, I don’t. “Why not?” “Because that is not the way that we do it in Mexico. It’s only rice beans, the meat of your choice, the salsa, avocado, and that’s it my dear.” “Oh my God, but that is not Mexican food.” I said, “No, you are right, it’s not Mexican food, authentic. It is Mexican food, but authentic Mexican food. You are here to get authentic Mexican food.” And they still don’t get it. And you know, what is the worst thing? 

Denzil Mohammed: What?

Julie King: The worst thing is that I know that Mexican food is a very good business. When they said that’s a Mexican restaurant, let’s go, and they spend a lot of money for eating Mexican food. But to serve authentic Mexican food and especially homemade, there is nobody but us.

Denzil Mohammed: I love how you stick to your guns, you know, keep it authentic Mexican despite what the customer may think that they want or may expect. But you were actually a lawyer in your previous life in Mexico. 

Julie King: Yeah. 

Denzil MohammedSo how come this drastic change of course in your life? 

Julie King: Completely, my dear. In Mexico, my husband used to tell me that I was a big shot because I used to be the legal director for the Holidays Hotel chain in Mexico City.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow.

Julie King: That was beautiful. It was an incredible, incredible job. I loved it, I was traveling, I used to go to talk to ministers, you know, in the Mexican government, even with the president, we’d have breakfast and meetings and things like that. With the ambassador of the United States, big, big people, you know, and I was only in those days 27 years old, but I was a big shot. Like my husband told me. That was my best, best job I ever had because I enjoy it, it made me really responsible, but then I got married. I met my husband and he was American, an American officer, a Navy American officer. We got married and then I have to quit my job to come to the states and live in the states. But yeah, I was a big shot and I loved it. 

Denzil Mohammed: Arguably, you’re still a big shot now, “Mama King”. So take us back to life in Mexico City.

Julie King: Beautiful. Of course, I mean, like in your country, you know, my country is Mexico. It is, it was so nice, so beautiful because all the families in those days, they are very conservatives. They are all the schools. So we were educated like that. We didn’t have the rich people, medium class or the poor ones. Everybody was the same, the same thing. And we used to go, everybody, to the same official school. We didn’t have private school, everybody. You could know your friends, your neighbors, and everybody was a family and that’s the way we grew up and I love it. And that’s why we are, I am very, very attached to my country because I love my country a lot because of all the memories that I have when I was a kid with all my friends that I still have. My friendship still exists with those guys and we had a very good friends, we have incredible memories when we get together, and we go like, “Remember what we were used to do in the kindergarten, or remember what we used to do in the elementary school?” And this is real life and I tell you a secret, my dear, all the immigrants come to the United States because they have a big dream, which they call the American Dream. You know what, being in the states is not my dream, it’s my nightmare. Why? Because I really suffered a lot when I came to the states, even when I was married. And I was living in Texas, I moved, we moved from Mexico to Texas. And then when I moved to Boston with my daughter, oh my God, it was a nightmare because I received such an insult that people were extremely. Right now is better, but in those days everybody could insult you and nobody would say anything to you. It was really hard to me getting into the Bostonian’s life because it is not easy for them to open. It is so difficult and as a woman, you know, single mother be by myself. And in Mexico, I used to have a lot of friends, my family, my business as a lawyer and in here, it was horrible. For example, let me tell you, in Mexico, we have a beautiful house and things got easy to have it. And it is a big house with garden and four bedrooms and living room, a huge living room or whatever, but it is not my house. In here, I didn’t know how the rents were and I had to go into a little bitty place with two small bedrooms and I was like, oh my God. It was the first time I used to live in an apartment. Then in Mexico, I have my daughter’s nanny and the people who help me in the house and my gardener and my driver, because like my husband said, I was a big shot, you know? And in here, we are not used to do anything, but the problem is that we are not used to cleaning the house or we are not used to washing the dishes or to wipe the clothes. We are not used to that things, especially because I was having my daughter’s nanny. When we moved, me and my daughter to the states, I said, “Okay, I don’t mind. I’m going to get somebody to clean my house.” And just to get a person, she charged me like $200 in those days for cleaning my house and washing my clothes. And I said what? 200? It was very expensive and I couldn’t afford it. So besides working and getting up at three o’clock in the morning and coming back and washing, my day, I have to clean my house, I took to wash dishes, to go. It has been a nightmare, my dear, and I didn’t know your regulations in the states. There is a lot of regulations completely different, like my country. And I was like crazy, I was crying every day, I was really bad and nobody could help me. But at the same time, in the meantime, I was opening my way to being in Boston. I found good people that would welcome me and probably they feel sorry for me, you know, because I was, I don’t know, I was really lost, lost being by myself and my daughter.

Denzil Mohammed: Without a solid support network, you’re really just on your own. Not having family around is, and this is why family reunification is so important to the American immigration system, because we need our families there. We need our parents, our kids, ’cause that’s what we rely on. We don’t have anything else to rely on. So I can imagine how difficult that must be and a lot of Americans don’t realize that when immigrants move here, they often take a step down. You know, your first job is not gonna be anything like the job that you had in your home countries. You have to work yourself back up. Even for you as a lawyer, you would have to retake all your law years of law school, similar for doctors who have to redo residencies 20 years ago. They would’ve been markedly fewer opportunities from the SBA, from different lending organizations. I’m sure a lot of discrimination with banks. How did you do it? How did you start this business? How many times did you fail? 

Julie KingWell, you say it right. Without family, with no help, with not somebody to put my head on the shoulder and cry with, doesn’t receiving any advice or at least welcome home or nothing, I didn’t have any of my food. I couldn’t find good Mexican food in Boston. So I said, “Oh my God, no.” And every time I wanted to go and have some breakfasts or some kind of my food, you know, we were me and my daughter were so sad and very disappointed that I said, “Okay, I’m going to show these people what is the authentic Mexican food,” because I didn’t like the way they were serving the Mexican food. So that’s why it made me start my business. How? Only God knows. Because to be honest with you, I thought to come and work as a lawyer in the states and you just stayed right. I said I don’t care, I’m going to work as a lawyer because I am a good lawyer. And when I went to apply for the first job, they requested my license and I gave them the one in Mexico and they said, “What is this? You cannot work in here with that.” So I said, “So what do you mean? I am a lawyer.” “Yeah, wonderful, but you need to request your license.” I said, “And where do I gotta go and get it?” And they told me, “You gotta go to the school.” I said, “What do you mean to the school?” Yeah. You have to start your law school again to get your license. And in these days…

Denzil Mohammed: That was an option.

Julie KingIt wasn’t like now that in less than six months you can get your license. In those days, you have to go to the school for three years. And then I said, “Oh my God and what do I do?” I raise my daughter and I take care of my daughter or I go to the school and pay for my school. And one day my sister took some vacations and she came to visit me in Uber. And we were walking by Google center and I saw this little bitty place, a very nice place and I said, look, there is a place, let’s go see how it looks inside. And we both were seen through the window, like, oh my God, this is a restaurant and this and that and look at it, got chairs and tables and a counter. And she said, “Do you think that it could be a good place? So you can set a business?” I said, “My God, I don’t have any money, how can I start a business? Why do you go and ask how much they want to have for rent?” So I went next door and it was a laundry and I asked to the guy, I said, “Would you know somebody who can give me information about the place next door?” “What do you want to know?” I said, “I would like to know how much is the rent and what do they need too, what are the requirements? And I would like to know who do I have to talk?” “What do you want to do, what do you want to have the place for?” And I said, “Okay, I would like to have a Mexican restaurant in there.” “Oh, wow. It used to be like what they call it? Roast beef. Yeah, it was a roast beef place, but the guy couldn’t pay the rent and he left everything.” I said, “Are you kidding me? I would like to talk to the owner, to the landlord.” And he said, “I am the landlord. And how much do you want for rent?” And guess what? He said $500. I said, “What? 500?” “Go ahead, I will help you to grow.” And what I did was a dream. God helped me and my sister stayed there for three months and we both cleaned the restaurant, painted and we, but of course, I didn’t know the requirements. This guy told me that I sit and use the license that were for the grocery place and I believe him because he was the landlord. But when I tried to open the restaurant and I remember this day, I was on my knees washing the floor and cleaning everything and we painted the chairs and it was so bright, so beautiful, red color, yellow, navy blue and it started looking so beautiful and then I was on my knees cleaning the floor and when I saw a pair of shoes and saw pants, I pick up my face and I said, “Oh, I’m sorry, we are not open yet.” And he said, and he told me, “And I don’t think that you will open for a while. You said you are going to have a Mexican restaurant and this is for another restaurant.” I said, “Yeah so what do I have to do?” And here he is, he said, “I am from the bottom field. You need to get the permit to the neighborhood, you need to get a meeting, you need to apply for your license.” That took me three months to get everything ready. In October of 1999, October the first, I could open my location. And that’s the way we started.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow. That is such an ordeal. I know that you ended up having to close that location. You opened another one in Woburn and then you closed that and opened up your first Boston location in Beacon Hill, out of a gas station and now you’re on Water Street in the financial district. You’ve come a long way. How has your cafe been received by the financial district?

Julie King: I had a lot when I was in Woburn, in my location, I have a lot of people coming from Boston and the surrounding areas, Boston, Lexington, Arlington, Stoneham, everywhere. And I have a line on the door trying to get inside. And then it was incredible, beautiful, beautiful place, really. So we grew up and then when we ended up in Beacon Hill in the little gas station, the people in Beacon hill, of course my dear, I mean, just the rich people lives in Beacon hill, but they were so nice and beautiful to me because I don’t know why everybody said that I am a funny person, but I am not funny, whatever I am like, I am a very honest and direct person. I see you and I tell you, and I talk to you with the truth. And I met congressman for the English, very rich people, director for the banks from big companies. And when I saw them, to me, they were not the rich people living in Beacon Hill. They were my friends, you know, like you and I talking, and to me, everybody is the same. And they was having a ball with me and we become good friends and they were helping me and they were happy with the food and they were really taking care of us. That’s when I start being a really happy person with a neighbor who, because they accept us, are incredible, incredible good.

Denzil Mohammed: So you have stated in the past that your mission is to not only bring authentic Mexican food to New England, but also culture to educate your customers about the real history, culture and lifestyle of Mexico. Why is this your mission? Why do you think that’s important? 

Julie King: That is very important because, for example, I give you a little example. Everybody goes crazy about Cinco de Mayo and Cinco de Mayo is just, we want a little bitty battle, that’s it. And it’s not as, I mean, it is important, but not in the way that is in here. We really appreciate our independence day. And it’s a big thing in Mexico, but the Cinco de Mayo is nothing, you know, and when I moved to Boston, and I start finding out that Cinco de Mayo is wow, Cinco de Mayo is incredible. I said, wait a second but you know what is Cinco de Mayo? And I was the first person that in the local TV, I told them Cinco de Mayo is nothing important so please stop treating us like if it was somebody’s independence day. Cinco de mayo is Gringo de Mayo.

Denzil Mohammed: You’ve expressed tremendous pride in this interview about your home country, Mexico. Is it possible for you to love or for anyone to love two countries, two cultures at the same time? 

Julie King: It’s not possible. 

Denzil Mohammed: Really? 

Julie King: Let me tell you. I born in Mexico City, I was raised in our lost and with a love of family all together. And like I told you, in the beginning, we were exactly the same, but we were taught to respect our father and mother, to love our family, and to be quiet whenever they call our attention. We, I didn’t grow up with a cell phone, with a Gameboy, or with the big machines, and we didn’t play all day long in the TV. In here, everybody is doing their own stuff. They don’t get together and if they go together, the parties, you know, they are always drinking. And to me to be here seeing different aggressive things, it is like, I cannot get it. I cannot, I just cannot get it. I feel so sorry for all the kids that they don’t have the education that they deserve to have because the father is working, the mother is working and nobody’s taking care of them, that they are not growing a good families together with values, but it is very difficult to love one country and to love the other one in the same way. Because just for one thing, I born in one place, not born in the states. I feel extremely respectful for this country which offers you many, many things. And I love it because I have to respect my second home and I have to respect and love the country that it give me my business and it helped me to grow. But in here, when we came, it was a big change and I in a state to feel like happy, I was suffering. But at the same time, I feel welcome because this was my husband’s country. And I work in this country as mine, but I cannot feel the same love that I have for my country, because I grew up in my country with probably with not too much money, but I got it with too much love. And in this country, I work so hard, I cry a lot, I make myself like my second home, I love Boston because it’s a beautiful place, I love it. But I still miss Mexico. It is like mixed feelings, you know?

Denzil Mohammed: Oh, I totally get it. I totally get it. That was very heartfelt and very thoughtful. Thank you very much for opening up your heart and telling us your journey and your story. I was very moved by it. I think that this is gonna reach many Americans and they’re gonna learn so much more, not just about Mexican culture, but about the idea of the immigrant and the kinds of conflicts and stressors and things that we have to go through starting fresh in a new place. Thank you so much, Julie King, owner and founder of Villa Mexico Cafe in Boston’s financial district. Thank you so much for joining us on this podcast.

Julie King: God bless you and thank you for this opportunity.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not for profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for this week’s beautiful and complex story of immigrant entrepreneurs. Remember, you can subscribe to JobMakers, Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And please leave us a review. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 55: Daniel Perez

JobMakers podcast logo: Daniel Perez takes tenacity to transportColombian-born entrepreneur Daniel Perez founded his company, DPV Transportation Worldwide, to provide transportation for athletic teams. When the pandemic hit, he pivoted to health care and community service, moved by a desire to give back to communities like the one he grew up in. Listen to learn how he’s encouraging entrepreneurship opportunities for young men of color. A video interview with Perez is also available here.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers. Of all the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, transportation was one of the worst. McKinsey and Company predicted it would take more than five years for muted recovery in the transportation sector. So how could a transportation business survive two years when people didn’t really have anywhere to go? For Daniel Perez, immigrant from Colombia and founder and president and CEO of DPV Transportation Worldwide in Everett, Massachusetts, it meant tapping into that entrepreneurial spirit that made him a success in the first place. He pivoted to health care and community service and found a way to use his fleet for good and for survival. Daniel’s agility and acumen served him well, but the place where he wants to have the most impact is in the communities like the one he grew up in East Boston, a gateway for immigrants. Not only is his firm minority-owned, its staff of 80 percent minority, and Daniel is focused on building opportunities for youth of color, including entrepreneurship, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers. Daniel Perez, President and CEO of DPV Transportation Worldwide, immigrant from Colombia, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you? 

Daniel Perez: Great, thank you for having me here today. 

Denzil Mohammed: So, tell us a little bit about your business and why it’s special. 

Daniel Perez: Sure, so DPV Transportation is a worldwide chauffeur service specializing in providing ground transportation services for corporations and institutions that are looking for a consistent and reliable service to go to the airport for client meetings and special events. We have two main divisions, one which is our chauffeur services. Again, it’s mainly a black car service where we service this corporation and, and CEO level executives with a white-glove service experience to go to the airport for meetings and other private events. And then we have our shuttle bus division, which pretty much is our, is our largest component of our business that focuses on Fortune 1000 companies as well. And we transport their employees from their headquarters to train stations, train stations to headquarters, or within the main headquarters as well. 

Denzil Mohammed: And how did you get into this? I don’t think you had it in mind that you were going to start a car business when you were growing up.

Daniel Perez: Yeah, I always tell all my folks and friends and family that I started with pure ignorance, not knowing what I was going to get into. If I was to redo it all over again, I probably will not do it. But how I started is it was I was a wild teenager growing up and my dad highly recommend me to get a job where he was working and it was another transportation company, but they mistreated their employees. Their customer experience was horrible and for some reason, I said to myself, “Hey let me create something better, something unique with a better experience to the customer and make the most out of it.” And I started from my parents’ kitchen. I turned the home phone, I turned into an office. So when everyone used to call, I used to tell everybody to keep it down, because most likely it was a client. And I turned the kitchen into a whole office. It started, you know, working day and night from, from my parents’ kitchen. And from there, I was able to scale up the business working very hard at that point, now working smart, and I moved, I transitioned into a small office where I work day and night. 

Denzil Mohammed: Well speaking of that, this white-glove service that you talk about, how were you able to position yourself in the market and how did you grow over the years? 

Daniel Perez: That is a great question. Thank you for asking. So what I was able to do is move from a younger entrepreneur of working hard, 24/7 to a more mature entrepreneur, working smarter and hard, but more on the smart perspective. So smart was put in more systems and procedures in place, being more strategic instead of tactical, and really narrowing down who is, who was the ideal persona or client persona that will get us to where we wanna go, cause when you’re lost, any bus will take you there. Right? So, I decided to really narrow down the scope of where we wanted the business to be in three years, in five years. And we just laser-focused and massive action. 

Denzil Mohammed: I recall you saying once that you got this business savvy from your father, is that correct? 

Daniel Perez: He gave me really good advice at the beginning. I love my dad. I love my mom. My dad grew up with a different business methodology about working really hard. So you know he served me very well but nowadays the skills that he taught me you know, where we managing now about 220 employees as in served me as much as he used to serve me back then. But definitely, I got his entrepreneurship spirit and dedication and tenacity too, to not give up and, and pursue the dreams. So, I definitely got his persistence out of that. 

Denzil Mohammed: And speaking of your dad, you grew up in Colombia. What was life like back in Colombia when you were growing up? A lot of Americans don’t know what life was like in South America. 

Daniel Perez: Sure, I appreciate you asking the question. So, I grew up in Colombia. I was born in Colombia until I was 11 years old originally from Columbia. And then I moved from Colombia to Boston, where we moved pursuing the American dream from Boston to New York, New York to North Carolina, North Carolina, to New Hampshire, and then New Hampshire back to Boston. So, going back to your original question, growing up in Colombia was fun because I didn’t have to worry a bunch about producing income and worrying about bills. And we were, you know, we, we were middle, middle high-class family with all the amenities to live a good bringing as a teenage boy. So it was fun. But then when we came to the U.S everything changed. We went from being a middle class to more of a, you know, sort of a poor family where we were living in a 10 by 10 room. And there was like six or seven of us and the first year or two, which is horrible, you know, the change of weather not speaking the language, different cultures. But it was kind of who made me say it an individual, all those adversities that I could bring it into the business ecosystem and just embrace adversity because you know if you are once, you start learning to get comfortable and the uncomfortable, that’s when we grow the most.

Denzil Mohammed: Learning from adversity, I love that. So, you said that the first couple of years were hard, and a lot of Americans don’t realize that when immigrants move here, they often take a step down in their careers, in their income and in their standard of living. So, guide us through the way you grew your business. You went from home kitchen landline into something that is huge now. I mean, when I met you in 2017, you had 49 employees and now you have over 200, that’s pretty incredible. How did you grow the business? 

Daniel Perez: I would say, there’s not a secret formula. There’s not a secret recipe. I just rode on a lot of other people’s waves for wisdom and advice. I’m sort of a sponge. I analyze, I listen, and I observe what other successful people in my industry and other industries are doing. And I’m always willing to see what is it that I’m not seeing and what is it that I could learn. And lately, throughout the years my brother was a huge asset to the business. He recently, a year ago, he pursued his own dream of opening a boutique business consultant, which he also has a PhD in humanities. So, he went on his own and we were fortunate to find a COO, which is pretty much my right hand at this point as well. Leading the organization forward. 

Denzil Mohammed: Now you pride yourself on being a minority-owned business and according to your website it has 80 percent minority employees. Why is that important to you and why should that be important overall? 

Daniel Perez: And that is a great question. Thank you for asking. So overall, I am a minority. I’m proud of creating more minority impact in our communities. And I guess the key element is to be mindful of the ripple effect that minority-owned communities have on our communities. The more success that we get within our communities, the more that it will benefit our children, the younger generations where they’re able to get jobs at this sort of communities and benefit overall from the success ’cause otherwise the world gap continues to be massive right. So, we contribute in one way or another to try to minimize the gap, not only financially, but to support to the communities. Whether you’re Black, Latino, Asian, whatever it might be, where we could contribute in any aspect that we could too, to our communities. 

Denzil Mohammed: So, it’s all about community impact, uplifting your communities, while also putting money back into the community, correct? 

Daniel Perez: Correct, again, and again, nowadays, I get love for my business, I love making money, but there’s the way that I define being rich is when I’m well rounded, where I am striving in my family and my relationships and my spirituality. Most importantly contributing to society, especially to other com you know other minority populations too just like myself. 

Denzil Mohammed: Now I want to bring it into the present need. Let’s just say your business was heavily impacted by the pandemic. I think you, you said that 95 percent of your business vanished. How did you ride that wave? 

Daniel Perez: That’s a really good question. So, Mike Tyson said if best, everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face. Right. And we got punched in the face and we didn’t get knocked down. We got knocked down, but we stood up and it was two years of working day and night with a lot of tenacity. Two years ago, when I was in the trenches in the storm, it was all about mindset, dedication, commitment, and just trust, trusting that this was happening for us. And once, I accepted that we were either going to file for bankruptcy, or we were going to strive. I said, operating from a peace of mind and knowing that I have given my oath, my 100 percent.

Denzil Mohammed: So, you mentioned that quote from Mike Tyson, I guess I’m trying to think of some of the things you learned as a result of the pandemic that may prepare you in the future for when next you get punched in the face. 

Daniel Perez: One of them is we obviously become who we hang around with most of the time and the five people who we hang around with or surround ourselves with. And that’s helped me a lot, just positioning myself in the right environments with other savvy and experienced entrepreneurs that have gone through other economic recessions that provide me with a ton of support emotionally and intellectually to get me out of those situations. So that was one of them, to always keep surrounding myself with the right people, to also as a leader, to have the right mindset, because especially as an entrepreneur and as a leader, there’s so many emotions that we have to manage where we when we managing either a small or a large organization, there’s too many components and a lot of human errors and emotions to deal with. But the more the one that you have to for me personally to control my own emotions and my own state of mind. So a way when these adversities come you could actually embrace them, learn from them and keep moving forward, not idling or this on the size of where to go. Right. 

Denzil Mohammed: You mentioned spirituality a little bit, a little while ago, I cannot imagine how much pressure was on you in 2020, with 250 employees under, you know, getting through all this pressure. So yeah, I’m sure that your spirituality is gonna help you out a lot in this role. You’re not just doing transportation though. You are in tech so tell us a little bit about DPV Mobile Lab. What are you currently doing and what do you plan to do in the future?

Daniel Perez: Yes, so pretty much when the pandemic hit, we had about a hundred buses sitting in the parking lot and between my brother and we started brainstorming, what do we do with all this equipment? And what we were able to do is pivot into the medical sector. So, what we were able to do is transition our buses into mobile clinics. So about 50 percent of our buses, we transformed them into mobile clinics. And we were at the beginning, we started doing mobile sort of help support where we were delivering mask and anything to support with the pandemic, right. And we partnered with several hospitals in the area to support them as well. And then when the pandemic hit, we transitioned to delivering the vaccines. So, we opened several mobile vaccine clinics in New York, in Massachusetts, where residents will comment to the bus, and we will get them vaccinated. And this was again through, through partnerships with several hospitals in, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. 

Denzil Mohammed: And you also have apps that go along with your ride services, right? 

Daniel Perez: Correct. Yes. So we have apps that will show the riders exactly where the bus are located. How far is it how many riders in the bus are they hitting any traffic? For the most part we deal with large organizations where we’re managing their transportation program. So that’s what allows the transparency from the rider to the provider to see exactly how their transportation program is being run. 

Denzil Mohammed: How, what, how has that experience been going into some sort of tech aspect of what you’re doing? 

Daniel Perez: It’s one of our key differentiators. It allows us to be more agile and to keep innovating in our industry. We’re always looking for ways to innovate. That’s one of them. And now we’re looking to keep expanding into different markets. We recently started we go into more into the health sector as well as other training sectors as well, where we training the workforce on how to obtain their CDO license. We’re doing that in a couple states, and then we’ll also transitioning into mobile health. How do we get into minority communities to support them with mobile health initiatives? 

Denzil Mohammed: Wow, that’s great. And you are, I mean, even pre-pandemic health care transportation were the two of the fastest-growing industries. So you are very well positioned to embrace the future. Finally. you had your father to look up to as an entrepreneur growing up but not everyone has that privilege of having a mentor. What advice would you give young entrepreneurs of color? 

Daniel Perez: Well thank you for asking the question ’cause honestly, this is a question that we gotta keep asking within our communities, not only to ask, which I’m a huge believer that the better, the questions, the better the answers. And this is one of the key questions that our younger crowd needs to really keep asking themselves because it’s such a great time to strive being a minority, being an individual of color, to go out there and, and pursue your dreams when there’s so much support for minority-owned companies. And sometimes we believe, and we create beliefs that this is a disadvantage when it’s actually an advantage for us to be companies of being a minority-owned companies, especially if you’re able to partner with corporations that are looking to partner with minority-owned companies. And that’s one of the big elements that we use. There are a ton of corporations that support minority young companies, and it will be dumb not to pursue those opportunities. And this one of the errors when it has been the easiest to grow, especially as a minority young company, 

Denzil Mohammed: Capturing those opportunities, right. And just being aware of what opportunities are out there. And I imagine a lot of young people growing up don’t, aren’t aware that there is support now, probably not 22 years ago, but certainly now. I imagine there’s a lot more support now than when you started the business in 2006. Daniel Perez, founder, CEO of DPV Transportation Worldwide. Thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast. 

Daniel Perez: Thank you for inviting me. Appreciate it. 

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s powerful story of immigrant entrepreneurship and ingenuity. Remember, you can subscribe to JobMakers on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, and please leave us a rating and a review. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 54: Mariam Nusrat

JobMakers podcast graphic: Miriam Nusrat takes gaming to new heightsAs a Muslim woman, Pakistani-American Mariam Nusrat has always stood out among STEM startup founders. Her venture-backed Gaming Revolution for International Development provides a platform to easily create low-cost video games, and her not-for-profit Gaming Revolution for Inspiring Development creates games with a positive social impact. Tune in to learn how she plans to empower every smartphone owner in the world.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers.


Denzil Mohammed: What is the average age of a gamer, someone who plays video games? Bet you didn’t guess 35. That’s right. The profile of gamers today spans every demographic, not just kids. But it doesn’t have to be just fun and games. What if we could be educated from gaming? What if we could have social justice impact from gaming? And what if we could become the game creators ourselves? For Mariam Nusrat, immigrant from Pakistan and founder and CEO of both the venture backed Gaming Revolution for International Development and the not-for-profit Gaming Revolution for Inspiring Development, both, of course, with the acronym GRID, these things are reality. GRID, the for-profit arm, is democratizing the creation of video games with a software as a service platform called Breshna. And the not-for-profit arm creates low cost social impact games that educate, engage and empower people towards positive behavior change. However, this economist turned tech entrepreneur stands out. A Muslim immigrant woman in tech, Mariam is doing it and aims to empower many of the 3.2 billion smartphone users worldwide, as you’ll discover in this week’s JobMakers.


Denzil Mohammed: Mariam Nusrat, immigrant from Pakistan and founder and CEO of GRID, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Mariam Nusrat: Thank you so much Denzil. I’m excited to be here. Thank you so much for having me. And I’m excited to have a conversation with you.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m excited to meet you because you have such a cool product. Tell us a little bit about your business and your particular market. What does GRID stand for, first of all?

Mariam Nusrat: Absolutely. So GRID is an acronym that actually stands for two legal entities. So Gaming Revolution for International Development, which is a C corp, it’s a tech startup building the TikTok for video games. So basically Breshna is a platform that allows anyone to create their own video games without any coding, without any design skills. Anyone can come on and make their own video games, be it entertainment games, or education games or marketing games. But this is … Imagine if you wanted to make a Super Mario for math learning, you can go on to Breshna and create that. And Breshna itself means lightning in the Pashtun language, which is my mother tongue. So it’s video games without any coding and at lightning speed. So that’s GRID on the C-corp. And then Gaming Revolution for Inspiring Development is our not-for-profit arm. And that’s where we create low-cost mobile games for positive behavior change. So GRID stands for Gaming Revolution for International or Inspiring Development.

Denzil Mohammed: That is very cool. And you mentioned international development, you’re an economist, an educational specialist, you’ve worked in international development. How did you end up in gaming?

Mariam Nusrat: Yeah, Denzil [laughs], I often ask myself the same question. So it’s like my … I’ve done my bachelors in econ. My first master’s from LUMS was an econ. My second master’s at GW was in International Development Studies. There is no computer science, no game development in any of that. And I worked for 12 years at the World Bank across 22 different countries, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Middle East. as an education specialist, as a policy maker in the education space. And eight years ago, one of the things I realized was that purposeful communication … So if you wanna raise awareness on education or health or behavior change or financial literacy, it’s often, “Here’s a brochure. Here’s a website.” Maybe if things get really exciting, “Here’s a video.” But that’s not how behavior change happens if we look at the western world, what Fitbit did for health, where it completely gamified health. What I grew up playing, games like SIMCity, where I was learning about urban planning without even knowing I was learning about urban planning, we just don’t see video games being mainstreamed for behavior change so that I was actually doing my second master’s degree. So I was a consultant at the World Bank, a student at GW. And that’s when I said, “You know what? I don’t see video games being mainstream for a purpose beyond entertainment. So I’m gonna make a gaming studio where we’re gonna create mobile games for positive behavior change.” So I put together a team of game developers and designers, and we started creating one of our first games. [It] was actually a menstrual health game, a period game, a mobile game, which was in English, Urdu Swahili, Nepalese. And basically the big idea was to build awareness around reproductive health and menstrual health. So that was kind of the beginning of gaming. It came from a pain point of making purposeful communication fun.

Denzil Mohammed: Making personal, purposeful communication fun. I love that. And this ties into something that I think is sort of inherent in you. And maybe you got it from your parents. You once mentioned that the idea of public service is something you got from your parents. So why is it important to you to use technology in this way?

Mariam Nusrat: Yeah, absolutely. So, Denzil, I grew up, my dad was in the public service all his life. So I’ve seen policy and public service as I’ve been growing up. And one of the things that my father, this is I think I was in third grade, he came back from an executive course and he literally had these three newspaper cuttings. Okay, the first one had the logo of LUMS, which is the top business school in Pakistan, Lahore University of Management Sciences. The second one was a logo of London School of Economics. And the third one was a logo of the World Bank. I’m in third grade, and this guy is like, “All right, child, you’re gonna go to LUMS. You’re gonna do your bachelor’s in econ. Then you’re gonna do your master’s in econ. And then you’re gonna go work at the World Bank.” And I’m like, “Whoa.” And then he held my fist and he was like, “The world is in your hands.” And he was like, “No matter, like it is directly proportional to the hard work that you put in.” So I think that lens of public service, international development policy was something that was really built into my DNA. But over time, one of the things I realized is that I have the solutions-oriented approach to things. And I think the more and more I discover technology in my daily life and video games as, how are we not unleashing the power of video games for a purpose beyond entertainment? Look at the time that we spend on games, there are one billion video game players playing video games for one hour on average around the world. One billion people, for one hour every single day they’re playing video games, can be unleashed this time for a purpose beyond entertainment. So that was kind of what led me to it. So I think the pain point I realized, to my nurture and training, but the solutions came from my passion for technology.

Denzil Mohammed: And I think you mentioned at some point that the average gamer is a 35-year-old woman on the subway playing Candy Crush.

Mariam Nusrat: Yeah. And I think we’re also one of the most overlooked demographics in video games. Like when you think about a gamer, it’s often the 22-year-old in a basement playing Call of Duty for seven hours. But actually the fastest growing genre of games is the hyper-casual genre of games, which is mobile games, so games like Candy Crush and games like Angry Birds. People spend a lot of their time waiting. So on average a person in the western world spends seven years of their life waiting for stuff to happen. You’re on the metro waiting. You’re at the DMV office waiting. You’re in the line, you wait for things to happen. And that’s where people weave in video games. So games become a part of their daily routine. And I believe that Breshna now is empowering that 35-year-old woman to not just play her own games, but also to make them. It’s just like the TikTok for video games. So it’s about this idea of there’s one billion players around the world. Can we also have one billion makers that can tell their story through video games?

Denzil Mohammed: Oh, that is so cool. And I brought up the 35-year-old woman on the subway, because … just to show the cross section of people you can reach. And you mentioned TikTok and I think about my eight-year-old and ten-year-old nephews who spend so much time on TikTok and on video games. But they’re very … They learn a lot from some of these videos. They come with all sorts of trivia and they get interested in animals or climate change, things like that. So they are open to learning from these things, from this kind of technology. So I really am happy that you brought that up. As we brought up your parents, let’s take it back. You mentioned LUMS, it’s a university in Pakistan. You are from Pakistan and you still identify as Pakistani. Can you describe for listeners what life was like in Pakistan growing up?

Mariam Nusrat: Yeah, absolutely. So Denzil, I was born in Quetta, which is actually one of the most conservative provinces within Pakistan. My mom is originally from that province. And my dad, he migrated from India when he was young and everything. So then I grew up in the capital, which is Islamabad, and often, it’s actually funny, Denzil. I’ve had interviews where it’s been like, “Oh, you were the suppressed woman in Pakistan, and what does life feel like in America?” But actually, I grew up with a father who just believes in empowering daughters. And I think that level of confidence that my dad put into me, this idea that there is no ceiling, that I can push through with hard work with the right amount of passion. We grew up as a middle-income family, but our education was the top priority. So my parents were just investing in our education, private schools, French classes, swimming classes, whatever it took. Even in Pakistan it was, Hey, that is the biggest investment they could make. It wasn’t buying properties. Even today, they live in a rental house. But for us, the biggest thing was … It wasn’t buying cars. It wasn’t buying properties. It was putting money into our education and that’s been the biggest investment that they could’ve made. So that’s kind of what life looked like. I think, I hope that I’ve made them, I think I’ve made them very proud. They do say I’ve made them very proud. But it’s also very Asian parents. I remember I was on stage with President Clinton, and as part of the Clinton Global Initiative University, and I called my dad. I was like, “That was so cool. Did you see that it got livestreamed on [inaudible]?” It was like, “That was amazing. What a great honor. Now make sure the next one is a sitting president.” [Laughs] All right. I guess we’re on it, but yeah.

Denzil Mohammed: Difficult to please guy. But you know, as a past interviewee said on this podcast, “You know, if you’re gonna dream, don’t just dream high, dream higher.”

Mariam Nusrat: My first few years in the U.S. are a complete blur, because I think I overworked and I over-studied. But you know, I think that I’ve always approached every single day with the three Ps. And I think it’s perseverance, passion and purpose. If you show up every single day working towards a goal with the passion, I think it just becomes relatively easy and relatively fun. And then you just have to enjoy the ride along the way.

Denzil Mohammed: I don’t imagine that you came to the U.S. with the intention of being a business owner or certainly not gaming. So what was it like when you first started? How did you get funding? How did you go about scaffolding this business?

Mariam Nusrat: Absolutely. So, Denzil, I’ll actually touch on a little bit the very beginning and then bring you to this actual, the C-corp, which is the venture-backed business, where we have venture funding and investors and all of that, because that’s a really exciting part to it. But I think when I started off I had achieved the dream that my dad set for me, which was work at the World Bank. So I was on this path of economist, senior economist, education specialist, manager, country director, vice president, like that. I had it all charted out for me and everything. So I think this idea of starting GRID and in the beginning, like a side gig … Oh, okay. That’s cute. You’re making video games, that’s cool and everything, but it started to take a life of its own. And I did it as a side gig for a while and everything. But last year, when we started building Breshna under a C-corp, it was like, Okay, this is getting real and we’re gonna go raise funding for this. And we’re gonna raise venture capital. And when I started then I’m an East Coast founder with no business, no tech background. I did not know the difference between a VC [venture capitalist] and an angel. And today it’s really cool. We’ve raised $2.5 million in venture capital over this last span of seven months. And we have all our cap [capitalization] table … This is something that I can actually share now, we have on our cap table the American billionaire Bill Atman. Or, for instance, we have some really cool Web3 crypto funds, Web2 funds. So it’s been a really epic journey and everything. And I think what, the way I approach it is, I know nothing, but there’s so much to learn and that’s the exciting part of it. We live in the world of the internet. Twitter is out there. We’ve been building in public. We’ve been making connections. I think what COVID did was really bring people to the virtual world. So the opportunities that were at first limited to Silicon Valley all of a sudden became global. You did not have to be in the Bay Area to go meet someone. You could just get on the Zoom. So I think I’ve had 320 investor meetings where you just knock on doors and you get a lot of Nos, but then once the dominoes start falling, you get a lot of Yeses. And all of those, mostly out of those, I think 90 percent of those have been virtual. People have never met in real life. I have investors in our cap table that I still haven’t met. And I think that is just such a cool opportunity, where it’s not just where you are as an immigrant in America, you could be anywhere, any part of the world right now, and have access to the same opportunities.

Denzil Mohammed: What did it feel like, however, going and asking and being an immigrant, having an accent?

Mariam Nusrat: Absolutely. So I think, Denzil, I have to admit the imposter syndrome is very real, saying, “Hey, do I belong? I mean, do I belong in the gaming industry? Do I belong in the Web3 world?” I mean, the blockchain industry tech sector is just expanding and growing so rapidly. And do I belong in any of these spaces? And I think honestly the biggest barrier is your own mental barrier, being able to say, “Okay, you know what, I’m gonna give it a shot. I’m gonna show up with authenticity and I’m gonna show up with my passion and then let the space decide whether they wanna accept me or not.” And I’ve just seen such an insane amount of acceptance and this is the beautiful thing about America. I do believe that if you want, there’s a community that gets created around you and then they rally you and they mobilize you. It’s at that point, I do think, it becomes irrespective of your gender, the color of your skin, the religion you are, because at that point, it is that based hard work, that sheer passion that just runs through. And then everyone just rallies behind you. So I think immigrants have that resilience and that grit to have that passion show true. So I think it’s been really interesting.

Denzil Mohammed: Give us some examples of your favorite or most impactful or original games and the issues that they tackled.

Mariam Nusrat: The most creative ones are someone will make a simple birthday wish for their mom where it’s, “Hey, here’s a video game that I made to wish my mom.” But I think the ones that are the closest to my heart … Entertainment is awesome. But I think the ones that are closest to my heart are the climate, are the social impact ones. So games around women in tech, games around drug use, games around structural racism, games around this idea of, It’s startups and entrepreneurship. Or I think the most favorite ones are the math learning games that are being used in schools. We have a teacher in South Africa and a teacher in East Asia, and they both collaborate and they swap these games. So it’s like, Look at the connections over here. And each of their students will make games and then they’ll swap them. But then I also had a father who made a period game, because he’d lost his wife. He’s single, parenting a daughter who just reached puberty, and he had no idea how to talk to her about periods. So he came on Breshna and created a game around menstrual health to kind of break that barrier because then the father and daughter were just playing a game. And it wasn’t something that was stigmatized to talk about. So I think video games have such a powerful communication aspect, and we just wanna empower everyone to tell their own story through video games.

Denzil Mohammed: So where do you see business going as you forge ahead and [inaudible]?

Mariam Nusrat: So that’s kinda crazy. I’m an avid user of Canva. And Melanie Perkins, she’s a woman, she’s Australian. So I’m an avid user of Canva and Canva democratized design for people who had no design skills and everything. And I think Melanie Perkins, she started that business at the age of 17. She started with school books, like basically designing school [year]books. And now that business is valued at $40 billion. And I think that if you look at the business side of it, one of the goals I have … And they always say, If you visualize your goals … So I have my whole IPO speech and what I’m gonna wear and everything sorted out. But I mean, one of the biggest things I wanna do is be the first immigrant woman who IPOs a decacorn at NASDAQ. I mean, forget decacorn. A woman, an immigrant woman, the first white woman to IPO a unicorn at NASDAQ was Bumble’s founder. And that was only a few years ago. So that representation has just not happened, and I absolutely want to be the first or among the first. I want a bunch of us to show up there, ringing that IPO bell. And I think that’s definitely on the business side. But at the end of the day, my biggest vision is what we are building for. And what I’m building for is a world where everyone can tell their story through video games. When I grew up, when I was playing video games, I always saw the New York city skyline and the yellow cab and the white dude. And the first time I saw an Arabic in a video game, unfortunately, was in the context of terrorism. It was the person you were shooting at, the Muslim you were shooting at. And I think, for me, it’s just so important that video games are such a cool tool for communication. But why should the rest of the world play games that have been made in one part of the world? Why can we not flip the script and have … If there’s one billion players around the world, why should there not be one billion makers of video games that tell their own stories in their own language, with their own music, with their own avatars and with their own content. And that’s the world I wanna build.

Denzil Mohammed: So how do you feel at the end of the day about the United States as the place that gave you this opportunity to build a community and build a business and build a nonprofit?

Mariam Nusrat: I really do think that there’s something in the DNA, there’s something in the water in America where we, where just cultures collide and experiences collide around a shared goal. So if you have a clear vision, and if you are able to communicate that vision, and say, I am gonna go for … build this world that has never been built before, there is something about innovation that excites this country. And it’s just everyone in this country where they just rally around you. And I think that excitement and that ecosystem, if you think about it, regulatory ecosystem, how easy it is to register an LLC, how easy it is to be able to engage people. Compared to some of the other regulatory environments, like being able to fundraise, being able to bring on investors, being able to work across state lines, I really, really do think that this country is set up. The DNA is set up for innovation.

Denzil Mohammed: You weren’t inhibited by the fact that you were a woman, that you were Muslim, that you had an accent, that you have a different name?

Mariam Nusrat: I see it as a strength. You know, I personally think the fact that I’m a woman, the fact that I have these lived experiences, a lot of times the … Every single solution that I’ve come up with, it’s been the way I’ve looked at the pain point. It’s my lived experiences that have led to that diverse perspective where I’ve been like, “Oh, interesting. Maybe if we could do education like this, or maybe if we could leverage, like I played SIMCity, and how about we do it like this?” And I think it’s that diversity of perspective that leads to innovation. So I actually see it as a strength.

Denzil Mohammed: Oh, wow. This was really inspiring, Miriam Nusrat, immigrant from Pakistan and founder / CEO of GRID. Thank you so much for joining us and the JobMakers podcast.

Mariam Nusrat: Thank you so much, Denzil. It’s an absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s inspiring story of immigrant entrepreneurship. Remember, you can subscribe to JobMakers on Apple Podcast, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And please leave us a rating and a review. I’m Denzil Mohammad. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 53: Yuliya Tarasava

JobMakers podcast graphic: Yuliya Tarasava invests in Americans who need it mostBelarus American Yuliya Tarasava’s impact investment platform CNote facilitates investments in women, minorities and low-income communities. Tarasava founded CNote to dismantle systemic barriers to success, and her efforts have provided 4,000 jobs in disadvantaged communities. Tune in to learn how her immigrant background made her passionate about giving everyone a chance at success.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, welcome to JobMakers.


Denzil Mohammed: Let’s face it. The United States doesn’t always work as well for some as it does for others. Looking at the wealth gap and who it affects in this country is but one very revealing example. And particularly if you come from a place of sameness, like the former Soviet Union, for instance, those gaps in inequities likely stand out even more. For Yuliya Tarasava, immigrant from Belarus and co-founder and chief operating officer at CNote, an impact investment platform that delivers returns by investing in women, minorities, and low-income communities, America’s inequities stared her in the face. So she and a friend, also with immigrant roots, decided to do something about it. The result is astonishing. In just six years, CNote has helped create or maintain more than 4,000 jobs in disadvantaged communities; invested more than 50 percent of capital into small businesses owned by black, indigenous and people of color; and invested more than 40 percent of capital into women-led small businesses, eight times the national average. Yuliya believes everyone deserves a chance at success and dismantling the systemic barriers to such success is what she and her business are all about, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers.


Denzil Mohammed: Yuliya Tarasava, COO, and co-founder of CNote, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Yuliya Tarasava: Good. Thank you for having me, Denzil.

Denzil Mohammed: So tell us a little bit. You have a very unique company, I would say. And what was the problem that you saw to address with the idea behind CNote?

Yuliya Tarasava: Yes. So why CNote exists is to use financial innovation to solve for wealth gap, to help to reduce the wealth gap. That was the intention and that was … it kept myself and my co-founder [unintelligible]. And that’s what we really wanted to solve by starting CNote.

Denzil Mohammed: How successful has your company been since you founded it in 2016 in meeting its goals?

Yuliya Tarasava: Yes. I think that time really will tell. Obviously, as you can imagine, closing the wealth gap, it’s a very aspirational goal. And I think we can all argue, how do you measure that? I think for us, we are thinking about some of the concrete numbers that we can capture, which is the capital that we deployed in underserved communities that helped with creating wealth or leveling the field. And so far we deployed over I think $150 million in capital in underserved communities around the country. And we have about $200 million that is [unintelligible] constantly circling on the platform. And we can also count the number of jobs that we created, which is also in hundreds. And we can also count how many affordable housing units were created by using that capital that we deployed in the communities to build affordable housing. And on the top of it, the capital is also used to create community facilities where kids can gather for post-school education or some activities. We help to build health clinics. We helped to build healthier food stores in a food desert. So the capital’s really being used to make communities more sustainable, more resilient, and create opportunities for people in those communities to really get to the next level. And, again, leveling the field and giving them opportunities that otherwise they wouldn’t have because they don’t have access to capital. They don’t have access to certain financial products and services that we all use.

Denzil Mohammed: And I know that you are headquartered in Oakland, California, even though your team is entirely remote and actually always has been even pre-pandemic. And clearly it works very well for you. But you chose Oakland intentionally. Can you give us perhaps your favorite example of opportunities that you have created?

Yuliya Tarasava: Yes, Oakland. I’m not sure how much  as a [unintelligible] Oakland was happening there. I really think about Oakland as this renaissance story. I think it was forgotten and ignored for a while. It was really considered to be one of their most crime heavy or riskier neighborhoods in the Bay Area. And yet with the support of the communities with the right intentions, the right people really taking ownership of what’s happening there, it’s seeing that renaissance that it’s going through right now with new businesses popping out, with new development coming in, with, again, communities really standing behind and creating that new future. I mean, we can also talk about all the gentrification that is happening there, which is obviously a part of it, unfortunately, of all their new movement that is happening. And you definitely see it, not just in Oakland, but around the country. But I think for us, again, it was very intentional to be there because of all the good stuff that is happening there when it comes to new life, new development, new air that it was bring into the Oakland economy. And to your point, even though we’ve been remote even before pandemic, we’re going continue to be remote. The intention is still there to be in Oakland and to continue supporting this economy, to continue supporting this community, first and foremost.

Denzil Mohammed: I just looked up to see if there was a Whole Foods in Oakland and, yes, there is. [laughs]

Yuliya Tarasava: It is, it is.

Denzil Mohammed: Talk about gentrification. Okay. So take us along the journey with you and your co-founder. What was it like to bring this company to where it is today and what were some of the lessons you learned in starting this company?

Yuliya Tarasava: I actually listened to some of your podcasts in preparation for this one. And I heard someone talking about answering similar questions in a way that always have a co-founder running the company. On your own, just so hard. I will totally sign up to that. It’s really, really hard to start and to grow the company on your own. I really think about the company, it’s a child and it definitely takes a village. And it takes two parents to begin with and then their whole village to support. And so the relationship that myself and my co-founder has … Catherine Berman … we’ve been friends before we became business partners and we were very much aligned first of all as people, like what we want to see in the world. Like how do you really see yourselves? Like what’s really important for us? We’ve gone through a long journey together, really aligning ourself personally, and then moving on into [unintelligible] how we’re seeing the world and what do we want the world to be? And so having that alignment is incredibly important, because things will go sideways. It’s obviously an entrepreneurship journey. It’s always ups and downs and it’s gonna be frustrating. It’s gonna be annoying. It’s gonna be devastating. It’s gonna be all the things that sometimes you just want to stop and resign or when you’re [unintelligible]. And then what really keeps you going is that alignment and that keeping your eyes on that north star. And as long as you have those eyes on north star, and you’re aligned with your partner, with your business partner, that’s what really keeps you committed and keeps you on this journey. And then beyond that, obviously, it’s not just me and Cath who’s running the company, it’s the whole team. And now we are about 25 people, and this is the whole village that takes to raise the child, to bring CNote to the level where it is right now. And bringing people on board, again, understanding they’re not just here because of their job security or because of the money, but they’re really here because they share your vision, they share your mission. They share the passion for economic justice, for social justice. They really share that desire and the intention that the world needs to look different. That’s what really brings people on board. And that’s what really keeps people around in spite of the fact that, again, startup journeys can be volatile. And you don’t … We kind of like building. We often give this analogy. We’re building the plane as we go. We have the direction. We know the destination. But there’s a lot of things that happen along the way. And we have to be flexible. We have to be agile. We have to be really good communicators. So there’s a lot of things that have to go right in order to get us there. And, again, having the right team and having a very committed team and passionate team, and also that clear communication, matters a lot in that journey.

Denzil Mohammed: You once said that gender equality and women’s empowerment are the DNA of CNote, your company. Can you explain this a little bit?

Yuliya Tarasava: Yes, of course. So we are female-led and female-owned at CNote and we very much recognize that women founders have been neglected. We very much recognize that the culture as we know it and the companies have often been defined by maybe overwhelmingly male energy in the companies rather than female. And for us right now, if you look at who we are, and, again, who is a part of that village, we have a lot of women. We are very, very proud to say that engineering team is the biggest team at CNote and I think 80 percent of the team is female. And we continue effort on … keep growing the team and keep giving young, promising female professionals opportunity to really raise up and be successful and get exposure to that, to the corporate role, to that impact investing world that we operate in. So, yes, we care who we bring on board. We care how the company runs. I think the fact that we are female-led and female-owned creates a certain culture that also attracts more women.

Denzil Mohammed: So I’ve spoken to several entrepreneurs who are in this finance space, Christina Qi from Domeyard, for instance, and other minorities who talk about they went to a conference and someone asked them to get them a Coke because they didn’t look like they were traditional finance people. So it’s really amazing that you’re doing this kind of work in this space. But let’s take it back to your background. You mentioned background. You come from a place where [laugh] the president has called himself the last dictator in Europe. He’s your one and only president. What was life like back in Belarus growing up?

Yuliya Tarasava: Growing up in the Soviet Union was probably more instrumental to my development as a person, but also creating that real interesting contrast between communism, socialism and capitalism and really seeing pluses and minuses behind those systems. So for me growing up in Soviet Union I’m very much used to everyone is the same. Everyone is getting exactly the same. Everyone looks the same. Everyone wears the same. Everyone have access to quote-unquote same opportunities and stuff and some of the things provided to you. And I can tell you when the Soviet Union broke up, a lot of people were not really happy because not only you’re older you have to readjust to a new way of living. And probably [unintelligible] my parents and my grandparents, who were definitely not a big supporter of going into this new system, because they were just so, their mind was just so baked in the old way and old world. And then, honestly, the transition was obviously not the best for an average person. I remember we very quickly went from having everything to suddenly having nothing and using our food stamps to get any type of food that we could not grow for ourselves, using the piece of land that we had or growing animals. So it was a really interesting experience, remembering that again, going from abundance to now some sort of poverty and standing in line in stores and literally facing empty shelves. And so that’s, I think, really, really formed my, I don’t know if it’s understanding, but kind of formed my maybe multi-structural, multi-vertical view on the world and, again, understanding that capitalism and free markets, it’s working to a certain extent. But there’s also some of that social aspect that is actually really interesting to bring into that system. And I think that’s what, that’s the whole, that’s what we are trying to do right now is this whole concept of social enterprise. When people say to me, Hey, just focus in on your maximizing your return and maximizing your revenue, maximizing shareholder value. It’s not necessarily the right thing. You have to start thinking about their, the welfare and the impact on the whole world. And I think some of that, I could definitely see some of that connection back to my childhood and just how excited I was to actually explore this new models of creating the value.

Denzil Mohammed: Clearly that had an impact on how you saw economics.

Yuliya Tarasava: Yes.

Denzil Mohammed: And when you came to the U.S., which of course is the shining example of free markets and capitalism, how did that make you feel about economics in the U.S. and this idea of free markets?

Yuliya Tarasava: Yes, yes. When growing up in Belarus, and, again, especially Belarus was going through transition and we became more open to the Western world and start hearing more stories on how people live in Europe or in America. Very often there, the perception that we had is America is the richest country and almost to the point that money grows on the trees, which obviously [unintelligible]. To some extent, that’s how America was portrayed through shows and media, et cetera. And so I remember when I was [unintelligible] to United States, there’s definitely that excitement to experience that, it’s like, oh my God, I’m going to that land of honey rivers and, again, money growing in the trees. It was definitely like this idealized view of America. And then coming to United States very quickly that view was shattered in pieces and it is because I came to United States. I decided that I want to continue my education and I really wanted to study finance given that it was my interest, that I identified studying economics back home in Belarus. And then being here in United States, going to school, realizing that I cannot get access to loan and I have to have support from some of their communities that already created so they can vouch for me. And still being able to pay in cash and working long hours and living in the cheapest place I can possibly find, I found myself in Bridgeport. And then in Bridgeport, it’s a very divided, it’s [unintelligible] Connecticut generally it’s a very divided state. Like you have this concept of redlining. You have across the line is primarily BIPOC community and then across the street [unintelligible] is gonna be primarily white community. And at that time it didn’t really make sense for me. I didn’t really know the concept of redlining, but then, as I started going through school, and as I studied more and more about it, it just suddenly was realizations like, Wow, America, the way we see it from outside, is actually not the America that you experience when you come here. And the color of your skin very much defines the future that you have here. Again, what zip code you were born into, again, defines that, your opportunity to actually generate wealth. And then understanding how a lot of the issues that we are dealing in America right now is really structural issues. It was just result of the way the laws were written, the way the history unfolded and us procrastinating as a society doing something about it. Now we dealing with the largest wealth gap in the history and all this health issues, educational issues. I mean, you name it right? And it goes back to that, to those systemic changes that we’ve been not willing to tackle.

Denzil Mohammed: You moved here when you were 20 years old in 2004. And I really appreciate that the nuanced understanding you have about how things work in the United States, that’s really terrific, and that you’re working very steadfastly to address that. So how do you feel overall, personally about the United States as that place that allowed you to actualize this particular Belarusian American dream?

Yuliya Tarasava: No, I don’t want to sound like a downer on the United States. I think United States does give a lot of opportunities to people. And I think if you are, if you’re smart, if you’re driven, if you’re dedicated I think there’s a lot of doors. That resilience, I think that’s a big part of it as well. I think a lot of doors can really be open to you. And, again, I’ve obviously experienced it myself. I work hard, I studied hard. I put myself out there and I was knocking the doors until the door opened. And at some point the doors open. So I absolutely don’t want to diminish the opportunities that America has given to me. And, honestly, I’m also interestingly enough surrounded mostly by people that are immigrants here. Just, I think, we just have so much to resonate with. And we have so much in common that I think it’s very normal that I’m gonna be surrounded by people like me who’ve gone through similar journeys. So yes. And most of them have wonderful lives and have families and they build the beautiful life here. So yes, absolutely, America is a wonderful place for people to really try their energy, to try their ideas, to try their projects that they have in mind.

Denzil Mohammed: As a fellow immigrant who is, who does not have his family here I can tell you that I know how hard it is just to exist, much less thrive, just being by yourself. You don’t have that social capital to count on. You don’t have mom and dad to crash if you lose your place.

Yuliya Tarasava: Exactly.

Denzil Mohammed: So I really appreciate the success that you’ve had so far, and I look forward to so much more success coming from you. I really appreciate the work that you do, and thank you for creating the jobs that you’ve created.

Yuliya Tarasava: Thank you. Thank you. Absolutely. Thank you for reaching out, Denzil. It’s fantastic to connect. And thank you for letting me tell the story.

Denzil Mohammed: Yuliya Tarasava, immigrant from Belarus and co-founder and chief operating officer at CNote, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast. This was great.


Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contributions produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and at The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for today’s powerful story of immigrant entrepreneurship. Remember, you can subscribe to JobMakers on Apple Podcast, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And please leave us a rating and a review. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 52: Jackie Krick

JobMakers podcast graphic Jackie Krick trains the next generation of entrepreneursColombian-born Jackie Krick struggled when she first tried to start a marketing communications firm, but her hard work has paid off. Now she runs a thriving business that specializes in cross-cultural services. Krick also founded a not-for-profit that offers education and skills training to underserved youth. Listen to learn why she thinks immigrants are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as U.S.-born people.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and welcome to JobMakers.


Denzil Mohammed: Arguably entrepreneurship is what sets the United States apart from the rest of the world; it’s made by and for entrepreneurs. And it is uniquely suited to capitalize on the entrepreneurial spirit of its newest Americans, immigrants. That’s a big part of the reason why immigrants are twice as likely to start a business and create jobs. For Jackie Krick. immigrant from Colombia and founder, president and CEO of ECU Communications in Manassas, Virginia. it took a few tries, but she learned the system and used the resources available to her, available to all Americans. Today, she runs a successful digital communications and cross-cultural services agency focused largely on federal contracts. However, Jackie takes that love of entrepreneurship further. She started an award-winning nonprofit called Impact to Youth to give underserved teens access to education and skills training, and she co-founded CenterFuse, a co-working space for micro entrepreneurs to discover, learn, train and be mentored by successful business winners like Jackie, as you’ll discover in this week’s JobMakers.


Denzil Mohammed: Jackie Krick, founder, president and CEO of ECU Communications in Manassas, Virginia, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Jackie Krick: Thank you, Denzil. I’m doing great. Happy to be here.

Denzil Mohammed: So tell us a little bit about your business and why it’s special.

Jackie Krick: So ECU Communications is a leading woman-owned small business. We’re a full agency specializing in digital communications in cross cultural services. We were founded 18 years ago. We celebrated our 18th anniversary at the end of April. So we’re very, very proud of the accomplishments that we’ve done. Today ECU Communications services clients across the U.S., and we provide a multitude of digital communication services, including branding, media, website development, app development, all types of communication. Very proud to be part of the organization.

Denzil Mohammed: Even coming up with taglines and slogans for businesses, I know. And you have a range of very different, very diverse clients, from the government to the private sector to nonprofits. Is that correct?

Jackie Krick: That is correct. Our primary market is the federal government. When ECU was founded, we started with servicing the federal government. We became 8(a) certified in the Small Business Administration. It’s a certification for nine years and we successfully graduated from that in 2015. So we’ve serviced the federal government for all these years. And along the way we’ve expanded our services to nonprofit organizations, state and local organizations and also the private sector, which is a growing area of interest right now.

Denzil Mohammed: Really. But did you always want or expect to be a business owner?

Jackie Krick: That’s a very …

Denzil Mohammed: Was that in the cards?

Jackie Krick: … interesting question. I think I grew into that. So I started working, my first jobs were just normal jobs and … but I always felt that I wasn’t really happy in the role that I was. I always felt that I could do things a little bit better in my way obviously, a little bit faster. And I felt myself pulling out of the everyday kind of activities to want to be more in command of the things that I wanted done. So I think over the years I did fall into that role. To say that I woke up one day and I wanted to be a business owner, maybe not so much. But I’m very happy with the decision that I made.

Denzil Mohammed: Right. I think you should be very happy with your decision. It’s been such a success. So a lot of Americans don’t know what it’s like growing up in other countries, particularly South American countries, developing countries. And you yourself have a really diverse background stretching from France to Chile to Bolivia. Take us back to, let’s say, your grandfather and bring it up to today, up with you in Manassas.

Jackie Krick: So my grandmother, my grandfather was French. His family was a hundred percent French. They migrated to Columbia and that’s where he was born, he and 13 other brothers and sisters. When the oldest kids became eligible for the military, they went back to France. And so my grandfather was one of that first batch of kids that were born, went to the military in France, and, when he was done, he decided to go back to Columbia to see the country where he was born. And of course he met my grandmother, fell in love and married and they had five children. One of ’em was my mother. Moving forward, my mom was an adult, she fell in love with a Chilean man.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow.

Jackie Krick: He had traveled to Colombia and fell in love, got married. My oldest brother was born in Chile. I’m sorry. My oldest brother was born in Colombia. And then she [mother] went to live in Chile for a few years where my two other brothers were born and then they went back to Colombia where I was born. So I’m the youngest, the only girl, and, well, I’m the baby of course. Baby, not a spoiled one though.

Denzil Mohammed: And then your stepfather came on the scene and he was American.

Jackie Krick: Correct. My stepfather, my mom met my stepfather when I was nine years old. They got married. He was in Columbia doing a mission with the Department of State and was there for a few years. At age 15 – he was transferred. When I was say 15 we got news that he was getting transferred to Bolivia. So we all moved – my mom and my brothers and I, and my stepfather – moved to Bolivia for six years. And that’s where we basically lived. I loved Bolivia – wonderful place, beautiful people. The indigenous people were amazing, the food, everything else. I hold Bolivia very dear in my heart.

Denzil Mohammed: And so you moved at 15 and then you moved again when you were 21, when your stepfather’s transferred back to the U.S., right?

Jackie Krick: Yes.

Denzil Mohammed: And what was that experience like, moving to the United States of America?

Jackie Krick: Wow. So through those years we had visited the United States and we knew what it was like and spoke English. But I can tell you that nothing can prepare, would prepare me to come and live here. It was very different. When you are visiting one location is one thing. When you’re living and working and doing your daily activities it’s completely, completely different. So it took getting used to it. Even though I spoke English, it took getting your ear accustomed to everybody speaking English to you all the time. The way of life was completely different. So it really was a hard thing for me. I remember going to sleep and really crying myself to sleep sometimes.

Denzil Mohammed: Really.

Jackie Krick: Just because I was in a very different environment. I was living with my brother and his wife away from home for the first time and moving into a world of working and just being an adult.

Denzil Mohammed: Navigating the system.

Jackie Krick: Yeah. Very, very different. So it took me a little while, but eventually I surpassed that and here I am.

Denzil Mohammed: So we talked about your business a little bit earlier, and we’re gonna talk about it a little bit more, that you started in 2004 ECU Communications, but you sort of started your own business way back in 1990, didn’t you? You went off on your own doing graphic design, right?

Jackie Krick. Yes.

Denzil Mohammed: What was that like? Tell us why you ended up having to close it. And what lessons did you think you learned from that experience?

Jackie Krick: I started it because I, again, wanted to do something on my own. I really felt empowered to try something new that I could drive on my own and make something out of it. The reason I closed it, quite honestly I went through a divorce and it became really hard because … I’ll tell you in a minute what lessons I learned. But it became really hard for me to be the one going out looking for work and then coming back and doing the work. So I was an organization of one person, which … very difficult to do. You cannot be all to everything and do every other work. So it was very difficult. I eventually decided to just fold the business and get myself employed again. It was a very hard decision. I can tell you that I didn’t wanna do it. But I had to. Some of the lessons that I learned definitely is that you need to, if you want to grow your business, you cannot do it alone. You need to find the people that can help you, the great talent that can help you. You have to have that collaboration and you have to have the right tools, depending how big you wanna be. Obviously I learned a tremendous amount of lessons during that time, because the second time around when I started ECU, I knew it in my mind that I wanted to do something completely different and that I could not be the lead. I could not be the graphic designer. I could not be the writer, and also the business development. When you start a business you do wear a lot of hats, but you cannot do that constantly because that will never get you to the next level.

Denzil Mohammed: And you’re also the janitor. And you’re also the technician. And you’re also the driver. Let’s not forget those things.

Jackie Krick: Yes, that’s right. [Laughs]

Denzil Mohammed: Your current business, which you started in 2004, is now flourishing. Take us through the different steps and stages of how you grew that business.

Jackie Krick: Well, one of the things that I learned when I went back and got myself employed again, it was working in the IT sector, but always doing marketing and advertising. And they were doing government contracting so I learned how to work in that environment. I learned a lot about contracts and managing contracts, although I was not doing that, but I learned a lot about that. And so that gave me the ability to say, Here’s an opportunity. The government does a lot of business with a variety of sizes of business. Like you have the small businesses, the large businesses, the 8(a) businesses. And so I saw an opportunity there to really get started as a small business first and then apply for the 8(a) certification, which, it’s a certification for specific folks. So being a Hispanic woman, I definitely was. I want to be able to get that certification because of who I was. And I knew that with the broad range of competitors that there are out there having the access to a smaller pool of opportunities would definitely help my business grow. So I went after that application. And then after that, I started going after the government contracts. It took me a while. It really did. You really need to know and have access to a lot of different tools. So if I had to do it all over again I probably change it up a little bit. But those are the things that you learned along the way, right? And now I love to help others and tell others how they can do it too, because it’s not … you have to try certain things before you can really get that, the right path. I would’ve waited a little bit longer before getting my 8(a) certification. I would’ve waited until I had a larger base of business. If the 8(a) certification is only nine years. Once you get it, you get into it. Nine years go by and you’re out. So …

Denzil Mohammed: And just for listeners who may not be familiar with it, could you just describe it a little bit?

Jackie Krick: So the 8(a) is a Small Business Administration program to help underserved people from countries, like Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, they can apply to become 8(a) certified. And what happens is that the government agencies, they set aside a portion of their purchasing contracts, they set ’em aside as 8(a). That means that the pool of competitors can only be 8(a) so that you have a bigger opportunity to have access to those contracts.

Denzil Mohammed: So you found the opportunities and you went after them. That’s what a business owner does. But you spoke a little bit about creating opportunities for others and sort of letting other people, other probably budding business owners, know the kind of knowledge and background that you now have. First off, I wanna bring up Impact to Youth. This is where you want to create opportunities for young people to learn and develop their skills. And they come from vulnerable communities. And you said once, I heard you say that this was your real passion. Can you describe this a little bit for me and why you decided to do this?

Jackie Krick: Yes. So I think that everybody has such great potential to do something with themselves, but it really all depends on the path that they get on. And the reason why Impact a Youth was founded was to give so many kids, young adults, young kids opportunities to dream. My mother used to always say, “You know, when you dream high you need to dream higher because chances are you’re going to get to a certain point, maybe not as high as you’re dreaming.” So I wanna give kids the opportunity to dream as high as they can, and be able to get more than what they think that they can get.

Denzil Mohammed: More than what they were born into, I guess.

Jackie Krick: That’s right. That’s right. So the other thing that I believe is that when you give those opportunities to young people, you’re teaching them something with a great foundation. You’re teaching them that they’re able to go and do things on their own, that they’re capable of being self providers. And that’s really what I want to teach them, to go out, be self providers, help yourselves learn and accomplish a lot of great things, because that’s the greatest feeling when you go and get it yourself, rather than be there waiting for something, somebody to give it to you.

Denzil Mohammed: Does any particular young person come to mind when you think of the program?

Jackie Krick: We’ve done Impact a Youth Academy, where we brought in kids from the high schools around here and mentor them through soft skills and career planning and things like that. And some kids came back to me and said, “You know, everything we learned there we’ve applied.” And so some kids were starting their careers as entrepreneurs and learning new things. It’s really … it touches me a lot. It really does. The one thing that I did learn is that we need to start younger, not just high school kids, because when you’re in high school you’re already, it’s kind of too late. So we are learning that we need to start more in the middle school to really touch the kids and really get them interested in thinking about … it could be a career. It could be an entrepreneur. Not everybody’s made to be a business owner. And not everybody’s made to have a four-year degree. There’s other things that kids can do as long as they’re willing to learn something. That to me is the basic thing.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow.

Jackie Krick: I get very passionate about that.

Denzil Mohammed: I can tell. But what was the main driving force for you to do this?

Jackie Krick: Yeah, I wanna give back to the community. I wanted to share some of the success that I’ve had with the community. I wanted to give something to the young kids to help ’em.

Denzil Mohammed: And you’re also helping budding entrepreneurs, because I know that you have a relationship with the city of Manassas and there’s a co-working space that incubates budding entrepreneurs who may wanna start their business. Can you describe that for me?

Jackie Krick: So about five years ago we engaged … I’m a co-founder, one of four, and we engaged in a private – public partnership with the city of Manassas to open up a co-working space here in the city. And the idea is to help entrepreneurs, micro, tiny little companies come and have a place where they can discover new potentials for opportunities to grow, for training. We have the SDBC here. I think they come to the office maybe two times a week, and they meet with businesses that either are starting their businesses, or they already are, have been founded, but they need more guidance and more mentorship. So we do that through the SDBC. And then it’s very economical. It’s only like $10 a day that they can come here and they can have access to all the resources, a table, networking. They can print materials. They can also meet other like-minded individuals that … where they can engage and have new business opportunities. And that actually has happened a lot here. So very interesting and very engaging. I love everything about growth and entrepreneurship and being able to connect with others. That’s what CenterFuse does.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s almost like you’ve come full circle since you first moved to the U.S. and would cry yourself to sleep. And now you’re actually actively giving back to other people, other young people probably from immigrant families as well, vulnerable families, too. Which is really, really very cool, which brings me to my last question, which is the United States has allowed you to thrive and be successful. Maybe it took a couple tries, but you got there. And I’m sure you’re still dreaming higher and higher. How do you feel about the United States as the place that allowed you to succeed as a woman, as an entrepreneur, as someone who has dreams,

Jackie Krick: I love this country.

Denzil Mohammed: Hmm.

Jackie Krick: I love it. I really think that it’s all inside of you. And I really, I am a force inside of me that really wanted to push forward just who I am. And I am so glad and thankful and appreciative of the United States. In the ways that, yes, we have a long way to go in so many things, right? But I had the opportunity to do it. And that, I mean opening a new business here is as easy as going and getting a license for your business.

Denzil Mohammed: Mmm.

Jackie Krick: Obviously that’s not something I would recommend because you need to know a little bit more than just that. But what I’m saying is there are so many things that facilitate you doing something. And if you put yourself into it every single day, you dedicate and you believe what you’re gonna do, and you have a computer or you go talk to people, it is so much easier to do business here. In Columbia, maybe other countries too, when you reach a certain age, you’re pretty old and there’s no more work. There’s no more opportunities. In the United States you have limitless opportunities where you can work and you can start your business even when you’re a senior citizen. It’s amazing. I love it.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s almost as though it’s built to foster entrepreneurship, right?

Jackie Krick: Pretty much, pretty much. Yeah.

Denzil Mohammed: And capitalize on the entrepreneurial talents and desires of immigrants like you. Jackie Krick, founder, president and CEO of ECU Communications in Manassas, Virginia, immigrant from Colombia and business owner, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers.

Jackie Krick: Denzil, thank you so much. It’s great speaking with you.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contributions produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s inspiring story of immigrant entrepreneurship. Remember, you can subscribe to JobMakers on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And please leave us a rating and a review. I’m Denzil Mohammed, see you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 51: Artur Sousa

JobMakers podcast logo: Artur Sousa's social entrepreneurship pays offHis own experience adopting a rescue puppy inspired Brazilian-born Artur Sousa to create a platform to make pet adoption easier, less expensive and more accessible. Sousa has used his tech expertise, international experience and passion for social entrepreneurship to enable thousands of shelter adoptions. Tune in to learn why Sousa believes not all immigrants have access to the American Dream.

Denzil MohammedI’m Denzil Mohammed and welcome to JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: What is social entrepreneurship? According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, social entrepreneurship is the process by which individuals, startups and entrepreneurs develop and fund solutions that directly address social issues. A social entrepreneur, therefore, is a person who explores business opportunities that have a positive impact on their community, in society, or the world. For Artur Sousa, immigrant from Brazil and founder and CEO of Adopets, a pet adoption platform that simplifies the work done by shelters and improves the pet adoption experience, fixing problems and doing good in the world is his business model. Unnecessary bureaucracy in the adoption process led him to create a platform that today has more than 40,000 registered users and maintains more than 300,000 adoption listings. Artur is a problem solver and his series of businesses and technologies have proven that, but he’s keenly aware of the factors that enabled him to succeed in the United States that not every immigrant experiences. The American Dream, as he says, is not always fair to everyone. He shares with us how opportunity, capitalism, circumstance and a rescue pet successfully aligned in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Artur Sousa, founder and CEO of Adopets, welcome to JobMakers. How are you?

Artur Sousa: I am good. Thanks for having me, it’s such a pleasure.

Denzil Mohammed: So tell me a little bit about your business. It’s very unique, right?

Artur Sousa: I would like to think so. We chose to begin our journey within the pet adoption space. Basically we started because my wife and I decided to adopt a pet. We saw quite a few bureaucratic pieces of the adoption process that were very manual, very paper heavy at that point and we thought that we could be of help. I’ve always been involved in technology in one way or another and thought that we could maybe help out an organization that we have been working with. And once we did it, it became a little bit more of a thing and was like, well, maybe it can actually be a system that can serve the space in general, not just a little side project for our organization that we were supporting. And then with that in mind, Adopets was born at that point. Our focus really is on optimizing the adoption experience. The way we present ourselves is as a shelter, animal shelter that is, but shelter efficiency platform. So we are focusing really on the flow of their visitors all the way through meeting animals, through adopting animals, submitting their interests to those animals, signing contracts, paying adoption fees and so on and so on. So it really covers the entire spectrum of the adoption process, whether it is a actual animal shelter with the animals right there in a building or a foster based rescue with animals spread around volunteer houses and so on.

Denzil Mohammed: I see, so you’ve encountered a problem and you decided to fix it and out of that, a perfectly beautiful business was born. And this is not your first business either, is it?

Artur Sousa: No, it isn’t, I’ve been a little obsessed with it, fixing things. 

Denzil Mohammed: Tell me more about that. 

Artur SousaI think if I look back, and that’s not an observation that I do often, but when I look back to our business journey it has always been in that same context. What problem that annoyed me and that I thought maybe I could fix and that I had a specific type of passion for the outcome. So if I look at the very, very first one when we were working, I was working with a nonprofit, a very large nonprofit in Brazil, and the way we were project managing the projects that we have was very inefficient. We had a really large staff, mostly volunteers, to run the operations for the organization. So I decided to optimize that through a series of process-driven platforms. And that very first project created a whole other universe in my mind and journey and career then because we just reduced their general staffing 95 percent but we doubled the outcome from an impact wise just by being professionally organized. And that kind of triggered me, each of the social impact area of things. And I was just wanting to what if we could do something, but we have some money in return. And that makes us do even more and then it just makes this scalable model. I didn’t know what that was, social entrepreneurship at the time, mind you, but it ended up being what let me, led me to actually, to the U.S. to get a master’s in social entrepreneurship much later than that, but eventually was a cause.

Denzil MohammedSo take us back to you’ve mentioned Brazil and that’s where you were born. Paint us a picture, what was life like back in Brazil when you were growing up? 

Artur SousaBack home? I never really spent more than a year in one place, right? So from a financial standpoint was always moving to a new place so I had never, until college, I had never spent more than a year in the same school ’cause we would move and go to a new place ’cause you know mom couldn’t always afford rent and then we had to go into a new place there. We never, you know, there are many struggles in the world and I don’t don’t think mine was the worst there could be, but it had an impact. It had an impact in which, you know, I’ve actually gotten used to never settled and always keep moving and, from place to place. In Brazil, just college I spent in five different universities across five different states, just transferring when I would get bored and go to a new place. Cause it really gets you used to that movement. You get, you know, as a defense mechanism that, “I got to move, I’m done with this place. I gotta go to a new one.” So anyway, I think at Brazil was, it’s still the place that I need to go to recharge my soul when I feel empty. 

Denzil MohammedWow. That’s, that’s quite incredible. And the idea of, of constantly moving, obviously move to the U.S. which was a huge move. You said you did that to further your education and career. What was the experience like when you first moved here? 

Artur Sousa: It was weird at first, I was very excited, but it was, well, I didn’t have, especially with the foreign exchange coming from Brazil. I didn’t have all the funds that would require for comfortable stay during masters and it was a full-time master’s degree, so it wasn’t like I could be working. I wouldn’t be able to work either away from a visa standpoint if I could. So I came with my suitcase and stayed there for my master’s. At first was really weird to not fully understand the language. I had gotten enough that I had the grades qualification from an English standpoint, but because I studied very, very hard, not because I actually had mastered the language. So at first a lot of the things in classes, I would understand a lot more by context because I had been working for a long time, not by the textbook, or the teachers. But that lasted for a couple months. I had made a hard decision to not actually be with any Brazilian friends while in the U.S. So I would only hang out with English speaking ones, cause would force me to be more comfortable with the language and that really over time.

Denzil Mohammed: I can’t imagine going to do a master’s degree without having mastered the language that you were going to do that degree in. I mean, that must have been a really, you said weird, but it must’ve been a struggle those first few months. What motivates you most of all? Is it fixing problems and making, you know, just things easier for people? 

Artur Sousa: That is one of the things I think fixing problems is just on my personality, to point that I keep doing new things over time, cause once my business gets to a point of stability and more, you know, bureaucratic arrangement from a corporate standpoint, it’s not for me anymore. So I like to be in the mass of fixing things. That’s one big part of my personality, but the, the other part is one … this a funny story. Actually, I had a boss in Boston that I loved and he was very, very good to me. And he’s still a good friend and he, one day he told me that I was fundamentally unmanageable. I really like, and I took that as a, as one of my biggest compliments in life. Mind you because I, I don’t, I, I like thing, I like things that I can fix. I like going and experimenting and, and getting it wrong and breaking things and I’m fixing them again and seeing the best path for it. And in that sense, I don’t always, or have never, quite frankly, fit into a box in which I would just do the predetermined things that have been assigned to me. I always go beyond and, and entrepreneurship is the best place for that. 

Denzil MohammedSo as a social entrepreneur and a serial entrepreneur, talk us through the start of your current business. You mentioned that it was a bureaucratic problem that you wanted to solve, but get us into the sort of the nuts and bolts of the genesis of the business,

Artur SousaThe application process to adopt a pet varies from organization to organization, from state to state, city to city. It all varies quite a bit. But it’s overall a, a time consuming paper-happy process that relies on a lot of really loving, caring animal people that are behind those organizations, usually underpaid if paid at all, helping animals that don’t always have the time to do the process in a, in the most efficient way. When you’re looking at an adoption individual, we might be talking about, you know, few hours of time if you put together what the staff’s time and the adopter’s time to get the adoption concluded doesn’t sound all that much. But when you go to other organizations who have a partner, for instance, in New Zealand, that process is 40,000 adoptions a year. So if you have a couple of hours that you’re taking away from 40,000, you’re thinking 80,000 hours away just by using a system that simplifies it and takes the process to a more automatic approach of triggering communications and so on. You’re basically saving so much time that gives you the ability to save more animals. So that was the math behind the efficiency there. What we had to focus on was like, “Alright, so how do we make this?” from a monetization standpoint and from a scalability standpoint, a practical answer. And it took a while for the majority of the time that I was built, not majority anymore, but for the first two years of Adopets, I was building that while having a job and at that point we already had 70 members in the, in the organization, but I was still with my day job on, on, on, on the side until 2018 when I quit. And then I quit in 2018, we moved up to Maine and then my entire focus had me being on the business and that’s when we really focused on scale. And I kept saying on the blessing side, cause I believe that there’s gotta be some universe plan out there, because, you know, should the tragedy that pandemic was for society as a whole, if I can’t put a pin on that side for a minute, the pandemic, for the business really propelled it. Because when the pandemic hit, they didn’t have a choice, they needed to go online and nobody had been doing that at all. And we were right there, we were ready to go. We were ready there, society was not from a using digital tools for the adoption of animals. And then it caught up and then we were right in the, in the right place at the right time. 

Denzil Mohammed: You were perfectly positioned to, to, to deal with this pandemic and the fact that everyone wanted to have pets, all of a sudden. 

Artur Sousa: Fair. 

Denzil Mohammed: Give us the numbers. What’s, what’s the impact that your businesses have, has had over the years. 

Artur SousaOh, so last year alone, we had 70,000 adoptions going through the system. We are serving clients in Australia, in New Zealand, in the, in Canada and the U.S. haven’t gone into Brazil quite yet. Still a goal. We had about, at any given time, about 70 to a 100,000 animals available for adoption through our platform in majority of the U.S. states in there. And I will send you a note after this complete, ’cause it’s still confidential, but we are about to go into a really big change in, in the coming weeks with another partner in the, in the space. 

Denzil MohammedThe United States is sort of inherently entrepreneurial. I mean, we, it was built on that kind of spirit, and I like to say that immigrants themselves are inherently entrepreneurial because they take a risk, they don’t know if it’s gonna be better or worse. They pack a suitcase, leave everything they know behind and, and start fresh in some place new. What do you think makes the United States special when it comes to being a business owner, an entrepreneur? 

Artur Sousa: The American Dream story, right? That was built as a story first. It actually is a realistic approach that can be taken. It is still an unfair approach, you know, depending on your race, depending on your origins, depending on your language. Is not fair to all how the American Dream plays out. I say this in a very sad way, I am white in the sense that if I don’t speak, people don’t even know that I’m a foreigner. They don’t even guess that I’m a foreigner and it’s a horrible thing, but that plays out, in the U.S. plays out positively because of how the society is wired around the us. So I had many opportunities that came because I wasn’t really facing a biased approach prior to it. I had to make some changes, we were just joking before the call about that, but I would never send an email as Artur, I would always send an email as Arthur. But putting all of that aside, there is an opportunity. There is an opportunity where entrepreneurship is actually highly glorified in the U.S. That taking risks is actually a mundane thing. It’s not a, this when you’re born in a Catholic country, heavily Catholic country is, you know, we wanna have that little routine and you have the most stable job and the things, and the west is not so much about that as I believe some of the Hispanic countries or Latino countries like my own. Culturally, and we are all about that pursuing the dream and that’s powerful. Whether or not we get to realize it, whether or not it gets materialized for most people is that source of the debate and we can talk about that forever. But the pursuit of the dream really drives people. The idea of coming here and giving your all, because of that really well told American Dream story actually gets you places. It’s very little because of the American dreamD but a lot more because of your effort, in my opinion, and because you are pursuing it, you’re pursuing the idea of it. So you’re building your dream, not necessarily because the society is built out in a way that helps you get there, ’cause let’s be honest, it doesn’t. Right, finding funding depending on your color, depending on your race, depending where you’re from, it is very different now if you are, and I’m sorry if I’m being too direct about this, Denzil, but if you are, you know, a white kid that graduated at MIT, you get funding like this, you get funding with an idea before getting anything. Now, if you are a Latino entrepreneur or an African origin entrepreneur or a Black entrepreneur you actually get, or even middle eastern entrepreneurs too, like you tend to have a lot more hoops to navigate through. There are many funds that have been popping out, they are more focused on diversity and other things, but that’s still a minority consider compared to the other venture capital funds and other things. So the, the, the pursuit has to be what’s driving you, because it’s not really the, the context that is getting you there is that you really not dropping it, not giving up on it. And I think in, immigrants in general are very good at that because they already gave up all they knew coming here. So there is no choice, there is no going back at that point, you’re just is either make it or make it. 

Denzil Mohammed: There’s, there’s no safety net, there’s nothing to fall back on there. You don’t have your parents house to, to crash in if, if you enter a bad patch. You just, you have to make it work regardless of, of what you encounter. And I really appreciate the very nuanced and detailed way you painted the pursuit of the American dream and how it’s different for different people. A lot of people like to ignore that, these facts, that it is harder for some people based on very superficial things. I wanna pull it back a little a bit, we did some research in the greater Boston area and found that Brazilian, immigrants from Brazil had the highest rate of self-employment, up to 27 percent of Brazilians in Greater Boston said they were self-employed. This is incorporated and not incorporated businesses. What is with that? What is, what is it about Brazilians and starting businesses?

Artur Sousa: When I think about Latino entrepreneurs in general, not just Brazilian, we usually are talking about really resourceful people that, that really make things happen, you know, in a MacGyver way before they are there. And you’re just improvising and getting it there because of your drive. I think Latinos are very driven people generally on, on being better to their families, to themselves. 

Denzil Mohammed: I am happy that you are here in the U.S. and happy that you are making positive changes and happy that you are creating jobs. You’re currently employ 33 people and to date you’ve employed  hundreds. So you are a job creator, you are an indispensable member of this, of our community, and thank you for creating jobs and, and being innovative.

Artur SousaVery kind of you and thank you for having me here. Thank you for the work you do on bringing you know, immigrants to the spotlight. So we all are more comfortable with the contributions that immigrants build in this, in the country and how much we are actually a country of immigrants all together, building this together. 

Denzil MohammedArtur Sousa, founder, CEO of Adopets, thank you so much for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.

Artur Sousa: Thank you for having me. And if I can be of any help to anyone out there, let me know.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s powerful story of immigrant entrepreneurship. Remember, you can subscribe to JobMakers on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And please leave us a rating and a review. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 50: Karina Calderon

JobMakers podcast logo: Karina Calderon on how immigrant entrepreneurs help cities growAs a first-generation immigrant and successful businesswoman, Karina Calderon is perfectly positioned to help immigrant entrepreneurs thrive through her work with The Lawrence Partnership. The partnership helps Lawrence’s businesses grow and strengthen the local economy. Listen to learn how Calderon believes their model can scale to help more communities replicate their success.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and welcome to JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: The city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, is one we’ve talked about before. Why? Well, out of its 90,000 strong population, 40.8 percent is foreign born and more than 80 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino. According to The Immigrant Learning Center, it has the third highest concentration of immigrants in the entire Commonwealth and it’s buzzing with immigrant entrepreneurs. For Karina Calderon, deputy director of the Lawrence Partnership, a collaboration of business and civic leaders started in 2015 to help grow businesses in a way that benefits all its residents, that immigrant entrepreneurship is the engine driving the growth of the city. She and the Lawrence Partnership are tasked with incubating, training, assisting, loaning, basically doing everything they and their partners can to grow the city’s businesses. The model they’ve adopted is replicable, for sure, and is one based on long standing relationships and trust between new and longtime residents. Karina explains how it works, shares some of the success stories of the immigrant small business owners and details her own immigration story of making it in the States by herself, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Karina Calderon, deputy director of the Lawrence Partnership, how are you? Welcome to JobMakers!

Karina Calderon: Thank you. I’m very good. I’m very happy to be here. Thank you for the invitation.

Denzil Mohammed: So tell us a little bit about the Lawrence Partnership. It’s a fairly new initiative and it’s all about making Lawrence bigger and brighter and better, right?

Karina Calderon: It is for sure. So the Lawrence Partnership, it came out of a collaboration of the private sector, the public sector and also the nonprofit sector. So we have a very robust board of directors of 30 to 32 leaders, local leaders that are executive directors, presidents, CEOs of local, big companies that are here in Lawrence. They saw a need of coming together and in working towards creating an inclusive economic development for the city of Lawrence.

Denzil Mohammed: And what does inclusive economic development look like?

Karina Calderon: So we do that through different initiatives and I can tell you a few of them. So you know how I told you that we have a very robust board of directors? Some of them are presidents of different banks in the area. And something that they did was that the bankers in our board, they came together and they invited some other banks, also local, to come and put together a fund. And it’s called a venture loan fund. And the idea of this fund is to be able to provide loans to businesses, small businesses that are considered non-bankable. So if a small business owner needs a loan, goes to bank X-Y-Z, which is a huge bank, and they get denied, they can go to our venture loan fund and apply for a loan there. And the main interest of our bankers is to inject this money into the community and help the small businesses with the needs that they have. So what they did was they each came with about a hundred thousand dollars, and right now we have a $1.1 million venture load fund. And [to] date, if I’m not mistaken, I know that we have lent a little bit more, but last time that I checked, that I had an actual report, it was about $600,000 that we had put out in the streets to the small businesses since last summer when we relaunched the venture loan fund. So that’s a way for us to create that inclusive economic development. That’s one of the initiatives, that it’s big on that.

Karina Calderon: Another initiative that we also have, it’s called a revolving test kitchen. It started as an incubator. So it started … It was a collaboration between Sal Lupoli, who had a restaurant actually in our building on 420 Common Street, Northern Essex Community College, the Lawrence Partnership, and also the city of Lawrence. Sal had that restaurant there. It didn’t work out for him. It wasn’t a Sal’s Pizza or anything like that. It had a different name. So then Northern Essex, who rents the building, told them, “Sal, you have that space there with all that equipment, let’s do something about it.” So we came together and we were able to give this space to a food entrepreneur that wanted to test his recipes, test his business plan. And we gave him the space for a year, so they could run it as a restaurant. They didn’t have to worry about overhead or anything like that. They did have to pay $500 a month, which if they, by the time that they were done with their one year period, if they opened a brick and mortar in the city of Lawrence, they would get all their money back. So we did that for three years. It was a successful program. Also, let me just say that, let me just add that besides using the space and that help with the rent and stuff like that, they also got technical assistance. So the team from Sal Lupoli was giving them some pointers and education on certain areas that they needed help with, like setting prices, cost of good salt and things like that. The city facilitated them getting certain licenses that they need in order to operate their business. So it was a true collaboration. So, like I said, three years we did that. Three successful businesses came out of there. CocoRay’s on Market Street in South Lawrence, El Encanto who ended up opening a food truck and then Bocaditos who decided after that she wanted to do safe-surf classes in Spanish for the Hispanic community. So three success stories each in their own way.

Denzil Mohammed: This does sound very, very collaborative. And I, and when you introduce the ideas of getting licenses and permits and that kind of thing, that is, especially for immigrant entrepreneurs who are not familiar with the system and need that kind of technical support, that’s really important.

Karina Calderon: About two, three weeks ago, we had an event. We called it How to Start a Business and Expand it in the City of Lawrence. And we were very intentional because you may know that about 89, 90 percent of this community is Hispanic. So we were very intentional about making this event in Spanish.

Denzil Mohammed: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative]

Karina Calderon: And we had simultaneous translation services inside so people could feel comfortable. Because if there’s something that is true, is that I feel like people get to trust you a little bit more when they, when you are speaking their same language. They feel more comfortable. The walls come down. We had two panels. The first one was different business owners, local business owners talking about their experiences, giving tips, what worked for them, what didn’t, things like that to inspire the entrepreneurs that were there watching them and listening to their stories, so they can know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And then the second panel, it was organizations like ours, like Mill Cities Community Investments, Entrepreneurship for All, Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, Federación Hispana de Comerciantes, which is like a Hispanic chamber of commerce type of organization, they were there and also the city of Lawrence. They were there talking about the resources that are available for business owners. And it’s unbelievable the lack of information that it’s out there. It’s a huge challenge. People are not aware of the resources and some resources are going untapped because not everybody has access or not even, they don’t even know about their existence. I learned about a few things there, myself.

Denzil Mohammed: It almost seems as though immigration was a key, played a key role in the model of the partnership, because you had to reconcile with and recognize that their language barriers, because these are new Americans and immigrants learn English over time, that it happens, but at the start when they need to get a leg up speaking their own language literally, as you said, builds trust. But I wanna ask this. This is happening now. You said you, the Partnership, started in 2014. Why did it take so long for something like this to happen?

Karina Calderon: Relationships, they take time to build that trust. It takes time. So I think that possibly, maybe that had a little bit of a factor. But we are not being shy now. Before, I remember we didn’t take credit for anything. We would do the work. We would work with a group of partners. We would do the work, we rolled up our sleeves, do the work, and we didn’t need to take credit. Not that we’re doing it now. But we’re just doing it a little differently because we do want people to know that the Lawrence Partnership is here. And it’s very important. It goes back to trust, that they don’t only know that we’re here, but that they see the people … We are a team of three, George Ramirez, the executive director, myself, and then our new star Giselle Peguero. And it’s important that when they see us, they see they can picture themselves because we look like them. We are here because we care about the community, and the community … We look like them, they look like us. We are one and … our priority is to bring this community forward.

Denzil Mohammed: And I imagine, of course, that’s not just the Hispanic community that you’re reaching out to. It’s everyone.

Karina Calderon: Everyone, exactly. Everyone. And thankfully we can navigate in the different cultures. And we have partners, also. Like I told you, we’re not doing, we’re not necessarily doing this alone. So where one is lacking, the other one is compensating. So I’m not worried.

Denzil Mohammed: And you mentioned Entrepreneurship for All, a really, really fantastic initiative. I see that they’re even in northwest Arkansas now.

Karina Calderon: Yes.

Denzil Mohammed: Started by Desh Deshpande, who’s also a big legend in the Merrimack Valley area, legendary entrepreneur. So what does the economic landscape in Lawrence look like today?

Karina Calderon: So right now, let’s say we have a group that it’s working [on] revitalizing the downtown of Lawrence. We have these beautiful flower pots on every corner, beautifying the streets. We have building owners working on the facades of their buildings on Essex Street, trying to make it more appealing and more inviting for people to feel comfortable and come to Essex Street and to Lawrence in general. We have great restaurants. So I hear some people, that they say we wanna make Lawrence the mecca of food. I’m like, yeah, sure. Bring it on. Let’s make it happen. And we have people that are working on that. We also have huge companies, local companies that are affecting the economy positively. We have Gemline, Able Womack, and both of them in an industrial park, and New Balance, it’s also here in Lawrence, very committed to the city and in helping it succeed.

Denzil Mohammed: I like the idea of a destination city for food because Malden, Massachusetts, is that. We take so much pride in the fact that we have such a variety of restaurants and just so many of them. You can get pho. You can get Thai food. You can get Mexican food, everything. A new ramen place just opened up on Pleasant Street.

Karina Calderon: Nice.

Denzil Mohammed: And you talked about Essex Street, which, of course, is like Main Street in Lawrence.

Karina Calderon: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. [Affirmative]

Denzil Mohammed: So tell me about the role of immigrants in the economic development of Lawrence overall, especially those immigrant business owners.

Karina Calderon: I think that they are the ones running the city. A lot of our businesses are immigrant, sometimes non-English speaking. And I have to give some kudos to our partner, Entrepreneurship for All, ’cause they have E para Todos, which is the Spanish version of their program. And sometimes I’ve seen reports of the work they do and they would tell you so many immigrants, and it’s like 93 out of 100. [Laughs]

Denzil Mohammed: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative]

Karina Calderon: It’s a big number. And these are people that, they’re hungry, they want to succeed. They came here because they had a dream and this is the land of opportunities. That’s what I was told before I came, before I moved to this country. And that’s how I see it. And many people see it like that. So, yes, immigrants are the ones running the small business community in Lawrence, for sure.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s fascinating and a very, very important point. And you said that they’re hungry. They come here with a desire, with a yearning, they have to succeed and they’re inherently entrepreneurial. Just the fact that they moved to another country not knowing if it’s gonna be better or worse is itself an entrepreneurial act.

Karina Calderon: Exactly.

Denzil Mohammed: Really inherently entrepreneurial. And I’m glad that the city of Lawrence is really capitalizing on that and optimizing it to the benefit of the entire community. And you just mentioned that you came here from another country as well. What is your immigration story?

Karina Calderon: So I am Dominican. I was born and raised in Dominican Republic. I came to spend the summer in Hampton Beach because I was in college there. I was going to architect school. And they had this program where college students could come for the summer, spend the summer, work, practice the language and then go back home. So I came twice. I came 2002, 2003. And then in 2003 my mom told me when I was getting ready to go back home, she goes, “Why don’t you stay and try to open doors for us. Things are a little rough here.”

Denzil Mohammed: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative]

Karina Calderon: Mom, are you serious? Like, I don’t have anybody here. I don’t. And she …

Denzil Mohammed: And you’re just a kid.

Karina Calderon: Twenty-two years old.

Denzil Mohammed: Yeah, exactly.

Karina Calderon: But it happened at the right time because, let me tell you, if it happened to me now, I don’t think I would’ve had the same energy and the same drive. So I stayed with some friends that I made along the way, and I … A lot of things have happened, but that’s another story for another day. But I am so glad because those ups and downs that I went through helped me to be where I am today. And this is not even my final destination just yet. There’s still much more to be done. But I am so grateful for the community that welcomed me. I have no family here. It’s just me and my two daughters, but I have a great network of friends, of colleagues. So I’m grateful for what the city has done for me. And I think that it’s only right that I keep doing the same thing for the city.

Denzil Mohammed: Perfectly said. Very, very well said. That’s incredible. And to think that, I mean, people take for granted how hard it is as an adult especially to learn a whole new language, a whole new culture, all the different laws. And you’re embedded in all the licensing and credentialing and permitting and all these different things. What is a credit score? You know, what is that? So many things to learn and you … I’m so pleased that you chose to stay with your mother’s encouragement.

Karina Calderon: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative]

Denzil Mohammed: How does it feel for you, knowing how difficult it would’ve been back in the Dominican Republic, to have your daughters grow up in Lawrence and in the United States?

Karina Calderon: I feel very appreciative and very blessed. If my daughters would be here, they would be rolling their eyes because one thing that I used to tell them since they were very little was … And they would verbatim repeat it as I was saying it, because I said it so long. So, I mean, I said it so many times that I would … I used to tell them, listen … ‘Cause my oldest one, she was born in Dominican Republic, so an immigrant. The little one was born here. But I told her, listen, we came to this country to be the best version of ourselves, to take advantage of those opportunities that they give us and work with them and be the best version of ourselves. Because back home we didn’t have that, the education. We don’t. We were blessed back home, at least my family, that I did have access to an education, but many people didn’t have the same luxury. So to come here and see that anybody, as long as they want it, they can have that education. I know that there are their challenges because not everything is easy. Then you have to have some skin in the game. But I just told them, let’s be that, let’s be the best versions that we can be. And I’m just grateful … I never thought that I would end up here. Like I told you, I came for a summer to have fun with my friends and make some money and bring it back home. And to end up here and make my life here and to live in this community that is home now, it’s wonderful.

Denzil Mohammed: And you’re having an impact.

Karina Calderon: [Laughs]

Denzil Mohammed: You’re having an impact on the city of Lawrence and beyond. And I hope others, municipal workers, are listening in to this to really realize how important these partnerships and these relationships are toward a more inclusive economic situation wherever they are. You have to get everyone’s … Everyone needs to be at the table, whether they’re new or old and the new tend to be that hungry, those hungry people who will take that risk and start a business.

Karina Calderon: Exactly.

Denzil Mohammed: And try it out and hopefully end up being successful. Karina Calderon of the Lawrence Partnership, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers.

Karina Calderon: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast on immigrant entrepreneurship and contributions produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s powerful story of immigrant entrepreneurship. Remember, you can subscribe to JobMakers on Apple podcast, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And please give us some stars. I’m Denzil Mohammed, see you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 49: Evan Silverio

JobMakers podcast logo: Evan Silverio builds on immigrant mother's business successEvan Silverio built on the success of his immigrant entrepreneur mother by pushing her business to new heights and founding a new enterprise of his own. Taking lessons from his mother and grandfather, Silverio built real estate and insurance agencies that have thrived and employed people despite immense economic hardship. Listen to learn how he’s repaying his community through volunteering and offering tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers. 

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Denzil Mohammed: In a report from The Immigrant Learning Center titled, “Adult Children of Immigrant Entrepreneurs,” it was found that children of immigrant business owners tended to work careers that helped people. Social work, health care education, rather than entrepreneurship. Makes sense. They’ve seen how much effort it takes to run a business in a new country while trying to learn the language laws and customs at the same time. In fact, the report found that the parents often dissuade their children from following the path they chose. For Evan Silverio, child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, president and CEO of Silverio Insurance Agency and founder of Diverse Real Estate, both in Lawrence, Massachusetts, he bit the bullet and with the example set by his mother who founded the agency, achieved success. Eventually getting into real estate during a housing bust wasn’t easy, but just like the perseverance his mother embodied, Evan stuck with it and has since purchased nearly 100 properties across the Commonwealth. Evan describes the example set by his immigrant mother and grandfather and how that shaped not just his approach to business, but also his approach to giving back to the community that nurtured him, kind of like those other children of immigrant entrepreneurs I mentioned, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers. 

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Denzil Mohammed: Evan Silverio, president CEO, Silverio Insurance Agency, and manager of Diverse Real Estate, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Evan Silverio: Thank you. Thank you so much, thank you for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: So tell us a little bit about your businesses and also perhaps tell us a little bit about the things that matter most to you as a professional and an entrepreneur.

Evan Silverio: My mother was, you know, extremely intelligent, hardworking, fearless individual. It was myself and two older sisters that were born here. You know, it’s interesting, she gave me the name Evan because she liked the name, but because she thought it was going to be easier on me in my transition in the United States, right. But funny enough, a lot of people find it confusing and they call me Kevin, so it didn’t go as, as planned. My parents were strict, they were also very aspirational coming from another country. Indirectly, I learned a lot through their own struggles as immigrants; long working hours, failing out at a lot of business, different business ventures, navigating the school systems, helping family with immigration paperwork. I remember a story about my sister, my oldest sister going to school and my mother really had to fight for her, for them to accept her in the school system and not put her in a Spanish-speaking, I guess …

Denzil Mohammed: Like an English language program or something? 

Evan Silverio: Yeah, yeah, like she wanted her to be specific and I remember that being a huge struggle and eventually, you know, she put up such a fight that they allowed her to participate and my sister did fine and she excelled. Yeah. So it was interesting. But for us, it was normal and we’re around a lot of immigrants, so it made it even that much more normal.

Denzil Mohammed: So you spoke a little bit about your mother and I think you alluded to her determination and her perseverance in the situation with your sister at school. Tell us a little bit more about your mother. She is an entrepreneur, a community leader. She even ran from mayor of Lawrence. That is incredibly cool and incredibly, as you say, aspirational. Tell us more about her.

Evan Silverio: Yeah, like I mentioned, you know, when I think about my mother just intelligent, hard working and fearless, but also funny, passionate, you know, bighearted. I think, I think she spent most of her life making sure that everyone else was okay and that’s exactly how she formed her business and why she gave dedicated long hours to the community, her church, her family, right. Her business was basically established because she was helping friends and family fill out paperwork, do translations, immigration consulting, then after that it leads to taxes and eventually to insurance and it was more out of her dedication to her community that she also found a way to monetize it and say, “Okay, well, I need to also run a business.” So, there has to be some fees associated with that. but it wasn’t about the money either because most of our time through the community was volunteer work, right. City counselor, or running for mayor and, and saying, you know, or her time on the boards, more volunteer work than anything.

Denzil Mohammed: I do want to make a point that, you know, she started these successful businesses here and as you say, it indirectly affected and improved the community. But she would not have been able to start her own business back in the Dominican Republic if she were living there, right?

Evan Silverio: The opportunity to help other people who really needed someone like her. A voice, a representative of sorts. And I think, you know, she used all of the skills she had and really shined being here in particular in Lawrence. But I think the type of person my mother was, she would’ve been successful in the Dominican Republic. 

Denzil Mohammed: So let’s turn it over to you now. Tell us about your real estate business that you started in 2009 while still in your twenties. What has that been like and how do you see this business growing in the future?

Evan SilverioYeah, the real estate business is just essentially myself investing in real estate. So prior to jumping on board to the family business, I was a loan officer for a total of nine years. I think, four years before jumping on board and then while I was doing insurance, I was also continuing the loan officer career. And the reason being is I just needed the money, right. When my mother came and asked me to jump into the family business and she couldn’t afford much, right. So I said, “Okay, let me, you know, come on board and I’ll continue doing mortgages as best I can with the same amount of time.” Through mortgages and through being a loan consultant I just recognized real estate a little bit. I could understand it a little bit and I decided, you know what, I think I can throw my hat in the ring and, and try to make some money in real estate. And my first two investments failed. They were terrible failures. And so, yeah, so it was pretty interesting. It was during the real estate boom and bust and I got caught with some real estate in my hand, but for some reason I said to myself, I still believe, you know, that this is a good time to invest. So while everybody else was kind of backpedaling, I got back on the horse, started investing again, and it was hard, you know, you have to sacrifice, you have to make sure you do good by a lot of people. You know, as I mentioned earlier, it was a lot of hard money lending in order to get some investments in. But, you know, the reason that I thought it was interesting was my reasoning kept on changing over time. Initially it was, you know, if I can just get a property to pay for my auto loan, that’d be great. And then it said, well, if I could do that, I can get a property to pay for, you know, wherever I was gonna live and that would be great. And then it just kept on going and snowballing and you know, and a 100 properties later, you know, you change it and say, well, passive income, it has a retirement plan, there’s booming equity. And now it’s funding certain acquisitions for the insurance agency. So it’s kind of working out well.

Denzil MohammedWow. I like how that balances out with the insurance agency too. And as you say, a 100 properties, that is incredible. So you spoke a lot about your and your mother’s community involvement and, you know, the model of her business, you know, helping people with immigration forms and taxes and venturing that into a business, monetizing it. Your involvement today stretches from the Lawrence Redevelopment Authority to a scholarship fund you started with Grammy-winning producer and Lawrence native DJ Buddha. So, tell me what is like the guiding principle behind this kind of work that you do?

Evan Silverio: Honestly, I think it just comes from this responsibility to give back, to contribute. The scholarship fund as you mentioned with DJ Buddha, you know, he was a Lawrentian such as myself. He went to Central Catholic with me and I think post-graduation, once we had some money in our pocket we had a clear understanding that the reasons we were allotted certain opportunities was because of the opportunities that we were given to attend, you know, a higher education than the high school level and we wanted to give other people that same opportunity. We think that really was a pivot, a game changer for us in our younger years and if other people can have that same experience and we can make that same pivot for other people, then, then we were going to put some effort into that. But I think it really comes down to the responsibility to contribute and give back where and when we can. I think now where I have less time on my hands I know that I still have in the back of my head because part of the whole business plan, be it with real estate or be it with the insurance, is to make sure that successful enough that we can continue to contribute to those in the private sector, nonprofit or just community, advocates that align with our belief system. And hopefully we can contribute because they need capital to do what they do. So if we can be a source for them then, then we’ll be happy to be. 

Denzil Mohammed: As you talk about community development, I really think deeply of Lawrence, which of course, you know, had all the mills and it had that sort of boom and then it sort of busted. And it became a place where immigrants moved in because the rents were cheap. I recall your mother saying that it wasn’t until Latinos were elected to the City Council that things really began to change for minorities in terms of access to help and growing their businesses and things like that. In terms of economic development in Lawrence, where do you see Lawrence headed and what changes would you like to see, or what changes would you like to, to help bring about? 

Evan Silverio: Yeah, Lawrence is definitely evolving. And I think that you’re looking at the tail end of some great things, right. Lawrence 15, 20 years ago is a totally different Lawrence. And I think, I think we have a lot of communities asking our local leaders right now, “How did Lawrence do it?” I was just on a call the other day with, I think it was Chicopee asking and picking our brain on, “Hey, you know, we, we saw everything that you were able to do, you know, can you give us some, some pointers,” right. And, and what’s funny is the pointers really come down to that, you really just have to have enough people invested who want it bad enough to roll up their sleeves, to try to get the work done, right? Whatever changes and the better the plan than, than the better, the more the buy-in. But if you don’t have the people it’s gonna be a very difficult thing to move the city. In Lawrence, we have that. We have private, we have public, have nonprofit, all collaborating and working together. This has been the fundamental difference. There is no one person or entity who’s done it all. It’s a combined effort over a long period of time. So I think a lot of people say, oh, wow. Overnight, no, it’s, you know, 30 years in the making. So it definitely takes a village but we need more villagers to take pride and to participate. We can’t afford to wait for someone else to make these changes for us. We need to be the change.

Denzil Mohammed: And it’s safe to say that immigrants, business owners, workers, community members are part of that change. In Lawrence, I was, I remember talking to Theresa Park on this podcast and she was very proud of the work that she was able to accomplish in Lawrence, which was incidentally the place where her Korean family moved when they first came to the us. Finally, you said your, you know, your grandfather moved from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. and eventually sent for your mother. It wasn’t an easy task for either of them. And, you know, your mom walking around with dictionaries at school and I have that vivid memory in my head, but she stuck with it and here you are. Reflect on those risks that they took and compare it perhaps to the risks that you take as an entrepreneur. 

Evan Silverio: ‘Cause I, I think about it off, I think about it often the risk that they take and I think a lot of what I’ve done has been based on thinking about in retrospect, the sacrifices that were made by all of those that came before me, I think I mentioned that earlier. I think about a lot of the risks that I’ve taken as an investor, you know, the hard money lending, the, the large risks that I’ve taken. And I by far cannot compare that to the risks of my grandfather, my mother, my father, who came here. You know, when I think about it, I think it’s because I still live in my comfort zone and my choices be it co college or career, we all closely, you know, relative to where my family is and, and what I thought my options were. But just having those options, just having options in general, I think a lot of people take for granted. You don’t have to be right about your options, but you still have options, right. But their risk and their decisions revolved around something deeper the safety of their families, to put people in better positions, that’s not so much themselves, but their daughters, their sons, their, and the sons and daughters of, of sons and daughters to have more resources. You know, they, they, weren’t looking to be millionaires. They were just looking for a better life and they risked it all to do so. They came to this country with no real money, no real connections and no resources until they got here and they figured it out, right. There was this, this myth that the country that they were going to had this stuff waiting for them. And this was still a better option than just staying put, right? And, you know, I think nobody goes into something and, and takes risks and says, “This is a bad idea, but let me do it anyway.” Everybody thinks whatever risk they’re taking is because there’s some reward and something and I think in retrospect I, myself and the reward and hopefully my kid’s kids as well of all the sacrifices that they’ve made,

Denzil Mohammed: I did not mean to exclude dad. We have to mention dad as well. Lastly, I’m sure that they’re gonna be young brown boys and girls, teenagers, people in their twenties who perhaps consider starting their own business. What advice would you give to young budding entrepreneurs, or what are some of the lessons that you’ve learned that you think you would like to impart? 

Evan Silverio: There’s nothing built, nothing beats out keeping your word, you know, building trust, you know, those things that’s what everything is based off of, right. Relationships with bankers, relationships with networking people, all of that is gonna continue building the more that you can build your trust with them and complete the task that you say you’re gonna complete. If you continue doing that, I think more people will follow you, I think more people will trust you, I think more people will invest in you and you have to be willing to take that risk on yourself and say, you’re good enough and you’re trustworthy enough and, and don’t break, don’t break that for anything or anybody, not even money. And if you keep at it, you will succeed. 

Denzil Mohammed: Not even money. I love how you phrased that. Evan Silverio, President & CEO of Siverio Insurance Agency in Lawrence, Haverhill and Woburn and sole manager of Diverse Real Estate, thank you so much for joining us on the JobMakers podcast. This was a lovely and fascinating interview.

Evan Silverio: Thank you so much, Denzil, for having me and I love the podcast, and I’ll continue to keep listening.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not for profit that gives immigrants a voice. I am so happy that you joined us for this week’s powerful story of immigrant entrepreneurship passed down to the next generation. Remember you can subscribe to JobMakers on Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And please leave us a review. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 48: Abul Islam

JobMakers podcast logo: Abul Islam helps rebuild America's infrastructurePakistani American entrepreneur Abul Islam is determined to use cutting edge technology to repair the United States’ struggling infrastructure system. He also believes that a strong immigration system and a homegrown STEM talent pipeline are both vital to making that happen. Listen to learn how he built a $50 million company from the ground up!

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and welcome to JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: So we finally have an infrastructure bill signed into law last November. America’s infrastructure is not in good shape and we need solid infrastructure to grow the economy. How else do we get to work? Ship supplies? And travel from here to there? But who’s doing the rebuilding? For Abul Islam, immigrant from Pakistan and founder, president & CEO of AI Engineers, headquartered in Middletown, Connecticut, he’s one of the people helping to rebuild America. AI Engineers is a consulting firm that builds and rehabilitates bridges, transportation systems, and building systems throughout the U.S. Since 1991, AbuI has created nearly 1,000 jobs and today leads a $50 million company. Abul believes in power of education, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, to uplift urban centers and create a pipeline of skilled workers. Because while we draw that talent from international students and H-1B workers, it’s something the U.S. is sorely lacking in its own students and future workforce, as you’ll learn in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Abul Islam, founder, president, CEO of AI Engineers in Middletown, Connecticut, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Abul Islam: Thank you, Denzil. How are you doing?

Denzil Mohammed: I’m pretty good. So give us the 30-second pitch about your company, AI Engineers. What do you do?

Abul Islam: We do consulting, engineering, construction management for usually government agencies, state, municipalities. We’ve also worked for federal government. Ninety percent of our business is with the state DOTs, government agencies, clients that own transportation networks. And the business has grown from two people, me and my wife, in 30 years to 261 people, six offices, Middletown, Connecticut, as our headquarters. We have grown significantly in the last five years. We started as a minority disadvantaged business. That was a great help. And now we are looking forward to growing this business, actually doubling our revenue in the next three years.

Denzil Mohammed: So why do you consider this line of work important? And briefly, how has it evolved over the years? ‘Cause you’ve been around for, what, 30 years now?

Abul Islam: Yes. This line of work is important for our country, our society, our community, because if you don’t rebuild your infrastructure, which is about at least 50, 60 years old … bridges, highways, public buildings, water, wastewater, sewer systems … if you don’t rebuild them, you will not have growth and economic development. And we in the U.S. were the pioneers of building the first world-class highway, connecting 3000 miles east-west, 2000 miles north-south, the crisscrossing highways. But then somehow after the ’80s, we did not expand anymore, unlike China and other emerging countries who has really invested a lot more since the mid ’80s or early ’90s. And they have more modern infrastructure from high-speed trains to [inaudible] interchanges, highways connecting big cities, transportation, intermodal network and so on and so forth. So our business is absolutely critical in rehabilitating, upgrading and repairing our bridges and highways. So it’s all the more important for us to really rebuild our infrastructure now that we have finally got some money in the infrastructure bill to rebuild our infrastructure so that we can sustain our economic and social development. And that’s how critical infrastructure is and that’s our line of business.

Denzil Mohammed: Thank you for articulating that it’s so key to economic growth and that there was a time when we weren’t growing as fast as other countries. So you were born in Pakistan and a lot of Americans don’t have any idea what life is like in other countries. Can you sort of just take us back to your childhood in Pakistan and paint us a picture? What was it like growing up?

Abul Islam: It was good generally back then when I was growing up in the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. I came to the United States January 1983 and life wasn’t that bad. I enjoyed my time in Pakistan when we were growing up, going to the engineering school. I used to hang out at the U.S. Information Center, for that matter German or French, in Karachi, cultural centers and all that, and learned a lot about other countries and cultures by being in Pakistan before I even decided to come for my graduate studies in engineering.

Denzil Mohammed: So education was something that was really important in your family, right?

Abul Islam: Yeah, absolutely. As I said that my grandfather got an English education, that was almost like 110 years ago. And then he got a government job with the Indian government, which was the capital in Kolkata, which is Calcutta back then. And successively, all of the family members went to schools, 12-year schools, colleges in Karachi, New Delhi, wherever. Our family spread all over the subcontinent and they made it a point to send their kids to school. Even if they have economic difficulties or challenges, middle class people, two parents working for a government making ends meet, but they’re paying the tuition fee for sending their kids to English school or the local schools, taking a lot of attention on what they study. We were seven brothers and sisters. I was the second one.

Denzil Mohammed: You arrived in the U.S. in January of 1983.

Abul Islam: That’s right.

Denzil Mohammed: In New York City. What was the experience like when you first moved here?

Abul Islam: I was excited, although I didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t know how I would meet my expenses for the next one and a half years. I didn’t have the tuition paid. I got an interest-free loan and some grants to pay for my tuition for first, second and third semester, but I just had an allowance of $200 a month for living expenses. You couldn’t just live in New York City for $200. All that was in 1983, the minimum was there like $700 back then for a student, but I had $200. That was why, so I had to do work in the campus, outside the campus and full time student, but I didn’t complain. I worked whatever opportunities came along my way. I worked and without a lot of money I had a good time.  I tried to immerse myself in the cultural milieu of New York City, which I loved. So many people from so many countries, so many intellectual discussion, music. You used to get $2 music tickets at the Juilliard School or others, where you can be there, fraction of the price, in a concert or something. So all these things were not there in Pakistan, the cultural part, the art part, other than engineering, which also expand my vistas and horizon with regard to life, society, and community. So I can make a distinction between where I am from and how this society is different.

Denzil Mohammed: I love how you were already such a curious person and to be able to absorb all that New York City had to offer. And you’re an engineer, but you’re absorbing music and art and history and politics. Really, really fascinating. But you did not intend to be an entrepreneur. You didn’t come here with the intention of starting a business. What brought you into this space of entrepreneurship?

Abul Islam: Need basically. The engineering salary was hardly enough to sustain a family. I just got married in ’89. I had my first born in ’90. I had signed up for a mortgage in March 1990. People were advising, “Hey, there’s a minority business program.” And my big company that I used to work for, I was a licensed agent. Hey, you can start a company. I said, that’s a good idea. So I thought this over, sat on it for months, and six months and eight months. Then after a year, I took the leap of faith and started my own company. And it didn’t go anywhere in the first 18 months, you know, almost ran out of my last saving on the 18th month before I got my first contract for $50,000. That’s when it took off. And from the first $50,000 fee job we are a $50 million company today. And I work like a dog, doing night work, doing day work, and myself the production guy one day, you know, my wife doing the accounting and billing and all that stuff. Making calls to clients, small enterprise and all that. So it took a long time. And that was a great time to really understand what business is. Accountants came along the way, lawyers, and you gotta know. Went to a couple of business training schools, three day classes, two day, whatever. I took a lot of those classes, and that opened my business with regard to the world of business. ‘Cause nobody in the family had anything to do with business. Science, engineering, or maths or doctors, engineer, lawyer, those were the three professions, in fact. So nothing else, no concept of a businessman.

Denzil Mohammed: I mean, that’s what I was about to say. There’s so many programs available now for budding entrepreneurs, mentorship programs, incubators, all sorts of things. And 30 years ago, we didn’t have those things. So it’s quite remarkable that you were able to bootstrap and, without having a safety net, very importantly, you’ve imbued your company with particular values. And I know that you are well aware of how aware young people are today of corporate responsibility. Can you talk about that and why those values are important?

Abul Islam: They want to have the companies to have values, societal values, transparency in internal dealings too. That is very crucial for you building an agile organization, especially in our age where DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] is also so important. You know, it was not 20 years ago. I mean, DEI is, should be real. DEI was always there for these big corporations to Wall Street. They had somebody from our background, ethnicity, color or whatever, put in a nice place, but he or she didn’t have the real power. What the industry is asking for now, that if you have anybody, any ethnic class, gender protected and all that, if you, he, or she’s got the power, it better be real power in the organization. Just don’t put your face on that, say we are in compliance with all minority requirements. That was the product I saw, but not anymore. Many companies, including private Wall Street companies, are serious about giving opportunities to the qualified person across the board, across the DEI spectrum, diversity, equity and inclusion. So this is real, this is good. This is happening in my lifetime, after 30 years in business. It was not there.

Denzil Mohammed: And I do recognize that you’re very intentionally coming up with a new mission narrative for your organization. And this I imagine is a huge part of that.

Abul Islam: Absolutely. So I have it, a book, you can have it in our website too. It’s called AI Engineers. As you can see, it’s called Our Agile Journey and in the second page of the book it says, and this is based on my own experience working with government agencies, that most organizations are rigid machines, triangle or hierarchical silos, and all that. What we want to be is an agile organization where the we, people-centric culture … agile is people-centric, rapid decision-making, collaborative team-oriented environment. And we are rather a nucleus here and all the teams are working. This concept took me, this book is three years old and every employee has this book now. And we question them. We ask them, well, are we in compliance with this book? We must practice agility because we live in a very uncertain and unpredictable world. When you can predict what is gonna happen tomorrow, you can have a process, manual, procedures, which is all good. So much of our world was, you know, last 50 years of industrial, economic, huge development that we made everywhere, government, private and all that, was predictable, that we can predict this, we can predict the outcomes. Therefore, a structured organization tends itself to make sense. When our world is totally changing and become more unpredictable, more destructive, all of the factors, including new technology, you simply can’t use that rigid structure, especially in an organization where people work with their intellect, engineering talent, experience and all that. So the agile practice is a logical conclusion for the successful engineering firm of the future.

Denzil Mohammed: I love that you’re holding yourself accountable.

Abul Islam: Yes, absolutely.

Denzil Mohammed: I wanna get into one particular area that’s really of interest to me and I’m sure to you too. So I’ve counted at least 23 job openings on your company’s web site. We know that there’s a shortage of American students in STEM and for international students, foreign students who come to the U.S. tend to dominate the STEM areas. So we often have to rely on that foreign talent. And, of course, you know that foreign talent brings diversity, which in and of itself has its own richness. But what have you been doing or seeing when it comes to addressing this issue of education broadly, but also students in STEM?

Abul Islam: It’s the need for businesses, just not our business, it’s across the board, any sizes, that there is a huge crisis of skilled workforce. When we found what was useful was the H-1B process. So historically we had used the H-1B process very successfully, going to the campuses with the master’s program, or even a bachelor’s program. They get a year or two for working legally after from their graduate school, have an engineering four year or five, six year degree in masters. And then they can work for us for another three to six, sometimes nine years on the H-1B. That’s a great move for companies like us because we have a hard time attracting and recruiting the best and the brightest. We definitely need this foreign talent to come to the United States, immigrants, especially with the four-year engineering or technical degree program. And they become eligible to work for us for three years with a certain minimum cap of salary that the federal … actually we pay more than that. Right now the market is whatever the … even the minimum salary of an entry level engineer [Inaudible]. The U.S. government says, pay 58. We pay at least 10, 15 percent over that just because of the market dynamics. Otherwise we’ll not have the talent. That is such a good program because not too many people in the 1980s, since the ’80s, have gone to engineering school, ’80s, ’90s. They have gone to finance schools and this and that. So we don’t have the number of engineers, four year degree engineers, in many disciplines like we had in the 1980s or ’70s.We were self-sufficient, no longer self-sufficient. So we need a lot of engineers. And H-1B program is a good program for any business, I think, especially as it has proven we have a history of successfully using the H-1B program who have eventually become, gotten green card has many of them, and became part of the American experience for them as well. They’ve gotten better jobs and families situated better. They own property in five … many of the people that I hired, on the fifth year they bought a house, on the 10th year they had the American life, you know, two, three cars, their kids are going to better schools and they’re paying taxes. So, it’s the win-win situation for all.

Denzil Mohammed: Attracting foreign talent does nothing but good for our country. But I know you said that education was really important in your family growing up. And I know it’s important to you now, and you do some work with school districts and community colleges. Can you describe some of the things that you’ve been doing and what kind of impact they’ve had?

Abul Islam: Connecticut Business and Industrial Association has done a lot of work in alliance with all sizes of businesses, small, large, medium size, to go into our urban schools and kind of guide them, inspire them, help them. So I’ve been a founding member of the Academy of Engineering in Hartford high schools, in 2009. And we had firsthand experience with the teachers and the kids, but the majority of the kids need some kind of remedial program, support, guidance, inspiration because of the socioeconomic condition in many of the urban areas. So that inspired me a lot to, under the National Academy Foundation, Stamford, I started the program. And all of us businesses, from Pratt and Whitney, from AI Engineers, from Eversource, they sat on the board of directors and really went into selected high schools, you know, at the 10th, 11th, at 12th grade, and saying, how could we help? How could we help to align them with the employers, whether they’re manufacturing employers, engineering employers, any employers, and how could the community colleges also help? ‘Cause many of them has socioeconomic issues, also a single parent, not enough guidance within the neighborhood or the family, figures that they can look up to except for the school. So if you inspire them, [inaudible] they go into a group of 30, 40 kids graduating and talk about what we do as engineers or the guy from Pratt & Whitney, or the lady from another company saying that we are doing these interesting things, or would you like to be an engineer? And if you like to be an engineer or a scientist, you have to do this, this, that you have all these. They built all these computer models. Some of them went to Nepal. We funded that. We provided scholarships in the company too. And many of these … actually AI has since 2009 have two candidates that we tracked from that high school that we recruited them. We would just have them three-week internship while they were in the ninth grade, 10th grade, 11th grade. And then they came, went to community college and then we followed them, their progress. And then they went to the four year school and now two of them are working for seven years, and one of the senior engineers of AI, we got them from the academy program. So if the businesses do it in alliance with three nodes of a triangle: community college, high school and business. So if you draw a triangle, and if it works seamlessly information exchanges. I think this will be it, universally, a universal approach, that the role of the community college is very important for the entire industry, the engineering and all that. And the community colleges that are in close proximity or in the urban areas where the school systems are generally not as great as they are in the suburbs. Why don’t the businesses go and kind of give their time and attention because it indirectly helps them with regard to the workforce of the future.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s terrific. And this is private sector in action, right, and paying dividends. So you get the talent that you foster and you nurture. So finally America has given you a home and a successful business and what I would argue is a beautiful legacy. What are your thoughts about the United States as a home for entrepreneurial immigrants like yourself?

Abul Islam: It is the country that has given the maximum opportunity to immigrants historically. I think it’s a great place to start a business, especially for an immigrant, you know, follow the rules and procedures in the books, pay taxes, talk to people, come up with a new product and services, whatever you do, it is a place. There are other countries European countries, Australia, Canada, but nothing has the culture and the historical legacy as America has. If you have the desire to succeed, you have to be ready for it. And this is the country that’ll make it happen for you. So I have, I’m very happy about United States and being a citizen of this country.

Denzil Mohammed: Incredible. Abul Islam, founder, and president and CEO of AI Engineers, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast. This was a really interesting conversation.

Abul Islam: Thank you, Denzil. Thank you for your time.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contributions produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for today’s powerful story of immigrant entrepreneurship. Remember, you can subscribe to JobMakers on Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And please give us some stars. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 47: Roger Magalhaes

JobMakers podcast logo: Roger Magalhaes goes from truck driver to industry leaderBrazilian American entrepreneur Roger Magalhaes was working as a truck driver when he founded his window treatment company. Now he’s so successful that’s he’s founded a consultancy firm that trains his competitors. Tune in to learn how personal experience led him to the controversial opinion that immigrants must Americanize to succeed. You can also watch a video sharing more of his story here.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: If you move to, say, France; do you think you’ll be perceived as French? When you move to the United States, you become an American, part of that country that, for hundreds of years, has attracted people from a staggering array of nations, creating something diverse, entrepreneurial, cost-changing and beautiful. And what’s the main reason that people come here? Opportunity. For Roger Magalhaes, immigrant from Brazil and founder of Shades In Place, a window treatment installation firm and a trading and consulting firm in Franklin, Massachusetts, he didn’t even know just how much opportunity there was in the United States to advance and progress. So when the opportunity to start installing shades as a business occurred, he seized on it. Today, he is one of the most influential leaders in his field, which doesn’t even have a school where you can learn the trade! This business he built from the ground up and never missed an opportunity to learn and improve. Today, he’s teaching his competitors. By the way, Roger Magalhaes is also the 2022 Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Awardee for Business Growth, an annual honor bestowed by The Immigrant Learning Center, co-producer of this podcast. Check him out on YouTube. Roger now is an American citizen. He believes immigrants must, quote, “Americanize” in order to fulfill their potential and have the biggest impact. A debatable view for sure, but one rooted in his own experience and success. As you’ll hear more about in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Roger Magalhaes, founder of Shades In Place, Trading Up Consulting. Welcome to the JobMakers podcast! How are you?

Roger Magalhaes: Doing good, man! Thanks so much for having me on. I appreciate it.

Denzil Mohammed: Tell us what’s your business.

Roger Magalhaes: My 30-second elevator pitch is that I’m a shady business, basically. So I started out just installing window treatments for retailers and eventually I started selling them as well. 15 years later, I developed my techniques and know-how and now I also teach how to install the best way and how to form new installments because we don’t have it in the industry.

Denzil Mohammed: So you basically almost created a virtual textbook for how to do this shades installation, right?

Roger Magalhaes: Basically, yes. And my friends say now I teach my competition how to be me.

Denzil Mohammed: Oh, that’s hilarious. So, I know you stumbled into this kind of business. Why do you find this interesting or something that you really want to develop?

Roger Magalhaes: What happened was, I bought my house and I rehabbed over the weekends after my job and I really liked the hands-on and construction and breaking things apart and putting them back together. And I thought, “Wow, I’d really like to develop more into this but there’s no job that’s going to go in and out on the same days.” So if I start a company to replace flooring or paint walls or whatever activity you need to do in a house, it’s not going to be done in one day. So, I didn’t want to leave my job as a truck driver to start something. I would’ve come to Mrs. Jones and said, “Mrs. Jones, I started the job today but you’ve gotta be without flooring until Thursday, which is my next day off, so I can come and finish.” It didn’t make sense to do anything like that, something that gets me in and out of a house and I can’t have it done in a day so I’ll have to come back because I didn’t finish on the same day. I can fill my days off between driving trucks and that’s where I started out. But you don’t know what you don’t know, right?

Denzil Mohammed: Right. And now you’re doing even better.

Roger Magalhaes: Yeah.

Denzil Mohammed: Your story with entrepreneurship began all the way back in Brazil, when you were born, right?

Roger Magalhaes: Pretty much, yeah. As I said, I’m a workaholic. Since early days, I like to keep doing things, I don’t like just to be sitting around. And then, let’s call it my first business, at age six. I had two twin cousins that I really loved and they were probably four, five years older than me. They were my role models when I was a little kid. And they liked to fix bicycles. They were always doing something. At one point, they shined shoeboxes. They were going around on the streets and doing it. And I said, “Can you have one of your friends build me a shoe-shine box so I can go around and ask the neighbors here?” And he said, “Yeah, sure. Six years old, what the heck is he going to do with that?” So one of his friends built the shine-shoe box and gave it to me and I would go around to the neighbors and ask them. But obviously, it was different because the husbands were not home. It was just the wives. They would give me just the shoes and say, “Here.” I really like when you knock on a shoebox and it switches legs so you could do it. But I couldn’t do it that way because there was nobody wearing the shoes at that time! But in the end, I made some money and I liked it. It was really my first entrepreneur thing.

Denzil Mohammed: When you moved to the U.S., it was around 2000, right?

Roger Magalhaes: Correct.

Denzil Mohammed: And did you have the intention of thinking that you were going to be able to start a business in the U.S. at the time?

Roger Magalhaes: No. My plan was more or less learning English, that was one of the main reasons. And because we had a strong economy, I said, “Maybe I’ll work a few years here, save up some money and then I’ll go back to Brazil eventually and open a business there.” Because I always wanted to have a business somehow. I’d capitalize and go back and open some sort of business. And then the pandemic came and this might be the opportunity to close it. Because my mind was like, “Who the heck is going to buy shades in the middle of a pandemic?” Shades should be at the bottom of the list in priority. And it ended up being exactly the opposite because everybody was home, nobody was sick. Everybody was just trapped inside the house. We need to spend the energy we have here. We’re not traveling. People were working from home so income was coming and everybody started remodeling homes and changing rooms into offices and the next thing you know, we’re busy as we’ve ever been. At the same time, I was teaching already, conventions and seminars and that got really intensified because nobody went to the real conventions, because everybody was home, “Let’s do a live! Let’s do a seminar! Let’s do a webinar!” And then I start getting way more requests to share knowledge and, “Why do you think this is happening?”, “What can we do for …” And becoming more influential in the industry. And then, in September of 2020, driving to a job in the Berkshires, I was thinking, “I really built this from blood, sweat and tears. I don’t want to just give it up.” And one training app came on and I said, “Wow! I could actually just transition from hands-on work and more physical, into training new people and passing on the knowledge and keeping my connections.’ It was really how the whole thing started with training app. And at the same time, because we were so busy with Shades In Place I said, “I cannot just close it.” I originally thought, “I guess I’m just going to train them and bring people in so I can be the lead on both companies. I can have people working for me, at the same time I can test chronology to all the people as well.” And that’s really where we are right now.

Denzil Mohammed: And so your showroom became like a workroom.

Roger Magalhaes: Yeah. We don’t have a showroom anymore, we’re going to turn the showroom into a school facility so I can develop different types of windows, different applications so I can shoot classes and shoot videos and explain how things should be done and what is the difficulty you’re going to see with each window, what kind of products you can use for certain applications and that became the scoop.

Denzil Mohammed: And so your reputation goes well beyond Massachusetts and you’re requested in several states across the country all the way down to Florida. Take us back to when you first moved here. And coming from Brazil, the economy has started to do better but it must’ve been a real change for you.

Roger Magalhaes: Well, definitely. First, the weather. The language barrier, being away from family. I only have one cousin here but still, it’s not the whole family. Culture, the way people do things and even England is a little more conservative that the rest of the country for the most part. So, all of those things I had to adjust. And obviously, it takes time and it was a big learning curve.

Denzil Mohammed: And you mentioned earlier that you’re training your competition, which I find so interesting. You have found very creative ways to give back and to promote the success of other entrepreneurs. Can you describe some of those initiatives that you have and what impact you had?

Roger Magalhaes: Right. I know a lot of people who won’t share anything because they are so afraid that if they share what they know, they’re going to be displaced, somebody else’s going to take over. And I truly believe it is totally the opposite. The more you share, the more people rely on you because they really see you as a trusted resource. So I’m not the least afraid of losing work to the competition. As a matter of fact, I think it is great because the competition can see how you do. You can improve the whole experience for everyone overall. So in 2014, I started a Facebook group called “Free Speech Window Covering Pros” for that reason. Just to share knowledge, because that’s pretty much how I learned the business. There’s no school for what we do. So you just learn by shadowing someone, by going to training, by going to seminars, making a friend so you can body up and ask questions. And that was really how I learned. It became a really great resource and we have over 1000 members now and it pays off so hugely. And it’s unbelievable.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow, that is incredible. One question for you, as you’re from Brazil, we’ve done research on Brazilians and their self-employment rates and Brazilians have the highest rates of self-employment of entrepreneurship in the greater Boston area. I mean, that’s both incorporated and unincorporated businesses. Why do you think that is?

Roger Magalhaes: What I really think it is, first we’re very creative. We are creative because we didn’t have the resources; because everything is so scarce, we just need to be creative to survive. That’s really survival mode. I’m taking back in Brazil. And Then when we get here and we see the opportunities here and we see that it’s so above here that pretty much, there’s market for everything. And these people start saying, “Well, you know what? I already have a second chance just to be here, let me use my knowledge or my instance and move forward.” And I think that’s what it is! We just see the opportunities that we didn’t see back home. And we just run with them.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s funny that you mention that because someone that you and I know, Jitka Borowick, who has a business called Cleangreen on the Cape, it was the same thing for her, especially coming from a communist country, the Czech Republic. And just seeing how much opportunity was here as did you, you were at those opportunities and it was the same thing with her and you all’ve expanded. Even during the pandemic, she opened a new business, Nové Yoga. You opened your consulting business. You went online, you were all over Zoom, you were training. I’ve seen videos all over the place, instructions and things like that. That’s the message we want to get out on this podcast, really.

Roger Magalhaes: I appreciate it.

Denzil Mohammed: And you come here and grab opportunities and create jobs!

Roger Magalhaes: I’m not special, I don’t have privileges or anything, it’s just hard work. But one thing that I really think is extremely important. Don’t try to run your life here the way you run your life in your country. So you come here, you need to learn the language, you need to get used to the customs, to the culture, the way people live here because you can live here for 50 years but you’re still an immigrant; you’re still a farmer. Even 50 years later, even as an American citizen, for the lack of a better word. A lot of people don’t see that. They want to do their way and that’s what I think people miss the opportunity to grow even bigger because I can tell from everything that I’ve done and all the success I have achieved, the first thing that comes to a lot of a lot of the comments from people say, ‘Roger, we really appreciate that you respect our culture, you respect the way things are, you’ve learned the language; you really do things the way they’re supposed to be done. And that’s why you’re successful. Because you’ve got the respect from your home community, you’ve got respect from the Americans because they saw you respect the country.’

Denzil Mohammed: I feel as if there’s a subtle dig at other immigrants in what you’re saying that perhaps some don’t acclimatize and therefore that holds them back.

Roger Magalhaes: I don’t know exactly what it is or even between Brazilians; some Brazilians are very successful between the community. But they don’t expand wider because they feel like they want to stay within their own community. And I think this is wrong. You really need to cater to everyone and open to more cultures and all of that but you need to be, for lack of a better word, Americanized. Your culture comes second. The American culture’s always going to come first. You are in that game. You are in that playing view. You put your Brazilian zest in it or whatever culture you have and it should not be the primary culture. And that’s what some people miss the point.

Denzil Mohammed: You do the running mare here, not the soundbar, right?

Roger Magalhaes: Exactly! We can play a couple suppers between the whole night but it shouldn’t be the silver night.

Denzil Mohammed: And so finally, you’ve been given tremendous opportunity and you’ve run with it. You’ve been successful and led other people to be successful. How do you feel about the country that took you in and allowed you to thrive in this way, the United States?

Roger Magalhaes: It is very ironic because when I was in Brazil, I never planned to be in the U.S. and then eventually I came and I saw the opportunities and I saw that pretty much whatever you do here, there’s a market for it and people respect you. They may not agree with you but they still respect your point of view and the opportunities are just here. Regardless of what you want to do, there’s always a market for it. And I respect that. There is a reason why the U.S. is the biggest market on the planet. Because the opportunities are just incredible. I cannot be more ten-for-nil. As a matter of fact, I’m an American citizen, so that may say that I really enjoy and appreciate this country.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s really nicely said. Roger Magalhaes, founder of Shades In Place and Trading Up Consulting, thank you for joining us on JobMakers and sharing your story.

Roger Magalhaes: I really appreciate the opportunity.

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Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us on this week’s story about immigrant entrepreneurship and remember, you can subscribe to JobMakers on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcast. And please, give us some stars. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 46: Avak Kahvejian

JobMakers podcast logo: Avak Kahvejian on how immigrants drive innovationCanadian American Avak Kahvejian has founded a dozen life science companies and counting through his work as a partner at Flagship Pioneering. In addition to incubating bioscience companies, Kahvejian is very active in supporting Armenian and immigrant communities. Tune in to learn how he sees immigrants as a vital component of the United States’ status as a powerhouse. You can also watch a video sharing more of his story here.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers. The kinds of people who choose to migrate are typically a special kind of people, risk taking, ambitious, determined. For those who are forced to migrate, these qualities are really forced upon them as they have no choice but take the risk to make something of themselves. What results you can find in countries like the United States, Canada and Germany, places where people migrate to, robust economies, hubs of innovation, inherently entrepreneurial. For Dr. Avak Kahvejian, an inventor, entrepreneur and CEO, as well as general partner at Flagship Pioneering, a life sciences venture capital company, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he’s seen both types of migration and both kinds of risk taking success. For generations his Armenian family was forced to move from what was then Armenia, now Eastern Turkey to Syria to flee genocide, then to Lebanon, then to Montreal, Canada, by the U.K. fleeing civil war. And finally, by choice to Boston, that risk taking persistence and ambition drove him to a place where people from all over the world could come to innovate, ideate and create, the United States. This country has always attracted this kind of person, making it into the powerhouse it is today. And so Avak cautions, if that well were to run dry, the result would be disastrous for all of us, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers. Avak Kahvejian, general partner at Flagship Pioneering, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Avak Kahvejian: Good, thank you for having me. 

Denzil Mohammed: So tell me a little bit about the work that you do. 

Avak Kahvejian: Well, I work at Flagship Pioneering, which is a very unique firm. It’s a company creation firm, it’s an innovation firm, and we focus primarily on the life sciences in terms of making new biotechnology companies that are going to develop new therapies or new solutions for sustainability. Whether that’s in the nutrition space or the agricultural space. I lead a team here at Flagship that is mandated to ideate and invent new platform technologies. And those platform technologies become the basis for a new company and they develop products over time. And I’ve been doing this now for 10 years. 

Denzil Mohammed: So give us a sense of some of the companies that you’ve helped to ideate and bring to market.

Avak KahvejianSo they are quite diverse. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure and honor of working on some really cool companies, some that your audience may know and some of course, that they will, they’ve never heard of. One of the first projects that I got involved with was Moderna. And as now you all know they ended up creating one of the best and only vaccines for the coronavirus. So that’s one example of a platform technology, meaning a technology that can be used for many, many different things, having the ability in one company to design it, to make it, to apply it and then to think about different ways of using it is really the model. It’s the archetype of what we do. And these are more or less chronological. Rubius a company that had the idea to make red blood cells in a lab, so kind of like in a factory and to make them therapeutic, to make them medicinal. And so how can you grow artificial quote, unquote, blood in a vat but also endow the blood with the therapeutic properties. And you can imagine there’s a range of things you can do with that and they have trials now for combating cancer and those trials are really underway as we speak. And a variety of other companies of that ilk, new gene therapies, new nucleic acid therapies like Moderna and new discovery platforms that are going to generate the next wave of medicinal products. 

Denzil Mohammed: That is absolutely remarkable and might I add that the teams that you’re talking about that form these companies are extremely diverse and you’re an immigrant from Canada and they’re immigrants all around in this space. You’ve also been active in the nonprofit space, the Canadian Entrepreneurs of New England, the St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School. And much of this clearly is connected to your family’s history of migration. Can you walk us through your family’s journey, starting with your great grandparents? 

Avak Kahvejian: Yeah, so I don’t have all the dates on hand but during the genocide that the Turks perpetrated against the Armenians in 1915, my family was very well established in the Western Armenia or what is known as Eastern Turkey in a town called Urfa, now I think it’s called Sanliurfa. And they were a prominent family there, owned a lot of property and farmland and during the genocide they had to escape. During the genocide, the mandate was for the Turkish army to either kill or forced migrate Armenians out of those territories. But what happened was it caused a dispersion of Armenians across the world. My family didn’t go very far, they went to Syria and established themselves there. And then from Syria migrated to Beirut, Lebanon. And Beirut as you may know, was a microcosm of many, many different cultures and religions, some very extreme differences in terms of Christianity and Islam, all coexisting together. And my parents were born in Beirut and I was born in Beirut. I had the unfortunate luck, I guess, of being born at the beginning of the civil war there where things started to really fall apart. And that was in 1975, practically carrying me out in a handbasket, we moved to London, England and then as a stopover and then eventually to Montreal, Canada to establish ourselves there. 

Denzil Mohammed: And then you ended up here, luckily not by force, but by choice for the first time in your family’s history. I mean, that’s absolutely remarkable. And these are the stories that, you know, people on the street, American, regular Americans just don’t know that fall behind you as an entrepreneur, you as an immigrant. So I saw a video of you on YouTube, where you said an immigrant and an entrepreneur are very much the same. Can you explain that to our American audience? 

Avak Kahvejian: Well, yeah, I think there are elements of starting a company, having an idea, building that company that are very much akin to moving to a new land and trying to essentially find oneself and establish oneself in that new land. And so as I think those are the, those experiences both have similarities in what they do to your mind and what they do to your emotions. Just think of yourself as you travel even as a tourist to another country and the heightened sense of awareness you have from the moment you step off the plane is very different from that the sense of heightened awareness you have when you’re walking down the street in your own neighborhood. And that’s very much kind of the beginning of the entrepreneurial journey. You’re putting yourself in a situation where you need to figure things out. You need to understand who’s who, what’s what, and you need to figure out what your next steps are to move forward. That’s very, very similar to what an immigrant experiences when they come to a new land. Now, let alone doing it when you are under duress, let alone doing it when you are doing it by force, as you said, and not necessarily by choice, the heightened sense of the heightened sense of awareness and the heightened sense of urgency, you have to survive and thrive. Assimilation involves not simply melting into the broader whole, which is how we often look at it like, “Oh, you have to assimilate into this new society.” Well, it’s not exactly the right definition for the word. If I look up the definition, it says, number one, under assimilation is take in information, ideas or culture and understand it fully. So that’s actually the subject is you taking in the information and understanding it fully. So I think an entrepreneur does exactly that when they first set out to do stuff is figure out the situation that their company is trying to disrupt, the environment that their company’s going to operate in. They need to be consummate learners, assimilators of information and integrators of information, not simply melt into the status quo, but they need to take it in and understand it so that then they can act on it. And I think that’s exactly what an immigrant has to do. They don’t necessarily simply have to lose their identity and melt into it, but they need to take in, they need to take in the information and the culture around them and understand it fully.

Denzil Mohammed: And there’s no safety net. 

Avak Kahvejian: Right. 

Denzil Mohammed: It’s a risk. And you just have no choice but to just forge ahead with it whether you succeed or fail. That’s a very, very interesting way of putting that comparison. So 17 years ago, you were that immigrant moving to the Boston area from Montreal, fresh out of your PhD program at McGilI. Did you feel welcomed in the biotech ecosystem here? And, you know, obviously coming from a country like Canada, which is extremely diverse and depends on immigration, what did you think of the diversity here? Did it, did it help the ecosystem?

Avak KahvejianThe biotech ecosystem here is actually one of the most diverse industries probably that I’ve ever seen and it’s become not only an epicenter in the United States, it’s an epicenter for the world and maybe the epicenter for the world. So you have, if you see it like a country, it’s a country in and of itself that is attracting a lot of immigrants. The biotech community here is, and also has embassies almost, I would call them, where companies, where countries have actually sent emissaries here to learn about the ecosystem and have a permanent presence here.

Denzil Mohammed: The second part of that question, is that diversity important and does that help the ecosystem?

Avak Kahvejian: Definitely. most definitely. Now, obviously there’s some uniformity to it in that we’re kind of a worldwide community or worldwide tribe of scientists. So many of the people coming here come with, again, advanced degrees in the biosciences and have been trained by top academic institutions throughout the world. But at the same time, everyone’s coming with a diverse training, with diverse background and bringing new perspectives to tackling the big challenges that we’re trying to tackle. These are not easy problems to solve, these are not simply building something in a very predetermined way, in a very predictable way. There is a lot of uncertainty to what we do. In every single endeavor in biotech, virtually every single one, there’s a lot of serendipity involved, a lot of problem solving required, a lot of creativity and ingenuity required perpetually and without diverse opinions, diverse backgrounds, interdisciplinary problem solving, we wouldn’t achieve half of what we we achieve. So definitely we need the world applied to these problems, not just a small group of people or a small group of uniform people to tackle them.

Denzil Mohammed: And the proof is literally all around you in Cambridge. Moderna, Pfizer companies that are founded by people from all over the place, including the United States and we have these vaccines, we have these therapeutics, we have, we are advancing our technologies. The data show clearly that immigrants are more likely to study and work in STEM fields. This is just how it is and therefore, you know, there’s a great value of H-1B foreign trained workers in the U.S. who are in STEM industries. If you were to give us a suggestion, like, what do you think should be done in the U.S. to address the shortage of American STEM workers?

Avak Kahvejian: We definitely need to make it easier for scientists to come here and to work here because it can only enrich the intellectual diversity. It can only accelerate the advancement of knowledge and innovation that we are really striving for. And as we saw with the pandemic, innovation, invention and advanced technologies are what’s going to help humanity overcome major challenges and we can’t sit still. So we’ve experienced the difficulty in bringing scientists from other countries, even though they have advanced degrees, even though they’ve even demonstrated an ability and a willingness to come here and contribute. And those barriers have to be, those barriers have to come down for sure. 

Denzil Mohammed: In a recent episode of this podcast, I was talking to a son of Dominican immigrants who started a cybersecurity firm and he said there are 600,000 job openings in this field going forward. I mean, that’s just staggering. So I’m bringing it back to something that we mentioned earlier, which is your nonprofit involvement. You’ve stood on the boards of several, including the Armenian school in Watertown, now you’re chairman of the board of the International Institute of New England. For those of you who don’t know, the International Institute resettles refugees and creates opportunities for immigrants and refugees to succeed through career advancement, pathways to citizenship, etc. Why is this work important to you?

Avak Kahvejian: Well, as an immigrant and an immigrant who’s had it easy, I think, I’ve always wanted to figure out a way to give back to immigrants and as we call them new Americans. How do we help new Americans make a life for themself here, especially some of those who have not been as fortunate as I have been to land here willingly and to land here with an existing safety net or an existing lending pad. And so that’s been really my motivation for doing that. Now, again, I play a really small part at the IINE as chairman of the board, we have really an amazing team of people there who do everything from the minute someone lands here, a refugee lands here in the United States to finding them housing, helping them get a job, helping them learn the language and to situate themselves, filling their pantries so they have food and clothing. That work is a Herculean task and only, is only the beginning of the journey. And so far it’s been quite heartwarming and amazing to see the outpouring of support we’ve gotten from, from individual donors, from corporate sponsors and in particular, some of the pillars of industry here in Boston namely the biotech community, the tech community and the financial services. I think especially the biotech community, they appreciate how diversity matters, how it impacts society and how it impacts their business and they’ve been very generous in long term support for what we do.

Denzil Mohammed: And might I just add refugees come from not the places that the biggest immigrants sending countries come from and they’re all over the place, Burma, sorry, Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo, Sudan, all these, even Ukraine. And so it’s a much more difficult task when you have to cater to such culturally, linguistically, socially different populations. So you talked about new Americans and the idea of the International Institute, of course, is to welcome and sustain these families. Reflecting on your own story and the work that you’ve been doing, explain to the audience why the idea of welcoming or being a welcoming or inclusive country is important.

Avak Kahvejian: Well if you reflect back on the history of the United States and the history of Canada for that matter, I think what makes North America so special and I think what has one of the things that has contributed to the tremendous amount of success and growth and peace and prosperity that we’ve benefited from here is that notion of welcoming and including and recruiting people from throughout the world to making, to creating these societies, building these economies. And I see it firsthand, I felt it firsthand, I see it firsthand not only in my own experience but in my everyday work as an entrepreneur and I see it from a historical perspective. The waves of immigrants and the injection of new ideas, new cultures, new products these things have come from a lot of it have come from the outside and have, have been given the fertile ground here to flourish. And so I think it’s that amazing alchemy and combination that makes these countries so special. And we don’t want to lose that. I think there is something that we shouldn’t take for granted and that if we do turn off the spigot or constrain it significantly, I think we might not feel it in the near term. People might complain that they don’t have enough workers for particular jobs, etc., but I think in the long term it’ll be even more dramatic, more drastic, the impacts will be multi-generational. And we have to be mindful of that. So I think we should celebrate what we’ve accomplished here over the centuries and over the last few decades, but there’s obviously more work to do and more opportunity and I’m really glad to be part of it.

Denzil Mohammed: And again, the proof is all around us. Look at our economy, we’re the biggest economy in the world because we have this constant injection of entrepreneurship and persistence and ideation. And that goes hand in hand with welcoming people. Avak Kahvejian, general partner at Flagship Pioneering and immigrant from Canada, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers.

Avak Kahvejian: Thank you. It was a pleasure and an honor

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for this week’s incredible story of immigrant entrepreneurship. Remember, you can subscribe to JobMakers and Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And please leave us a review. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 45: Celina Miranda

JobMakers podcast logo: Dr. Celina Miranda on immigrant entrepreneurs and community upliftCelina Miranda is the executive director of the Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain’s Latin Quarter, so she has seen firsthand how immigrant entrepreneurs contribute to sustaining their neighborhoods and people economically, philanthropically, and socially. Her career spent connecting underserved communities with resources has given her insight into how to support and empower diverse, foreign-born business owners. Listen to learn how she believes the success of immigrant entrepreneurs in the Latin Quarter could be replicated across the United States.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and this is JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: How did Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, go from being one of the most crime-ridden and dangerous to one of the safest and most desired? Because immigrant entrepreneurs and others in the community said enough and did something about it. And this started with the youth. It is one of the many ways immigrant business owners give back to their new homeland. They create jobs, mentor, sponsor and lead. For Dr. Celina Miranda, executive director of the Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain’s Latin Quarter (today one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Massachusetts), she knows keeping the kids at school educated and firm in their cultural identity and welcoming to others is crucial to maintaining the area’s renewed stature. And she knows how much of their immigrant business owners from countries as diverse as Ethiopia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala are working to make this happen. This week, we look at how immigrant entrepreneurs contribute in another way, sustaining their neighborhoods and people economically, philanthropically, socially and frankly, humanly. Dr. Miranda hopes the example of Jamaica Plain’s Latin Quarter and the role of its business owners will be replicated in communities across the U.S. to help overcome a heightened divisiveness. As you’ll learn now on JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Dr. Celina Miranda, executive director of the Hyde Square Task Force in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. Welcome to JobMakers. How are you?

Dr. Celina Miranda: Good, how are you? Thank you for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m doing very well. So you are the director of the Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain, which seeks to build up the community, essentially; from the youth all the way up. And one of your biggest accomplishments in recent history has been to designate the area, the Latin Quarter of Boston. Give us the story of the Latin Quarter.

Dr. Celina Miranda: Sure. So we became known as the Latin Quarter back in 2016 when Boston City council actually voted unanimously to identify this particular segment or area in the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain as Boston’s Latin Quarter. But the impetus really began by our young people wanting to have an area that they’ve come to love over many, many years, be recognized for the Latinx contributions that have been made over decades. And so that’s where it started. And then in 2018, we became recognized as a Massachusetts Cultural District. So we are one of 40 plus cultural districts in the state and recognized as the Latin Quarter. And it really does allow us to uplift the contributions that the Latinx immigrant community has been making to this particular neighborhood and really Boston overall since about the 1960s.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow, since the 1960s. So delve into that a little bit with me, what has been the impact of immigrants in your Quarter of Jamaica Plain?

Dr. Celina Miranda: Sure. So since the 1960s, there have been waves of folks that have arrived here originally from Cuba, the Puerto Rico and, most recently, the Dominican Republic; but we’ve also had groups and pockets of Central American and South American immigrants that have made this particular corner of Boston their home. Over the years, that has changed and definitely, right now we have, predominantly, a Dominican population that lives in this area. And I think over time, over the decades, that Latinx immigrants have been coming here, this has developed into a hub of Latinx culture. And what I mean by that, you can find businesses here that are Latinx owned or run and you can smell the smells of the Dominican Republic. You’ll have them here. Pastries from the Dominican Republic are here. The music, et cetera. So really, it’s a hub for Latin culture and an opportunity to affirm and continue to uplift the contributions that Latinx immigrants have made over many, many, many years.

Denzil Mohammed: I have such good memories of having oxtail at El Oriental de Cuba and empanadas at this place across from the Doggie Daycare Tales. So these immigrant businesses, what impact have they had over the past decades? You mentioned the first wave from Cuba, then Puerto Rico. And just to be clear, Puerto Ricans aren’t immigrants, they’re American citizens.

Dr. Celina Miranda: Yeah.

Denzil Mohammed: And Dominicans, they’ve really shaped the identity of the neighborhood. Talk a little bit about the immigrant businesses in the Latin Quarter.

Dr. Celina Miranda: Yeah. So definitely, like I said, they really have shaped the identity of the neighborhood and have created what we now call the Latin Quarter. I think without their contribution, we wouldn’t have the vitality of the neighborhood that we do. And really, if I can take you back to the 1990s, this corner of Jamaica Plain was actually known as the cocaine capital of New England. So there was a lot of drugs, drug trafficking here and violence in the neighborhood. And really it’s the contributions, I think, of businesses and residents that came together, that began to transform the neighborhood into what it is today. And so, Latinx’s own businesses or run businesses have been here for a very long time. And some of them, very large ones, including El Mundo which was here. They were head-quartered here until very recently. And we also had a Hi Lo grocery store that was here for many, many, many, many years where folks would trek from all over Boston to come here and do their grocery shopping. So they have been a presence here in the neighborhood for such a long time and added to the bustling feel of the neighborhood and the footprint that we have and contributed to it being the district that it is today.

Denzil Mohammed: I think of the entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants. Immigrants are twice as likely to start a business. For many of them, they may not have a choice but to get into their own business because their credentials don’t transfer. And the legacy of entrepreneurship in Jamaica Plain and particularly the Latin Quarter is really fascinating to me. Several years ago, at our Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards, we honored Damaris Pimentel who runs Ultra Beauty Salon in Jamaica Plain store from where I live on South Huntington Ave. And her story of entrepreneurship began with her father, who moved here from the Dominican Republic, and started the ment market, which still exists today. And now she has her own gleaming, beautiful, bright business and is fostering entrepreneurship in the young people who work with her. Talk a little bit about the economic impact up until today, because we’ve really seen how the businesses have flourished over time and become more elegant and more diverse. Doggy Daycare, for instance. What’s been the economic impact over the years?

Dr. Celina Miranda: Yeah. As of 2019, I believe approximately half of the 104 businesses along Center Street in the Latin Quarter are Latinx owned and/or managed. So, definitely, I think they have been a critical component of the financial vitality of this corner of Boston but even in beyond. Because we have, for instance, a barbershop owner just down a couple of buildings from where we are. And this is where his business is. This is where he does his work and mind you, he doesn’t live here and we can talk about why he can’t afford to have a house here. But that might be another podcast. But really the reality is that they continue to contribute to the energy and to the financial stability of this particular area. And like you said, I think we have seen transformation. We have seen changes over the years that a different, much more racially and ethnically diverse population are visiting those businesses. So the Doggy Daycare, it’s not just for your Dominican dog owner, it’s for anyone who has a dog and needs somebody to take care of their dog during the day. So definitely, that is the case. So they’ve been crucial, I think, not only for the wellbeing of those particular families, but also for others who are able to work at these businesses, et cetera.

Denzil Mohammed: They’re creating local jobs!

Dr. Celina Miranda: Correct.

Denzil Mohammed: At all levels for all people. And I think, I go back to Tales, the Doggie Daycare that we’re talking about, and I know that the owner, Jesse Fise, also from Dominican Republic, she hires people who come out of prison in order for them to start a stable life again. So they’re creating opportunities for a wide variety of people. But it does beg one question for a lot of Americans who wonder why immigrants tend to congregate with other immigrants from their home countries. I mean, this is something we’ve seen throughout U.S. history: Chinatowns, Koreatowns and in Lowell, you have a Cambodiatown. But explain to U.S. born people why immigrants move to places where the immigrants from their home countries already are. From the uneducated mind, it might seem to inhibit integration. Research says no.

Dr. Celina Miranda: Yeah. So, obviously one argument is that when immigrants first enter into the country, they will go where others are, because that’s where they can find information on jobs, right? “Where can I get a job?” Housing, in terms of, “Where’s the best place for me to live? Where can I afford to live?”, and other resources. So it’s a source of information that is so key, right? That’s where you can go and find the information. And importantly, you can find the information in a language that you understand, that you recognize, which makes the transition into the country easier. For some, the enclave can be helpful but it will only get you so much not because it’s an ethnic enclave. I think I wanna make sure that that’s clear. It’s not because it’s wrong to be with your group, but it’s more because you have redundancy in networks. I think basic social capital theory tells you that you wanna have diverse networks that can connect you to resources that you otherwise wouldn’t have connections to, right? So and there’s been social programs that have tried to do some around this and making sure that you bring people together that don’t have redundancy in those networks so that they can help one another and say, “Oh, by the way, have you looked into that program over there that’s offering scholarships for kids that are interested in X?” And so therefore you go there but you wouldn’t know if you’re just to the same people who have the same information you do. So from that perspective, I think, definitely, it’s not just for immigrant groups. I think it’s more generally, right? We all benefit from having diverse networks so that we can access new information, new resources.

Denzil Mohammed: Many people in the U.S. don’t know what it’s like to move to another country. The incredible cultural differences, language barriers, laws and regulations, there are so many things that are different. So the bulk of your work at the Hyde Square Task Force is focused on the youth, many of them, of course, immigrants as well. So when it comes to their education and wellbeing, what are you doing to ensure that they thrive? And why was there need for this task force to begin with?

Dr. Celina Miranda: Yeah, so we started 30 years ago. In part was in response to what I said in terms of the 1990s and the state of the neighborhood. Having at that time being called the cocaine capital of New England, and also recognizing that it was a neighborhood that was not being heard by elected officials, that was not being seen in the way that we wanted to be seen. So that’s how we started. We started by a group of neighbors who were dissatisfied and wanted to make a difference. Very early on, however, we recognized that young people needed to be at the center of that transformation. So we have been focused on working with young people to create positive change in our community since the very beginning of our organization. And we continue to be very invested in that. Our strategies have changed over the years and now, we focus on Afro and arts and culture as a vehicle by which we engage young people in the out of school time. However, as a youth development organization, a creative youth development organization, we are invested in making sure that our young young people are successful in graduating high school and also begin planning for their future. And we help them with that transition. So we make sure that they stay on track to graduate high school, begin planning for post-secondary education or training, whatever that may be. And then we also do college coaching because most of the students that we work with are first in their families to go to college. And so they need the added support, the added guidance, so that they’re able to navigate higher-ed institutions as successfully as possible so that they can complete their studies.

Denzil Mohammed: You’re building up social responsibility, you’re bringing up leadership qualities, obviously academics and creativity. What has been the role of immigrant entrepreneurs, specifically, in this work?

Dr. Celina Miranda: Damaris, you named her earlier. She was actually a board member and was on our board for many, many, many years. So in that sense, it’s giving back. She was giving back and serving as a role model for our young people. So that’s one very micro example of how they have contributed. But now, I think, when you step back a bit, they continue to be so critical again, as role models for our young people. But also as a great resource, they continue to help us do the arts and cultural work that we’re doing and that they partner with us all the time as we do our cultural events. I haven’t talked about that aspect of our work is that in addition to working directly with young people, we are also the managing partner of the cultural district of the Latin Quarter. And so through that work, we have a series of annual events that we bring to the neighborhood and business owners are a big part of that. They’re also partners in our thinking, as we continue to think of what the Latin Quarter can be and the resources that the Latin Quarter needs, they are key partners in creating that vision for the Latin Quarter.

Denzil Mohammed: So this is their way of giving back. And they’re giving back in many different ways, not just creating jobs, but sponsoring events, being role models, fostering a more success-minded spirit in young people. I think that’s just absolutely terrific. And the kind of relationships that you’ve been able to foster over the years toward this end is just absolutely extraordinary. Finally, I did a lot of digging into the Latin Quarter because it’s just fascinating. And one word that emerged a lot when talking about the Latin Quarter is “coexistence.” What example can the Latin Quarter’s experience offer other parts of the country, not just immigrant areas, their refugees and immigrants are settling in areas that were previously not settled by immigrants and refugees. What is the Latin Quarter’s experience regarding coexistence?

Dr. Celina Miranda: Yeah, I was reflecting a lot on this concept and thinking about the fact that carving out places or public spaces in particular where people from varying backgrounds can come together in a safe way, I think is essential to strengthening the fabric of any city, but really the fabric of our country. I think divisiveness has been so much that I think where we have been, this constant pitting each other against one another. And I think that doesn’t bode well for anyone. And so I really do think that the opportunity to create spaces where it is safe to come together, it is safe to “coexist,” to use the word. These spaces need to be open and inclusive for all people. So when we think about the Latin Quarter, I hope that your listeners take away that the Latin Quarter is not just for the Dominican immigrant. It is not just for the Cuban immigrant. It really is about a space where we welcome and we want people to come and experience the Afro Latin traditions and culture and get to know it in a way that is respectful, of course, I always think about that. It’s important to give respect to groups. Honestly, here in our neighborhood, the newcomer is your younger folks who are moving to the area, many of them are not from Boston. They’re coming from other parts of the country. And most of them are not Latinx. And so, really thinking about how do you create an opportunity for them to come and learn about the history of the neighborhood and become part of the fabric of the neighborhood in many ways, without taking away its history, without erasing what it has been. And I think that is important. And I think it should be replicated everywhere that we go. Everywhere that we go, I think there should be a Latin Quarter in my opinion, but that’s just me.

Denzil Mohammed: A welcoming space for everyone to be able to participate and learn and thrive. Right?

Dr. Celina Miranda: Yes. And like I said, respectfully of one another.

Denzil Mohammed: Hear, hear! Dr. Miranda, thank you so much for joining us on the JobMakers podcast. We really appreciate your work with the Hyde Square Task Force and what you continue to do for Jamaica Plain and beyond. Thank you.

Dr. Celina Miranda: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for today’s insightful conversation on how immigrant entrepreneurs are uplifting entire communities with their work in philanthropy. If you know any outstanding immigrant entrepreneurs we should talk to, email Denzil, that’s D E N Z I L I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 44: Theresa Park

JobMakers podcast logo: Theresa Park on how immigrants revitalize U.S. citiesAs a Korean American immigrant and the deputy director and senior executive vice president at MassDevelopment, Theresa Park knows firsthand how immigrant entrepreneurs enrich their new homelands. Through MassDevelopment, she offers financing and real estate solutions that help foreign-born business owners build organizations that strengthen their communities. Tune in to learn her strategies for celebrating and empowering immigrant entrepreneurs.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. And this is JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Immigrants have always been economic drivers and revitalizers. Just look at Lowell, Massachusetts or Lawrence, Massachusetts or any of the gateway cities in your state. Immigrants tend to move into areas that are cheap. Namely, places in economic decline. Then they open up shops and businesses, bring in goods and services and gradually revitalize these once downtrodden areas. For Theresa Park, deputy director and senior executive vice president at Mass Development, a group that offers financing and real estate solutions to drive economic growth across Massachusetts, she’s seen this up close and she’s lived it. An immigrant from Korea who moved to Lawrence, she saw firsthand how immigrants built their lives from the ground up and in so doing, economic and cultural vibrancy to their new home cities. And when she went on to work for cities like Lowell and Lawrence, she herself was the one to reach out to immigrant owned businesses, nurture their growth and see their broad impact. Theresa talks us through her experience with immigrant business owners, how she developed their trust, how she celebrates them and the many ways they enrich their new homeland in this week’s Jobmakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Theresa Park, deputy director and senior executive vice president of MassDevelopment, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Theresa Park: I’m very well. And thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be here today.

Denzil Mohammed: So tell us a little bit about the work you currently do.

Theresa Park: So I’m now with a state agency. The bulk of my background is really in local government working in planning and development, economic development field. Last year I accepted a position with Mass Development. And Mass Development is the state’s financing agency as well as its land bank. And so we get involved in a lot of development-related projects, primarily from the financing side, but we also provide real estate technical assistance as well as offering grants and other programs through the state’s, one-stop process; the application process, for which is currently open. And it’s a really good way to tap into other programs available through the state.

Denzil Mohammed: And how does immigration figure into your work? When we see that one in seven Massachusetts residents is foreign-born, that they’re twice as likely to start a business, that they’ve been, traditionally, engines of economic growth in downtrodden parts of the country. And of course we have Kendall Square, for instance.

Theresa Park: Which is why we have programs that support business growth, we have programs that support gateway cities, we have programs that support developers so that we could increase the housing that is in such great demand in the commonwealth. So we have a pretty good toolkit of programs and services that could be brought to bear. Now, we just want to make sure, whether it is from the level of outreach we do, the engagement that we do, the people who can take advantage of those programs feel like we can be a partner to them. And so to that extent, the communications work that we’re doing, we want to make sure that whether it is a business started by immigrants, whether it is in communities where there may be a lot of immigrants. I live in the city of Lowell, for example. Historically, they have been a gateway for a lot of immigrants, in the beginning, to work in the textile industry. But that flow continues as well. And I think that there are great opportunities in places like Lowell and Lawrence and Lynn and other gateway cities. And we want to make sure that we get the word out and we make sure that we can deliver in a way that is meaningful and that’s also very culturally confident.

Denzil Mohammed: That is excellent. And I know that this is personal to you as well because you have your own immigrant story, is that right?

Theresa Park: And so you’re making a commitment to this new way of life. From my parents’ perspective they worked hard for many, many years, so they can make sure that their kids get a good education and be successful. So I think that’s pretty typical of what other immigrant families experience. Some go on to start businesses and we see them succeed. I think the award dinner that you have every year recognizes the tremendous contributions that they have made, from a job standpoint, and the impact that they’ve had on neighborhoods as far as services.

Denzil Mohammed: That is really well said and I know this is directly from your experiences in cities like Lowell and Lawrence. Talk us through your experiences in these cities. What did you see with the immigrant business community? How did you foster their growth? What was the response like from the rest of the community?

Theresa Park: And we’re trying to make those connection points to say that, “Okay, this is what you had told us, this is what we can provide,” so we would make that connection. We had people on staff, or within the larger department, who could speak different languages. So we try to take advantage of that so that it’s not always just that we could only interact in one language. We wanted to make sure that we could communicate at different levels. And to that extent, we want to make sure that whenever we did everything from marketing, for example, or pulling together collateral that talks about the work that we do, we were multilingual about it. We always made sure that the representation was very broad and encompassing of all the different types of businesses, not just the high tech, but the neighborhood type ‘mom and pop’ type of businesses because they will eventually hire people, right? Even if it was just like one or two jobs. To me, that’s still meaningful, right? Because that one person has a family. And because of that job, now they’re able to do these other things that they may not have been able to do before.

Denzil Mohammed: You brought up the immigrant entrepreneur awards, which my organization, The Immigrant Learning Center, hosts every year, which is this year happening on March 8th. And I have to say that we have a special category called business growth for fast growing businesses that are employing lots of people. And three of those past winners were all Dominican American and all came from Lawrence. So the reputation of certain cities like Lawrence, they’re growing

Theresa Park: People don’t invest in places without the belief that there is opportunity there.

Denzil Mohammed: So how does being an immigrant, even though you arrived as such a young child … you’re not only foreign-born, but you also have a very global perspective having traveled around the world and continuing to do that. Do you think that that has given you a particular perspective in your work of planning and the development of cities?

Theresa Park: I would say the biggest life skill that I feel like I benefit from, because of that immigrant experience as well as the global travel, is problem solving. You could present the same problem in a lot of different places and you’re gonna get different kinds of answers or different types of solutions. And I feel like if you travel and if you have the immigrant experience, it’s almost like you expand the range of your thinking when you’re problem solving. Because you’re not just fixing a widget. You’re also thinking about it in, for me personally, a more complex way. And so solving for problem ‘X’, all of a sudden you have all these different ways of addressing it.

Denzil Mohammed: I remember a joke from Trevor Noah saying, “If you don’t like immigrants, then you’re not allowed to like immigrant food. So you just end up with a potato”.

Theresa Park: An immigrant you do some great things with that potato!

Denzil Mohammed: Of course! So many different things, but we really do, as people living in the United States, take for granted the flavor that we are given and offered every day in terms of food, in terms of holidays, in terms of cultures. Overall though, you’ve seen many different immigrant populations starting businesses in different places. Have you seen them integrate? Learning the language, or their children being successful and things like that?

Theresa Park: Yeah, I think some of that has to do with when they come to this country, right? There’s a level of acculturation that needs to occur. My parents came here when they were, I think, close to 40, maybe? I can’t recall exactly. But then they had to learn the language and gain full employment, and so on. So I think the challenges are very real. I think it could be eased. So like I had mentioned earlier, when I came to this country there weren’t a lot of Koreans. So we had to acculturate very quickly. I think that, at the same time, it could be a lonely experience for people, as well, where you don’t have your community. I think the level of acculturation changes with the generation. I think when the parents first come here, they’re so busy working. Whether that’s being working for somebody or working for themselves. And it’s really relying on the next generation to then more fully immerse, take advantage of the job opportunities that are out there, the educational opportunities that are out there. So I think immersion happens in a couple of different ways. I think if you come to a place where there is a ready community, that could help ease a transition. I think that is really important. Oftentimes you also find these cities and people who can be the connector to different kinds of programs and services, so they could get grounded more readily, which hopefully means that they could have more time to then attend the kids’ parent-teacher meetings or maybe even attend a community meeting. Or it could be helping the next generation of immigrants that may be coming through the door, helping them with the acculturation. But I think how quickly and how easily you can do that depends on how old you are when you come to this country, what kind of community is here to ease a transition. And I think just remembering that people are always just trying to do their best. And just always giving people the benefit of the doubt, because this is a really hateful rhetoric that’s come out. And it’s based on some really unfounded misinformation. And I just hope that people dig a little deeper, people be a little bit more open minded and just remember that we’re all part of the human race, right? And we really have more in common than not.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s beautifully said. And I think at the end of the day, we have to remember that the economic development of immigrants, through their businesses, helped the entire community. It doesn’t just help that one immigrant. It creates jobs, it creates more taxes, it creates a safer neighborhood, increased goods and services. We did some research on immigrant essential workers during the pandemic and where they were left out of the CARES Act. For instance, things that impeded their ability to help all of us recover. We could have recovered faster, we could have recovered in a more efficient way. If you were to close off this podcast interview with a message for the U.S., when it comes to the value of the immigrant entrepreneurship and recognizing that value, what do you think would be?

Theresa Park: I would say that if we were a formula, we’re a plus sign, not a minus sign from an immigrant standpoint. It’s not really a formula, but I would say that when we talk about immigration we’re talking about people who are coming to this country because of what’s been touted about all that’s good about this country. And I think it is really important that we continue to prize what we hold dear in this country’s ability to be the beacon of light for freedom, for democracy and for opportunity for everybody.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s very beautifully said, Theresa. Thank you so much. This was a wonderful interview. And thank you for sharing, as well, your own personal stories with us. Theresa Park, deputy director, and senior executive vice president of Mass Development, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.

Theresa Park: Thank you for having me, Denzil, so great to be here.

Denzil Mohammed: Jobmakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for today’s insightful conversation on how entrepreneurial immigrants are a rebound for cities in decline. If you know an outstanding immigrant entrepreneur we should talk to, email Denzil. That’s: [email protected]. I’m Denzil Mohammed, join us next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 43: Reinier Moquete

JobMakers podcast logo: Reinier Mouete on the audacity of immigrant entrepreneurshipReinier Moquete’s company CyberWarrior is a highly successful cybersecurity services provider, but Moquete’s greatest success might be in his extensive not-for-profit and philanthropic work supporting diverse young people in STEM fields. Moquete founded the Latino STEM Alliance, advises a committee on strengthening the pipeline to tech from Boston Public Schools and was appointed to the Massachusetts Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. Tune in to learn how Moquete credits his Dominican American grandmother and mother for his entrepreneurial spirit.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and this is JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: What do Apple, McDonalds, Ford Motors, State Farm Insurance, and Home Depot all have in common? They were all founded by the children of immigrants. The children of immigrants have a high propensity to be as entrepreneurial as their parents and the United States has benefited from generations of immigrants like this. For Reinier Moquete, son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and founder of CyberWarrior, a cybersecurity services provider in Boston, Massachusetts, he is continuing the entrepreneurial tradition started by his grandmother and mother who moved to the U.S. in search of a better life for their families. In fact, he says it is love of family that prompts immigrants to do what it takes to be successful in their new homeland, including starting a business. Reinier has gone further however and has given back to the country that gave his family a chance. He has launched nonprofits and foundations that seek to elevate disadvantaged communities, expose children to science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM), and uplift particularly Latinx people in the U.S., bringing them to the forefront of technology and leadership, as you will learn in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Reinier Moquete, Founder and CEO of CyberWarrior, welcome to JobMakers. How are you?

Reinier Moquete: I am good, thank you for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: So, tell us a little bit about your company, give us the 30-second pitch.

Reinier Moquete: CyberWarrior is a very unique company. We train people to be cyber security engineers and we put them to work. And so, we have developed a methodology that includes an online learning platform coupled with an 800-hour boot camp, live online. People are essentially exposed to the cybersecurity industry all the way from the basics of computer science, and we graduate them as well qualified security engineers, and then we help get them a job.

Denzil Mohammed: That is pretty incredible. And as I was talking with you earlier about the statistics around unemployment rates for cybersecurity this means your company is really important, not just now, but going forward in the future, right?

Reinier Moquete: Yeah. I mean, the reality is that cybersecurity has become a national security issue. It is not only about ensuring that people are just entering the industry, but that our water supply, our food supply, our energy supply is protected. You know, today’s conversation is particularly timely with all the [inaudible] happening across the world. And the reality is that when we think about protecting our country, there is going to be a cyber-attack before any missile ever gets launched. And that is just the world we live in. Beyond that, cybersecurity has become a tremendous economic development opportunity. You have a situation where there are 4 million open jobs, globally, 600,000 open jobs in the U.S. alone. It is a very unique opportunity for underserved communities to come into the industry and to grow and prosper. And, you know, it is pretty exciting and it is pretty rewarding when you have someone who maybe works in a kitchen or someone who comes from a totally non-technical background without any college education at all, and they are able to go through our program and walk out with an $80 or $90,000 a year job in only six months. It is a pretty amazing thing.

Denzil Mohammed: That is pretty incredible. And the numbers you shared, 600,000 open jobs in the U.S., that is kind of crazy. I want to get into your journey into entrepreneurship. Did you always want to be your own boss? Does it run in your family? You know, tell us how you ended up there.

Reinier Moquete: I filled the entrepreneurial box when I was a kid. My first entrepreneurial experience was inventing a video game for my friends. They had this little card video game when I was like seven or eight and I used to let kids in the neighborhood play for 25 cents in the Dominican Republic, so that was my first entrepreneurial experience. Nine years old I had another business where I was making bracelets and selling those in school. I used to go to the market and buy leather and cut it up. I guess I have always been an entrepreneur to one degree or another, and I always knew that it was a passion that I wanted to pursue.

Denzil Mohammed: And what qualities and skills do you think you had to draw on the most in order to launch your own business?

Reinier Moquete: Well, I think that the key thing to be an entrepreneur is tenacity and perseverance. Entrepreneurship is hard. There is this misconception that people go into entrepreneurship because they want to have more time or because they are going to want to work less. And it is actually exactly the opposite. Actually, you have to be a little bit crazy for you to want to go into business. Most businesses fail. Most people put their life savings into these businesses, and it takes years before you get that money back. So, you have to really be committed for the long term. For me, it was tenacity and perseverance and a conviction that I would rather play and lose than not play at all. In terms of hard skills, my entire career has been in the tech sector. And so, I brought that into my life as a business owner. But the reality is that most of what I know today I learned after I decided to jump, and I had to figure out how the parachute works after I was already in the air. And, you know, to a large degree, I find myself flat on the ground with my face dusted and bloody and all that, and again, the perseverance comes in because you just have to get back up.

Denzil Mohammed: I have never heard that analogy before about skydiving. But it is, you are taking a risk. You are literally jumping into the unknown in a sense. And I would venture to suggest that perhaps this is something that was in your genes because I like to say that the act of migrating is an entrepreneurial act. You take a risk, you leave everything you know behind. You are not sure if the outcome is going to be successful or not but you do it anyway. And your grandmother took that risk by leaving the Dominican Republic and coming to the U.S., is that right?

Reinier Moquete: Absolutely. And many of my family members as well. My mom, as well, who was a medical student in the Dominican Republic and only needed her theses to finish. Yet she decided that it was here where she was going to be better off with her kids. And I think it is a story of many of the immigrants that you see in the U.S. today. In fact, most of us, either as direct immigrants or kids of immigrants, that we see that desire, that audacity to succeed above all costs and the willingness to pay a very heavy price of leaving family behind in order for you to pursue that desire to do something different and/or to provide for your family back home. Right? It really takes a lot of courage. And I think in many ways, the story of America, the story of entrepreneurs and the story of immigrants are one in the same.

Denzil Mohammed: It is funny that you say that because from the time immigrants started to move here, whether they called themselves immigrants or not, they started businesses. Levi Straus up until Elon Musk today. It is the story of immigration, and it is the story of America. Reflect a little bit on that move of your grandmother and your mother and the other people you knew who moved from the Dominican Republic. What kind of qualities do you think it reflected on their part to take that risk?

Reinier Moquete: I think one of the key things that it requires is the love of family. It is rare that you don’t see an immigrant who doesn’t send money back home. And even those of us that may be first generation of Americans, we might have been born here, we still have that sense of commitment towards other family members who perhaps are not as stable financially. And so, you have that sense of unity, that sense of supporting one another. And I think that that’s the key driver for most immigrants. I think that beyond that, again, it is that burning desire of pursuing a passion. And, you know, you mentioned great entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. It is really that tenacity that says, well, I am not going to be able to achieve whatever it is that I want to achieve within my local community. And so, I am going to go out and I am going to venture, and I am going to pursue whatever it is I want to pursue at all costs. And I think that that’s the thing that has made America so successful. When you have all these people with that same audacity, that same desire to move forward.

Denzil Mohammed: I love the way you frame that in terms of love of family. And the story of many immigrant families can be very chopped up. You know, one parent moves first, they are separated from their kids and for years, they try to establish themselves. They send for one kid, two kids. The rest of the family comes up. It might take 10, 20 years for that to happen. And people often wonder, you know, why would families split up like this? But sometimes that’s the only way. More oftentimes than not. And you used the word audacity, which I find fascinating. I don’t think anyone else has used that word on this podcast to describe … it is audacious of them to think that they can do this and that it might actually work. What is your company, CyberWarrior, what does it ultimately empower individuals to do? What career and business opportunities are available for them after they, for instance, take your boot camp?

Reinier Moquete: We are training cybersecurity engineers. We are taking them into the doorway of an industry that is growing by leaps and bounds. Everything in our world today is dependent upon technology. Even if it’s a glass of water. That glass of water does not reach your lips unless it was touched by technology in some way, shape, or form. Look at the way we are communicating today. Look at the way the world has changed with our pandemic, right? So, cybersecurity is the knitting that keeps all this technology working properly. Otherwise, people would take it apart and use it for nefarious things. So, we put people at the doorway of this industry, and they you’re able to not only pursue careers as engineers, but they are also able to pursue careers as auditors, they are able to pursue careers in sales. The fact that you’re able to sell technology, the fact that you’re able to sell software, the fact that you’re able to sell consulting services, but in such a fast-growing industry. All these things are extremely lucrative. And so, if there is one thing that we are providing, it is opportunity, it is an opportunity people to gain access to economic freedom.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s not a job of the future, it’s the job of now. But all of this goes back to whether or not enough people choose to focus their studies on STEM. You are part of several initiatives in Massachusetts. Some of which you have founded yourself like the Latinos in STEM and the CyberWarrior foundation, as well as TechHire Boston that encourages young people to get into the STEM fields in a very hands-on way. So, tell us about at least one of them, let’s say the CyberWarrior foundation. What is the main message you want to get out to parents and kids?

Reinier Moquete: Well, with CyberWarrior Foundation, what we aim to do is to engage youth early in their lives into the world of cybersecurity. Cybersecurity is a career that you will never be bored. Why? Because you are learning something new every single day. And it also has this mystery to it. It has been romanticized in movies with the hackers and this and that. And the reality is that the things you see on TV are, to a large degree, very real. Those are the risks associated with a security breach. And at the same time, it also provides not only a very fun career path, but one that allows kids to use a lot of the things that they enjoy. Let’s say gaming, we use those concepts in real lives. So, I would say that for parents thinking about opportunities for their children, here is something that would allow them to play and have fun with while also making a good living.

Denzil Mohammed: Let’s put an intersectional lens on this, because you are also a part of the Latino Equity Fund out of the Boston Foundation. And a lot of the work you do with young people is to get families that are in disadvantaged communities or groups that are probably traditionally not occupiers of the STEM field to enter the STEM field. So why is that part of it important to you? And does it have anything to do with the fact that your heritage is based in the U.S. and the D.R.?

Reinier Moquete: Yeah, I mean, as an Afro-Latino I am certainly committed to creating equity and opportunity, and that’s why I decided to participate in the Latino Equity Fund. The Latino Equity Fund is the first and only Latino focused fund in Massachusetts. It was funded and seeded by The Boston Foundation and Hispanics in Philanthropy. It is a very unique partnership of Latino philanthropists and business leaders who essentially came together to say, “Hey, we need to find some solutions and we need to elevate this message,” right? So, the focus has been on raising money and over the last few years $700,000 in grants have been given out to Latino led and Latino serving organizations. Going into the next three years there is a focus on raising $10 million in order to strengthen the economic opportunities that are available to Latinos.

Denzil Mohammed: Have you already seen success with this, even if it is small successes?

Reinier Moquete: Absolutely. We not only have been able to support communities within the COVID pandemic, but even before COVID, we had been making key investments in early childhood education, health equity, workforce development. And so over the last five, six years, where we have been operating, we have been very deliberate in identifying the communities that need the most help, and then engaging subject matter experts from within those communities to ensure that whatever investments we are making are targeted towards those that need it most and where we are going to see the most impact. And so, there is a number of stories that we have seen of families that have been brought out of poverty, as well as, for example, in certain communities here in Massachusetts such as Chelsea, for example, has vaccination rates of 98, 99 percent. And those are the type of things where we look to invest.

Denzil Mohammed: Oh, wow. That is an incredible statistic about Chelsea. Finally, just bring it into the present day, given the legacy of your family. If you had to give America a message about the value of immigrant entrepreneurship to the U.S., you know, you’re training people, you’re not training immigrants, you are training everybody to protect the U.S., to protect all of the U.S. assets. Given how shrouded immigration is in politics and controversy, what would you say to America about the value of immigrant entrepreneurship to us?

Reinier Moquete: Yeah, I mean, I believe it was Nelson Mandela that said, “Everything is impossible until somebody does it” right? [inaudible] And that same desire to do the impossible, to create opportunities for their families to create opportunities for themselves are things that are the bedrock of entrepreneurship are the bedrock of capitalism. We are the people that are creating jobs. We are the ones that are risking it all for the things that we believe in. And that is what has allowed us as a country to prosper and move forward. A country of immigrants. We always have been. And it is that, again, audacity, that desire to move forward that allows us as a country to be successful.

Denzil Mohammed: That is a terrific message that succinctly sums up everything we try to say in this podcast. Reinier Moquete, CEO and founder of CyberWarrior, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast. JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston and at the Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for this week’s incredible story of entrepreneurship, this time from the child of immigrants. Next week, we will be joined by Theresa Park, deputy director and senior executive vice president of Mass Development, on how immigrant entrepreneurs are revitalizing cities like Lowell, Lawrence, Worcester and more. I am Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 42: Dinesh Wadhwani

JobMakers podcast logo: Dinesh Wadhwani clears the air with light technologyDinesh Wadhwani’s life science business has tackled everything from crop yield to energy efficiency, but when COVID-19 hit, they pivoted to saving lives. Wadhwani discusses how their technology is used purify air and track airborne COVID-19. Listen to learn how this Indian-Ghanaian-American entrepreneur paved his own path to entrepreneurship.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers

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Denzil Mohammed: Migration stories aren’t always simple. Families might have moved to different countries in different generations for different reasons. However, it is that entrepreneurial spirit of leaving everything behind, taking a risk and working for better in a new land that not only keeps them going, but drives innovation and resourcefulness. For Dinesh Wadhwani, founder and CEO of ThinkLite LLC in Natick, Massachusetts and immigrant from Ghana, that journey began with his grandfather who was forced to flee India for another British colony. And despite having to work all alone from nothing, he was able to build a business in Ghana and pave the way for the generations to come. When Dinesh moved to the United States in 2008, as a student at Babson College, the mandate from his father was clear: build a life and a business in the U.S. and not return to Ghana. And that’s just what Dinesh did. Even while he was studying entrepreneurship, he became an entrepreneur. In just a few short years, his technology-based life science solutions business expanded across the globe and evolved into a lifesaving enterprise, purifying the air in hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic, as you’ll learn in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Dinesh Wadhwani, founding CEO of ThinkLite, welcome to JobMakers. How are you?

Dinesh Wadhwani: I’m very well. Thank you, Denzil. Thank you for having me here today. I truly appreciate it.

Denzil Mohammed: So give us a 30-second pitch about your business. What is ThinkLite all about?

Dinesh Wadhwani: So ThinkLite is a technology company based out of the Boston area here in Massachusetts. We specialize in high-end technologies, specializing in facilities, and [inaudible]. We started off in the energy space, which has grown into a large division and a company that there’s high-end efficiency lining for commercial applications. We have a division that does grow lighting for agriculture and poultry optimization. And most importantly, which has come center stage the last few years, we have an air division that specializes in very tiny particulate monitoring of viral loads in the air, in the health care space. And as you can imagine, that has kind of crossed boundaries to go well beyond health care for the last few years. So that’s what we do as a company.

Denzil Mohammed: So apart from the obvious, which is the pandemic and your most recent foray into the air space, why is your business important in today’s world?

Dinesh Wadhwani: Our ethos really is we call ourselves technologists, we love technology, we believe technology is going to save our world and we love to build things that create value in a very impactful way. That’s really who we are and what we are all about. Our supply chain extends from designing stuff in Boston, to Germany where we do a lot of engineering and to Asia where we do a lot of the semiconductor manufacturing, and we work very closely with Samsung as well in Seoul, South Korea. So, if you think about it, given the talent that we are fortunate to have cultivated over the years and our interest and what we believe in we have always felt that we want to build products and services and bring it to the world in a very innovative but effective way that can add a value for sustainability, for wellbeing and for challenging the wasteful practices of our current planet. And we started there with bringing to market the first of its kind ultra-efficient LEDs. We were 30 to 50 percent more efficient than traditional LEDs and about 90 percent more efficient than your traditional fluorescent lighting. And now that evolved into smart building and smart lighting, because that was kind of where the opportunity became, now that you had efficient lighting, what else can you do? If you made them smart and turn them on and off and dim them, you could further optimize it. And then, that’s kind of pivoted into, how can we use everything we know about lighting and smart buildings to add value beyond its energy savings? And this kind of happened around 2015, where we were studying together, the executive team and I, and we said, “Think about it.” It’s kind of quite an amazing phenomenon that you have lights almost every feet in the building with a fixture and electricity coming through it. It’s got to do more than just save you money. And that’s when we said, how can we apply everything we know about smart building automation, manipulating spectrums of light and creating different waves of light and marrying that with other chemical compositions to add value in a different way. And that’s how we got into agricultural lighting, we got into poultry lighting and then along the same concepts, and around the same time, we got into how we could use light spectrum to do disinfection as well.

Denzil Mohammed: So Dinesh, you’re from Ghana originally, grew up speaking English, and your grandparents were from India. Is that right?

Dinesh Wadhwani: That’s correct. Yes.

Denzil Mohammed: So this is a very fascinating but also very common story of migration. Not only from India, but from other countries. But, take us back and tell us exactly what happened, how and why.

Dinesh Wadhwani: Sure. My granddad was actually one of seven brothers and our original hometown is a state called Sen in the North Western part of India. And during the 1940s and the time of colonization when India was being divided into India and Pakistan, a lot of people in the middle kind of lost their homes. Because you know, what was considered a general area was now being divided politically into different countries. So my granddad and his brothers actually went to hide in British boats to prevent being a prisoner of war or going to fight. And these boats were trading with other ex-British colonies at that time and that’s literally how my granddad ended up in Ghana, Western Africa, which at that time was a British colony as well. And many of his brothers ended up in Hong Kong. So today, fast forward 60, 70 years, we have a lot of family there and some came to the U.S., but it was a common practice of those who didn’t wanna be part of the political situation and wanted to leave would go to the other colonies that was ruling the countries at those times. So my granddad went there and he made a living for himself. He adapted, he was an entrepreneur and raised a family there. And that’s where my dad was born and that’s where my brother, myself and my younger sister were born. And that became home.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s really fascinating. But again, as you said it’s not an uncommon story. And just to be clear, your grandfather’s options were really slim. It was either fighting a war, convert to Islam or escape. Right?

Dinesh Wadhwani: Right, and many would actually seek refuge in India. And many people did that, where they would go, but start from scratch, right? They didn’t have a home state. They lost all their property, they lost all their jobs, they lost all their land and just have to start from scratch.

Denzil Mohammed: And you, obviously, were able to straddle two very different, I would say, kinds of cultures: Western Africa, Indian subcontinent. So how is your experience, of being an immigrant from another country, has that impacted your business style or the kinds of goals you set for yourself?

Dinesh Wadhwani: Yeah, definitely. I think most immigrants who come to the U.S. for better opportunities or for a better life can probably relate to this. There’s so many things over here in the U.S. that many people take for granted and growing up. We were not exposed to many of these facilities or stilled infrastructure, stuff like internet. I remember growing up, there were times where Ghana, during the 90s, had something called load shedding where there was not enough electricity in the grid. So they would publish in the newspaper that for this week from 6:00 PM to 6:00 AM, you’re not gonna have electricity, right? So I remember when my brother and I would come home and we had to finish all our homework before it gets dark. Because when it gets dark there’s nothing much you can do with a candle. Go to bed, right? Little things like this, where we grew up of it being the norm and that’s the life we knew. And when I came to the U.S., you realized how much more advanced the infrastructure is. And you realize how much of an opportunity this is to be able to have fast internet, to be able to have good roads or infrastructure, to move around or to meet people. And to me, there is so much here to be grateful of that we didn’t have growing up. And that changes your perspective. Most immigrants say this, that the United States is the “land of opportunity” because there is a good infrastructure that creates enough opportunity for you to come from nothing, right? I remember when I came here I didn’t know anybody. And it’s less about who you know specifically, which is how it works back home in Ghana too. You could now have a lot of information and have a lot of skills, but it comes down to who you know, for the most part. While that is important over here, of course, there is so many cases we see every single day where someone would come far away from a country knowing no one, but worked really hard, worked honestly, worked to develop certain skills and become successful. And I think it’s just a very well balanced society that we have in the U.S. that creates a platform for doing that. So it makes me always grateful, what we have here. Most countries don’t have that and it changes your attitude. You wake up every morning and you say, “You gotta seize this opportunity”.

Denzil Mohammed: Makes you more humble, more grateful, more appreciative. That’s fascinating too.

Dinesh Wadhwani: It does.

Denzil Mohammed: 12 hours a day you don’t have electricity, isn’t that just crazy to think about now?

Dinesh Wadhwani: Yeah.

Denzil Mohammed: So you came to the U.S. in 2008 as a student on your student visa. You went to Babson. Of course you already spoke English, but adapting to U.S. culture is always a challenge and an experience for everyone.

Dinesh Wadhwani: So my dad would say, even throughout my entire high school and when I was starting where I want to go to school, what I wanna study, he would say, “Hey, listen, you have a good plan B. If things don’t work out, you can always come back to Ghana and we can either you work in the family business, or we are ‘Old Timers’ here and we can find some opportunities for you. But frankly, go to the United States, make a better life for yourself and don’t come back,” right? And that was the message that he gave me and my brother when we came here to study. And when I came and I landed at Logan Airport, I remember it was the day before probably orientation, and I land and I still remember this the day till today is like, “Okay, here’s where I gotta make my life,” right? My goal is to learn, obviously, make new relationships and meet new people. But really, gonna make a living for myself. And the goal is to make the family proud and take advantage of my education and what I’m coming here to do: of what they have sent me here to do and not go back.

Denzil Mohammed: So you founded ThinkLite in 2009. In just a few years you were in 14 different countries. That must have been a rollercoaster.

Dinesh Wadhwani: It was. And I would say that almost every single connection of that came from the Babson community, which is quite incredible. It’s very international, as you probably know, and a lot of friends and I was fortunate enough to be on the scholarship program at Babson. So every semester I had the opportunity to meet with the trustees who also were from all over the world and they would be intrigued with what would be doing. And it was quite a very supportive environment where I remember doing classes where I would tell the professor, “I’ve got to travel over the next three weeks because we have these big projects or big deals that I think I have to be there for.” And the professor would say, “Keep a diary of it and I’ll accept it as your thesis.” Very real and very quickly given the small community it was, many of the professors, the Dean, the president, at that time, were following ThinkLite very closely. And until today I’m so ever grateful to them because of the support that I received. And they would be making introductions all the time. And the exposure we got within the U.S., of course, but even internationally, was we got to seize the opportunity. So the next thing I know, they would say, “This is incredible technology,” and, “You are spending a lot of money for businesses and make more of impact in the U.S. Can you come and do it in the United Kingdom? Can you come and do it in Thailand? Can you come and do it in Singapore?” And I was like, “Absolutely.” And they would literally treat it like a real business and they would say, “Okay, great. You have a team that can come over and train people?” And I would say, “Yes, let’s go”. I would forget many times that I’m still still in college and I have to attend class and I would say, “I’ll come back and catch up.” And I would go. So it was throughout from 2010, all the way up to 2015 there was a lot of expansion internationally where we were building a foundation in those countries where we had large distributors and we were making a lot of impact with our technologies over there; which fostered growth in the U.S. and vice versa too.

Denzil Mohammed: You’re not quite doing exactly what you did at the beginning. So tell us how the pandemic impacted your business.

Dinesh Wadhwani: Sure. So around 2015, we made a conscious decision of how can we leverage our technology, our experience, our relationships and the marketplace to do more than just save energy, right? Like I mentioned before. And I think the single most important change that I personally experienced, and at the company, was we started an initiative to say each time we would close a big project and go do a lighting project for them, “I would like to speak to the head of facilities or the head of our operations myself personally,” and say, “Can you please tell me a little bit more about the other problems you’re facing when you’re challenging in your workplace or your facility?” One of the biggest things that really changed the trajectory of our company was this initiative to ask customers what else we can do for them. And that’s where we learned about a lot more opportunities that we can address. Whether it was, “They have good lighting, but it wasn’t smart enough,” or, “They had good lighting, but they needed to have a unique spectrum of light to increase their yield of a produce,” or when talking to hospitals, which is most relevant in this day and age. We were working with Boston Children’s Hospital back in 2017 and we learned from the facilities’ people that their number one challenge was hospital acquired infection via the air. And this is not something that’s unique to any particular hospital. This is something that exists forever, right? And if you think about it, when people come to the hospital because they’re unwell, they’re sick, they’re coughing, they’re spreading germs and diseases. And simultaneously you have people there who are undergoing surgery, or who have compromised immune systems who are unwell. And these two groups of people are under the same roof, sharing the same air. It’s quite a recipe for disaster and unfortunately there’s no better way, right? I mean, that’s just the nature of how facilities … and what happens all the time, which really cut my heart, was the number one cause of debt in our country was secondhand transmission of germs in these hospitals. And I’m discussing that saying, “We are replacing fixtures every three feet. There’s got to be a better way.” And that’s when the idea of producing a light fixture that can also purify the air at the same time was born. And that evolved into less leverage of technology to now monitor it and make it smart, so we even know how bad the air is to start with and we can always keep it that way. And then it evolved into, let’s make it connected to the HVAC system so it can be even smarter and involved into less stand alone units. Here we have found a software, we built an entire ecosystem of technology, that could monitor the air; tell you if there’s a viral load in the air. Light fixtures that would seamlessly clean the air free of these viral particles. And the whole world was coming to a standstill because of an airborne virus. And it took COVID 19, our global pandemic, for people to realize that you don’t need to be in a hospital to share air with someone to get disease from that. That’s when, for the first time, we learned that what we thought was a niche in the health care world is now something that is applicable everywhere else. And that’s how the pandemic really changed our ThinkLite air division. And next thing we know our marketplace just expanded by infinite-fold, really, of the addressable market.

Denzil Mohammed: Oh, wow. Dinesh, that’s incredible. So finally, Dinesh, as an immigrant to the U.S., your grandparent was taken in by Ghana and you were taken in by the U.S. and this country has allowed you and your family and your business to thrive. How do you feel about the United States of America as your adopted homeland?

Dinesh Wadhwani: There’s a very admirable amount of respect in this country for people who work hard, for people who are trying to make a positive impact. And whoever you share with, in my experience, what you’re trying to do or what our business is about they’ll say, “Hey, talk to this person,” or, “Have you thought of that?” and this celebration of solving problems in this country. I feel this country as a whole really promotes entrepreneurship and promotes originality. It promotes trying to just do good and by doing good: trying to create good value for people. Very few people can say that about the experience going to any other country, really, and being embraced and being part of the community to say, “Hey, we are here creating, creating impact, creating jobs for the people in the country,” it’s really a nice feeling. So I’m always gonna be grateful to this country for that.

Denzil Mohammed: I think one of the things that makes the United States extra special is that it celebrates entrepreneurship and innovation no matter where you come from.

Dinesh Wadhwani: That’s right.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s the idea, it’s the hard work and it’s the value that creates it. And I hope that you and ThinkLite are able to continue creating value and having a positive impact and purifying our air. Please, we need that a lot.

Dinesh Wadhwani: Absolutely.

Denzil Mohammed: We will continue doing our best to educate people on this topic that is so important and affects their bottom line, right?

Dinesh Wadhwani: Yes, that’s right and thank you. And it’s a joy to see the impact that The Immigrant Learning Center does in empowering, whether it’s by your language, by your life skills. It’s always been close to my heart. So I admire that and it’s such an important thing that we need to have for people who come here with a twinkle in the eye and for opportunity and giving them these skills and giving them these tools to help them fulfill their dreams. It’s something that’s close to my heart. So, thank you for that.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s very nice for you to say, Dinesh, thank you so much. Dinesh Wadhwani, founder and CEO of ThinkLite, thank you for joining us on JobMakers.

Dinesh Wadhwani: Thank you, Denzil, a true pleasure.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for today’s incredible story of immigrant entrepreneurship. Got comments, questions, or know someone we should talk to? Email Denzil that’s [email protected]. I’m Denzil Muhammad. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 41: Anuradha Sajjanhar

JobMakers podcast logo: Anuradha Sajjanhar on immigrants' role in pandemic recoveryImmigration researcher Anuradha Sajjanhar joins Denzil Mohammed for a very special episode of JobMakers! The ILC has published a report on the extraordinary contributions of immigrant essential workers during the COVID-19 crisis, cowritten by these two immigration experts. They discuss the vital role that foreign-born workers have played in sustaining all Americans throughout the pandemic, the lack of resources they received and how they can be better supported in the future!

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and welcome to a special edition of JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: What affects immigrants in the U.S. affects all Americans. Immigration is not a separate issue from any national issue. And the COVID-19 pandemic made this all too clear. As immigrants are overrepresented in industries deemed essential. Industries like healthcare, food and agriculture, the supply chain. Let’s be clear, all immigrants in the U.S. make up just 13.7 percent of the total population, but 17.4 percent of the labor force and 18.3 percent of the essential workforce. In fact, while 65 percent of U.S.-born workers are essential, 69 percent of all immigrants and 74 percent of undocumented workers are essential. For Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar, lead researcher for the report Immigrant Essential Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic, published by The Immigrant Learning Center, co-producer of this podcast, she found that immigrants were largely left out of federal and state support during the pandemic, which negatively affected their safety and the work they were doing to help Americans weather this potent, unprecedented storm. The report, which is available free of charge at, shows that immigrants play an outsized role in essential industries that are helping us get through this pandemic, that these essential workers felt left out of the hero narrative we painted all essential workers with, and that grassroots, bottom-up new movements at the local level can fill the void left by federal inaction as you learn in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar, how are you today?

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: I’m well, thank you, Denzil. How are you?

Denzil Mohammed: I’m pretty awesome right now. I escaped the blizzard, thank goodness. So what was the purpose of this research report? Why do you think it’s important?

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Several reasons. I think mainly there was a lack in the literature so far bringing together both intimate narratives of immigrant essential workers along with the zoomed out big picture of how policy decisions during the pandemic have affected them. So what we tried to do with the report is bring attention to the vital role that immigrants play in the labor market, as well as the need to offer them care and protections. And we do that through a bunch of interviews, both with immigrant essential workers and with policy experts, makers, advocates in the field. And we show how public policies can be improved to benefit immigrant workers, and as a result the whole country.

Denzil Mohammed: As a result the whole country. That’s a really important point. So, I’m really curious. I’m core off of this report, but I was not the lead researcher. That was you.

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Mm-hmm.

Denzil Mohammed: How did you go about doing this research in the midst of a global pandemic?

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Yeah, I think the pandemic really affected the access we had in building trust with immigrant essential workers. I think a lot of people that I spoke to are very accustomed to being interviewed and potentially to being research subjects in exploitative ways where they’re not compensated for their time. Their stories are used, their names are used without their permission. So it was definitely a process to reach out. So, along with the immigrant learning center, you and I, we reached out to a bunch of organizations that work with immigrant communities in Minnesota, California, and Texas. And then through those I was able to get in touch with immigrant essential workers. And between May and August of 2021 I conducted about 20 in-depth interviews with essential workers across industries within those three states and 10 interviews with community organizers, policy experts and employers.

Denzil Mohammed: And just to be clear, you did this over zoom or the phone. You didn’t fly out there, right?

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Yeah. Yeah. Because of the state that the global pandemic was in, still is in kind of, I did most of it through zoom. Honestly, most of it through phone calls because that’s how the people that I spoke to felt most confident and comfortable by expressing themselves.

Denzil Mohammed: Interesting. So of all the findings that came out of this research what stood out most to you?

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: I really think it was the irony of what we identify in. What Cohen and Warren, who are researchers who have worked on immigrant essential populations in the country, have identified as a central policy paradox, which is that foreign-born workers are deemed essential at very high rates. Yet they often lack protections, status, and face marginalization by U.S. immigration and COVID policies. So there was this whole cultural effort to thank essential workers, and as part of that immigrant essential workers, but despite the heightened attention paid to them during the pandemic there were no meaningful federal policy interventions to provide protection or benefits to immigrant essential workers and their families, especially undocumented immigrants.

Denzil Mohammed: So one of the things that stood out to me most was the invisibility of so many immigrant workers. And as you point out, in terms of policy, either they were invisible or they were deliberately excluded and marginalized.

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Mm-hmm.

Denzil Mohammed: Which I think the latter is what happened under the Trump administration. 

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Mm-hmm.

Denzil Mohammed: Can you expand on this invisibility of immigrant workers? So, how you felt about it and how they felt about it.

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think this goes back to the nature of a lot of the jobs that were deemed essential. So first, the full umbrella term of essential workers, which is a lot of the people who grow our food, keep the stores open, are at the front lines of keeping us safe in health care and in a lot of the supply chain management of the products that we consume. These are not necessarily people that we have direct relationships with. It’s not people we often interact with in our everyday lives unless we’re talking about somebody who has a home health aid or has a more long term relationship with a health care provider. But for the most part this tends to be a form of invisible labor. With immigrant essential workers in particular, I think a lot of the interviewees that I spoke to felt that they just weren’t appreciated in the ways that felt tangible to their material lives. Many of them appreciated the symbolic kind of thanking of essential workers overall that people did during the pandemic. But I think mostly they felt invisibilized by their neighbors, by federal policy interventions at large. And as you said, excluded in many ways too.

Denzil Mohammed: They’re the ones in the fields, they’re the ones in the factories, in the meat processing plants.

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Yeah.

Denzil Mohammed: Behind the scenes in the hospitals, stacking the grocery shelves, as you mentioned. So yeah, we didn’t see them. They weren’t the ones on TV, right? They weren’t the ones who were being interviewed and got the press and that kind of thing. Another thing that stood out to me was the fact that we are talking about immigrants, but they are part of the whole society. And so when we think of policies that affect immigrants, it’s really policies that affect everyone. 

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Mm-hmm.

Denzil Mohammed: You mentioned the food supply chain. That affects everyone.

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Mm-hmm.

Denzil Mohammed: So can you speak more to this point about how we are all impacted by what happens to immigrants?

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Mm-Hmm. Yeah, absolutely. If you look at the data that we present in the report, the oversized contributions of immigrant and foreign-born workers to the U.S. workforce is clear. Just to talk a little bit more about the policy level exclusion, rather than legislating more protections for foreign-born workers, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of 2020 blocked immigrant families with unauthorized family members from receiving any stimulus payments at all. This means that 6.2 million essential workers, who have around four million children who are U.S. citizens, were ineligible for relief payments. We need to understand that and see how the wellbeing and lives of Americans and those who live in America are shaped by underpaid and unprotected immigrant labor and lives.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s such a huge point. If a significant share of the workers who are keeping us going are immigrants, and yet they are barred from receiving aid that everyone else gets, who in the end suffers? It’s the American public, immigrants and US-born people alike. Another point from the report, it comes to mental health. And of course everyone’s mental health suffered during the pandemic, but you make the point in the report that immigrants’ mental health were more acutely or differently affected. And I guess this points to what you’ve been talking about, this policy paradox of not being taken care of by the government, right? That has something to do with it.

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Yeah. A lot of our interviewees spoke about the trauma that they experienced from the uncertainty, layoffs, lack of safety nets, health risks. And all of these things, as you said, were universal to a degree. I would say that the specific fear of deportation during the pandemic was compounded for them by being a part of families or households with multiple at-risk essential workers. So that’s another thing we found, which is that most households with one essential worker had several family members or people that they lived with who were also essential workers. Even in the cases where immigrants are eligible for the benefits that we spoke about, fear often prevented them from receiving the help they needed. So several foreign-born workers that we interviewed said that they avoided accessing healthcare or non-cash benefits from fear of deportation or violating what used to normally be in place called the public charge rule, where it would affect their petition to remain in the United States.

Denzil Mohammed: This is very fascinating. Almost like microaggressions in a sense, indirectly from the government and from society against immigrant populations, even though they are outsized parts of our essential workforce. As laid off in this report, you touched on the subject of licensing and credentialing requirements. Now this is something that a lot of Americans don’t pay attention to, but it affects millions of immigrants to the U.S. We’ve all heard about the Indian doctor who’s now a taxi driver in New York because he couldn’t fulfill his residency and all that, which takes many years.

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Mm-hmm.

Denzil Mohammed: So one example of this is last year in 2021, three states passed bills that reduced barriers to occupational licenses and certificate codes, allowing state regulators to more easily accept foreign credentials and opening pathways for licensure for immigrant and refugee doctors. Can you elaborate on how this can influence and affect our economy and citizens positively?

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s a massive issue and I really came to learn about the significance of it through researching for this report. Chris Ramon, who was formally in the Bipartisan Policy Institute, has written about this a lot. And I think the point really is that changing licensing requirements can allow immigrant workers to use their skills and experiences in professions that allow them to thrive. And so this might be like what you said, the case that you just quoted about doctors being able to practice without doing multiple degrees all over again, that they’ve already done in their home countries. But it can also be as simple as people being able to get driving licenses without having a certain level of documentation because in that way they can work. They can drive to their workplace if necessary, they can do a number of different things. So I think it’s really just about giving people the tools that will allow them to thrive, to support themselves, to support their families. And I think we need to see this beyond just what people consider to be higher-skilled licenses to kind of the full range of restrictions that can be lifted.

Denzil Mohammed: Why would we shoot ourselves in the foot by not allowing people who have skills to use those skills in the U.S. to everyone’s benefit, right? That’s basically what you’re saying.

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Exactly. Yeah, exactly.

Denzil Mohammed: And you mentioned different skill levels. So we are not just talking about the physicians and surgeons. We’re talking about people who have agricultural skills or other kinds of things that would allow them to be a more productive member of society.

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: And in that way be able to provide for their own welfare and their family’s welfare too in a way that ultimately, as we’ve been saying throughout this whole thing, affects everybody who lives in this country.

Denzil Mohammed: They’ll be paying more in taxes, they’ll be contributing more, they’ll be buying property and items, and sales tax. All these different things contribute. And it almost goes to the idea of freedom and individual liberty of being able to sort of self-actualize without impediment, right?

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: It does. And that’s not to say that other federal policy provisions shouldn’t be made for immigrant labor protection, but this is a definite key aspect of making immigrant workers able to participate in the economy more effectively.

Denzil Mohammed: And you touched on something that is unfortunately highly politicized, which is driver’s licenses. And I don’t really want to go down that rabbit hole, but the idea of unauthorized immigrants being able to have driver’s licenses speaks to public safety. Everyone’s safety and ability to work and contribute freely, right? That’s the point you’re making.

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Absolutely. Yeah.

Denzil Mohammed: Right. So, one of the things you’ve mentioned in the report most strongly is about the benefits, and the funds and relief that many immigrant essential workers, and families and children did not receive. How do you think it best to deliver that aid to immigrant essential workers?

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Mm-Hmm. A lot of people that I interviewed, a lot of the policy experts that I spoke to as well, spoke about how immigrant workers are more likely to take advantage of cash benefits that aren’t related to specific needs because as I spoke about the field piece earlier there’s less fear surrounding that. There’s less need for documentation, and to provide, and to put them at risk and to make them visible in ways that could potentially harm them. Honestly, I think that’s something we need to listen to. I think we need to do more qualitative research on how we can move forward with making benefits and funds available to immigrant communities in ways that would best that would best suit them and their needs

Denzil Mohammed: I even think about the stimulus payments that we received in 2020 and 2021 that went directly to our bank accounts. Not all immigrants have bank accounts. Something as simple as that. And yet they are waking up every morning and heading out to work on the front lines. Just out of the 20 or so interviews you did with immigrant essential workers, and might I add they came from a wide range of countries of origin; Mexico, Nepal, Eritrea. Was there anyone’s story or interview that stood out to you, that resonated with you that you probably would not forget any time soon?

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Yeah, I think it was with an 18-year old girl in California whose entire family consisted of undocumented immigrants. And she spoke a lot about the trauma that her family members experienced and that she herself felt through the entire pandemic. The uncertainty, the fear of deportation, the working conditions, particularly in the agricultural sector, and just the lack of recognition really from federal policies, but also just from people not recognizing the danger that immigrant workers put themselves in on a daily basis.

Denzil Mohammed: I remember some of those quotes about, “What if when my parents get COVID and they can’t go out to work, who’s gonna pay the bills? How are we gonna be able to sustain ourselves? As undocumented immigrants we can’t just go out there and ask for aid.” One of the things that stood out a lot is the fact that a lot of the lack of federal action to assist immigrant central workers in certain parts of the country were taken care of by very local initiatives. Whether it’s a grassroots movement, local city council, advocacy organizations. Could you just speak a little bit as to how some of these most successful initiatives worked?

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Yeah. I think in the report we detail a bunch of them throughout several states, but I think the key takeaway there is that in the absence of a lot of the federal policy provisions for immigrant essential workers, state governments came up with a lot of ways to help local communities. There was just a lot of upwards mobilization from grassroots communities, from nonprofits mobilizing for immigrant workers. And I think if we can take something away from that is that we need to consistently keep funding community health centers, community organizations that really at a very local level will understand how things need to be targeted in their communities. Whether that’s funds or whether that’s just direct help in many different facets.

Denzil Mohammed: Direct help. One of the things you mentioned in the report is just information about COVID. Information about the vaccine, information on where to access tests and help. Accurate information to counter the conspiracy theories, and the viral videos and things like that.

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Mm-Hmm. Even things like food provision and childcare, which are huge things.

Denzil Mohammed: Right? So overall, one of the main purposes of this report was to lay out a map or an example of what should be done next time we’re hit with a public health crisis. And, arguably, we will be hit with another public health crisis at some point.

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Yeah.

Denzil Mohammed: And for me, the main idea was that we need to take care of immigrant essential workers as much as we take care of everyone else in order for us to get through this, any sort of public health crisis, better, faster, more efficiently, more humanely. Anuradha Sajjanhar, thank you so much for joining us with JobMakers. This was a real pleasure to talk to you. And thank you for doing this research.

Dr. Anuradha Sajjanhar: Yes, thank you. It was a pleasure.

Denzil Mohammed: Jobmakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for today’s fascinating conversation on how immigrants are helping all Americans get through this pandemic in an outsized way. Got comments, questions, or know someone we should talk to? Email [email protected]. And please, leave us a review. I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another episode of JobMakers.

Episode 40: Rodrigo Souza

JobMakers podcast logo: Rodrigo Souza cooks up successRodrigo Souza came to the United States from Brazil at just 18 and found work as a server. He discovered a passion for the restaurant industry that led him to open his own steakhouse, through which he has created more than 400 jobs and helped feed his town’s unhoused people. Tune in to discover how this motivated entrepreneur kept his business alive, his community fed and his workers employed throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Fun fact, in the Greater Boston area, more than one quarter of immigrants from Brazil, 27 percent, are self-employed, more than any other group. That means they are more likely to be jobmakers. Go to to learn more. For Rodrigo Souza, immigrant from Brazil and owner of Comeketo Brazilian Steakhouse in Leominster, Massachusetts, the resourcefulness and doggedness in Brazilian culture followed him to the United States and enabled his success. He estimates he’s provided around 400 jobs since his restaurant opened in 2009. And he’s so popular, even in a county that’s 75 percent white, that he won the People’s Choice Award in the 2020 Worcester, Mass. Best Chef competition. It wasn’t always easy. And even during the pandemic, when restaurants were really hard hit, Rodrigo found new and inventive ways of generating revenue and keeping people employed. He’s also found ways to give back to the country that took him in, from his three years in the U.S. Army to feeding the town’s homeless, as you’ll learn in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Rodrigo Souza from Leominster, Massachusetts, welcome to JobMakers! How are you? 

Rodrigo Souza: Hey man, thank you, thank you. I’m good, thanks for having me! 

Denzil Mohammed: So youre the owner of Comeketo Brazilian Steakhouse in Leominster. Give us the 30-second pitch about your business. 

Rodrigo Souza: Comeketo is a Brazilian steakhouse, and we offer people a very unique experience than other Brazilian steakhouses, which is basically to try everything on the menu. We have a variety of different meats anywhere from pork, chicken, lamb, steak, sausage. We do also grill pineapple on a rotisserie with a variety of different sides and gourmet salads. So coming here, it’s really like going to a tasting.

Denzil Mohammed: So how did you end up in this business? I remember you saying that your mom didn’t even cook, right? 

Rodrigo Souza: Yeah, I did not come from a family that’s big at cooking or anything like that. My mom actually hates cooking [laughs]. I grew up being an only child, and I actually got to learn how to do some stuff when I was young. But I never actually really had on my radar that I would do something like that for a job, for a career. When I came to the U.S., my cousin worked in restaurants. It’s actually a funny story ‘cause I used to go pick him up every night, in the beginning I didn’t have a job and I would fill out an application every time I would go pick him up. And then the general manager said, you cost me more money in applications, I’m just gonna hire you. So they actually made up a position for me, which is like a roller. So I would sit in a corner of the dining room and make rollups all night long, you know, fork, knife and the napkin, those rollups you get when you go to restaurants. I’d do that from like 4:00 until like 10:30, 11:00 at night. My hands are smooth from so much friction with the napkins all day, all night. 

Denzil Mohammed: So you sort of fell into it, and this is not something uncommon. I remember interviewing Shane Smyth from Hugh O’Neill’s Irish Pub, sort of the same thing, he just sort of fell into it. And it was something that was decided to bring their heritage to America in this way. In his case it was Ireland, in your case, it was Brazil. So this takes us back to your roots in Rio de Janeiro. What was life like growing up in Rio? 

Rodrigo Souza: Growing up in Rio, it’s a very, very good experience, man. Actually one of the reasons why I’m here in the U.S. is because I was having a really, really good time in Rio de Janeiro. So my parents kind of deported me [laughs] from Brazil to here. Growing up, being real, a lot of fun, a lot of partying, a lot of friends, a lot of good times. 

Denzil Mohammed: So you said your parents wanted you to get away and discover the world. So 2001, you moved here at the age of 18 to Boston. Why did they want that for you, and what was the experience like, of moving to a place where the language and the culture and the laws and everything were so different? 

Rodrigo Souza: They wanted me to experience something different. They wanted to take me away from my friends, and they put a good offer in front of me in terms of coming here. Everybody has a dream to come to America, right? Even though I did have a good life in Brazil, it wasn’t because I was really seeking for a better life like that. But you know, they wanted me to learn English, they wanted me to learn the culture, they wanted me to create other relationships, create other links, and maybe do something better with my life than I would have in Brazil, better opportunities, et cetera. 

Denzil Mohammed: And so your first job was working in restaurants? 

Rodrigo Souza: My first job was actually work in a supermarket here, Roche Bros. And it’s funny ‘cause this town, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Millis, it’s exit 19 off of 495, I think. And I was the only immigrant, I was the only Black person in the town. Actually when I went to high school, it was kind of like a whole thing, “Oh, this guy is from Brazil,” [laughs]. But that was my first job, doing bags at Roche Bros.

Denzil Mohammed: Wow. Yes, I am actually familiar with Millis, it’s not the most diverse town in Massachusetts. So you opened Comeketo in 2009, and you’ve grown significantly since then. You started out as basically a sandwich shop and now you’re a full-service restaurant. I know it wasn’t easy in the beginning. You actually had to borrow money just to fill your cash register to have change. What was that experience like, starting this as someone who didn’t have a business before? 

Rodrigo Souza: Let me correct you. It wasn’t easy, it’s still not easy [laughs]. It’s never easy. I scraped all the money that I had, which wasn’t a whole lot, to start this business. And then the first day we didn’t have money in the register, so I actually borrowed 50 bucks from somebody and I basically gave that money back at the end of the night. But if you’re talking about being unprepared, we can have a conversation, because I just really saw the first step of the whole set of stairs. I just saw one step, I put my foot in there and kept on going up. By no means I wanna say that we are super big right now, but we definitely in a better position. We’ve grown a lot. We’ve developed a lot. We went from like a seven table sandwich shop, to a 85-seat restaurant, full-blown Brazilian steakhouse, full-service, that’s being able to expose to this community here what Brazilian food is, Brazilian culture, et cetera. 

Denzil Mohammed: What do you think was in you? What qualities do you think you had? You said you sort of had to mature and get seasoned in this in order to be able to be a successful entrepreneur. Do you think you had particular qualities that allowed you to take that risk and start this business? 

Rodrigo Souza: The qualities that I think helped me to get me where I am today is that I’m very persistent. I’m very persistent. I heard this from some other person, it’s not me that created this, but “persistence beats resistance.Persistence beats resistance. Sooner or later, man, you swing that bat so many times, enough times that you’re gonna hit the ball, you’re gonna hit the home run. I actually recently did the Ironman. Three, four months ago, I did an Ironman competition, I actually still have the band. 

Denzil Mohammed: Oh, wow. 

Rodrigo Souza: You’re supposed to take this off after you’re done. I kept it because I want to remind myself of the things that it takes to get to the finish line, not necessarily finish line, but to get to other levels. And I did this because I knew that these would help me in other areas of my life. It’s a constant battle between your mind and your body. And in life, your mind is trying to screw you all the time. Your mind is trying to put you in a safe place all the time. Your mind doesn’t want to hurt you. So you can’t listen to your mind like that all the time. Otherwise you’d never do anything significant with your life, ‘cause your mind wants to protect you. 

Denzil Mohammed: I was gonna ask you what advice you would have for budding entrepreneurs, but I think that’s it right there, mind over matter and just being persistent.  

Rodrigo Souza: Yeah.

Denzil Mohammed: Of course, now we are in a pandemic and restaurants were really badly hurt. You had to come up with new revenue streams. What were they, and do you think they’re sustainable going forward?  

Rodrigo Souza: Thankfully, we actually have pulled through this okay. We had to be very creative. Actually during the pandemic, we turned the restaurant into a little mini supermarket, online. So all the food that we buy, we sold it online, delivering these items to people. This was about 30 percent to 33 percent of our revenue during the pandemic. Another creative thing that we did was we created some virtual brands. We still actually have five virtual restaurants. So we created these brands, we market online, and everything comes out of here. It’s very short menus, five, six, seven items. It’s a good way to capture a bigger market share in the community and use the same ingredients that you’re already using here. You don’t have to buy a whole lot. So that’s a couple things that we did and have done to stay relevant and keep bringing the revenue we should in order to survive and keep people employed. 

Denzil Mohammed: That’s incredibly creative. Would you recommend this kind of branching out in additional revenue streams to other businesses in other industries? 

Rodrigo Souza: Absolutely. From this, I actually created another company called Virtual Kitchen Hall, which we’re actually, not selling this concept out, but for lack of a better term and not having enough time to explain what it really is, just think [of it] as a franchise. We sell these ideas out to other restaurants across the nation, and they execute these menus out of their own kitchen. And what we do is we market those menus in their area. We give them a printer and a tablet, and people order and comes right in their kitchen, we dispatch a driver to go out and get the food. They don’t have to do anything, all they have to do is fulfill the order. And that’s a great way to bring $500, $700, sometimes even more a day in sales. So you already have your infrastructure there, you already have your people, you already have your inventory there. Why not maximize on the space that you have? 

Denzil Mohammed: Wow, that’s great. In 2020, during this pandemic, you said, “People have been supporting us all these years and now it’s our turn to support them. One of the initiatives that came out of the pandemic was “My Local MA.” How do you think this has helped the local economy where you are? 

Rodrigo Souza: I believe it certainly did during the pandemic. We also reached out to a couple families that were in need, we gave out some groceries. We actually had some people reaching out to us to buy people some groceries and whatnot. We currently help out an institution here called Our Father’s Table. Every six weeks or so, there’s a rotation of restaurants that actually give them food, cook them a nice meal. So we definitely try to do our part. 

Denzil Mohammed: As a business owner for well over 10 years now, do you think that it’s important to give back? 

Rodrigo Souza: I think it’s absolutely important to give back. I think that the concept that the Bible has to give 10 percent of your earnings applies anywhere. So it’s definitely important to look at your side and extend a hand to somebody that’s in need and try to help somebody, giving them something, but also teaching them how to do that on their own as well. 

Denzil Mohammed: So according to our own research here at The Immigrant Learning Center, immigrants from Brazil in the Greater Boston area are the most likely to be self-employed of all the other immigrant populations in Greater Boston. Twenty seven percent start their own business, whether it’s incorporated or not incorporated. Why is it that Brazilians like to start their own businesses and create jobs?  

Rodrigo Souza: I think Brazilians find ways to do things better than most people, I guess [laughs]. I think one thing about Brazilian people, man, I think we are very resourceful. That’s another thing about the quality or virtue of being an entrepreneur. I’m very resourceful. For example, I started Comeketo out of nothing, man. Not out of nothing, but what are the chances of somebody starting something, knowing that they don’t have the money to start, they don’t have money to put in the register? You find ways to do things. Like I said about swinging that bat, you know, you swing that bat enough times, you find people that want to help, you find ways to do things. For example, when I moved from my old location to this location, it was a sort of smooth transition. And then when I renovated the place that I’m in, and I turned into a Brazilian steakhouse, we did a fullblown renovation here, and in my projections, we would spend about $50,000. And I did not have that money, I did not have $50,000. And that’s another crazy thing that I did. Some people will call this being inconsequent, but I call that believing in myself. I only had $7,000 in the bank, and I had an idea of how generate the money for the construction while the construction was happening. So I basically talked to everybody that was doing the project with me, and I tried to negotiate something like 30 percent now, 30 percent [when] it’s done, 33-33-34, you know, after I started bringing revenue. So we actually sold a ticket to the grand opening, couple different days as a show. We brought some Brazilian samba dancers, and we turned into a show, like almost a movie theater, you know, like a 5:00 session, a 7:30, and a 9:00. And so I sold a good amount of tickets for that. So as the ticket sales are coming, I’m putting that back in the construction. It was a crazy move. And this construction started at $50,000, cost me like $85,000. This is just to show, I have done a lot of things like that in my life that I didn’t have the means to do it. I didn’t have the resources, it didn’t look like I could do it, but I strongly believed in myself, and I pulled through. 

Denzil Mohammed: So finally, you mentioned earlier that being back in Brazil, everyone wants to live in America and this American dream, and a lot of people who are born here don’t have as optimistic a view of the American dream. Do you think that the American dream is alive and well? 

Rodrigo Souza: I think there’s definitely alive. You gotta look for it, every day. Every day, you gotta knock on doors, right? Every day you gotta knock, knock, “Where’s my dream, is it here? [laughs]. Again, it goes back to being persistent, believe in yourself. I’m definitely thankful that I came to this amazing nation, and it has really taken me in. It’s not gonna come and knock on your door, that’s for sure. It’s not gonna come to you. You gotta go to it. That’s just how it is. 

Denzil Mohammed: That’s a really good point. It’s not just gonna present itself to you. You’re not gonna land in a street paved with gold. 

Rodrigo Souza: Not at all, not at all. 

Denzil Mohammed: You have to actually pound the street in order to find it. 

Rodrigo Souza: And it tastes better when you actually go after it like that, you know? 

Denzil Mohammed: Oh wow, I’ve never heard anyone describe it like that. That’s incredible. Rodrigo Souza, owner of Comeketo Brazilian Steakhouse in Leominster, Massachusetts, thank you for joining us on JobMakers. 

Rodrigo Souza: Hey man, it was my pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a notforprofit that gives immigrants a voice. Thanks for joining us for this week’s incredible story. Got comments, questions or know someone we should talk to? Email Next week, we’ll have a special episode on new research showing the outsized contributions of immigrant essential workers that kept the U.S. going through the pandemic, and the policies that ignored them. See you Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

Episode 39: Gaetan Kashala

JobMakers podcast logo: David Keane on how taking risks on immigrants pays offGaetan Kashala co-founded Globex Corporate, a consulting firm connecting the U.S. to Central and Western African businesses and governments, giving him a unique perspective on how collaboration between U.S.-born and foreign-born entrepreneurs can strengthen the economy. He’s also the engagement director for the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, where he works with business owners to support their contributions to the economy. Listen to learn how his father’s legacy has shaped his important work.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Let’s face it. The world is unequal. Not everyone, everywhere is given the same chances, opportunities and avenues to fulfill their potential, to succeed. This goes for continents, countries and even within our own borders. There are often things that stand in the way for some people. For Gaetan Kashala, immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo, co-founder of Globex Corporate, a consulting firm connecting the U.S. to Central and Western Africa and also the engagement director for AIM, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, he knows this all too well … both in the Congo and in the U.S. For a host of reasons, many of us are oblivious to the barriers that exist for some groups of people. Gaetan has built a career helping immigrant and other minority small business owners in the Commonwealth by giving them that opportunity for a crack at the “American Dream.” And he’s seen the results. Thriving businesses, growing families and community development. He shares their stories and his own, of a legacy built by his father in Cambridge, in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Gaetan Kashala of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts! Welcome to JobMakers. How are you?

Gaetan Kashala: I’m doing well. How are you doing?

Denzil Mohammed: Pretty good. I’ve escaped the cold for a little bit, so I’m thankful. So, tell me a little bit about your business. It’s a very interesting business, and I know it’s one of the things that you do, but you started this with your father and you connect the U.S. to Central and Western Africa, right?

Gaetan Kashala: Yeah, absolutely. So the company is called Global Enterprise Services Corporation, and it’s a consulting firm that when we started out initially focused on government relations. We would partner with American government affairs firm and then travel to different countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, mainly Central and Western Africa in order to speak with governments, policymakers there, about us serving as their representative in the United States, whether this is before the executive branch, legislative branch, multi-laterals like the IMF, World Bank and EU. So, step one in our growth strategy was really developing deep relationships with African political leaders. And then once those relationships were in place, given that we were based out of the United States, we would reach out to members of the business community here in order to see if they were interested in exploring commercial, philanthropic opportunities that existed on the African continent. So, really symbiotic relationship, or process, in that you developed a level of trust with the governments and then leverage that to see what type of business development needs, strategic communication needs that entities in the United States, Europe and China had.

Denzil Mohammed: As a way of building up entities and initiatives in parts of Africa through partnerships in the U.S., that’s incredible. In the U.S., and you say as well in Asia and the EU. You are very familiar with Central Africa because you’re from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tell us a little bit about what life was like, if you can recall, growing up there.

Gaetan Kashala: Sure, sure. So, I was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo; about 13 million – 14 million residents live there. I spent the first seven years of my life there before moving to the United States. My father was pursuing a PhD from Harvard University, so that’s what brought us there, that’s what brought us to the United States. But in terms of memories and recollections from my time there, I just remember the vibrancy and the energy of being in the capital and its situation where you would see people hustling all the time, whether that was the street vendors, there was just this entrepreneurial capacity there that in many ways was a means for folks to put food on their table and bring money and resources to their families. I don’t know how familiar you are with the socioeconomic composition of Congo or Kinshasa in general, but it’s a fairly impoverished community. I would say over 70 percent, 80 percent of the people are living below the poverty line from an international perspective, so there’s a real gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” and it was always, even as I think back on it, always really invigorating to see the vibrancy and the hustle that a lot of the people there had, because in many ways they were hustling to stay alive, to keep their family alive.

Denzil Mohammed: Your father came to do his PhD. You yourself studied at Tufts. One of the things the American public really doesn’t know is that the smartest immigrant group is actually African immigrants to the U.S. They have the highest educational attainment as a group. Much of your work now is focused on this idea of engagement, connection, economic prosperity, equity and you’re the engagement director at AIM, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts. I find it interesting that they say in their mission, “We further assert that such economic opportunity must reflect the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion. Everyone must have a voice on the economic future of Massachusetts.” What does that mean?

Gaetan Kashala: I’m really glad you asked that question. So, I currently serve as a co-chair on AIM’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Staff Council. AIM had recognized that it wanted its membership to reflect the diversity that exists in Massachusetts, and they wanted to serve as a convener of discussions between the business community as well as historically marginalized population. Ultimately what we’re looking to do from a DEI perspective is just to really make sure that our membership looks like what we see out in Massachusetts, and then we’re playing a role to support that effort, whether that’s through DEI training programs that we offer to members, whether that’s through highlighting the accomplishments of Black, brown, women-led businesses. We understand that this is a continual learning process and we want to be that convener of productive conversations.

Denzil Mohammed: Tell me a little bit about some of the immigrant-owned businesses that you’ve interacted with; there’s the Southeast-Asian Business Coalition and various other associations like that. Do they stand out at all to you … you talked about the hustle in Kinshasa. Do you see that sometimes in some of these business owners?

Gaetan Kashala: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s really amazing because whether it’s the groups that I’ve interacted with, or I currently live in Dorchester right now in the Savin Hills area, and see business, whether it’s Vietnamese businesses, Haitian businesses … I’ve heard of countless situations where one person comes to the United States, immigrates here, starts up a business, begins sending money back home in order to bring more family members here, the family members come here and then they come in and work for the business, support the business and, importantly, add tremendous value to the communities in which they’ve immigrated to. These are not, and not to overly generalize, but in my experience, these are not people that are here looking for handouts. They are came here with a belief in the American dream, a belief in the American meritocratic society, which is also something I should have brought up earlier relative to Congo because in many ways you have your “haves” and you have your “haves nots,” right? Sometimes the “haves” is that you are a “have” because of where you were born, or what tribe you are in, and if that tribe is empowered then you’re getting jobs. So a lot of the motivation for coming to the United States, it’ll be a lot of the attraction, is just that belief that in America, you can accomplish anything. You put some hard work into it, but there’s opportunity here and that I see on a daily basis, every time I walk to get my coffee, my Vietnamese coffee … it’s really uplifting to see.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s incredible, and you know, Americans don’t realize how much of the world is like what you just talked about, separated by class and tribe and lineage and their last names, the color of their skin, where these are real barriers that have been around for generations and generations. And I like that you’ve met these business owners, you’ve talked to them over the years, you’ve pushed for economic equity in Dorchester in your previous roles going down at the community level and talking and meeting these people, seeing the shared diversity that we have in Massachusetts, for instance. It’s not a situation where there’s one big dominant immigrant group. It’s been evenly split. Haitians, Brazilians, Chinese, Indians … how have you seen immigrant entrepreneurship impact the Massachusetts economy and some of the local economies that you’ve been involved with?

Gaetan Kashala: Yeah, I’ve seen it in a number of ways…

Denzil Mohammed: … you mentioned that you live in Savin Hill and I think of Fields Corner

Gaetan Kashala: … yeah, absolutely! You think of Fields Corner, Upham’s Corner. So when I worked at Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, I was responsible for building up the economic mobility program, and an interesting thing about Dorchester Bay is it’s a CFI, a Certified Financial Institution, so they essentially had a bank, a mission-driven bank, that was focusing on lending money and disenfranchised communities. So we would get funds from either the Small Business Administration or the Treasury department, and our charge was to provide capital to those that historically had a difficult time accessing those traditional sources of capital. We supported a whole number of entrepreneurs, many of them were immigrants, so I had the opportunity to meet with these folks, hear about what businesses they wanted to put in place and then work with them, whether it’s through providing technical assistance, how to put together business plan, marketing plan, website … these are the type of basic financial statements that you’re gonna meet. It was in that experience that I had that firsthand look into the immigrant entrepreneur story. I recall working with a lady from Kenya, I believe, she had come here from Kenya, had been working in the health care space for a while, started off as a CNA and then went into administration. She was director of a nursing home and decided that, given her experience, which led her to really see the need for health care staffing, she wanted to start a home health care staffing operation. It was working with her hand-in-hand, wrote her business plan, put together the website, and, now in the process of trying to solicit some funding that she’ll need to be able to really kick off her operation. And importantly, especially in nursing home care, the vast majority of the caregivers are immigrants. And, for the story I was talking about specifically, that represents about 90 to 95 percent of their workforce.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s incredible … 90 to 95 percent. I mean, we’ve seen it, we’ve seen who are the ones taking care of the sick, the elderly generally, but even through this pandemic. It’s your Jamaican nurse, or your Filipino nurse. They’re a huge part of our health care system and many other industries. I want to push back on two things briefly. One is, people are going to listen to this podcast, you talk about it was basically a bank that was giving out money to these disenfranchised communities, and they’re gonna call that a handout. Was that a handout?

Gaetan Kashala: No, no, absolutely not. Because for one plain definitional reason, the funds would be transferred in the form of a loan, but very low interest loan relative to what you would see out there in the normal market. So there is nothing being “handed out” at least through our loan process. Another thing I would just have folks be mindful of … some of the challenges, and I would say a lot of these structural challenges, that exist that prevented a lot of these groups from being able to access capital. So I wouldn’t call this a “handout” in any way that you would say, “Okay, my parent paying for my college education” was a handout. This is really about providing opportunity. In my job, my work there was all built around how do you position folks to be able to achieve economic mobility, and our thesis was that you focus on providing them with human capital, who are the individuals that they’re around that they can leverage and network to be able to advance, the social capital, what’s the infrastructure and institutions that are around there, whether it’s from a school perspective, different trainings and things like that. And then finally, it’s the financial capital. Money obviously is the oxygen that allows us to do a lot of different things. We/I kind of look at it from that framework where in order to position folks for economic mobility, you gotta focus on that human, social and financial capital, find ways to introduce that expand that to different businesses, individuals and what have you.

Denzil Mohammed: So you are saying that there are systemic barriers in the U.S., even here where we think that there’s just this level playing field. Another thing I want to challenge you on is in terms of your business, your consulting business. The model is about connection. It’s about bridging the divides between continents and countries, but we’re in an era, I would say, where people want to “close in.” They want to close the borders, they want to look inward. It’s about America first. How have you seen this notion of bridges and connections with all these different parts of the world in the U.S.? Has that been a good thing in your estimate?

Gaetan Kashala: So in one way, I understand what you are saying, but I think we have to be careful about the connection we make between the political rhetoric that we hear and see, and what’s going on business-to-business, business-wise. Take, for example, like climate change. You heard a lot of talk about the Glasgow conference, but then there’s, “Oh, these governments aren’t making commitments, the politicians aren’t making realistic commitments.” But then if you look at the business-to-business level, you see that there’s tremendous work being done. Fundamentally, if you’re able to demonstrate value to someone, whether that’s an individual or an organization, you’re able to provide them with something that they need, that they cannot get elsewhere, or can’t get elsewhere at a price that makes sense. I think that’s ultimately what this is all about, right? It’s about you’re seeing the demand, that’s out there, you’re seeing there’s a need out there, whether that’s for a construction worker, whether that’s for coffee and you’re filling that need. So, if you’re looking at things from an immigrant entrepreneur perspective, it’s just about really going out there, hustling, trying to identify those opportunities and be able to effectively articulate, communicate what value you bring relative to the other options that are on the table or in the market.

Denzil Mohammed: I love the way you talk about markets, the economy, business-to-business and how business moves these policy changes even, you know? And for the betterment of all of us, for the betterment of the population. I want to bring it back to you and your family, and you move here when you were really young, but you do remember the impoverished parts of Kinshasa. You do remember what it was like. How do you feel about the U.S. as your adopted home?

Gaetan Kashala: I really feel grateful to be here, especially knowing what the situation exists in Congo from a poverty perspective, from an infrastructure perspective, whether you’re talking bridges, clean water, electricity. I think coming to the US, it was almost like a clean slate, or a canvas that you can draw your story on. And it was a cleaner canvas than probably existed in Congo, so there’s a lot more opportunity, a lot of different things that, that could be drawn on that canvas. And that’s really something that should be appreciated.

Denzil Mohammed: And I think that you drawing something that’s really exceptional, something that capitalizes on the diversity that we all experience. And I’m glad that your father made that move. Thank you very much for you and your family being here and for advancing the things that you’re advancing through your work, through your business, through AIM. Gaetan Kashala, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers. It’s a real pleasure talking to you.

Gaetan Kashala: Yeah, likewise! Thank you very much for having me.

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Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice.

Got comments, questions or know someone we should talk to? Email denzil [at] Thank you for joining us for another inspiring conversation. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next Thursday at noon for another JobMakers.

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Episode 38: David Keane

JobMakers podcast logo: David Keane on how taking risks on immigrants pays offAustralian-born immigrant founder David Keane is launching new products and creating thousands of jobs as a leader in the tech industry. He believes that the United States’ willingness to welcome immigrants and take risks sets it apart in the increasingly global economy. Listen to learn how he thinks the next generation of entrepreneurs will migrate, create and innovate!

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Last week, we spoke with Swedish thinker Johan Norberg about openness. The free movement of people and ideas and the progress that results. In the United States, visas and exchange programs have allowed for the movement of ideas, skills, and knowledge into the country. The result? Well, for one thing, immigrants make up more than a third of America’s Nobel Prize Laureates. For David Keane, immigrant from Australia and founder of Bigtincan, an artificial intelligence powered sales enablement platform for leading companies worldwide that is headquartered in Boston and employs more than 400 people, that movement of people is a risk worth taking. A diversity of thought and background can bring about incredible new ideas, products, and services like his industry leading company, not to mention create thousands of jobs as he’s done over the years. David believes that what makes the U.S. special is its culture both of welcoming immigrants and being willing to try new things, to take risks. He wonders though about how the next generation of entrepreneurs will construct movement and sharing in a world of high globalization and connectedness, as you’ll discover in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: David Keane, founder of Bigtincan, welcome to JobMakers.

David Keane: Thank you so much for having me. Great to be here.

Denzil Mohammed: You’re the first Aussie we’ve interviewed, so congratulations on that.

David Keane: Thank you. I’ll try and control this outrageous Australian accent I have so the listeners can make sense of what we’re saying. But no, it’s just wonderful to be here and I’m really excited to talk about our story and share more with you guys.

Denzil Mohammed: So, in a nutshell, describe for the general public your business and what it does.

David Keane: Bigtincan is an enterprise software company. What that means is we make software that is used by enterprise organizations. That’s normally larger companies that are faced with a really significant challenge in their business today. Now the reality of business for many enterprises is that because of this digital revolution we’ve had and the internet and social media, when they think about their customers, they’re faced with the reality that those customers are better prepared and more informed than ever before, before they meet someone on their customer facing team. And whether that’s a salesperson or a customer success person, or a customer support person, that human being, when they actually engage with a customer or a prospect, is finding that very often that customer has done more research and actually sometimes knows more than their own staff member that’s supposed to help them. This is a significant change in how the economy works. I’d like the viewers out there to think about it in their own world. How many times have you gone into a cell phone shop or gone to buy a new retail product or to buy a financial services offering, or even some kind of industrial equipment where you have known more about what you need than the person who’s supposed to be helping you or selling to you. That’s caused a change in our economy. We believe that those human beings who are working on the customer facing side of enterprise organizations need new ways to get better prepared themselves and more informed. So we build the software that enterprise organizations, and we now have 97 of the Fortune 500 deploying our technology, they use that technology to make sure that every one of their human beings that works with their customers is themselves better prepared and more informed to actually deliver a better service and better experience to that buyer. And so, our software is used to really try and make that connection more powerful.

Denzil Mohammed: So even in the 2000’s, you were thinking about this, in a time prior to a lot of the technology and resources that the general public has. Why did you think it was so important to focus on this particular area?

David Keane: Well, my background actually goes back to the 1990’s. Maybe some of our listeners here remember the 1990’s. There was a time when, when you were in a customer facing role, you had all of these support services to actually help you to be better prepared and more informed for your own engagement with customers. As we went through the 2000’s much of that disappeared. And certainly, the GFC caused many of those support roles to go away forever. Now we believed that some of that work could be done by computers, could be done by smart software. And we have the technology now to build smart software that can actually really help folks to work better and smarter. I know it may seem like a long bow to draw, but if you think about today’s world of self-driving cars, how they can help you to perform safer, get from point A to point B more efficiently and effectively, we believe that software can help human beings in a customer facing role to do the same thing.

Denzil Mohammed: But we’re talking Tokyo versus London versus Tasmania. I mean, that’s a lot of different business cultures, right?

David Keane: Oh yeah. Well, what we’ve realized, and I’m sure it’s the same for many of the listeners of this podcast, is it’s a global market. In fact, for many organizations, it is a strategic advantage to be in a global market. And for Bigtincan, we realize that the need someone has in Tokyo or in London or in Tasmania is actually very similar and we can solve those problems with smart data science models and smart software that understand the nuances of those local environments. By the way, we’re in more than 40 languages, not just in multiple locations, in more than 40 languages. And we know that with software, we can start to address those needs. We can make someone in Tokyo who is part of an organization based out of London, feel connected to that company, to have access to the right content, to the right materials, so they can actually really make a difference. But yeah, I think it’s reality for many organizations. There’s a global opportunity. Now we have to also act local while we think global, but, geez, if we can start take advantage of the power of technology, we can make the world more effective.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s fascinating. I mean, you talk about this globalized world. You yourself, you’re from Australia. This podcast is about immigrant entrepreneurs in the U.S. How has that perspective of being an immigrant shaped the vision for your business?

David Keane: Look, I think it’s always interesting when you look at the world and I’ve been very fortunate to have had a chance to visit a bunch of places and meet some incredible people all over the world. You know, one thing for me is that I’m always reminding myself of how similar the world is, even in our differences. And that we have an opportunity to be able to make the world better by embracing those differences, but also helping folks to achieve the similar goals we have in our everyday lives. You know, I think being an immigrant is a huge opportunity and I’m really appreciative of the welcome I’ve had here in the United States and the human beings that have been so helpful in helping Bigtincan and helping myself and my family to feel incredibly welcome here. But I also know that we are very fortunate coming from Australia. And I know that that experience is not the same for everybody. Australia has a particular relationship with America and, you know, I think we’ve been very fortunate to be so welcomed and I’m sure it’s not the same for everybody. So I just really appreciate that. And I think though when you really break it all down, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. It’s “Are you able to bring about, are you able to think in new and interesting ways about how you can make the world better and how you could understand the real-world problems that people have?” And the more you see of the world, I think the better you can be doing. So, yeah, I think as a message to all other immigrants coming into America and wherever it is you choose to go around the world, I think it’s a unique opportunity. And whilst there will be challenges, if you make the most of it, I think the opportunity for growth is really strong.

Denzil Mohammed: You mentioned some really fascinating things there about, you know, the universality of this globalized world, all the things that we have in common. And yet there are very marked differences: language, culture, backgrounds, economic statuses that we also need to recognize.

David Keane: Mhmm. Mhmm.

Denzil Mohammed: And you mentioned the relationship of Australia to the U.S., your move to the U.S. was a very deliberate and thoughtful move. You moved here strategically. How have you seen, as a business owner, diversity? Diversity of thought, diversity of background, vis-à-vis immigration to the U.S. affecting innovation and entrepreneurship? Do you think it’s something that’s needed to innovate?

David Keane: Oh, I think it is, needed is a very interesting word, but I think it is incredibly helpful to have a broad and diverse background as a human being. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, if you have a diverse and broad understanding and you have a broad set of skills, I think that adds tremendously to the innovation opportunity. You know, one of the things that helped, that I saw coming from a small market like Australia, where you couldn’t be as deep in any individual area, you had to be more broad because: small market. So, you didn’t have the same degree of specialization you have in the bigger markets. Traditionally in the U.S., because of the scale of the market, you see many humans who just go deep, deep, deep, in a particular topic, so they can be the super expert at that area. And you combine that with multiple people who sort of pass on the baton as they go between areas of expertise. Smaller markets, less mature markets, you need to have a more diverse set of skills. And I think that is definitely helpful. If you understand a broader range of things, I think you can bring innovation in new ways with that. But I do believe this idea that you can bring your skills and your approach to the world is really what our future is all about. And again, I’m looking forward to seeing what the next generation of entrepreneurs can do, wherever in the world they’re starting out and wherever they see their future. That opportunity to be able to bring their experience and their backgrounds to big markets, I think is what’s going to change our world even more.

Denzil Mohammed: Can you give me an example perhaps of how that diversity of thought brought something to fruition?

David Keane: Oh, in our world, one of the advantages we had actually starting back in Australia (the company started in Australia, and we had our first customers in Australia), we were able to go to those first customers and bring them what you now see in our product. We talked about it before, this combination of skills development, content delivery, and insights into customer engagements. We were doing all of those things when we first started the company. We weren’t just doing one of them deep. We were doing all of them. And if we hadn’t have been doing all of them, we wouldn’t have been able to translate that in the same way to scale that we’re doing now, it just wouldn’t have worked. But we were forced to because the market we were in was not ready to support that degree of specialization. And so that diverse thinking, forced diverse view, was incredibly important to help us to build where we are today. And if we look at some of our human beings in the global Bigtincan team, we’re so fortunate to have people that have also had that diverse background. Cultural, experience, technology, social, those things together can make a difference.

Denzil Mohammed: There’s this theme of almost capitalizing on the globalization that has happened and seeing all of the benefits that can accrue from it. But we are living in a time where nationalism is at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. They want to close in. And even during the pandemic where we connected over Zoom, which, by the way, founded by an immigrant from China.

David Keane: Indeed!

Denzil Mohammed: How do you respond to the wave of nationalism given that globalization has empowered your business so much?

David Keane: But I still believe that most human beings want opportunity. They want to be able to build futures for their families and they want to be able to create new and exciting ideas. That’s what human beings exist for. And most of that is the same. And our team here has really embraced that and the idea that our humans can move around the world and be part of that experience. We have had human beings that have moved from the United States to Australia, where the company has moved them there, because that was an opportunity for them and their families to have a personal experience that was strong. We’ve moved human beings from Australia to North America. This idea that we can move people around and have them welcomed and part of creating that future, I think is essential for everybody. So look, at the end of the day, I do feel that what souls, and again, some of this is naïve and I know it is, but I can’t help this idea that when you bring people together and you see each other and you realize that people want the same thing, that helps people to be more connected. And a world where people are connected is a better world than a world where people are siloed and separated. But it’s also wonderful to be able to have these dialogues. And I do applaud you for the way you’re doing this and the questions you’re asking because some of these are not easy questions. They’re really not. They’re confronting questions. But I really applaud you for asking them. I think we have to be able to say to the world, some of these things we don’t have the answer for but we’ve got to at least understand that they’re there and then we’ll hopefully make incrementally better decisions as we move forward.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s quite fascinating you talk about it like this. The bringing together of people generates ideas. In the very last podcast interview that I did with Johan Norberg from Sweden, who’s from the Cato Institute, in one of his books he says, “When people are allowed freedom, they don’t create chaos, but progress.” And so, I find that very fascinating, because that’s exactly what you’re talking about here. The bringing together of people and ideas brings things to fruition. It brings new technologies.

David Keane: But it probably brings up bad ideas as well. I think the reality is we have to be honest with that too. Bringing people together can sometimes bring up things that are not optimal, that are not advancing us in the way we want to be advanced. I don’t think it’s always that there is a guaranteed outcome. But that’s a risk worth taking. Because if we, as a society, believe that fundamentally everybody is good, which certainly I do, and I think that’s something that people have a different view on. But if you believe that, and you feel that human beings will overall make more positive decisions than negative ones, then bringing people together through immigration and through travel is important. We will see together. And we don’t know, we are talking here in the end of January of 2022. We’ll see in January 2023 what has happened with the world. Has travel changed? Do we not travel as much as we used to? Is that an impact? And what does that mean to some of the things that we just talked about? Does it mean that those same fresh ideas happen in different ways? Does it mean we encourage more bad ideas? I mean, stressful time to be around on our planet, but a very interesting time. And I just feel that every human must be part of doing what they can to help us to move in that positive direction. And I think technology is going to give us better opportunities. We’re going to have access to more data and more support and more knowledge than any human has ever had in the history of our planet. And I hope we make the best use of that.

Denzil Mohammed: You’ve been affected by immigration policy. I’ve been affected by immigration policy. And given what you’re talking about right now in this interview, how do you see, or where do you see immigration policy in the U.S.? What would be to most benefit for all Americans?

David Keane: Well, this is another interesting question because “for all Americans” is a very, very interesting question that has to be answered I think by politicians. But at the end of the day, all I can share with you is … certainly, before the pandemic, and again, this is a personal experience based in Australia, we used the immigration programs of the Australian government extensively, where we found opportunities to bring folks in that could really make a difference to our business and our customers. It was a major focus. Now, of course, Australia, as many of the listeners here will realize, had a very strict COVID policy, and that was completely stopped. We could do nothing. We could not continue that program. But look, at the end of the day, I think policies that recognize the benefits that diversity can add to the world are important. Programs that support innovation in terms of making it possible to bring skills to bear. We don’t know, and again, it’s a question for a different podcast and a different speaker, but I think at the end of the day, the decisions that the countries make about, how do you combine skilled versus unskilled, these are questions that are really interesting questions for our society. But I do believe that, and again, with a world that is more remote and we’re looking here back in a year … will we have less travel anyway? Will we have less immigration anyway? These are really interesting things that I think, again, people that are involved in these things you are doing, it’s really important what you’re doing because we want everyone to understand this and help to create the best possible future. And so, my views simply is yes, we need policies that support the needs of business. We need policies that make it appropriate. And we need policies as well that encourage, certainly here in the U.S., domestic skill development and the support of human beings who choose STEM type careers to feel they’re supported in those careers. I think that’s something that also we have to address, and these things are complimentary in many ways.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s about the market. It’s about innovation. It’s about ideas. It’s about the economy. It’s not necessarily a political issue, right? It’s a human issue.

David Keane: The only thing driving innovation is people. It’s people. It’s a people business. That’s all it is. And companies like Bigtincan, we have some great technology, and we love our technology. We have a bunch of patents. That’s all great. But the end of the day, that’s nothing. It’s all about the people that work here. And those people need to be able to work together and exchange ideas together in person and remotely, they need to do it across cultural and political boundaries, and they need to be encouraged to realize that they can do it for themselves and their families. And that’s what we need for our future.

Denzil Mohammed: So, you’ve been living in the U.S. for eight years now. Boston has welcomed you. It has helped you thrive. It has helped you succeed. It has helped you spread all over the world. What are your thoughts on the United States as a home for inherently entrepreneurial immigrants like yourself?

David Keane: Oh, well, I can only give you my personal experience which is that we’ve been very welcomed. We’ve given tremendous opportunity. We could never have built the company that Bigtincan is today without the move to the U.S. We’ve all heard the story of “the better mouse trap.” I think a lot of the world, culturally, when they see the better mouse trap, they’re skeptical that it’s really a better mouse trap. And I think there are many cultures that are like that. I think Australia is one of those where, overall, people are less inclined to try the better mouse trap. They’re more inclined to stick with the mouse trap they know. I think what does make the United States unique in my view today is the ability to embrace the better mouse trap. If the mouse trap is better, I’m going to use it. I don’t care about who made it. I don’t care about where it came from. I don’t care about all this stuff. All I care about is, “Does it catch mice better than the old one I was using before?” And I think that is one of the things that is incredible about the United States of America. And I feel it is a core part of the reason why the United States has been able to deliver so much innovation decade after decade, is that cultural attitude to trying something new.

Denzil Mohammed: Willing to try out that better mouse trap. I couldn’t think of a better analogy. David Keane, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers.

David Keane: Thank you so much for having me, everyone.

Denzil Mohammed: Thanks for joining us for today’s fascinating conversation on how immigration enriches America’s entrepreneurship and innovation. Got comments, questions, or know someone we should talk to? E-mail Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L, at And please leave us a review. I’m Denzil Mohammed.

Episode 37: Johan Norberg

JobMakers podcast logo: Johan Norberg on how Diversity Drives ProgressAuthor of Open: The Story of Human Progress and senior fellow at the Cato Institute Johan Norberg joins JobMakers to share history and research demonstrating how diversity strengthens economies and societies. Norberg also discusses how an obsession with types of “borders” and other limitations can limit progress. Tune in to learn the ways in which he sees progress already being constrained.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and this is the first JobMakers podcast episode of 2022.

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Denzil Mohammed: The world seems pretty open, right? The internet, Netflix, telecommunication, travel and we benefit daily from that openness. Let’s have Mexican for lunch! Let’s take a trip! Let’s watch The Great British Bake Off! Ryan Reynolds, for heaven’s sake, he’s Canadian! But we’re also pretty closed in by borders, sovereign nations, state borders, rules and regulations that differ even by neighborhood that restrict what we can do. For Johan Norberg, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and author of Open: The Story of Human Progress, the proof is all around us. If history is a guide, openness and diversity mean faster progress, innovation and entrepreneurship. After all, if it weren’t for immigration, there’d be no Coors beer, no TJ Maxx, no Carnival cruises, no COVID-19 vaccine. By almost every indicator, the world is better off because it was open to the exchange of ideas and skills that created cures, machinery and technology. However, Norberg says that with today’s obsession with borders, the United States is already losing ground and entrepreneurs and inventors are going elsewhere; as you’ll learn in this week’s JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Johan Norberg, thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Johan Norberg: Thank you. I’m good! Thanks for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: And you’re all the way across the world in Sweden aren’t you?

Johan Norberg: Yes, that’s right. In dark, cold Sweden for the moment.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s getting dark and cold here as well. So, we can share that. We are going to talk about your book, Open: The Story of Human Progress. But I want to take it back a few years ago. In your previous book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, you said, “When people are allowed freedom, they don’t create chaos but progress.” How does that happen in an increasingly diverse world and particularly in the context of the U.S.?

Johan Norberg: Well, first of all, the results are in and we have just had 30 years that (and this is not what we hear on the news and this is not our everyday assumption), but 30 years that were the best 30 years in human history. When we look at objective indicators like the rise of health, wealth, the reduction in ancient scourges like poverty and illiteracy. We lifted 150,000 people out of extreme poverty every day for 30 years. So, apparently, something is being done right. And it is happening because of diversity. When we want to bring something new into the world, if we’re not content with the way things are, then we need innovation. We need new combinations, we need specialization and the ability to exchange with others who’ve learned something else, who’ve come up with something else. They might have stumbled onto a new innovation or specialized in a certain way of production. And that takes diversity. If we’re all the same with similar knowledge, similar skills, we don’t get much new into the world. So, it’s mixture and remixture. That’s what creates this progress.

Denzil Mohammed: And yet, you say this concept of longing for some distant past is really having a bad memory. And from what you’re saying now, it appears as though we are somehow oblivious about the progress that we have made in the recent past. Nearly half of the United States voted twice to get back to some sort of great time or place or idea. Where does that kind of nostalgia, or some might say delusion. where does that really come from?

Johan Norberg: Actually comes from ourselves. It comes from human nature. I also happen to think that all the good music that exists in the world was created in the 1980s and everything since then has been awful. When I talk to audiences around the world, I often ask them, “Think about this. When was the world at its most harmonious? When did we lead good lives? And in harmony with one another?” And most people end up with saying the era in which they grew up. So people who grew up in the fifties think it’s the fifties. People who grew up in the eighties think it’s the eighties. Those who grew up now, believe it or not, they are gonna look back on this day and age as the golden era. And I think that’s basic psychology. I think when you grow up, there’s this sense of the world as an adventure, but at the same time, it feels safe and secure because your parents are there to hopefully pick up your problems and your bills. But then you grow older and you get kids and you have to start worrying about everything that goes wrong and you learn about the world and everything then seems dangerous and scary. Because we still don’t have solutions to most of the problems that we’re obsessed with today. And we forget that every era faced the same difficulties and didn’t have the solutions that we now think of as ‘Oh, that’s simple.’ So I think its psychology is very easy to deceive us that ‘Look, something is wrong today,’ for demagogues to tell you that, ‘Look, isn’t the world a scary place? Let’s go back to something safe that we had,’ and that is dangerous. And that’s why we need history and economics and data, hard data points and statistics to really tell us how the world is really doing.

Denzil Mohammed: I was just about to ask how come we are so oblivious to the progress that we’ve made. And you talk about demagogues who want to take us back to some place that feels safe, right? Expand on this for me. Why are we so oblivious to the progress that we’ve made and the reasons for that progress?

Johan Norberg: Because problems solved are problems forgotten. We don’t think about the problem of smallpox and polio and soon, hopefully we’ll stop thinking about HIV/AIDS. But we are thinking that the world is going to the dogs because of COVID-19 and the pandemic. For simple and understandable reasons, we pay all our attention to the problems at hand because they are the ones that we have to solve. And then obviously, demagogues and politicians, they don’t activate you by saying, ‘Look, things are pretty good, right? So vote for me if you don’t care!’ That doesn’t work. They have to tell you something is worrying. ‘We have disloyal elites and strangers trying to tear everything down, but you need me basically.’ And the media obviously has an interest in scaring us, shocking us because then we have to turn to the news. Nobody pays attention to flights that landed safely. But if there’s a plane crash, obviously that makes the news.

Denzil Mohammed: Talk about this further in the context of immigration.

Johan Norberg: That’s very interesting because we can see exactly the same kind of development there. When you go back and look at waves of migration to different places, the first reaction people have is often ‘There might be a need; socially, economically for the migrant, but it’s also scary new people from another culture we don’t know, are they going to integrate or not?’ And it looks scary. In the United States when you’ve got strangers like Swedes over there in the mid 19th century and Germans, even people who liked migration and immigration like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin said, this is a little bit worrying because they come from non-democratic societies, and will they ever be able to integrate? And then obviously it didn’t take long until the Swedes and Germans were seen as the ideal model of what an immigrant should be like, especially compared to the dangerous Catholics who are coming now, the Italians and the Irish, because they’re dangerous. They’re criminals, and they have another faith, they’re loyal to Rome and the Pope. They will never be integrated. And obviously it didn’t take long before they got integrated and started working, building families. And people said, ‘Oh, they are great! But look at the next wave, the Chinese!’ or something like that. And we repeat the same thing over and over again. The latest wave of migrants are always scary, especially compared to previous ones. Because we’ve already learned of them, we’ve met them and we know that they didn’t tear our society down; they made it stronger.

Denzil Mohammed: You start your newest book, Open: The Story of Human Progress, with the time that then-President Trump scribbled in the margins of a speech he was about to give, ‘trade is bad’. Yet, you go on to argue very vividly that trade is basically indispensable to human life. It’s part of society. It’s part of civilization. Why were those three words so appealing to so many Americans?

Johan Norberg: Yes. That is really the thing we’ve got to think about and try to understand because trade is so incredibly important. It’s the reason why mankind conquered the planet because people, homo sapiens, learned early on how to cooperate with strangers and find mutual gains. And therefore, the moment somebody stumbles onto a way of controlling fire or inventing the wheel, we could all learn from it or how to go into space or read the genome of a new virus and come up with a vaccine. That’s what makes us strong, the ability to exchange and trade. But the reason why so many people believe what Trump says, that trade is bad and dangerous, is that people often think that the economy is zero-sum game. They think that ‘If somebody else is gaining from this transaction with us, then we must be the losers. So it’s always something that leaves us exposed to outsiders’. And that always looks bad. And obviously this is just a myth. The reason why we’ve gotten so strong and rich as we are, is specialization and trade. But it doesn’t feel like it, especially if the others are seeing more rapid growth than we do. Then you begin to think, ‘Oh, it’s the Mexicans and the Chinese, they are the ones gaining. It would be better if we concentrated production back home, and avoided trade.’ But if that were the case with national borders, well, why wouldn’t that be the case with city borders? Why should Manhattan buy from Brooklyn? Shouldn’t we be safer if we kept everything in Manhattan? You can turn your abilities and your hard work into the other things that you need. So basically the more access you have to such a machine, the better off you are. What Trump and many protectionists are saying is that, ‘Look, why do you produce iPhones in China? Wouldn’t it be better if we produce them back home? And in that case, we’d get all the rewards rather than giving some of them to the Chinese.’ And that’s a misunderstanding of how specialization works, because when you leave some of the routine manufacturing to another place, yes, it’s good for them because they get jobs and they get revenue, but it also means you can specialize more of your workforce in more productive areas. So more people who do the design and the programming and the marketing and the distribution. So if you look at a cell phone, an iPhone in your shop, you see how much is going to the Chinese. Well, around a little bit more than 1 percent of the price you pay for your iPhone goes to the Chinese. It’s not like they get all of it. Most of it go to American workers and to Apple and to the tax authorities. And that’s what specialization does. If you had to do all of those things back home in the U.S., well, then you would have to pay much more for that simple manufacturing, which means that many would buy a Huawei phone or something like that from China instead. And it would mean that you