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. To receive new JobMakers episodes in your inbox, sign up here.

Episodes

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.

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.

[music playing]

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.

[music playing]

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 JobMakerspodcast.org. 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.

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 forward.us or fwdr.us, 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 jobmakerspodcast.org. 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.

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 @jobmakerspodcast.org. 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: denzil@Jobmakerspodcast.org. 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 denzil@jobmakers.podcast.org. 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 www.ilctr.org, 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 denzil@jobmakerspodcast.org. 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 ilctr.org 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 denzil@jobmakerspodcast.org. 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] jobmakerspodcast.org. 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 JobMakersPodcast.org. 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’d have to have much more production back home. So it’s a twin loss.

Denzil Mohammed: In your book Open, you say that your argument is that under open institutions, people will solve more problems than they create no matter their personality traits. And it’ll increase the chance that the paths of people with different traits cross and that their thoughts and work can cross-fertilize. You say that this will happen. How do you know that this is certain going forward?

Johan Norberg: Well, I hope I don’t disappoint you if I admit that I’m not certain that this will go forward, because it depends on our choices and it depends on politics. What I’m saying is that if we have open institutions, if we allow our societies to open, to surprises, to people coming up with new things and being free to exchange, this will get great innovations and discoveries and wealth production. It’s not just history and the study of human creativity. It’s mathematics. As they say in programming, ‘With a sufficient number of eyeballs looking at code, every bug is shallow because someone is bound to see the problem and fix it.’ Well, it’s the same thing with the world. The more eyeballs that are directed to our problems whatever they are, the greater the chance they will come up with solutions to it. But at the same time, we live in an era where people are afraid of this kind of openness, where we have plenty of demagogues telling us that no, it’s safe to hide behind walls, behind tariff barriers. And once in a while they do succeed and they might be able to turn inwards. And in that case, we won’t see as much of dynamic societies and innovation, we’ll be weaker for it. So it’s not automatic that this happens. And that’s, by the way, why I write my books. If it was automatic, I could go and do something else instead. But it’s necessary. It has to happen. We have to keep our institutions, our countries, our world open to continue to make progress.

Denzil Mohammed: And I think of the example of Moderna, which came up with one of the first vaccines and Derrick Rossi, immigrant from Canada, Noubar Afeyan and Flagship. It’s all these different people from all these different places who came together to found this company. Pfizer, the same thing, immigrant co-founders. We see it, it’s there in the headlines every day, this kind of innovation that is drawn from, as you say, different eyeballs coming from different places.

Johan Norberg: And even more, the reason why Pfizer could do it was that they cooperated with BioNTech in Germany and they were founded by and are led by two immigrants and descendants of immigrants from Turkey.

Denzil Mohammed: It always astounds me that this nation was built by immigrants, people who fled other places, who had some sort of desire to succeed and to live and to thrive that they couldn’t have done in their homeland. It’s much the same today with immigrants who are coming, that inherent entrepreneurial spirit that often leads to them starting businesses at twice the rate of the U.S. born. But one of the reasons that Americans are turned off by immigration as an issue is the chaos that they see. And you mentioned the media and demagogues earlier on blowing up certain things about immigration. And that includes the southern border, where we have these camp sites of immigrants from South America, Central America, Haiti, different places. Speak a little bit to that idea of the border actually causing that chaos vis a vis your concept of openness.

Johan Norberg: Yes. There is a reason why nativists and anti-immigration groups always try to show us vivid imagery of waves of migrants, not individuals, but it looks like chaos and just large groups, because we dislike chaos and groups approaching it triggers this tribalist mentality and it is scary to us and we want to do anything to just shut it down. So we can often see that. In Europe we’ve seen how far right groups use imagery that they find in the other side of the continent of something that looks like chaos and tells us “This is happening here,” because immediately we react with our reptilian brains. The problem of course, is that this is something that you create with borders. That’s not how people act. If people are going for employment or moving to a place where they find better options, moving into a new apartment, it’s not chaos. It’s not anything like that. If you look at this on an individual level, but when you suddenly impose a border blocking people from doing it, obviously people are bound to end up there and trying to do anything to get in if that’s the only option, if there are no legal simple official means to do that. If you did the same thing in Manhattan, just imposed a border across the whole island, obviously people would concentrate right by that border trying to get over because that’s the only way to meet with others, with friends and relatives and do business and move to a place that might be more giving more option to you in your life. And that would look like chaos as well, but that’s not what Manhattan looks like when it’s open, when you can easily cross from one end to the other.

Denzil Mohammed: Even during the pandemic foreign-born health care workers who could have moved to different states that were experiencing overcrowding of ICUs and things like that, but because of state restrictions or federal restrictions, they could not do that. And I even think of probably the most mobile workforce in the U.S., which is undocumented immigrants. It’s almost like an underground railroad to move to states where they need meatpacking workers or poultry workers or agricultural workers, fracking workers. And the idea of them being able to move to these places, to fill those gaps. We don’t even recognize that. So therefore, ultimately, how do you think individuals could adopt a more open mindset in their day-to-day lives?

Johan Norberg: Rather than looking for the science of how somebody’s different, we can override it and learn that, well, it’s the differences that can teach us something new and gives us new opportunities, but also realizing that if somebody else is a human being, it means that there are other circles of identity, personality traits, tribe that you have in common with them, yeah. They might be foreigners. They might be Norwegians, but he’s also a father. He might also be interested in history. He might be cheering for the same English team in soccer. He might be listening to electronic music. You can always find those different commonalities between yourself and other individuals. If you look hard enough, if you don’t think of people as belonging just to one group. And that, I think, is the beauty of a more open and individualistic world, to realize that we don’t just have one kind of identity. We’re made up of multitudes of allegiance.

Denzil Mohammed: No, no Johan, I think that’s too much work for the average person.

Johan Norberg: Could be.

Denzil Mohammed: Your book Open: The Story of Human Progress is available for sale. Thank you very much, Johan Norberg, for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.

Johan Norberg: Thank you so much, Denzil, this 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 immigration enriches entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems. Got comments? Know someone we should talk to? Email Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L @ jobmakerspodcast.org. Please leave us a review. I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another episode of JobMakers.

Episode 36: Jeff Farrah

JobMakers podcast logo: Jeff Farrah on why we need a start-up visaJeff Farrah, general counsel at the National Venture Capital Association, brings his unique insights into immigrant entrepreneurship, venture capital and startups to this episode of JobMakers. Listen to discover how he believes a “startup visa” could yield tremendous benefits to the United States economy.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers. 

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Denzil Mohammed: As we’ve established in this podcast, immigration and entrepreneurship go hand in hand. Immigrants are twice as likely to start a business. So why, then, don’t we have a visa allowing immigrant entrepreneurs to stay here? For Jeff Farrah, General Counsel at the National Venture Capital Association, a D.C.-based group that advocates for public policy that supports American entrepreneurship, a so-called start-up visa is a no-brainer. For immigrants who went through our universities or worked for American companies, or simply have a viable business plan and want to start a business here, we should be rolling out the red carpet. Instead, we reject them and actively deny ourselves job creation, innovation and economic dynamism. Jeff is advocating for a start-up visa and other immigration reforms that would bring jobs to America. And he notes that it’s not just big policy changes that could move the needle, as you’ll learn in this week’s JobMakers.  

[music playing]

Denzil MohammedJeff Farrah, thank you for joining us on JobMakers. How are you? 

Jeff Farrah: I’m doing well, Denzil. Thanks so much for having me.  

Denzil MohammedSo why is immigration such an important issue to the National Venture Capital Association? I see it’s one of your 10 issue areas. Where does it rank and why? 

Jeff Farrah: Well, I think back to a conversation I had with a board member of ours several years ago. We were walking in D.C. between meetings at an agency on the way to Capitol Hill, and we were talking about a lot of the issues on NVCA’s list, and he said, so many of the things you all do are so important to us and important to the founders, but when you think about immigration, you’re really talking about the whole company, because without these individuals coming to the United States, oftentimes to launch a high-growth start-up, there’s no company in the first place. So it’s kind of a genesis moment in some ways. And so I think that all you have to do is look at the storied history of immigrant entrepreneurs who have launched so many iconic U.S. companies, and it becomes obvious why it is that we really need to make some serious changes in this country if we’re going to remain the best place in the world to launch a high-growth company. 

Denzil Mohammed: So has it always been a focus of your association, or have there been times where it’s taken precedence over others? 

Jeff FarrahA lot of times with any trade association, we’re a little bit at the whims of what it is that Congress and federal policymakers are doing, and so there are times when immigration is something that is a lot more on the list. I’m reminded, of course, of the time period during the Obama administration where there were efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, also happened during the Bush administration. During the 2013 bill that I’m referring to, there was a startup visa that was included in that that NVCA had a lot to do with pushing. In terms of time period, it’s certainly been a piece of NVCA’s advocacy work for many decades. And this is something where going back about 15 or 20 years, it was a group of venture capitalists that really recognized first that we didn’t have a tailormade way to be able to have foreignborn entrepreneurs come into the country, that we were very much using these square peg, round hole solutions, and that we needed to have a more elegant way to allow these individuals who want nothing more than to launch new American enterprises to be able to come to our country. Really ever since then, a start-up visa has been something that has been at the forefront, and we’re of course very interested in getting this across the finish line, but we’ve had a number of successes along the way. 

Denzil Mohammed: So this start-up visa, you make it sound as though it’s almost inherently American, this idea of enterprise and starting a business and creating opportunities. So I see several countries have some form of a start-up visa, from Australia and Canada, all the way to Estonia and Lithuania, the Netherlands, Singapore, Denmark, Chile. Where is the U.S. on this issue? 

Jeff Farrah: Unfortunately we’re not far enough alongI think the countries that you’ve mentioned, both in immigration, but in other policy areas too, they’ve seen all the benefits that highgrowth start-ups have created in the United States, and our playbook is obvious in terms of the things that we have done in this country to create that secret sauce, and so other countries are trying to replicate a lot of the policies that we have had historically in this country. But in one way, they’ve innovated and done things that we’ve not been able to do, which is in trying to attract the world’s best entrepreneurs to their shores. Despite the fact that we’ve seen this proliferation of other countries creating start-up visas, we have not in the United States, and it’s not because it’s a terribly controversial ideaIn fact, in my time talking with a lot of lawmakers, you don’t really get any pushback on the substantive issue. If you ask people, “Should we make it easier for individuals who want to create new American companies and give American citizens jobs? Should we allow those people to do so more easily?” you will probably get 535 members of the House and the Senate to nod in approval. The tricky part though, is that immigration policy tends to be caught up in some other very, very controversial issues. We’ve been in a bit of a dynamic here in the last several years where not much else can move on immigration reform unless the entire package moves. And so the politics tend to be very complicated and it does lead to this unfortunate situation where perhaps some of the lowhanging fruit like a start-up visa are not able to get across the finish lineWe’ve certainly tried to come up with perhaps creative ways of addressing that, but ultimately have not been able to get the bill passed. We have been very, very fortunate to have champions on this issue on a bipartisan basis, going back many years. The most recent version of this that viewers should take a look at is called the LIKE Act from Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren. It’s the Let Immigrants Kickstart Employment Act, and this is Ms. Lofgren’s latest version of a bill she had done previously to create a start-up visa, and she both creates a non-immigrant visa and then an immigrant visa that individuals can graduate into. So if you first come on the non-immigrant visa or you come on an O-1A visa, you can graduate into the immigrant visa on a pathway to citizenship. And then over on the Senate side, there is a larger bill called the Startup Act, which does a number of things in start-up policy, and that’s from a group of senatorsMark Warner from Virginia, Jerry Moran from Kansas, Amy Klobuchar, Roy Blunt, really a great group of senators. Within that bill, there is also a start-up visa. So that really shows that there is the capability of this really getting the attention of people from all different political stripes. 

Denzil Mohammed: I understand this idea of it being mired within something that’s so politicized and so contentious, immigration, whereas it’s such an integral part of what America is. And I know of many stories of entrepreneurs or budding entrepreneurs who, because of our immigration system, were not allowed to stay here and start their companies. An educational online resource called Sutori, started by a group of three immigrants, two of them had to go to other countries in order to continue the business, only one was allowed to stay here. And you spoke earlier about it being such a part of America’s secret sauce. So many iconic American brands, Levi’s jeans, Kraft cheese, Coors beer, Budweiser, up until Tesla and Google and eBay, all founded by immigrants. Explain to me how the start-up visa would work, and other initiatives that you’ll support, like the idea of stapling a green card onto a college diploma.  

Jeff Farrah: I think that a great illustration of how the start-up visa works is mentioning perhaps another famous foreignborn entrepreneur. There’s a gentleman named Jyoti Bansal, and Jyoti is from India originally. He came to the United States on an H1B visa and he wanted to be an entrepreneur, but he was working under his H-1B status, that was the authorization that he had to be in the country. And Jyoti has talked publicly about the fact that he needed to wait seven years in order to get his green card. Well, of course, he couldn’t launch his own company while he was working on an H-1B visa, so he needed to have the green card to be able to go and do that. And so you think about somebody like him who is unnecessarily waiting to do what they’re probably put on this earth to do, which is to launch a highgrowth company. Well, Jyoti finally gets the green card. He launches a company called AppDynamics, and AppDynamics on the eve of its IPO ended up selling to Cisco for $3.7 billion. And you think about that situation. Obviously Jyoti has done a tremendous job of creating value. He’s got lots and lots of employees, a leading American technology company, values it at almost $4 billion. And you think to yourself, it’s really a shame that we had to wait that additional seven years for that individual to go off on their entrepreneurial journey. And then the other issue that Jyoti has talked about is that he had friends of his during the same time period that didn’t feel like they could wait all the time that was needed, and so they ended up leaving the country and going and launching new companies in other countries. And that is unbelievably frustrating because the United States could have had those companies. We could have had that additional dynamism in the economy, we could have had that employment, we could have had that innovation, the intellectual property, so on and so forth. One thing that we’ve spent a lot of time talking with policymakers about is there’s this recognition in a lot of circles here that venture has really become globalized in many ways, because as I said before, so many countries have copied our playbook, and this is a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do, to try and create start-up ecosystems in their own countries. If you look out over the last 20 years or so ago, the United States used to get about 86 percent of the global venture capital pie that would go into U.S. start-ups. That number’s been dropping over the course of the last couple decades, and the last couple of years, we got about 51 percent of global venture capital. Now, the total number, of course, continues to go up. We continue to raise more venture capital here in the United States, which is a good thing, but it also shows that other countries are getting their act together, and they are able to welcome these individuals who are unfortunately not welcomed in the United States with something like a start-up visa. And so that’s something we’re really trying to fix here because I think that ultimately the visa categories that we have now at our disposal, they’re not made for the entrepreneurial model. You think about an individual who goes to work at a large tech company on an H-1B visa, that’s a different circumstance as somebody who wants to launch his or her own company. Or you think of somebody on an O-1 visa. Sure, there are lots of entrepreneurs that end up getting O-1 visas, and that’s a great thing, and certainly a way to capture some individuals, but when you’re trying to measure whether or not someone is extraordinary enough to get that O-1 visa, that means they have to have a certain track record of accomplishment to point it to the direction of USCIS, which ultimately is making those decisions. That doesn’t work very well if you’re 23, 24, 25 years old, and this is your first company, or maybe it’s your second company and your first one failed. And so we are losing entrepreneurs who are not able to use the categories that we have now, which is why we need to create a category for these individuals who want to launch these companies so that we don’t lose out on those opportunities going forward. 

Denzil Mohammed: And in their own way, certain states have actually stepped in to try to solve this. In Massachusetts, for instance, there’s something called the Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program, a way to bypass the quotas that would allow highskilled immigrants who’ve gone through our university system to be able to stay here and incubate their businesses. Thomas Ketchell, the person I mentioned, that was his only avenue in order to be able to stay here. How would these start-up visas create this ripple effect of employment in the economy? 

Jeff FarrahThe economic literature on this is very, very clear, which is that the growth in our economy, the dynamism that I referenced before, it comes from young companies as they scale and grow. You look at these companies that are five years old or less, and they’re the key drivers of employment, where you have a lot of larger companies that are roughly hiring and firing in proportion on an annual basis, and that’s probably going to be the way it’s always going to be. But then a lot of the growth comes from these really special highgrowth young companies. And so we need to figure out how it is we get more entrepreneurship, how it is we convince people that they need to leave their perfectly secure jobs at, pick a company, and jump out and do something extraordinary and audacious. One component of doing that is to allow individuals from other countries who are very interested in following that model to come here to ultimately do it. We know that foreign-born entrepreneurs are among the most successful ones anecdotally. We also know that immigrants tend to be more entrepreneurial from a lot of the data that’s been published I think in the Harvard Business Review by Professor Kerr, and so it’s certainly something that seems obvious to us. I think that one frustration that we have encountered with a lot of policymakers is this very wrong assumption that just because the United States has been the best place to launch a highgrowth company in the last 50 years, that that’s necessarily going to be the case in the following 50 years. And that is absolutely not the case. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels because as I said before, other countries are very, very serious about taking this mantle away from us, and we know that entrepreneurs are very influenced by public policy. When there are signals that are sent to the marketplace, that is something that people ultimately do derive lessons from. In the case of immigration, if we’re sending up a giant stop sign at our borders to individuals who want to create new companies, those people are dogged individuals, and they will go and start that company in other countries, and there’s new capital available all over the world to do that. 

Denzil Mohammed: It’s so interesting that you talk about this globalization of venture capital and funding and our loss in the rankings in the world. I mean, from 80 something percent to 51 percent, that’s really astonishing and almost shameful. Describe for me the International Entrepreneur Rule. What is that about? 

Jeff Farrah: So this is something that NVCA has led on for many years. As I alluded to before, when there was comprehensive immigration reform that was going on in Congress, at one point it became obvious that that wasn’t going to come to pass. And so what the Obama administration did was, it asked itself what other tools are out there where we might be able to smooth the path for foreignborn entrepreneurs, to allow these individuals to create new American companies, but to do that without creating a new visa category. What the Obama administration determined is that they could use something called parole authority, and parole is used in a lot of different contexts to allow individuals from other countries to remain in the United States. If you look at the statute that gives the Department of Homeland Security and USCIS this authority, it talks about [how] the individual needs to provide a so-called significant public benefit to the United States. What the Obama administration did, to their credit, was they put that in an economic context and they said, when an individual is starting a new company, they are certainly providing a significant public benefit to the United States by way of employment and innovation and all the things that that we’ve mentioned before. So they launched the International Entrepreneur Rule in the final days to allow the Department of Homeland Security on a case-by-case basis to look at applications of would-be immigrant entrepreneurs and determine whether or not they met a series of requirements. When President Trump was elected, we had a sense that this was going to be tough sledding, just given a lot of the immigration rhetoric that had gone on, and so we ended up approaching the Trump administration very early to try and really make sure they understood that this was a way to create American jobs here in the country, and very much should have aligned with President Trump’s vision for what he was talking about during that campaign. But unfortunately for us, they didn’t see it that way at all. They made a couple of attempts to repeal it. We ended up filing the first federal lawsuit in the history of NVCA against the federal government to block them from doing that. We won in federal court in Washington D.C., and it was really because of that lawsuit that the International Entrepreneur Rule was around. Now, we’re in a situation where applicants are starting to apply for the International Entrepreneur Rule. The final thing I’ll just mention on this is that it was really fantastic that one of the first individuals who ended up getting the International Entrepreneur Rule designation was backed by the then board chair of NVCA. So it was a great culmination that you had this individual who was working in the network security field, had a great idea, but was in a bad spot from an immigration perspective. He ended up applying for IER and getting it, and so that was very rewarding to see that happen because of our work. 

Denzil MohammedBut looking more broadly at the immigration policies of the last administration, it wasn’t simply a crackdown on unauthorized immigration. They significantly cut legal immigration to the U.S., even the high-skilled, best and brightest that they claimed they wanted. Reflect a little bit on what happened over those four years, and how do you see that as having benefited or hurt the United States? 

Jeff Farrah: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of the way it went about. And I think this is something where a lot of the messaging in public from former President Trump, a lot of the individuals in his administration, would talk about illegal immigration as being their focus, and that if individuals just would only go through the legal process, then that would be perfectly fine. It’s individuals that didn’t go through the legal process that they had a problem with. But of course that wasn’t what was going on in reality, because there was really a two-pronged attack that was going on. It was, as they said, focused on individuals that perhaps were not going through the process, but simultaneously focused on a lot of individuals that had been waiting in line, as folks would say. I think that during the Trump administration, we cannot quantify what types of individuals had a painful experience and gave up their desire to come to the United States, to either work at a high tech company or to go through a process to try and become an entrepreneur. And so that’s something where those individuals probably are in other geographies now working on their companies, and that’s real lost economic value that our country is not going to get back. 

Denzil Mohammed: So I took a look at the White House’s website to see what the BidenHarris administration’s top priorities are, and immigration is one of them. They call it outdated, they call it a long broken system. What is the path forward? 

Jeff FarrahRight now we’re in a situation where clearly the president is focused both on COVID, but also on the Build Back Better agenda, and that’s dominating the headlines, and certainly something that I think Democrats are clearly highly motivated to get this over the finish line during this calendar year, and so I think that’s going to be the focus. It does not look at this time as if immigration policy is going to be able to be in the Build Back Better Act, and that really is because of the budget reconciliation tool that the Democrats are using here, and there are a variety of rules that apply to the types of things that can go into that bill. So in terms of looking forward, this has been an issue that there are a lot of key constituencies, especially within the Democratic Party, that have wanted to make progress in immigration reform for many, many, many years, and it’s been incredibly frustrating, so I suspect that there will be a concerted effort to make progress on this. I think, though, that the issue will become ultimately what the makeup is of the House and the Senate, and that might be something that might frustrate a lot of these efforts going forward. Some people are projecting that Republicans are likely to take the House, perhaps they will take the Senate. That probably doesn’t lead to a positive outcome on immigration reform. 

Denzil Mohammed: Its not even necessarily an immigration issue. It’s business generation, it’s job creation and it’s inherently American. I think that’s where it fits into the narrative for me, as far as I see it. But it’s also a human issue. It’s people who build up dreams and need a place where they can actualize their ideas for the benefit of the host country, right? 

Jeff Farrah: I completely agree. And the thing, too, is that there are these efforts right now going on on a so-called China bill, and it’s gone by a bunch of different names over time. 

Denzil Mohammed: I wish you the best of luck in your advocacy and in your work, and I hope more people join your coalition to be able to get these things done. We need an immigration system that works for all of us, right? 

Jeff Farrah: We do. I appreciate you shining a light on this, and it’s been a pleasure to be part of the conversation. 

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank 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 insightful conversation on how welcoming entrepreneurial talent benefits all of us. It’s a good way to end our first year. JobMakers will take a break for the holidays and return on January 6th with a fascinating interview with the author of Open: The Story of Human Progress on how borders are actually holding us back. Send your questions to denzil@jobmakerspodcast.org. I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you in 2022 for the next episode of JobMakers. 

Episode 35: Carlos Castro

JobMakers podcast logo: Carlos Castro, from crossing the border to owning a businessEl Salvador-born Carlos Castro crossed the border to the United States to chase his dream and escape the dangers of his country of origin. Once he learned English and obtained his citizenship, he founded a business that now employs more than 200 people. Tune in to learn how he’s given back and become a community leader.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers. 

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Denzil Mohammed: What do you know about migrants who cross the southern border, and where they go in life if their journey is successful? Do you know what they’re fleeing? What skills they may have? What their dreams are? What motivated them to take such a dangerous risk? For Carlos Castro, President and CEO of Todos Supermarket in Woodbridge, Virginia, it was decapitated heads lined up on fences. It was a civil war. It was virtually no economic opportunity in El Salvador. Carlos took a huge risk as a young man to cross the border without authorization. But in that dangerous journey was a determination to support his family and find them safety, as any husband and father would. Carlos, who became a U.S. citizen in 1990, is now a business and community leader in Northern Virginia, employing more than 200 people. He explains some of the things Americans find perplexing, like why do migrants cross the border, why immigrant business owners tend to hire people like them, and what life is really like in the hellish countries where desperate migrants come from, in this week’s JobMakers. 

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Denzil Mohammed: Carlos Castro, welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you? 

Carlos Castro: Very good. Thank you for the invitation. 

Denzil Mohammed: So you are founder, president and CEO of Todos Supermarket in Woodbridge, Virginia. Describe your business for us. When did it launch and where is it today? 

Carlos Castro: I was at a party for a friend of mine, and she came to me and she said, “Look, there is a need for a grocery store here. Why don’t you start one? And I go like, “Why me? [laughs]. You know, I don’t know anything about grocery stores. But a year later, I was talking with some friends about starting a businesswe went through many, many ideas, and then I remembered what my friend told me, and we decided to open Todos Supermarket because it was only a tiny Mexican store, like 500 square feet. It was very, very small. And we took 2,500 square feet. It was very, very small. But we didn’t know how to negotiate contract, we just went and signed for whatever they offered me. So then my wife was running it. The idea was that my wife was a maid, a house cleaner, and that she could have her own business and I would have my own business, and that’s how we started in 1990. And after I realized that actually I was not doing very good in construction because I was most of the time on the phone with my wife, trying to resolve issues and figure out why we were not selling. Then I decided to give up my construction business in D.C. and come to the store, help my wife. The problem is that she did not have money to pay me a salary, she barely paid herself a salary. So I became a tax preparer, and by being a tax preparer I realized that people were not taking advantage of home ownership, so I became a realtor and I was working out of the store. It was very difficult years. But we start to ask the customers, “What would you like us to have? every day since day one, and that’s how we actually became to know that even though we speak Spanish, even though we’re Latinos and everybody thinks we are all Mexican, it’s just not that way. Bolivians have their food, Colombians, Peruvians, you name it. So it was a exciting learning and very difficult time, but the beauty of it is that in some countries, the owners of the businesses are considered very smart people that you can go and get advice. People would come to my store and ask for things, and then my wife would tell them, “Come back at six, my husband is gonna be here. And then by the time I got to the store, I had a line of people that had something to ask and it felt really good, and it create that kind of loyalty in our community. That went on for five years. Then we decided to move to 5,000 square feet in five years. And then another five years, we moved to 10,000 and then to 18,000. By the time we were in 2010, we actually got into this one location at Marumsco Plaza in Woodbridge that has a total of 75,000 square feet, with offices and headquarters and everything. Had like 180 employees, we still have 180, some of them have left, and we have hired new people. My attitude has been always that we hire for attitude. You get the right attitude, I can teach you the business. So my general manager, I found her flipping hamburgers at the McDonald’s nearby, and she actually took the offer the same day I put it to her. She’s now my general manager. And her case has repeated over and over. But my father, he was always helping. He was a builder, and he always was observing people. I was a kid always with him, I was his first child, so he was always looking at people and giving the opportunity. So Todos Supermarket have done the same. We give other people opportunity. When we bring new people to the team, nobody gets to worry because we don’t compete, we complement each other. 

Denzil Mohammed: Giving people opportunity is key, especially recently arrived immigrants. They just want a crack and they want a break. And they’re able to develop their skills from flipping hamburgers to becoming general manager of a massive 75,000 square foot store, I mean that’s pretty incredible. And you mentioned your father and growing up, obviously you didn’t grow up in Northern Virginia, you grew up in El Salvador. Most listeners will have no idea what life is like in a place like El Salvador. Paint a picture for us. What was it like growing up? 

Carlos Castro: We were very poor. My father built his house in the capital with salvage materials, pieces of metal. We laugh all the time because I told him that we had the biggest window in the living room. The only problem is that it didn’t have any glass to hold, you know [laughs]. And we used to go and we closed our door and we put like a big piece of pipe to keep it locked. And then of course you lock the door and then the window is open where you can run a truck through it [laughs]. So it was funny. We didn’t have any running water or indoor plumbing. My father kept reminding us what we needed to do to really survive and reminding us that we didn’t have any inheritance to receive, that all we had was an able body and a good head on them, and that we have to do our best. One thing that happened during those days is that, good jobs were reserved for people that were friends of the owners of the company or a boss in the company, and poor people like me didn’t have any chance. I worked with my dad the first few years, and I moved to work at a factory, but to get a 25 cent salary increase in a year, we almost had to go into a strike. It was like that. But I enjoyed what I did and luckily I was able to climb the ladder at a very young age. I was supervising people by the time I was 19, and I was supervising a production plant of a big factory when I was studying industrial engineering on my first year, and I was only like 20 years old. And I was happy.  

Denzil MohammedYou were all set. Why did you need to move?  

Carlos CastroYeah, exactly. Then we had a civil war going on really bad. That was the military against the leftwing activists from Cuba and Nicaragua, and it become a terrible civil war. You found people decapitated with the hair stuck on the fences. It was horrifying. And me being the eldest of my siblings, I had the opportunity that some of my middle school classmates gave me to come to the U.S., of course illegally because we had no chance of getting a visa. So I thought really quick because he asked the question on me, “Why don’t you go to the U.S., work for a couple of years, learn English, and maybe by then the war will be over, and then you can provide for your siblings and your mom and your dad? I had a job there in the unions and the guerrillas were taking over and shutting down the factories. As a matter of fact, the factory where I worked, it was actually one of three that were still open. So I thought, “This is gonna collapse any minute,” and I took that opportunity. I came with a coyotea smuggler, and I got caught across the border, so I got deported. After I spent a month and a half in detention, I got to El Salvador at midnight when they dropped me there, and then I hid for a week and then got more money. I found my motorcycle and I headed back with a cousin, and we went across Mexico and across the border. Luckily we made it and that’s how I’m here. The first year, all I did was save money to buy my ticket back to El Salvador [laughs] because I wasn’t really enjoying. My wife was in El Salvador with my little kid that was one year old when I left, so all I wanted is to get back to El Salvador. But then I got the opportunity of working in construction, and I was really good. I am really good in construction, I love it. I enjoyed since I was a little kid. So that was my ticket to success. I was able to save for my house, and then I moved on to set up my own company with the customers that my boss couldn’t serve, he would give them to me, so he helped me. Actually, he signed our job certification for my wife, and then by my wife getting her visa, my kid and myself could get a visa. So actually she came a year after I was here. I brought her in through the border, she got caught, she was in jail, but we were able to get her out of jail through an organization and into here. And that’s how she came to work for the architect, my boss, and I asked him and he agreed to sign our papers. 

Denzil Mohammed: With things being so terrible, and during a civil war in your country, and as you said, decapitated heads in the streets, it’s something that we here in the U.S. can’t even fathom, it’s something so distant to us. And yet that was your daily reality. Who would not want to escape something like that? I will bring it to the present day where you went from 1,000 square feet to 75,000 square feet with Todos Supermarket in Woodbridge, Virginia. You basically realized that there was a food desert for recent migrants to that area and ended up taking over the giant supermarket, what we in Boston here call Stop & Shop. You’re involved in several initiatives in your community, and one of them is helping a nonprofit called the Hispanic Organization for Leadership and Actionor HOLA, which works to engage and empower the Latino community. Describe your work with HOLAWhy is it important and what benefits have you seen arise from it? 

Carlos Castro: Well, HOLA was created like 20 years ago by a visionary chairman of the board, Sean Connaughton, here in Prince William County. He saw the need because of the growth of the community. He said, “You need to have an organization. Basically our idea is to develop leadership, to get people into the community, to participate, to be part of the mainstream community little by little. So we have focused our effort in being a center of information, and bringing information to the community by creating events where the community show up and the agencies that are in the county show up. And then we talk about everything that is at their disposal in the county or state government. We want to focus in leadership development. We want to make sure that we create resilient communities that are selfdependent, that are not dependent of other organizations or the government, but actually on their own, you know, basically leaders.  

Denzil MohammedSo the result of that has been recentlyarrived or almost recentlyarrived migrants to the area being part of building up the community by taking on these leadership roles. It brings me to a point that is a sticking point for a lot of U.S.-born people. I read a recent article, well from 2017, that mentioned 90 percent of your employees are Hispanic. Respond to questions about why you and other business owners tend to hire people of similar ethnic background. Does that tie into what you were just talking about, building up resiliency, meaningful job opportunities and that kind of thing? 

Carlos Castro: Generally, you want to have people to work for you that you trust, and the people from your country are the first people that you trust, whether it’s a relative or friend or somebody, and it takes a while to build a business. So that’s how we ended up hiring people that speak Spanish. But the other problem that we have as immigrant companies, or what do you call it, international companies or ethnic companies, let’s say regular Americans or people from other groups that are not used to work with Latinos, they don’t see their future in any company. Let me give you an example. Once I hired the daughter of one of my customers as my personal assistant, and she was asked, “Why would you go to work there? Why don’t you go to another American company that you have a better future? And at some point I ran a campaign. I thought in order for me to grow, I need to attract more people, or different groups. So I ran a campaign to hire managers, and I had a good response of people. By the time we set up the first interview, it was kind of sad to see that people park their car, go around, look into the store, walk around the store and then walk back out. At that point, I realized I’m not gonna attract American people to work for me. I mean, we’re a stinky little grocery store, what do I think? And then I decided I’m gonna put my efforts to make sure that my people get the opportunity. 

Denzil Mohammed: That is so interesting. And I don’t think any U.S.-born person would be thinking like that. Would an American want to go to work for the Hispanic grocery store out there in Woodbridge? What do they know about oxtail, for instance? What do they know about halal meat? That is really interesting, so thank you for shedding light on that as an immigrant and minority business owner. That was really great. 

Carlos Castro: Thank you.  

Denzil Mohammed: You mentioned your father earlier, and it’s clear he’s had a very profound impact on your life as not just a business owner, but as a man. What has been the influence of him on your work? I know from previous interactions with you, you mentioned he was very strict, but he also had a set of principles and values, right? 

Carlos Castro: Yes. You know, that’s pretty much it, it’s about principles and values. My father didn’t have the opportunity to go to school. He actually rebelled against my grandparents because he was the son of the maid, so he wasn’t really part of the family, and they wouldn’t give him the opportunity to go to school. So he left the house when he was probably 12, and then he met people along the way, because he was very charismatic, and he made some good friends and people taught him. He was a genius in a way. He learned to be a builder and he never went to 12th grade. Actually he finished 12th grade when he was married to my mom, and he was like 40 some years [old]. And I enjoyed so muchhis boss was probably a young architect or a young engineer, and when they told me, “Whatever I know, I know it because your fatherI went to school, I have a lot of knowledge, but I don’t know how to do these things, and he taught me. And so he was very good at thatparticularly in the structures. He study at night and he kind of look at everything. He was able to go through a set of blueprints and have a list of all the errors that were in those blueprints and give it to the architect, “We need to fix it.” And like I said, he was a perfectionist, so he demanded from us kind of the same thing that he demanded from himself. 

Denzil Mohammed: I’m so happy that you came here to the U.S., as you say, with a coyote, illegally. Detained, deported, came back. You had that persistence and that led to you being able to have the opportunity that you obviously did not have in El Salvador at the time, to be able to put your hard work to use and let it result in something. And it resulted in dishwashing, and janitorial, and then construction, then owning your own construction company, then owning your first small supermarket. And now Todos is a giant, let’s put it that way. What are your views on the United States as a home for immigrants? 

Carlos Castro: It’s a place that I dream about. I didn’t think that the [inaudible] where you get a shovel and you shovel dollars into your pocket, but I thought that it was a place where there is good people that can help you succeed. And that has been my experience. People helped me along the way. I was not asking a lot of the time that people came to my rescue. Very goodhearted people in America, and I think we need to keep that spirit. As new immigrants, we need to help others to achieve their dreams, so that we give others the opportunities that were given to us. For immigrants right now it’s very difficult. As we all know, there is people driving their cars into a crowd, or just shooting somebody or hating you for no reason. I think as immigrants, we have the obligation to make sure that we get enculturated with the rest of the community that live around us. I think it’s still the best place on earth if you want to actually succeed, if you want to make something about yourself. As long as you don’t find anything to come up with excuses. Excuses are not allowed if you want to succeed in the U.S.

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship, contributions and research 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, know someone we should talk to? Email denzil [at] jobmakerspodcast.org. Thanks for joining us for this week’s incredible story of one immigrant’s resilience, success and contribution. Next Thursday at noon, we talk with Jeff Farrah, General Counsel for the National Venture Capital Association, about why immigrants and JobMakers like Carlos have virtually no avenue of migrating or remaining in the U.S., an outdated but fixable immigration system that doesn’t adequately serve America’s needs. I’m Denzil Mohammed, and thank you for listening to JobMakers.

Episode 34: Alex Nowrasteh [part two]

JobMakers podcast logo: Alex Nowrasteh on how immigration is a boon to the U.S.In part two of an interview with Alex Nowrasteh, the director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, he shares research on how immigrants benefit all Americans. He also discusses where anti-immigrant myths come from and how they can be countered. Listen to the episode to find the facts behind the rhetoric.

Denzil MohammedI’m Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers. 

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Denzil Mohammed: In the last episode of JobMakers, we began a very enlightening conversation with the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh, their director of immigration studies, and a regular immigration commentator on Fox and other news outlets. He’s compiled a great booklet that you can download for free at cato.org or libertarianism.org, called The Most Common Arguments Against Immigration and Why They’re Wrong. Last time, Alex laid out the facts for us on immigrants and immigration in the U.S., countering many of the false narratives we’ve been fed all our lives, and our ancestors fed. Facts like: public safety has increased as immigration to the U.S. has increased; immigrants aren’t a lot for the Democratic Party; as immigration increased, so did American prosperity. This week, Alex hones in on a fact that research has consistently found: that immigrants benefit Americans. And given his many years of speaking on this topic to anti-immigrant audiences, he gives us his insight on where anti-immigrant arguments come from, as you’ll find out in this week’s JobMakers. 

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Denzil MohammedWhere does all this misinformation or disinformation come from? I spoke to Professor James Witte from George Mason University’s Institute for Immigration Research, and he made very clear that there’s something called misinformation and there’s something called disinformation. And you mentioned names like Mark Krikorian and Ann Coulter, who I would argue are possibly spreading disinformation, actively doing that. People are being fed certain messages in their minds, and if they believe certain things as facts, for instance, the crime, where does it come from? You’ve been talking to this audience for a long time. 

Alex Nowrasteh: I think it comes from many different places. I think part of it is, people focus on anecdotes and they don’t focus on data. So they’ll look at the newspaper and see some horrible crime committed by somebody who is an immigrant, and they focus on that, they don’t look at the data behind it. And we do that with everything, by the way. It’s a real problem with human cognition and perception, it’s a big systemic problem. So I think that really pollutes this debate a lot, if people focus on anecdotes and on those cases. I think some of it also comes from the way that our brains are hardwired. Our ancestors grew up in caves, on the savannas of Africa and other places, and they evolved for that kind of environment where resources are fixed. There’s only so many buffalo running around that we can hunt to feed ourselves and our family. So in that kind of environment where resources are fixed, a new person coming in, or a new group, really does lead to a decrease in resources for everybody, really does make your group poor. And so you view outsiders with suspicion, you view new people with suspicion, it’s a dangerous thing. But we live in a modern world. We have free markets, we have trade, we have capitalism, we have what’s called positive sum growth. People are creators, we create things, we’re not just taking animals from the environment to eat or clothe ourselves. We’re making goods and services from raw materials and from the ingenuity of the human brain. And so what’s happened is our minds are just not evolved. Our economy has evolved faster than our minds have kept up. And as a result of that, we have a very primitive mindset where we just see new people, whether they’re from abroad or whether they’re births or whatnot, as taking away from us. And it’s a primitive mindset, it’s an incorrect mindset. And I think part of it is a lot of people who are anti-immigrant don’t actually want to tell you why, or they don’t actually know why. They just don’t like foreigners, and they look for a reason to justify why they don’t like foreigners and they go down this list. So one of the things that I’m worried about is they might say, I don’t like immigrants because they take our jobs and lower our wages, and I respond to that. And then they go on to the next one, well, immigrants are going to take welfare, and I respond to that. And they go, well, they’re going to be criminals and terrorists,” and I go down the list, and I worry that I’m not actually responding to the real reason. They’re just giving me what they think are acceptable reasons. And so we’re doing this whole long song and dance where we’re not really responding to what the other person is saying or really thinking, and that’s just a horrible, difficult way to talk about it. I suspect that a lot of the reason why people don’t like immigrants is they just don’t like foreigners, and it’s really, really hard to say that without sounding like a xenophobe, and people don’t want to sound like xenophobespeople who don’t like immigrants. And so it makes it impossible to have this discussion. So in a way, it’s sort of like political correctness and patriotic correctness, which is the right-wing variety, makes it very difficult to have an honest conversation about immigration. But I will say, I think there’s one thing that people don’t talk about very much that I think matters a lot, and this is chaos. I think most people dislike and hate chaos, and they view our immigration system, they view what happens on the border, they view all this stuff as chaos. And if people see chaos, they become immediately turned off. They hate it and they want to clamp down on whatever that chaotic thing is. You see it with the drug war, you see it with crime, you see it with everything else. So as long as we have a chaotic border, people are going to be really upset about immigration. Even though the border has very little to do with the total immigration debate, it’s a very small feature of it, but it bleeds over on everything else. But the catch22 is, we can’t get control of the border until we let more people in legally, but we can’t let more people in legally until people think that there’s no chaos on the border! 

Denzil MohammedWe know visa overstays, for instance, traditionally account for more unauthorized immigration in the U.S. There’s no focus on that. Legal immigration is a huge deal, people getting their green cards, being naturalized every year, entering our workforce. There’s no focus on that. But focusing on the chaos is what has engendered this kind of disposition among people. And you brought up the idea of anecdotes versus data and research. The border, individual crimes, alleged rape in Virginia high school, things like that, those are the things that people remember. They don’t remember that 13.7 percent of the U.S. population is foreignborn. They still believe in what they hear, that it’s an invasion and an infestation, it’s probably closer to 50 percent, doubting the census numbers because somehow the census may be biased. We’re up against a lot here, Alex, so I don’t envy your work at all. 

Alex Nowrasteh: Oh, it’s a challenge. What’s interesting is the late economist Alberto Alesina did a bunch of surveys in Europe and the United States, and he just asked about some factual questions first. He was like, what percentage of the population is foreignborn,” “what percentage are immigrants, et cetera. And then he asked them what they thought about immigration policy, and one of the things he found is that people who are very opposed to immigration and immigrants just greatly exaggerate the percentage of the population that’s foreignborn. They will exaggerate by a factor of three or four. So they’ll think the immigrant population is 60 percent when it’s really like 14 percent. So people are not just wrong and misperceiving things, they are twisting their view of facts to fit that. I mean, there is no city in America where it’s 60 percent foreignborn, right? The largest is just over 40 percent in Miami. To be wrong by 50 percent upwards from that shows a level of twisting reality to fit your partisan biases to an extent that is worrying. 

Denzil Mohammed: One of the difficulties in doing research on immigration, you pointed out earlier that they don’t ask your immigration status when you go to court, when you’re picked up for something. It’s difficult to show that immigration causes certain things, for instance, economic revitalization of all the metro areas since the sixties, it’s because immigrants moved in. Why is it so difficult as you as a researcher and so many others out there to parse out definitively about immigration? 

Alex Nowrasteh: So part of the problem is there’s a lot of things going on. Immigrants, just to give you an example, they increase the supply side of the economy. More workers, increased supply side, because that means more things can be made. There’s more productive resources in the United States. But is that causing all the increase, or is the demand for these workers, by an inherently growing U.S. economy, causing that? And then the immigrants are just going to the demand and then they’re rising together? So it’s just really hard to parse that. It’s what economists called causal inference, which is trying to tease out what causally happens there. We can definitely find that demand plays a big role. People are coming to the U.S. because wages are high and they’re much more productive here. But after the immigrants get here, they increase productivity, they increase the wages of native-born Americans because immigrants are not just workers, they’re also consumers, they buy things. And by buying things, that’s more customers, and having more customers means that American workers who are supplying these goods and services to new customers become more productive because the prices go up for these goods and services. It’s just this miraculous new thing. What we see across economies around the world is more people means more productivity, more people making things, more people buying things. And the measure of your wealth is how many things and goods and services you have access to. It’s not the number on your bank account, it’s how many things you can get with that number in your bank account. Immigrants increase the supply of stuff dramatically, and that’s something that we just lose sight of. But the evidence is overwhelming. Even George Borjas, who is the most skeptical of immigration, of the benefits in the United States, of any economist around who is published in the [inaudible], even he admits, using the evidence in the way that he does through his sort of analysis, immigrants increase the amount of production in the United States by somewhere around one quarter to one half of a percentage point of GDP. So you’re talking between like $60 and $90 billion a year in additional stuff made by nativeborn Americans just by immigrants being here. Does not include at all the roughly 12 to 15 percent of GDP that immigrants produce in themselves, but they just make Americans more productive by being here. 

Denzil Mohammed: So issues like economics, labor, manufacturing, but then you get into also things like housing values, even crime. We look at the preponderance of evidence and we see that there is some sort of relation, even though we can’t say directly some immigration causes X or Y. And with the crime, immigration goes up, crime goes down. Immigrants move into areas with low rent, over a generation they build up storefronts, they get safer sidewalks, they start bringing in customers to the nail salons, things like that. 

Alex Nowrasteh: If you look to the places where immigrants go, you see this happening. You don’t see immigrants going to places in West Virginia or in Eastern Kentucky or other places that are suffering. And part of the reason they’re not going there is those places are doing poorly, but those places are also doing poorly because immigrants aren’t going there and they can’t make these investments in public safety or start new businesses. They’re going to cities and suburbs around the country that are growing well and making a positive contribution.

Denzil Mohammed: Immigrants go where the jobs are. I mean, that’s why suddenly immigrants are going to the Dakotas, they never went there before. They’re going to Nebraska in meatpacking plants. They’re filling incredible voids, and we saw that a lot during the pandemic in terms of things like agriculture and food supply. Immigrants are almost 50 percent of our agriculture workers. What would we have done? What position would we have been in without that massive, disproportionately large essential workforce? And in terms of agriculture and other areas, many of them are undocumented, right? 

Alex Nowrasteh: Yeah. Many of them are unauthorized immigrants in a lot of these places. The most mobile immigrants in the U.S. economy that is willing to move from one area to another at the drop of a hat are usually unauthorized or unlawful immigrants in the United States. And that is something that’s really underappreciated, having this large mobile workforce is dramatically positive. And one of the interesting things, many of us had to work remotely for a while during the pandemic, a lot of white collar workers had to work remotely. And if it weren’t for the large number of H-1B visa holders, highskilled temporary workers, many of whom worked in IT making that possible for us, it would have been much harder for a lot of midrange and higher income people to work remotely like they were able to. Simagine the world without these hundreds of thousands of H-1B workers already working here in the United States, making IT services more available to American firms. A lot of smaller businesses probably would’ve shut down entirely. A lot of big companies would have had a lot of trouble, if not had to shut down entirely, or they would have had to outsource all these services to other countries around the world. And we didn’t have to do that nearly as much because we have such a large pool of talented workers on the H-1B visa. 

Denzil Mohammed: Because we attract and hopefully retain talent. And might I just add, we are recording this podcast over Zoom, and we have a highskilled immigrant to thank for that. You’re from Southern California. You live in DC now. You sound pretty American to me, but you have your own sort of immigration story, don’t you? 

Alex Nowrasteh: Yeah. I mean, the thing is we all do as Americans. Just about a 100 percent of us have an ancestor in the last several centuries who came here from somewhere else. My paternal grandparents immigrated from Iran in the late 1940s. My father was born here in Wisconsin, so he’s this tall, dark, swarthy guy who looks Iranian, who talks with a slightly Oshkosh accent, it’s kind of hilarious. And he moved to LA to work in the film business. My mother’s family has been here, the first one in their family came in the late 1600s. But then some left, went to Canada, came back, others came from Europe, French Jews from Europe, Germans, basically a whole mess of Western European Jews and Protestants coming over at different times. And then they both grew up in the Midwest and then moved to California to work in the film industry, met out here. And then my brother and I, we’re technically I guess third generation because the stuff that we grew up in, but I don’t speak Farsi, I’ve never been to Iran. I eat the food every once in a while, but frankly I eat Italian food more, and Mexican food more, and Thai food more, and Chinese food more. So I’m really just this American mutt with a really hard to pronounce last name, and basically people view me as ethnically ambiguous, which, you know, I’m fine. I guess I am ethnically ambiguous, that’s being an American. And my labor on this issue is not a labor born of personal experience. I grew up around lots of immigrants in Southern California, that’s the norm to me, it feels great, but I don’t have a personal experience or something troubling that happened to me. It’s partly because I’m sort of a patriotic American and this is something that really makes America different, and because of my background as a social scientist because immigration is so fascinating, and because immigration is something where if we’re able to liberalize it in the United States, allow more legal immigrants to come in, it’s worth tens of trillions of dollars to our economy in the world. 

Denzil Mohammed: That, plus the access to Thai food and Mexican food and Italian food and Chinese food. 

Alex Nowrasteh: Oh, yeah. 

Denzil Mohammed: Which we are so lucky to have in the U.S. because of immigration. We take for granted all these things that we’re afforded that people in other countries aren’t, and we have this buffet, this smorgasbord, of things to choose from every single day, because that’s what immigration gave us. So people can download The Most Common Arguments Against Immigration and Why They’re Wrong. It’s a really beautiful read, it’s very visual, nothing is complexly stated. It’s free to download, you can get it at libertarianism.org and also on the Cato Institute’s website. Any last comments about this particular project? 

Alex Nowrasteh: So this project is the combination of over a decade of my work and research on this, bringing together tens of thousands of different pages of research written by other scholars and doing original research myself. So if you want to see the highlights of what I’ve learned on this topic for a long career, with only spending maybe 20 minutes of reading, this is the thing for you to get. I highly recommend it. So please check it out, download it, and if you have any questions or other follow up, send me an email. You can find my email on Cato’s website at cato.org. 

Denzil Mohammed: And soon I’m going to be talking to one of your colleagues, Johan Norberg, the author of Open: The Story of Human Progressand I think well explore some of these themes further. Alex Nowrasteh, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers. 

Alex Nowrasteh: Thanks a lot for having me, it was a real pleasure. 

Denzil Mohammed: JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant contributions, issues and research 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, know someone we should talk to? Email denzil@jobmakerspodcast.org. Thanks for joining us for this week’s revealing discussion on how immigrants benefit all of us. Next Thursday at noon, we’ll meet one of those immigrantsCarlos Castro. His businesses in Virginia have employed hundreds of people over decades, a far cry from his humble beginnings in El Salvador, where there were no such opportunities, as you’ll learn in the next JobMakers podcast. 

Episode 33: Alex Nowrasteh [part one]

JobMakers podcast logo: Alex Nowrasteh on what we get wrong about immigrantsAs director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, Alex Nowrasteh has spent years studying the positive impact of immigrants on the United States. In the first half of a two part episode, Nowrasteh discusses how myths about immigrants have evolved and persisted throughout American history and into the present. Listen to his JobMakers episode to discover the truth behind many canards about immigration.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and this is JobMakers.

[music playing]

Denzil Mohammed: For time immemorial, we’ve been hearing the same messages. ‘Immigrants take this’ or ‘Immigrants increase that’ or ‘Immigrants have used this’. I say time immemorial because the same things said of immigrants today were said of immigrants a hundred years ago. No matter the group, whether Irish or Italian, Mexican or Haitian, those already living here uttered the same things. For Alex Nowrasteh, the Cato Institute’s director of immigration studies, he’s heard it all before; over and over again. So last summer, he compiled a quick and easy publication. Anyone can download it, it’s called ‘The Most Common Arguments Against Immigration and Why They’re Wrong’. You can get it at Cato’s website or libertarianism.org. In it, Alex lays out in simple terms, researched responses to anti-immigrant fabrications like ‘Today’s immigrants don’t assimilate like immigrants from before’ and ‘Immigrants are a major source of crime’ and ‘Immigrants won’t vote for the Republican party’. This is the first part of our conversation. And some of what you’re about to hear might surprise you. Alex knows that, but getting truth and facts out there is paramount in advancing sensible immigration policies that benefit all Americans, new or old, as you’ll discover in this week’s JobMakers.

[music playing]

Denzil Mohammed: Alex Nowrasteh from the Cato Institute, thank you for joining us on JobMakers. How are you?

Alex Nowrasteh: Great! I’m doing well. Thanks a lot for having me! I’m looking forward to this.

Denzil Mohammed: So you recently released a report on the most common arguments against immigration and why they’re wrong. Why did you feel the need to do this?

Alex Nowrasteh: So I’ve been speaking and writing about immigration for over a decade and I basically get the same questions every time. And I figured these questions are probably the ones that everybody has about immigration. So it would just be very convenient for everybody if I wrote down my quick answers to all of them, with citations and links to other research, to give people out there who are getting these questions but don’t have the benefit of having done years and years of research on each of them like I have. So that’s what basically gave me this impetus, sort of like a cheat sheet for everybody to know what I’m thinking whenever I get these questions.

Denzil Mohammed: One of the biggest misconceptions that I found in your report was the one on voting, that immigrants are automatically going to vote blue. That is not necessarily true. California is a good example of that. California and Texas, the two states with the largest immigrant populations, right?

Alex Nowrasteh: Yeah, that’s right. California and Texas. And interestingly, part of the argument against voting or the idea that immigrants and their kids are going to vote for the democratic party in perpetuity forever is it’s partly focused on immigration, of course. It’s also focused on largely Hispanics. It’s the idea that Hispanics, whether they’re native-born or foreign-born or just this permanent blue voting bloc. And if you look back at history, if you look at what’s going on today with political realignment that’s just simply not true. There’s so much evidence to the contrary that it’s kind of overwhelming, but what we really hear is this crazy narrative about how this is some new voting bloc in Porter by the Democrats, supposedly, to create sort of Democratic Party dominance, which, I don’t know when that’s ever existed since the 1960s. And I can talk about why, I mean, the history of this is kind of fascinating. So I’m from California. And when I was young, in 1994, there was a debate, a statewide proposition that everyone gets to vote on called Proposition 187. And Prop 187 did two things. One was that it denied welfare benefits and other government benefits to all unlawful or illegal immigrants in the state. And then the second thing was it told every single state official that if they suspect that somebody is an unlawful or illegal immigrant, they have to report that person to the INS at the time for deportation. And what happened was, in 1994, this was pushed by the then governor Pete Wilson, who was Republican. He was facing a pretty hard reelection campaign in 1994 in California; the economy wasn’t doing well, the end of the cold war really hurt a lot of defense industries in California. So he was facing an uphill battle. And so he latched on to this Proposition 187 as a way to galvanize voters to support him so that he could win reelection. And what’s fascinating is you take a look at this, in 1990, when peoples and first ran, he basically split the Hispanic vote on the state level with Democrats. Basically he got 47 percent. The  Democrats got 48 percent. 1990, it switches. Pete Wilson got 25 percent, Democrat got 70 percent, but Pete Wilson barely pulled it out because he got so many more votes from black Americans, white Americans and Asian Americans. But then you fast forward to 1998, and you see that Hispanic vote for Republicans keeps going down. It goes down to like 17 percent. And a state like California, where the Hispanic population grows from like 10 percent in 1970 to 40 percent around the year 2005, that’s a devastating shift. And basically what happened was the Republican Party in California in my home state decided, ‘We really needed to win this election in 1984, let’s piss off the largest demographic in the state that’s growing the fastest and be surprised when we lose basically every election after that, except when Arnold Schwarzenegger is running.’

Denzil Mohammed: So you concluded based on this, that how immigrants vote depends on how the party treats them, particularly Hispanic voters.

Alex Nowrasteh: Yeah. Surprisingly, right? No, I’m just joking. I mean, it’s obviously not surprising, human beings don’t want to vote for people who hate them. James Carville, the Democratic strategist has said this, point blank. If voters think that you hate them, they won’t vote for you.

Denzil Mohammed: You talk about assimilation, and that’s, of course, one of the biggest myths when it comes to immigration; that today’s immigrants don’t assimilate as immigrants from the past did. How are they wrong?

Alex Nowrasteh: So assimilation, we basically measure it as whether the immigrant or the immigrant’s kids or grandkids: how similar they are to Americans who’ve been here for much longer period of time on issues like education, income; civic participation, which includes voting, volunteering whether they nationalize, whether they call themselves American and consider themselves to be American. And on these measures from survey questions that go back, in some cases over a hundred years, what we see is that basically, by the third generation, that is, the grandchildren of the immigrants themselves, their grandchildren across the board, on average, are basically identical to Americans who have been here for four or longer generations in terms of all of these measures. Now, some groups take a little bit longer than others. There are a lot of Hispanic immigrant groups, because, when they come here, they have a little bit less education, it takes a little bit of a while to earn that education and pass it on to their kids. That can take three, sometimes four generations. With Asian immigrants it’s basically the first or second generation because they typically come here with higher education level. They already speak English when they arrive and that sort of jumpstarts assimilation. And then what we’ve also seen is a lot of intermarriage. So a lot of Hispanic immigrants or Asian immigrants will marry a non-Hispanic or non-Asian American. The kids will be mixed. Their kids won’t self-identify as that ethnic minority or racial minority. And because of this intermarriage, what happens is that basically pushes along assimilation. It speeds it up by an extra generation. So I like to call it ‘assimilation of the altar’. And that’s something that happened in the past; that’s what happened with Irish, with Italian immigrants, with German immigrants. Like if you notice in this conversation, a lot of what we’re seeing today is what people were noticing, a hundred or 130 years ago with the immigrant groups that were coming then. Is this happening with a whole new group of people in the United States? And it turns out it’s not that different. And in some ways, it’s a little faster. So it took on average, the Irish about five generations to assimilate by our measures. And that’s probably because the Irish, when they came here, they were especially poor, especially devastated, especially poorly educated and coming from a real backwards part of Europe at that time. They’ve caught up, Ireland’s caught up, but back then, it was really backwards by comparison to the United States. They didn’t even use money in large parts of Ireland because there was basically a feudal economy where you would pay your landlord in produce that you made from your farm. And then you get shoved into industrial aged New York. Crazy, right? Crazy transition. But if you think about today, like an immigrant from Mexico or from India or from Nigeria, they don’t have to learn how to read a clock. They don’t have to learn how to use money. They don’t have to learn how to rent an apartment. They know all these things already and they have some exposure to American culture through TV and music and everything else. So, in a sense, there’s a ton of pre-assimilation going on around the world because American culture is so dominant. The English language is just so dominant globally that it really helps jump start that process. So if I were looking backwards at time from the year 3000, I would say the assimilation trends in the United States around the year 2021 are far superior to what they were in the United States in the year 1921. I’m just that much more optimistic about it.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s fascinating. Clearly, this has happened before. This is a natural phenomenon that happens when people move and whether they came from Ireland or from Italy or from Guatemala, it’s probably going to follow the same trajectory. One of the other biggest misconceptions that you addressed is on crime. And it’s interesting to note that as populations have increased in the U.S., that’s in Metro areas, violent crime rates have gone down. Yet, we’ve seen this mushrooming of immigration to the U.S. since the late sixties. Tell me a little bit about that. And how do you counter people who come with other statistics about immigrants and crime that totally contradict yours?

Alex Nowrasteh: Yeah. So what you said is absolutely right; going back to the late 19th century, there have been about half a dozen different government commissions that have studied the issues of immigrant assimilation in the United States. And most of these commissions have been stacked against immigration. The Alibi Congress and basically nativists are put on the boards to study these things. But what’s remarkable is, every time, from the early 20th century, from the Dillingham commission, which recommended quotas to keep out Southern and Eastern Europeans because they were genetically inferior, supposedly. Up until the Barbara Jordan commission in the 1990s, that took a look at immigration, also stacked with a bunch of people who are anti-immigration on that commission. Every single one of them, they say a bunch of negative things about immigration, but they have all admitted that immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than the native-born Americans and much less likely to be incarcerated. So this is something that goes back over a century; this finding and continues to today. In fact, when you take a look at the census data, because we do have census data on crime, and we take a look at those who are incarcerated in American prisons, the foreign-born population in prison, as a percentage, is below the percentage of nationwide population. And we know that for a fact. That is uncontested. What other people say, though, is ‘I may believe, Alex, that legal immigrants have a much lower crime rate,’ but then they say ‘Illegal immigrants have a much higher crime rate, though.’ And they say that because, well, they broke immigration laws. So they must be more likely to commit crimes rather than just these immigration law violations. And Ann Coulter in her book, Adios America, which, and I say this unironically, is actually a great book because you’ll understand what an anti-immigration person thinks about all this stuff. In very clear detail. I learned more from that book, I think, than any other book on immigration, surprisingly. And what she said is, ‘Illegal immigration is a huge source of crime. And the reason why you know that is because no state counts criminal activity or convictions or arrests by immigration status.’ And she has this funny line in her book where she says, ‘Nielsen American census bureau people know how many pigs are being raised on American farms, but you’re telling me they don’t know how many criminals were arrested or illegal immigrants? Of course they’re hiding it!’ And
she says they’re hiding it to cover up some great things.

Denzil Mohammed: That is very scientific, by the way.

Alex Nowrasteh: Oh yeah. Very scientific criticism. It’s just this nativist paranoia. But what’s fascinating is, she’s right about 49 states. 49 states do not count crime or convictions or arrests by immigration status, but one state dots. And that’s the state of
Texas, which is the best state to measure for this. It’s a border state. It has one of the greatest numbers of immigrants in the country. The second greatest number of immigrants in the country are in Texas. The second largest unlawful or illegal immigrant population is in Texas and a lot of them are Hispanic, which, when people talk about crime and immigration, they’re mainly talking about Hispanic immigrants. They’re not really complaining about Asian immigrants. They’re complaining about Hispanic immigrants. And, even better, Texas has been governed by Republicans for about 27 years nonstop. So there’s no argument you can make about some kind of liberal conspiracy to cover up illegal immigrant crime, right? They’ll want to report it. And what does it show? You take a look at the Texas state data on this. You take a look at criminal convictions committed by people by immigration status. You’ll find that illegal immigrants have a criminal conviction rate about 37 percent below that of native-born Americans and legal immigrants have one that’s 57 percent below native-born Americans. And that’s as a percentage of each subpopulation. So just to give you an example, the native-born American criminal conviction rate, 2019 was 1,190 convictions for every 100,000 native-born Americans. For illegal immigrants, it was 749 convictions for illegal immigrants for every 100,000 and for legal immigrants who was 510 for every 100,000. So it’s just clear as daylight that these numbers line up in an incredible way. And when you take a look at different crimes like homicide, when you take a look at sex crimes, when you take a look at larceny, when you take a look at all these crimes, you go down the list and about the same relationship holds. Legal immigrants and illegal immigrants are much less likely to commit homicides and be convicted of them or arrested for them. Well, larceny it’s the same thing. Sex crimes is the same thing. So this is just across the board. We take a look at this and this is what holds and people spend a lot of time arguing about why this is the case, but we’ve come to the point now where people don’t really dispute that this is the case, that legal immigrants and illegal immigrants have a much lower crime rate. This has been a sea change in opinion the last couple of years, but I finally convinced people, even Mark Krikorian, I even convinced him. He has this great quote in the Dallas Morning News where somebody asked him about my paper. And he said, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a lot of evidence that illegal immigrants have a much lower crime rate than native-born Americans.’ The only response they have is, ‘Well, one is too many.’ And if you want to talk about how to allocate scarce law enforcement resources to diminish crime, knowing which populations, by immigration status, are the most dangerous, is worth knowing. Because we only have so many police officers, so many resources to develop the best. And if you really want to make an impact on crime, you should police more the native born population; which, I’m sorry to say, us native born Americans are super crime prone and super more likely to kill each other, than you should police illegal immigrants or legal immigrants.

Denzil Mohammed: That is such a powerful point. It better resonates because this is what the data has consistently shown. And to remind listeners that, for instance, authorized immigrants; people who are hoping for their green cards, for instance, they walk a very, very tight rope when it comes to committing crimes. They can be instantly deported if they commit certain kinds of crimes. So they have additional evidence to stay on the side of public safety versus U.S. boards who don’t have that kind of risk.

Alex Nowrasteh: Yeah, that’s right. Gary Becker, who’s a late Nobel Prize winning economist. He studied the economics of crime and he said, ’If you want to understand the turrets for crime, you need to multiply the chance of being caught times the punishment. And that will basically be the deterrence.’ And the thing is, for any crime, any immigrant, whether unlawful or legal, who is not a citizen of the United States, the punishment of being caught for committing community crime is much greater because the punishment is they get to serve their prison sentence, and then they get deported. And being deported is not technically a crime under U.S. law, but from the perspective of the immigrant, it is oftentimes a much bigger punishment than being in prison. And as a result of that, the deterrence factor is enormous. And as a result of that, people who decide to become immigrants are just going to be those types of people who just don’t really want to commit crimes because they’re thinking ahead. And the one thing we know about criminals is they don’t really think ahead. And immigrants, one of the things we do know is they’re doing it for the future, for themselves and they really think ahead.

Denzil Mohammed: They do it for the future. They want to establish a better life for themselves and their kids. Putting that in jeopardy, they don’t want to do that. That’s not in the equation. And thinking long-term that’s a fascinating way to position immigrants. And that’s really very true.

Alex Nowrasteh: It’s like an investment. It’s like an investment that they make in themselves and in the United States, as a result. The median immigrant who comes here to the United States from a country around the world can expect a four fold increase in income, adjusting for cost of living. That is tremendous. I’ve never had a job where one job to the next is a fourfold increase. I just can’t imagine. And a fourfold increase for somebody from Latin America or from Africa or from Asia. That’s a lot bigger difference in terms of the standard of living than a four fold increase for me would be. Like you increase my income by a factor of four, I’ll buy another house or something like that. I’ll fly first class. That’s nice, right? But it’s not going to be the difference between me sending my kids to school or not. It’s not the difference between seeing a doctor when I’m sick and not. It’s not the difference between me being able to retire at some point and not. That’s what these people face. So it is tremendous investment in themselves. And as a result, they invest in the United States! And it’s better for all of us.

Denzil Mohammed: Better for all of us. they want better paying jobs, they want to climb the ladder, they want to make more money. They pay more in taxes as a result. Immigrants or refugees give back more than the benefits that they initially received.
JobMakers is a weekly podcast about immigrant contributions, history topics and research 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 gripping discussion on the facts to combat all those anti-immigrant messages. If you have feedback or know someone we should talk to, email Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L (at) jobmakerspodcast.org. We’re going to be off for Thanksgiving but back on December 2nd, when Alex Nowrasteh discusses undocumented immigrants, anti-immigration research and Ann Coulter in the next Jobmakers.

Episode 32: Larry Kim

JobMakers podcast logo: Larry Kim's one-way ticket to the American DreamLarry Kim’s parents fled from Korea to Canada following the Korean War, and he followed in their footsteps by moving to the United States. Kim considers starting multiple highly successful marketing tech companies to be a “means to an end.” His true passion is helping people pursue their own American Dream. Learn how he accomplishes this by employing hundreds of people and mentoring entrepreneurs around the world in this episode of JobMakers!

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and this is JobMakers. 

[music playing]

Denzil Mohammed: A one way ticket. That’s migrating. What you do when you get there is up to you because you’ve left your family and other supports behind. That’s an immigrant. For Larry Kim, founder of WordStream in Boston, which was acquired for $150 million, and of MobileMonkey, a chatbot marketing platform for market and customer support on Facebook messenger, web chat and SMS, that journey began when his parents fled to Canada after the Korean war on a one way ticket. That, in turn, gave him the opportunity to purchase his own one way ticket to the U.S. to fulfill his American dream. Larry is creating hundreds of meaningful jobs for Americans. Something he’s not only proud of but feels is at the core of his values, to give back to the country that gave him the opportunity to actualize bold new ideas. He doesn’t even believe in patents, instead publishing textbooks on software development to foster the freedom for everyone to innovate. Through his technology, he’s helped tens of thousands of companies to grow their businesses. And with nearly 750,000 followers on medium.com, he mentors budding entrepreneurs from around the world as you’ll discover in this week’s JobMakers.  

[music playing]

Denzil Mohammed: Larry Kim, thank you for joining us on JobMakers. How are you? 

Larry Kim: I’m doing great Denzil. How are you? 

Denzil Mohammed: I am excellent and I’m so glad we got to talk to you. You’re such a tremendous business owner and entrepreneur. A social media maverick. I remember back in 2019 when I met you, you were like two spots behind Hillary Clinton on the top writers on medium.com. Remember that? 

Larry Kim: Oh yeah, she hasn’t been blogging for a while, so I’ve actually passed her. 

Denzil Mohammed: [laughing] There you go! So we met in 2019 at the eighth annual Barry M. Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards, where you were awarded the winner in the “High-Tech Business” category by The Immigrant Learning Center, and you said, “This is the most meaningful honor of my entire professional career.” What did you mean by that? 

Larry Kim: Oh, sure. So, Denzil, when you’re an entrepreneur, or just any careerist, you’re going to get all sorts of crazy awards. Some of them are pretty superficial, like, “Having Lots of People to Follow on Social Media,” or these kinds of silliness. Or growth awards, like “Inc 5,000 Fastest Growing Companies in America.” Of course, it’s great to get any of these awards, but it’s important to understand that, well, my perspective on this is that the growth or the number of followers or whatever these other awards are based on, that’s a means to an end. That the true goal here is to create something of value and just ultimately create jobs and employment for people in the community so that they can better their lives and contribute back as productive members of society. So, to that end, I kind of view your industry or your entrepreneurship award as being the only award I’ve ever won that reflects my core belief system. And so that’s why I declared that this was the most meaningful award that I’ve ever been considered for and won in my career. It’s an honor and a privilege. 

Denzil Mohammed: When you say your core beliefs, what did that award get at for you? What did it speak to? 

Larry Kim: Why is it that entrepreneurs do what they do? You know? Why is it that so many of them are immigrants? And I think part of that is a life calling to provide. To help people to realize their full potential in life, by providing them a framework to be gaining valuable skills, get paid for it and advance to careers. And that is my calling in life. And just the structure by which I do this is by creating these products and companies and selling products. But that is a means to an end. That is what you see. But not the core motivating factor for me. 

Denzil Mohammed: Creating meaningful work, allowing people to advance in their careers, certainly…  

Larry Kim: More for families. Live the “American Dream.” I’ve employed over a thousand people in the last decade. And we don’t just hire people who already had jobs and they were already flying high. No, we look for these people like one or two years out of college, or in some cases, community college, or no college at all. And we train them how to sell things. We train them how to be a customer support rep. We take people from companies like Best Buy, floor salespeople, really blue-collar work. And I think we’re helping people refine their skills and become even more productive members of society. 

Denzil Mohammed: Well said. Allowing people to live out their American Dream. I want to get into your immigrant story. And it didn’t just start with you, right? It started with your family. 

Larry Kim: Oh, sure. Yes. So about 20 years ago, I immigrated to the United States from the far, far away country of Canada. It was a 45-minute flight from the Toronto airport. It was a one-way ticket, and I flew here following my last exam from college and started at a local startup here. And you know, you might say, “Well, that’s not a … Canada is like the 51st state,” or “This is not really a big journey.” But you’ve got to … if you take a step back, you think of the bigger picture. My parents started this journey back 40-50 years ago. They were just young children during the Korean War in the fifties. And they were refugees, walking hundreds of miles to avoid these conflict zones and carrying everything that they owned in a bag on their back and eating grass and drinking out of rivers to survive. And it was a pretty difficult environment and when they got a little older, they decided to immigrate to Canada. This would have been in the sixties or seventies. And they also booked a one-way ticket here with like 20 dollars in their pocket or something like that. So it’s just a continuation of that desire to want to provide something for your life, for your family, for your community. And you know, this was just sort of the last stop if you will. 

Denzil Mohammed: That’s just absolutely fascinating. So many Americans don’t know about these experiences that are in the backgrounds of immigrants today and refugees today. I’m glad that they made that move. It allowed you to be able to thrive and do better than they ever possibly imagined you would have if for instance, you were growing up in a war-torn country. Your journey as an entrepreneur, did you always know that you wanted to start a business? And, and just correct me if I’m wrong, your degree is in electrical engineering, right? And now you’re in digital marketing. 

Larry Kim: So, absolutely. It was obvious that I wanted to create a business from the very beginning. My early jobs were doing paperwork and building little recycling businesses in junior high and in high school. And you know, it was a situation where I knew I wanted to … oh, and my parents! My mother was an entrepreneur too. She was a piano teacher. So, she basically taught me everything about marketing. How to get clients, how to get students. “Don’t be the lowest cost piano teacher because then you’re going to get all the worst students. You have to charge a little bit more than everyone else.” She would teach me all of these lessons about how to run a business. That’s another thing about entrepreneurship. There’s usually some family influence, from a young age, where someone is teaching you the difference between being an employee versus an employer. But yes, I think I absolutely wanted to be this … you know, having a company or a business. It was just a situation where I didn’t have the skills or the idea of what to do … like finding that niche, finding the need in the marketplace to fill. And so, you just start off in a regular job and you learn skills. So, initially when I moved to Cambridge, it was to work for a marketing software company called Allaire which was later bought up by Macromedia. And because that was marketing software, I learned a lot about digital marketing. And so that’s where I was able to then identify some needs in the marketplace around search advertising and social media advertising in terms of products that you could build, in terms of being an engineer, an entrepreneur. I think that’s totally normal. Engineering of course is an applied science as opposed to a pure scientific endeavor. And so, you always have to take your engineering skills and apply it to some other area. Biotech or fintech or marketing software. 

Denzil Mohammed: So, what was it like in the early stages going out there, asking for money, developing your ideas, finding partners? 

Larry Kim: I mean, it’s kind of comical. I was like this 20-something with a lot of ideas and no contacts, not a lot of experience. And I just did cold emailing. If you go to a venture website it’ll say, “Do you want to partner with …”, there’s actually an alias on inquiries at “venture-company-dot-com.” So, that’s not the most ideal way to go about pitching. Ideally, you’d get some kind of recommendation or warm introduction from a portfolio CEO or something like that. But yeah! Just the cold emailing. And sure enough, surprisingly, we got a few dozen inquiries and that led to meetings. And you know, it didn’t happen overnight. But over a few years of getting rejected and trying again, I was able to both build a business that was fundable and find world-class investors to back the idea. 

Denzil Mohammed: So, describe MobileMonkey to us. What is it, what does it do? Why is it important?

Larry Kim: It’s a text messaging platform. It’s a very important mode of communication if you’re a business doing business-to-consumer marketing. So, if you’re a realtor, you’re selling to customers. These customers aren’t spending all day in Gmail or whatever. They’re just on-the-go on their mobile phones. And typically, they spend a good amount of time texting or using text platforms like WhatsApp or Instagram Direct Messaging or Facebook Messenger. And so, if you’re a business it’s kind of hard to generate inbound inquiries at scale and then to those inquiries automatically. What we do is simplify this by providing this omni-chat platform that lets you manage all of the different messaging channels that you might encounter customers. All of the social channels, SMS texting, website chat, all in a single unified console and makes it super easy to engage with users at scale and provide better customer experiences leading to more sales and more leads, and then just growing your business. 

Denzil Mohammed: I’ve seen in other countries, entire economies run on WhatsApp. It’s really fascinating. On Medium you have over 200,000 followers. On Twitter, you have three quarters of a million followers. That’s a gigantic mouthpiece to speak, not just to Boston or to the United States, but to the world. What’s some of the best advice you have for budding entrepreneurs and probably some of the worst advice, so to speak, to avoid? 

Larry Kim: Well, the worst advice is going to be the opposite of the best advice so I’ll just tell you what my best advice would be, and that is to really understand that initially the enormous leverage comes from the idea. What is the solution that you are trying to provide? Who is the target market? How will we find them? Like that kind of confluence of questions. You can build anything you want, and you can sell it to anyone you want to, and you can come up with any number of ways to take that product to market. But how well those concepts click together is going to provide enormous leverage on how big a business this could be, how fast this business can grow, whether or not it will even get off the ground in the first place. And so, I think what happens is that a lot of entrepreneurs, especially first-time entrepreneurs, they tend to overestimate the novelty of their own ideas. Sure enough, you’ve come up with a great idea, but four other companies are doing the same thing. And then the second thing that they do is they downplay the competitiveness of these other products and up-play the uniqueness of their concept, if that makes sense. While it’s in kind of the “stem cell phase” of a business, where you have a lot of freedom to decide what to bill, who to sell it to and how to sell it, getting to a really great place before scaling is the best advice. 

Denzil Mohammed: So finally, given your amazing social media reach, we know that people who have their own businesses want to be able to build up. Build up their brand, their personal brand, their company’s brand, engage with customers. On social media what are some of the best advice you have for entrepreneurs? 

Larry Kim: So, the advice changes over time, because it’s so dependent on how the algorithm is tuned. It seems to me that it’s pretty obvious that the algorithm is just trying to create food fights in the newsfeed. If the content that you’re producing is like family photos or like, “Hey, buy my product,” it’s not, it’s going to be cloaked. It’s not going to really generate a lot of response or not a lot of people are going to actually see that. It just means that in 2021, you need to be a little bit more controversial unfortunately. If you’re just putting up content out there, that’s very centrist, like a “water is wet” kind of thing, it’s just not going to go anywhere. So, you really need to think about the issues that divide the community and you need to straddle that line. In terms of just a stupid example, say you’re a fitness company and you’ve got people who swear by Keto diet or Atkins diet or something. But there’s a lot of strongly held convictions depending on what diet they ascribed to. Instead of just creating “What is keto?” you would create something like “10 Reasons Why Keto is a Load of Crap!” What that’s going to do is get all the other fad folks up in arms and commenting and sharing and saying, “This is a load of crap!” and hitting the mad face emoji. Which apparently is weighted five times more than the like button. That came out of the documents on Capitol Hill. So that’s really the way to go viral and get everyone … it’s kind of stirring the pot a little bit, and that’s sad. It’s kind of sad, but that’s how I would give the algorithm what it’s looking for. The hot button topics that exist in every industry. Try to provoke a response. 

Denzil Mohammed: Yeah, it’s not a fistfight necessarily that you’re getting into, but something to generate responses by way of putting information out there. The last thing I wanted to bring up was I interviewed Semyon Dukach on this podcast a while ago. He is part of a group called One Way Ventures and you talk about your parents buying a one way ticket. 

Larry Kim: I bought a one-way ticket here. 

Denzil Mohammed: You bought a one way ticket. What is the significance of that one-way ticket? 

Larry Kim: This is not a tourist trip. You know, this is … we’re not planning a one month stay or something like that. We’re going all in. There is no plan B. This has to work. And you know, that’s the mentality of an entrepreneur. It’s also the mentality of an immigrant. If you look at all the companies that are investible, there’s a very high chance that one of the founders is an immigrant because that’s the DNA of the immigrant. It’s essentially the same as an entrepreneur/founder type person. 

Denzil Mohammed: I often say that the act of migrating is itself an entrepreneurial act and you just spelled it out in tremendously personal and beautiful terms. Larry Kim, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers and for participating in this discussion and I wish you all the best with you and your family and Mobile Monkey.  

Larry Kim: Oh thanks Denzil, it’s great to be here, have a great day. 

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, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s fascinating story on how immigrants benefit and create jobs for all Americans. Have a comment? Email Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L at jobmakerspodcast.org. Next week we speak with Alex Nowrasteh, Director of Immigration Studies at the Cato Institute about his recent publication, “The Most Common Arguments Against Immigration and Why They’re Wrong.” I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another episode of JobMakers.

Episode 31: Gary Christenson

JobMakers podcast logo: Mayor Christenson on how immigrants enrich his cityMayor of Malden Gary Christenson has seen firsthand how immigrants have revitalized his city, starting businesses and creating jobs. Christenson has also seen how Malden came together in the aftermath of hate crimes following the Boston Marathon bombing. Tune in to learn how he wants to strengthen relationships between newcomers and longtime residents, and his perspective on sanctuary city policies.

Denzil Mohammed: I am Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers. 

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Denzil Mohammed: Malden, Massachusetts, the second most diverse city in the Commonwealth after Chelsea, with almost 43 percent of its residents born outside of the United States. It’s also home to The Immigrant Learning Center, the co-producer of this podcast. So a good location for a free English language program! Malden’s always been a gateway city for immigrants and refugees, from Jews fleeing for safety after World War II, to Eastern Europeans and Vietnamese seeking democracy and freedom, to immigrants from China, Morocco, Brazil and Haiti seeking the American dream today. For Mayor Gary Christenson, it is this diversity that gives Malden its strength and assures him of a strong, proud future. He looks to the revitalization of downtown, with its disproportionate number of immigrant-owned businesses, the dizzying array of cuisines on offer and the very entrepreneurial spirit that suffuses its immigrant populations. He talks with us about managing the relationships between long-term residents and new immigrants, the reaction of the city to hate crimes after the Boston Marathon bombing, how much immigrants have given back to their new home and his stance on sanctuary cities in this week’s JobMakers.  

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Denzil Mohammed: Mayor Gary Christenson, welcome to the JobMakers podcast! 

Mayor Gary Christenson: Thank you so much for having me, always an honor. 

Denzil Mohammed: So what is it like running the second most diverse city in the Commonwealth? 

Mayor Gary Christenson: It probably is the greatest aspect of serving as mayor, because I have learned things that I know that I never otherwise would, if not for living in one of the most diverse cities in the state of Massachusetts. For example, I met with a community group a couple of years ago, and when they told me the name of the country, I didn’t even know it existed. I actually had to go to a map to look it up, it was Eritrea. And again, if not for them being here and being part of this diverse city that we live in, I might have never known that. And so to me, that’s one of the greatest benefits of living here in Malden. 

Denzil Mohammed: And you’re a lifelong Malden resident. How have you seen immigration shape this city? And in what ways? As far as I can tell, Malden has always been a gateway city for different refugee and immigrant groups, right? 

Mayor Gary Christenson: Yeah. I guess how hasn’t it shaped our city? From religion, to culture, to my favorite, which is food, it’s had a profound impact on who we are and where we are going. And I can’t tell you the number of people who end up coming here now mention the diversity as one of the attractions on why they come to our city. 

Denzil Mohammed: So you think that this diversity is a strength of ours? 

Mayor Gary Christenson: We tout it every chance we get. And you know, we try not to just talk the talk. We’re now trying to take what has been happening to our city and have it permeate throughout everything we do in Malden. So for example, we now have our first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, just a couple of offices down from me. Her name is Bybiose Larochelle, and she now is working very hard to have the government reflect what Malden has become, which is again, one of the most diverse cities in our state. She sits on every hiring committee. She’s involved with helping to promote the vaccine to underserved populations in our city. And we want to make sure that Malden is not just known as the most diverse, but actually practices and preaches on making sure that our community is welcoming and safe for us all. 

Denzil Mohammed: So we know from our own research, and you would know as the person who runs this city, that immigrants are inherently entrepreneurial. Just the idea of packing a suitcase and leaving their family and friends, and their culture, and their food behind is itself an entrepreneurial act. How has that entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants in Malden shaped the local economy? 

Mayor Gary Christenson: Just the other day, we cut the ribbon to the new Maplewood Meat Market over in Maplewood Square. And the owners, one was from Peru and the other one was from Mexico, I believe. And they are not only the owners, but they’re serving the goods that are native to their original countries. And again, that would not be the case, if not for them wanting to set up their business here in our city. So we went down there to not only congratulate them on this risk, because that’s what it is when you’re opening a new business, but thank them as well for sharing what they have experienced and learned growing up with our community. So that’s just one example of many that we work with on a daily basis here in Malden. 

Denzil Mohammed: I remember talking to Shane Smith on this podcast, who runs Hugh O’Neill’s Irish Pub. And, you know, he mentioned when he first opened that downtown Malden wasn’t the vibrant hub that it is now, with pubs and restaurants and cafés and stores. Particularly looking at the downtown area, how have immigrants played a role in revitalizing downtown Malden over the years? 

Mayor Gary Christenson: Well, I would encourage your listeners to come see it, to experience it firsthand. But they have single-handedly brought our city back, and there were times when people weren’t sure about whether that would ever be possible again, but they have done it. Just go up one side and down the other, and you’ll see. Just this afternoon, I’m going to go over to The Gallery at 57 Pleasant Street, which consists of a number of immigrant artists who are going to be celebrating the second anniversary of that store opening. And again, that would not have happened without their willingness to get involved and help us bring back Malden Square from where it once was. 

Denzil Mohammed: And I just can’t help but think of the sheer diversity. You talk about someone from Peru, Mexico, Eritrea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Haiti, just so much rich diversity here. And we take it for granted that, just in America, we have all this great diversity of food, for instance. You know, America’s favorite fast food chain is Taco Bell. We have immigrants to thank for the fact that we can choose on a Friday night, Thai food or Scottish food or Irish food or Chinese food. 

Mayor Gary Christenson: Right, well, I can tell you the difference here. A number of our students who graduate Malden High School and go off into the big world, always come back and tell us that one of the advantages of attending school in our city is that when they get out, they’ve experienced it all, whereas students that they are meeting for the first time, it takes them several years to adjust and adapt to experiencing new cultures, new religions, new foods. But not students that come from our city. So to me, that’s one of the great things about Malden. 

Denzil Mohammed: You mentioned students, and I want to get back to that in a second, but what has Malden done over the years? How has your relationship with immigrant business owners in particular evolved? What have you done right that other cities have not done right when it comes to really fostering that entrepreneurial spirit? 

Mayor Gary Christenson: As I mentioned, our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer now, Bybiose Larochelle, has been working with the different community groups throughout Malden to take us to that next level. Because we’ve known now for some time that we are diverse and we appreciate it and enjoy it, but now it’s time to take it to where it should go, which is to be in a place that everybody can participate in. So I would say that is where we’re going next, which is having people working in the government that reflect our community, having documents and meetings translated so people could participate and eventually run for political office. 

Denzil Mohammed: So you mentioned students a little while ago. Part of your progress in Malden has been the creation of 1,500 jobs for Malden’s teens, exposing them to the job interview process, giving them work experience, arming them with career readiness. Given that 57 percent of Malden High School students don’t count English as their first language, how do you see reaching such a diverse group of students? How have they been able to engage with these opportunities? 

Mayor Gary Christenson: We go to them, we reach out to them, we roll out the red carpet for them. We make it a point to find those students who otherwise would not get involved and take that step. We try to find people that we’ve never met and we have no connection with, because it’s opportunities like the Summer Youth Employment Program that could help determine who that next teacher is, who that next police officer is, who that next entrepreneur is. 

Denzil Mohammed: One of the most beautiful things to see in Malden is when the bell rings and the high school students come streaming out, all the elementary school students. And they’re from every different color, every different stripe, every different background, but they’re all friends, they all get along. They may wear a hijab or something else, but they all get along, and it’s almost like this lesson in immigrant integration and inclusion and belonging. Has it been challenging over the years? You talk about all this community outreach and meeting people where they’re at. Has it been a learning experience for you? 

Mayor Gary Christenson: It certainly hasn’t been a challenge. It’s been something that I have been proud and honored to be a part of. My family said growing up that the whole point of why we’re here is to learn, share and grow. That’s the whole point of it, to make it better for the next group of residents behind us, for them to be living in a place that’s greater than we found it. And so I’ve been able to do that by living here in Malden. I’ve seen, I’ve heard, I’ve learned things. It actually has helped me to rarely need a vacation, because I feel like here in Malden, I’m on vacation all the time.  

Denzil Mohammed: I’m not sure you want to say that before your next campaign. 

Mayor Gary Christenson: [laughs] 

Denzil Mohammed: It’s almost ironic and tragic that you say the lesson was to make it easier for the people who come after you, because so often the groups that have settled here dislike the groups that come after them, we’ve seen that, it’s a cycle in U.S. history. Who does America belong to? I would venture to suggest it belongs to anyone who believes in the American dream, who [inaudible] that freedom and opportunity. What do you think sets Malden apart when it comes to embracing its newest foreign-born residents and ensuring that they thrive? 

Mayor Gary Christenson: I would say it’s just a willingness to work with everyone to make our community the best it can be. We try here to take every call, every email, no matter what your stature is in life. There was a time when it was who you knew and what they knew, but we’ve tried hard over the years to let that not be the case here. So I believe we truly have an open door policy. I’ll give you an example. We had someone reach out to us from Morocco the other day. I don’t even know how she got my text number, but she got my cell number, she texted me. I couldn’t remember who she was or where I met her, but we had her in within 24 hours, sitting in the mayor’s office, trying to help address her issue, which is serious, but we think we might have some solutions for her. The point I’m trying to make is that was something we could have said, you know, schedule it a month out, find out who she is, all that stuff. But we try not to do that here. We had her here in 24 hours. 

Denzil Mohammed: So it hasn’t been an entirely rosy experience here in Malden. I think there have been some tensions with longtime residents and newer residents, and things can get very heated when it comes to national or local tragedies. We did have an incident soon after the Boston Marathon bombing where a Syrian woman was punched by a resident of Malden in front of her toddler, taking her child to daycare. But the city’s response was pretty remarkable, right? 

Mayor Gary Christenson: Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder, but our instant reaction was to swarm her, to be with her, to let her know that that is not something we’re known for or tolerate. And the thing I’ll remember most about that is the number of people who came to her defense and to reassure her that that was an anomaly. And I think as a result, we were able to survive that together. We are a community for all. I mean, just look at the latest census tract that just came out. When you look at the map of Malden, it’s pretty evenly distributed across the five square miles. So as opposed to another city who might have a segment or a population in this corner, and then the rest of the city is another population, here in Malden, you wouldn’t know where you are at any given time in any part of the city. 

Denzil Mohammed: Over the years, how has Malden sort of managed these tensions or this relationship of the longer-term residents versus the newer ones? 

Mayor Gary Christenson: I would say it’s creating an atmosphere where people are welcomed and respected, no matter what generation they’re from. So we observe and celebrate different holidays, we observe and celebrate different religious traditions, we eat different foods. And I think that’s how we’ve tried to do it here in the government. So I guess in other words, lead by example. If you notice on our social media channels, we’re always trying to promote a different culture, a different religion, a different food. And I think when people see the leaders of the city doing that, I think over time people tend to accept it. When they see their elected officials, managers, department heads, police chiefs, fire chiefs, I think that’s how we’ve been able to do it. Because again, we want to demonstrate that no matter where you are or where you’re from, you’re just as part of Malden as anybody else. 

Denzil Mohammed: One thing that you did over the last federal administration, there were a lot of movements across the country where cities were insisting that they be more welcoming and that they take a sort of stand when it came to protecting their immigrant populations. And as we know, about 20 percent of the immigrant population in Massachusetts has no legal status, they’re undocumented. Malden was one of the cities that did not proclaim that it was a sanctuary city. And the reason coming from you and your administration was that it’s already a welcoming and protective place. Can you expand a little bit on why you took that decision not to make Malden a sanctuary city? 

Mayor Gary Christenson: I mean, that was the flavor of the day to become a sanctuary city, but in actuality, what did it really mean besides the potential for protracted legal battles and the potential loss of aid? At that time, we didn’t know whether that would mean that some of the grants that we were relying on to help people who were in need of it the most would be at risk. So that was why at the time we didn’t feel the need to sign on to becoming a sanctuary city, which I think over time then changed to something else. I think for us, and I believe the other branches of government, they felt the same way, that we were long past having to label ourselves as something other than what we have always been, which is a place that everybody can live, work, worship. 

Denzil Mohammed: You and I have seen immigrants contribute to this city as business owners, as workers, through cultural events, building it up and enriching it every day. There is a huge narrative out there about immigrants as takers, refugees as takers. What is your view on that? How have you seen immigrants give back and have they given back over time more than you’ve given them, or the government has given them? 

Mayor Gary Christenson: I haven’t seen takers. I’ve seen people, like you outlined Denzil at the beginning, that just want a chance, an opportunity to live out their dreams. And so I’ve seen that as we’ve gone around to the different businesses, as I’ve talked with students in the different schools that we have here, and even in the houses of worship, when I go through there, that people are just looking for an opportunity to achieve their lifelong dream. 

Denzil Mohammed: That’s a very powerful way to end this. Mayor Christenson, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers. This was really a fascinating discussion and I hope other municipalities listen to this and be guided accordingly as to how, as you say, you can help people fulfill their dreams and you can see how much they can give back. 

Mayor Gary Christenson: That’s it. That’s what it’s all about. And thank you, Denzil, to The Immigrant Learning Center. I am certain we would not be having this conversation if not for all the work that you have done over the years. So 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, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for today’s fascinating story on the benefits of welcoming immigrants and refugees to the U.S. If you have feedback or know someone we should talk to, email denzil@jobmakerspodcast.org. I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another episode of JobMakers.

Episode 30: John Dearie

JobMakers podcast logo: John Dearie - Halt immigration? Fall behind.As the founder and president of the Center for American Entrepreneurship, John Dearie knows how immigrant entrepreneurs create jobs, drive innovation and expand the economy. Dearie believes that the United State’s current approach to immigration is needlessly partisan and toxic. Tune in to learn how he thinks a more balanced approach will benefit both U.S.-born and foreign-born people.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed and this is JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: The United States was and continues to be built by entrepreneurial immigrants who had the drive and determination to pick up, leave everything they know behind and to build a new life in a new homeland. So it is no surprise that they are twice as likely to take another risk: start a business. For John Dearie, founder and president of the Center for American Entrepreneurship, a Washington DC-based research policy and advocacy organization, immigration is core to his mission to build a policy environment that promotes entrepreneurship because he knows this fact all too well. He’s also seen across the country frustration among business owners at an immigration system that works against this country’s interest. Why? Because it doesn’t seek to actively attract or retain talent from the rest of the world. John sees the decline in U.S. entrepreneurship and believes that more immigration, not less, would power the nation’s economy and innovation, which have made us the global leader. Instead, he’s seeing an unnecessarily partisan and toxic approach to immigration that he says harms us all and is inherently un-American. As you’ll discover in this week’s JobMakers. John Dearie from the Center for American Entrepreneurship. How are you?

John Dearie: I’m great! Thanks so much for reaching out and inviting me to participate.

Denzil Mohammed: So tell me a little bit about the center and the kind of work that you’ve been doing. Why did you found this in the first place?

John Dearie: So, I spent the vast majority of my career in banking and financial policy. I started my career at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. I was there for a decade and then spent 17 years at an organization called the Financial Services Forum, which was a financial and economic policy group. I was the policy director there from 2001 to 2017. So I was there before, during and after the financial crisis. But as we came out of the financial crisis, even as the economy started to grow again, the Great Recession ended in the spring of 2009. So, by the spring of 2011, the recovery had been underway for two years. But the economy was growing very, very slowly and unemployment was still north of nine percent. And there was a tremendous amount of frustration that you could feel in Washington. They had really thrown the kitchen sink at the problem policy-wise, but we just were not getting the kind of traction in terms of economic growth and job creation that everybody had been hoping for. And you could sort of feel a collective shrug in Washington by policy makers. Like, we don’t know what else to do. And so I went to the CEOs and said, ‘We need to do something new and innovative to come up with some new ideas to share with policy makers; how do we accelerate economic growth and job creation?’, followed my nose through the research and eventually found my way to some research that was new at the time, but was mounting and being repeated. And there was a lot of excitement about this showing the following three things: one, that new businesses (not existing small businesses but new businesses, startups) are disproportionately responsible for the innovations that drive economic growth and job creation in the economy, so they’re incredibly important from the standpoint of economic growth. Also incredibly important from the standpoint of job creation, the two things that I was after. And, this was the really fascinating part, that new business formation, which is to say entrepreneurship in the United States, had been in decline for four decades. And I, and another colleague at the forum decided to do something quite simple and profound. We decided to hit the road, travel the country and conduct round tables with entrepreneurs all over the United States to get to the bottom of what was in entrepreneur’s way. And that’s essentially what we asked them: What’s in your way? It was by way of around table in Boston that I think I met you and I met our mutual friend Bettina Hein, who’s now on the board of CAE. And they told us. We collected extraordinary insights and data by way of that experience. We conducted round tables in 12 states around the country. Nobody in Washington knew this. I knew that because I was from Washington and I’d never heard it before. Entrepreneurship was utterly not on the radar screen in Washington as recently as 2017. And I decided that we need an organization in order to change that. We need a group on the ground doing the day-to-day blocking and tackling of engagement and education and working with policy makers on that pro-entrepreneurship agenda. And so I decided to leave the forum and become an entrepreneur myself. My colleague Katie and l like to refer to ourselves as policypreneurs. And we started the Center for American Entrepreneurship in July of 2017. Entrepreneurship is a very American idea. It’s not a Democrat or Republican idea. And the role of immigrants in American entrepreneurship, the importance of immigrants and the history of immigrants as great American entrepreneurs is a major part of what we focus on.

Denzil Mohammed: You talk about this being a very American thing. And we know this from our history. Levi’s and Budweiser, and of course [inaudible], and up until the present, Google and LinkedIn and eBay. Where exactly does immigration fit into your policy agenda? I know for instance, that during the Great Recession that you mentioned, the financial crisis, very markedly, entrepreneurship among the U.S. born dropped by almost 50 percent, and yet, it increased among the foreign-born. What does that say to you, or how does that fit into your policy agenda?

John Dearie: Well, it fits into our policy agenda in two ways, both from the standpoint of entrepreneurs themselves because immigrants are entrepreneurial by nature. And when you say that, people squint up their faces, like, ‘How do you mean?’ But when you think about it, to be an immigrant; to pick up your life, leave a culture that you’re familiar with; your country, your family, your friends; often at tremendous personal and financial risk, and go to another country, a new culture, often a new language; that is a profoundly entrepreneurial act. And so, it shouldn’t surprise us that once folks like that get here, they continue to be profoundly entrepreneurial. And in fact, the research has borne this out that immigrants are twice as likely to start a business as native-born Americans. And so, notwithstanding the fact that they represent about 14 percent of the American population, they represent about somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of the ownership of small businesses. And when you look at high-tech startups; scalable, high-tech, high-impact businesses started in Silicon valley, as many as half of those businesses are started by immigrants. So immigrants themselves are highly entrepreneurial. The other reason why it’s so important to us is entrepreneurs of all kinds need skilled talent. And one thing that we heard at the round tables that we conducted around the United States is that there is a real talent gap or skills gap. And this is particularly relevant. You’ve heard this and read about it in the context of STEM, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, American colleges and universities simply are not producing enough folks with those backgrounds, and so there is a skilled labor gap in this country for startups and other businesses. And therefore, there is great interest and great demand in foreign-born talent. And the very first piece of research that we published after we launched was a research paper project by our research director at the time, Ian Hathaway, who’s one of the great young scholars of entrepreneurship in the country, and found that 43 percent of Fortune 500 companies and 57 percent of the top 35 companies were founded by either a first or second generation immigrant. So, the history of entrepreneurship in the United States is an astonishing history of the contribution of immigrants to the United States in the U.S. economy. And the 21st century, economy is the knowledge economy, it’s the information economy and it is going to be the competition for the 21st century is going to be won or lost based on human capital. And so, it’s one of the realities, the unfortunate aspects of this issue that the political issue of immigration and the way that too large of a portion of our population and too many of our politicians think about and talk about this issue as if immigration is some sort of a threat to the United States when in fact, as Ronald Reagan and lots of other politicians in the past have recognized, immigration is one of the great sources of strength and vigor and vitality and dynamism of the American experiment. And we need to get back to that.

Denzil Mohammed: You mentioned Ronald Reagan, who said, ‘It’s at our peril if we ignore the fact of vigor and vitality that immigrants continue.’ And it’s not a new phenomenon. Let’s make that very, very clear. Immigrants have always brought that entrepreneurial spirit with them whether as entrepreneurs or whether as workers. And their children end up doing exponentially better, very often, than their parents did. And that’s the whole point of coming to the United States. What has been the policy response from politicians as you’ve done your work in the past four years?

John Dearie: Too many people in the United States these days think about the U.S. economy as sort of a closed sandbox. And so if somebody is coming in from the outside, then within that construct or understanding of the economy, they are necessarily displacing somebody who was already here. And that’s, of course, not true. And the reason it’s not true is that the economy is not a sandbox. It’s a dynamic organism. It’s living and breathing. And when you change the inputs into the economy, specifically with regard to talent or labor, there is an economic reaction to that. And there is lots and lots. In fact, the vast preponderance of research on both the right and the left into this phenomenon of immigration make very, very clear that the contribution of immigrants to the United States is pro job creation for Americans. Immigrants do not displace Americans. They create new businesses that create new jobs, new opportunity, new wealth for Americans. For whatever reason, that is difficult for people to accept. It’s just too easy to think about the economy in that sandbox way, most folks are not economists and they’re not particularly sophisticated in terms of their understanding of the economy. And so it’s a very easy topic to demagogue politically, and unfortunately, too many politicians do that. Of course, it makes it easier when there are legitimate crises having to do with immigration, like what’s going on in recent months at the Southern border, that is a legitimate problem. And the result is that our immigration system in this country is broken, our immigration policies in this country are crazy. And when we do round tables around the United States, as we continue to do, with entrepreneurs to stay in touch with the issues and the priorities that matter to them, the issue that gets them the angriest and where they really, literally pound the table is immigration. They can’t find the people that they need, they can’t get folks that they know that are in foreign countries who are business partners with them who are starting companies with them or talent that they’re aware of that they need desperately. They can’t get these people into the country in a secure and predictable way. And for the life of them, they can’t understand it because there is no understanding. It’s completely contrary to the interest of the United States.

Denzil Mohammed: Jeez, you unpacked a lot there! I spoke to a group of journalism students from Emerson, and the idea of immigration being the southern border is paramount in the majority of Americans’ thinking. They think of immigration and that’s all they can come up with. And it’s so much more complex than that. So you mentioned that the response to your policy work has not been great. Briefly, what are some specific policy areas that you’ve been working on? Startup visas, for instance.

John Dearie: We have a number of immigration reform items that we advocate for. One is a startup visa, which I’ll come back to in a moment. The other one is graduation green cards, as far as we’re concerned for all the reasons that you’re talking about, if immigrants who come here and are educated at American colleges and universities want to stay here after graduation, why on earth would we require them to leave? That’s our current policy, is that they’re allowed in on a student visa. And then after they complete their degree, we basically deport them. In the very narrow interest of the United States, if folks want to stay here of their own volition, we’re not forcing them to stay, but if they want to stay here, why on earth would you not let them? So we’re in favor of graduation green cards and other aspects of immigration reform. But back to the startup visa, the United States is one of the few industrial democracies around the world that does not have a visa category specifically intended to attract and retain foreign-born entrepreneurs, specifically entrepreneurs who want to come to the United States to start their businesses and create jobs for Americans and contribute to the American economy. Our economic competitors around the world, and practically all of them are in Europe and Latin America, China, obviously, have overhauled their immigration policies in recent years, specifically to roll out the red carpet for foreign-born entrepreneurs, including our entrepreneurs. They want them to come there. Often very generous; free office space, access to capital at very low rates, access to mentoring and coaching. It’s all kinds of benefits; very, very attracting. Come here and start your business here. Meanwhile, the United States does not have such a visa category. And we think that’s insane and we’ve been working very, very hard on creating this special visa category. Since we launched in 2017, it’s been our top immigration priority. The good news is that working with other groups who are similarly minded and entrepreneurship focused like the National Venture Capital Association, the Angel Capital Association, Engine and other groups around the country. We worked very closely with Congressman Zoe Lofgren from California who backed about six weeks ago, introduced a bill that would create a startup visa. So, the good news is that there is a bill in Congress now to create a start-up visa. The bad news is that notwithstanding the incredibly hard work by us, NVCA, Engine, Angel Capital Association and others, we couldn’t get a single Republican in the house to co-sponsor the piece of legislation going back to what we were just talking about in terms of the unfortunate political dynamics around the topic of immigration. It is unfortunately where the GOP base is at the moment, after four years of a president who, in my opinion, talked about the issue of immigration in the wrong way, that it has become politically toxic for Republican members of Congress to support policies that would make it easier for immigrants to come to the United States, even immigrants who were coming here specifically in the context of entrepreneurs to start new businesses.

Denzil Mohammed: That is absolutely fascinating that so many other countries are, as you say, rolling out the red carpet for people who want to start businesses. And you mentioned Bettina Hein who was on your board, what a story that is. She founded an incredible business in Boston, right here, called Pixability. She explored every possible avenue, including the O-1 visa which is for exceptionally talented people, including Nobel laureates. She was able to secure that, but that visa obviously ran out. She’s now back in Europe because she was not able to remediate. There was no avenue for her to remain here, despite the fact that her children were born here, she raised a family here, she started a business employing hundreds of people over several years. That’s absolutely fascinating. Now, just get back to this idea, obviously we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, but how American is this concept of immigrant entrepreneurship? Can you explore that a little bit?

John Dearie: Sure. Well, first of all, just let me say very quickly to emphasize what you just said about we’re shooting ourselves in the foot and how our insane immigration policies, particularly over the last four years have been a great boon to Canada. There were more technology jobs created in Toronto in 2018 as the latest data than were created in Silicon valley, New York City and Washington DC combined. And the reason for that is that when the president of the United States talks about immigration and talks about immigrants in the language that their former president talked about, it sends the message to the rest of the world, ‘Don’t come.’ And so they don’t. And yes, Bettina Hein is a marvelous example of this issue. I’d love to tell this story very quick. The roundtable at which I met Bettina, but there were two other people at that roundtable. And this example was so vivid, I included it in my book that I subsequently wrote. These two guys who were roommates at MIT as undergrads, started a business. When we met them that they had graduated from MIT, they had just gotten their second round of funding. They had expanded their company from just the two of them to 15 other people. And so they were growing. And these two best friends from college, straight guys, were considering getting married in order to keep the foreign-born founder in the country because his visa had run out and he was about to be deported. I will never forget that story. That that’s the desperation of these people. These two straight guys were thinking of getting married, just to keep the foreign-born founder in the country. I mean, it’s a funny story, but it’s of course horrifying. And I just tell that because it was the most vivid example to me of just how crazy our immigration policies are. But back to the history of immigration in the United States, it’s been easier or harder over the course of our history for immigrants to come here. But, of course, there’s been a very important and very special part of our history here in the United States is the history of immigration. The great analogy of the United States being the melting pot of many people from all over the world with all their different ideas, their various talents, their languages, the food, the music, that the American experience is the melting pot of all of these experiences from all over the world. And what comes out of that melting process is the secret sauce of America. That’s what Ronald Reagan, I think, was referring to. And in his great speech, the last speech he gave before he walked out of the White House was the importance of immigration to the United States, not just the American experience and how we think about ourselves, but economically how important it was and politically, and he said, ’If we ever lose sight of that, if we ever lose sight of how important this is to who we are, it is, as you said before, at our peril! What could be more American than taking in a baseball game on a great afternoon, having a couple of Budweisers, a couple of hot dogs and singing God Bless America at the seventh inning stretch. What could be more American? It’s hard to think of something more American than that, right? Baseball is a British game that came to the United States by way of Canada, the beers and the hotdogs are German. And the song God Bless America was written by a Russian-born Jew named Irving Berlin. But the result, when you put them all together, these contributions from immigrants all over the world, you create something uniquely American. That’s America!

Denzil Mohammed: John Dearie from the Center for American Entrepreneurship, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this and best of luck as you advocate for Washington.

John Dearie: Thank you very much. I really appreciate the opportunity. It’s great to see you. I’m sorry it’s been so long.

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, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this week’s fascinating story of the benefits of welcoming, talented, and driven immigrants to the United States. If you have feedback or know someone who we should talk to, email Denzil, that’s D-E-N-Z-I-L at jobmakerspodcast.org. I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another episode of JobMakers.

Episode 29: Bernat Olle

JobMakers podcast logo: Bernat Olle gets a visa to improve the worldBernat Olle, an immigrant from Catalonia, Spain, founded a bioscience company to create medicines that can alter the human microbiome. He discusses how immigration enables international cooperation and innovation that benefits everyone. Listen to learn what Olle says connects him to immigrants who come here with nothing but a suitcase and a dream. We also have a full-length video interview here.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed, and this is JobMakers.

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Denzil Mohammed: Is it any surprise that the epicenters of innovation like Kendall Square, Silicon Valley also have incredible diversity? That the cities with the highest rates of PhDs like Brookline, Massachusetts, or Palo Alto, California, are multi-ethnic and multicultural. The United States attracts the world’s best and brightest to give us Google, Tesla, the Moderna vaccine, but the thing that links the Nobel Prize winning immigrants with those picking all vegetables and washing dishes is opportunity. For Dr. Bernat Olle, co-founder and CEO of Vedanta Biosciences, seeking opportunity, brought him all the way from Catalonia, Spain to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he continued his chemical engineering studies at MIT. Navigating the complex immigration system while seeking purpose in his career, he eventually found his calling and was lucky enough to remain in the U.S. to see it through, designing a new class of medicines to modulate the human microbiome. When foreign talent is welcomed into vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems, like those in the U.S., when they’re able to collaborate with Americans and some people with people from around the world, they can come up with incredible ideas to benefit humanity and everyone wins. Bernat also feels a sense of kinship with immigrants far removed from labs and boardrooms. He knows that, just like those with nothing but a suitcase and a dream, the same thing brought them here, seeking opportunity, as we’ll discover in this week’s episode of JobMakers. 

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Denzil MohammedBernat Olle, welcome to JobMakers. 

Bernat Olle: Good to see you, Denzil.

Denzil Mohammed: I remember you describing this concept of the microbiome and relating it to antibiotics in this fascinating story of your honeymoon. And you have this radical way of thinking of “no, let, let the body figure it out.” Take us back to that time and why is this kind of field of science important today?

Bernat Olle: All species of animals live colonized with microbes on the skin, on the intestinal tract and the mouth and the vaginal tract. All those are chock full of microbes and that’s the way it’s been from the very beginning before we evolved as a species, this world was a bacterial soup. So every species has evolved surrounded by bacteria. And so it’s not surprising that this bacteria play very important roles in health and specifically the bacteria that live in humans are referred to with the term human microbiome. And so that’s basically the collection of bacteria that you carry around for life with you since the moment you were born and specifically in the intestine that community is most dense. That’s where you have the most bacteria, trillions of bacteria, almost as many or more microbial cells in your body than homo sapiens’ cells. And they play very important roles. They help protect from infection, they help calibrate the set point of the immune system, which is important in our immunity and allergy potential in cancer. And there’s a number of things that we do in our modern life that perturb that community. The diet that we eat has a big effect on the microbes that we have inside, because what we eat is what they eat. So the Western diet is generally not great for microbes. That’s why there, that’s maybe the reason why there’s a number of chronic diseases that are advancing more rapidly in the west and in the developing world. The use of antibiotics is another big perturbation. From the time we’re born until our teen years the average person gets tens of courses of antibiotics and cumulatively, some of them can have an important effect in damaging the communities of microbes in the intestine. And so one of the things that we’re trying to do as a company is be to undo some of the collateral damage that antibiotics leave behind. Their use is sometimes warranted, sometimes unwarranted, back to the honeymoon story, but they’re here to stay and they’re very necessary in hospital settings, but also they create a series of issues, you know, use of antibiotics to prevent certain problems, and then other problems emerge. You become more susceptible to picking up infections from the hospital environment when your gut has no natural competitors against those pathogens. So one of the things we’re trying to do is ensure antibiotics have been used for the purpose they need to be used for and undo some of the damage by helping reconfigure or rebalance the community of bacteria that’s in the intestine that had been damaged by the antibiotic and in doing so, we hope as a starting point that we can prevent re-infections that are very problematic, for example, in hospital settings.

Denzil Mohammed: When you were first starting out as an immigrant with an accent in the Boston area, how were you received? And as a European person knowing what the entrepreneurial environment was like back then, let’s say in the late nineties when you started school, how do you think a foreigner would have been received there?

Bernat Olle: So I think my integration in the U.S. was very smooth and today I am an American citizen, my child is American and Catalan and I identify as one of us. And I really have to think hard to think of instances where I have been treated as an immigrant in a negative way. The first year I came, I remember when I was a poor graduate student, I would go to buy my fruit at Haymarket if it had been there on weekend mornings. So it’s very cheap, but it’s also terrible quality, like half of the fruit is really literally rotten. And so I remember the first times I would go there, I would try to pick the fruit rather than have the one that they hand you, because when they handed it to you, like half of it you have to throw it away, but the store owners hate it when people try to pick the fruit. And so I remember, you know, in one of my first visits somebody really got pissed off that I was trying to pick the fruit and say like, “Just go back to where you came from.” But that’s like the only time that has ever happened to me and if this was reversed, if it was like a person trying to like come to Spain, especially if you look any different than the locals, I feel like that the racism there runs in different ways. The U.S. has issues of course, with race and there’s a lot of work to do. But I think some of the other countries, like in old-school Europe that have traditionally seen less immigration and they’ve been more insular are much less prepared to welcome and assimilate people from other origins and get to a point where they’re one of them. I’m having a hard time imagining how the experiment in the opposite direction could have been smooth. And so I guess my parting point on this is that for all the issues that we have with immigration in the U.S. and with racism, the U.S. has done a much better job at assimilating and benefiting from contributions of immigrants as just about any other country in the world.

Denzil Mohammed: And thank you for acknowledging that. I think that’s a really important point to make, and that’s what makes this country special. I want to take it back a few years. You had the experience, as did I, of feeling that intense pressure where your visa is about to run out and you’re not sure what’s going to happen, what you’re going to do is a lot of uncertainty. Tell us about that time for you.

Bernat Olle: I’ve been doing my PhD at MIT and I was hoping to find a job in the U.S. to stay here after the PhD and I was on a J-1 visa and that expired, you know, a short period of time after I graduated. And I did a pretty bad, an atrocious job search and that like, I was just doing the work and I figured, yeah, like when I’m done, people are going to want to hire me, because look, I went to these great schools. And the world doesn’t really work like that, right? Like you have to, you have to really do the homework. And, basically what I found is that when I interviewed, you know, I didn’t put a lot of care or thought into what I should do. I just interviewed with firms that were reputable. Why? Because other people did it too. Like some of the well-known strategy consulting firms. It’s a terrible way to go about picking a career incidentally. And so I was rejected by just about every one of them. And it was only when I had a few weeks left on my visa and I really had to think through, “Okay, well what do I really want to do?” that finally put some thought into like, the career that I wanted and ended up going in the direction that I went. But yeah, my first job offer, which was in a venture creation firm in town that starts biotech companies, came really, really close to the bell. And I guess it could have gone a different way and that bad planning could have resulted in me going back home. And then as you know, like finding a job from abroad becomes a much more complicated process. But because I did get a job here, then I jumped on the train of the H-1B green card citizenship, which is a train that at most times in the United States has worked very well. And during the last administration, there were some serious steps back as you know, but for me, this was actually a very smooth process.

Denzil Mohammed: And it was around that time that you were able to secure a work in the U.S. that this idea of purpose was playing a role in the kinds of jobs you were looking for and the kind of trajectory you wanted to have. I vividly recall another MIT grad on this podcast and immigrant entrepreneur saying that everyone from MIT graduates and, you know, wants to do good in the world and then they go on to work at the biggest consulting firms. You were in a privileged position as an MIT graduate with a PhD. How did that idea of purpose and giving back shape where you are today and where do you plan on going with that?

Bernat Olle: My career path was very much born out of rejection. I try to follow the career path that others in business school and in graduate school followed which is the classic, you know, try to go to a very well-known firm, like a strategy consulting firm or a bank where you’re paid very well, and it looks beautiful on a resume. And it’s basically the game of compensation, titles, prestige. And I probably very much would have played that game if I hadn’t been rejected. The blessing was that by having been rejected from those firms and actually having to really think, “Okay, what do I really want to do?” And the reality is that I had never dreamed about working for clients, evaluating mergers and acquisitions or market shares of consumer products. Like, that’s not what I was passionate about. I liked science.

Denzil Mohammed: That sounds like so much fun. Come on.

Bernat Olle: Yes! I like science, I like biotechnology. In my free time, I would read papers, that’s what I would do. And so basically my first job was going to do something that I already liked to do for free, which was read about cool science, talk with inventors about cool science and try to figure out, you know, can you imagine translating that to people? Is there a role for a biotech company to try to do that? And that’s what I did for my first decade professionally, until one of these projects that I started became obsessive and offered me that I didn’t want to do anything else. And then I decided that I just focus on that full-time and that was my current company.

Denzil Mohammed: Hearing you talk about your experience. I find it fascinating, and I see that an immigrant has a certain special quality, but at the same time, you were a young person, you were just going with the flow, doing what everyone else was doing. And as you said, you didn’t have this master plan. And so you end up with, you know, a few weeks before your visa is about to end, and then suddenly you have to go beyond what your classmates were doing and think more strategically and position yourself in such a way that you would be able to stay in the U.S. and continue this investment that you had made to come all the way across the world, spend money in and get an education at MIT and continue living that dream. Today, you’re a strong advocate for immigration reform, particularly making it easier for immigrants like you, who are inherently entrepreneurial to start businesses here in the U.S. that create jobs for Americans. Tell us more about your feelings as to the immigration system being able to work for people like you and other high skilled immigrants.

Bernat Olle: Yeah. I think that the immigration system and the immigration culture in the U.S. has been a gift for both the U.S. and for immigrants during most times. And this country sort of has cycles and, you know, depending on their government, we’ve moved forward or we’ve moved backwards. But the arc has been in the direction of immigration adding a lot to the country. I think that the U.S. is really in a privileged position where, because of its culture of having been more welcoming to people that come here seeking opportunity. It has and because of being an open liberal place in the world where such immigrant entrepreneurs can find a welcoming environment to actually pursue their objectives, which is something that other superpowers don’t have, like this combination of a welcoming culture. But because of that, a lot of folks have come here and made very substantial contributions to the economy. And also benefited by developing their careers in a way that they could not have developed their careers back where they came from. So, you know, I think this is really a unique gift of this land that many other countries in the world would like to have and I think this is very important to preserve, because if in the future that sees and the talent entrepreneurial talent in in tech, in biotech and other areas decided that it’s better for them to develop their careers and pursue opportunities in China or somewhere else, the U.S. would stop being the very competitive economy and society that it is.

Denzil Mohammed: And I’d like to direct our listeners to the fact that the Nobel Prizes are being announced, and guess who’s winning them in the U.S.? Foreign-born people who came here to study and innovate has been a huge trend. Thirty percent of all Nobel Laureates have been people born in other countries. Specifically the past four years we saw a dramatic decrease in the number of visas that were issued, the number of international students who were coming here to study. And then we have this pandemic and the first two vaccines came from companies that had immigrant co-founders. Not just that, immigrants are concentrated in industries that got us through the pandemic, like cleaning, like health care. Can you talk a little bit about the impact of immigration in the U.S. during this pandemic? From what you’ve seen?

Bernat Olle: Yeah. I mean, I can talk about biotechnology because that’s the field that’s near and dear to me. And you said, you’re right, the impact on how the world got out of COVID was sensational, right? You have the founder of BioNTech, the founders of Moderna, the CEO of Pfizer and the list goes on because there’s many people that have been involved in these amazing vaccine projects that are immigrants that have been welcome, in some cases, millions of businesses in the U.S. And, the combination has been so crucial, right? Because it’s not a coincidence that so much of the innovation with vaccines has happened in the U.S. It happened here because this is a country that values its pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry as a national security asset in ways that other countries in the world don’t. Other countries in the world are content with free riding with some of the innovation that takes place in the U.S. and not spending on those industries. In the U.S. the approach has been different. And then at the same time you have these brilliant immigrants coming in, attracted by this environment and supercharging it by creating these companies that in the moment of need come through, right? And I think that, you know, Pfizer, Moderna, BioNTech, these groups coming through with a vaccine that we got in our arms in less than a year, which was a completely new technology that had not been used before with precedent. It’s just phenomenal that that was possible. But, you know, it’s not surprising to anybody in the industry that there were so many immigrants involved because, you know, you look at any company like our company, there’s a significant portion of folks that were born elsewhere. And the reality is that, you know, talent, intelligence, skills are fairly widely distributed all over the world. And, you know, the ability to attract it to Cambridge and concentrate it here so that companies can benefit from, is what’s made the biotech industry so powerful and so influential in Massachusetts.

Denzil Mohammed: You’re in the business of saving lives. You’re a job creator. You’re a scientist, you’re in the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Yet, I know that when you were awarded the Barry Portnoy Immigrant Entrepreneur Award for Life Science in 2019, you found a link to your own immigrant story to those foreign-born students from Africa and Eastern Europe that your mother taught many years ago. What is that link?

Bernat Olle: Yes, so, my mother who’s now retired used to be a teacher and for a good part of her career, she taught immigrants that were coming most often from the north of Africa, but other times from Eastern Europe and another times also from Central America. Either because of war or unrest in their areas, or just because of proximity, allowing opportunity in the case of Northern African immigrants. This would often be, you know, a lot of immigration from Northern Africa. It usually came because we grow a lot of fruit in the country and there was a need for labor to help pick it up. But now those communities have established and they stayed there and they brought their families and they needed to learn the language. They needed to learn how to apply for a driver’s license or how to fill a form for social security. And if you don’t speak the language and you don’t know some of the basic things it’s hard to do that first step of integrating, right? So my mom helped many of those immigrants with this first step of doing some of the basic things, like learning the language, learning how to learn, how to do some of the basic things that you’re gonna have to do to become a functioning citizen in this place. But, you know, there’s a common element in all forms of immigration, which is this search for opportunity, right? Looking for something better than maybe you don’t imagine being able to do where you are. And so in that sense, the mindset is, it’s the same mindset across all immigrants, right? You’re willing to leave certain things behind that you liked because you want to take the risk of something that could be better.

Denzil Mohammed: And you’re leaving behind family and a culture that you grew up in and food that you loved in order to seek that opportunity. It’s not an easy thing to do. Bernat Olles, thank you so much for joining us on JobMakers. I really appreciated talking to you today and I wish you all the success in the world.

Bernat Olle: Thanks, Denzil.

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, a not for profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s inspiring story of another enterprising immigrant entrepreneur. If you have feedback or know someone, we should talk to, email Denzil. That’s D-E-N-Z-I-L at jobmakerspodcast.org I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for another episode of JobMakers.

Episode 28: Abdul Saboor Sakhizada [part two]

JobMakers podcast logo: Saboor Sakhizada, Afghan Translator - Traitor or Patriot?Afghan translator turned American immigrant joins JobMakers for a second episode to discuss his current campaign to evacuate fellow Afghan interpreters and their families, including his own younger brother. Sakhizada shares how interpreters face challenges both in Afghanistan and in the U.S. Listen to learn what he says U.S.-born people can do to help.

Part two of two.

Denzil Mohammed: I am Denzil Mohammed, and this is Jobmakers. 

[music playing]

Denzil Mohammed: Last week we met Abdul Saboor Sakhizada, a former translator, instructor and a manager for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, now living with his family in upstate New York. He spoke about life as a child of war, and what it was like in the front lines alongside U.S. troops, including Fox News contributor, Pete Hegseth. This week, Abdul reveals that he is actively trying to evacuate fellow Afghan interpreters and their families, including his own baby brother. He gives us his thoughts on the U.S. withdrawal, paints a picture of who those Afghan refugees are and entreats Americans not to buy into the false rhetoric and to get to know these new Americans in this final of a two-part special of Jobmakers.  

[music playing]

Denzil Mohammed: You mentioned being seen as a traitor and betraying your country, and come to the present day you also feel a sense of betrayal, but not from those people in Afghanistan, but from America and coalition forces. Let’s talk a little bit more now about the work that you’re currently doing. So, I imagine several years ago you left Afghanistan and came to the U.S., right?  

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: Yes, that’s right. Yeah, so it’s a duality, right? Because I think you’re right. When I was there, I not only interpreted like a gazillion times of this doctrine, and preach this doctrine and live this doctrine of “shoulder to shoulder,” making promises to the Afghan security forces, to the host nation communities, to the villagers, to the teachers that “we’re going to be here, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right.” If you promise not to support the bad guys, we’re going to be here. I know for a fact that I’ve attended countless number of meetings where coalition forces or U.S. forces had made those promises that, “you trust us, we’re going to help you, we’re going to save you, we’re going to protect you.” And then watching in 2021 in the fashion in which United States left Afghanistan, and here I am sitting after 20 years. I mean, I served that mission for seven years, but after 20 years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, it almost feels like all of that was a bad dream and very novelistic that just does not have anything in reality. If I would’ve read the story of Afghanistan from 2001 until 2021 in a novel, I would have probably said, “this is a made up story.” But seeing it unfold in front of my eyes, seeing all of this, seeing all that effort, all that money, it’s hard, man. It’s hard to process it. I still can’t believe this has happened.  

Denzil Mohammed: So when you hear President Biden say something like “our involvement in Afghanistan was never about nation building.” How do you respond to that? 

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: As I said on my Pete Hegseth interview, I’m not into criticizing politicians or their politicians, but I can tell you for a fact the United States was there to nation build. It’s sad. What bothers me is that we have found a way to celebrate our defeat, to somehow paint a picture, this tragic picture, somehow still to celebrate “we did it good, it’s ok.” I guess we’re either numb, or we don’t understand what this all means. I mean, I remember reading a book and that book kind of talked about what winning looks like. And one of the things that this book talks about is that in military warfare, there’s two, and this part of it is confusing even for the citizens of United States and international community and audience concerned citizens, it’s confusing. Did we actually win in Afghanistan, or did we lose? So there’s two different aspects to this, right? Because if you actually look at the number of people that got killed, who lost the most? U.S. lost about 2,000-3,000 soldiers, somewhere around there roughly. And then there were in comparison, the insurgents. The Taliban may have lost hundreds of thousands of their fighters. So from that point on, the U.S. could say … and I’m not even counting the civilians that lost their lives, the teachers, hospital workers, doctors, engineers, and all of it. So that’s even a side story, another wound that we don’t want to open. But the point is that from a personnel standpoint, United States and international community may have not lost as many lives as the Taliban or the insurgencies did at that time. So from that point of view, one can make an argument saying, “Oh, U.S. actually won because when you enter a battle of warfare, they lost more fighters than we did, so we won.” But the second most important thing about warfare in Afghanistan, and particularly in the case of Afghanistan, is whose flag is up at the end of the battle? Which army has their flag up? And clearly we know that United States and Afghanistan flag is not up right now, and the insurgency’s flag is up. So this debate as to whether or not we lost, we won in Afghanistan, what this all looks like, our mission was not to nation build … well, you’re hearing it from me. I’ve attended hundreds of meetings where we talked about building infrastructure, building a state, state-building. USAID implemented hundreds of projects fighting corruption, building infrastructure there, addressing the recruitment process of how to hire women and minorities and all of this. There are hundreds of projects on governance in Afghanistan, building a governance system. If those are all not nation building, I don’t know what is. So the point is, I don’t buy that story because I know for a fact that we were there to nation build.  We did go there to nation build.  We poured billions of dollars into that nation to nation build. 

Denzil Mohammed: I want you to bring it into the present day. We know what’s happening in Afghanistan, we’ve all seen the images and the footage from the airport, people climbing onto planes, even as they’re moving, some falling to their deaths. What is your role right now? What are you doing? 

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: When we saw that Kabul was collapsing, I immediately got on the phone. I started calling all my military buddies, including Pete Hegseth, and anyone that I could possibly find. I said, “I need help. I need to save my brother. I need to save my family.”  And so I ended up talking to some friends, and those friends found their friends, and eventually we found the ways to save my brother and get him through those gates at airport despite the chaos, despite the disorder that was there. So we certainly made the impossible possible, but it was all done through the efforts of a lot of folks that may hear this voice and my heartfelt gratitude goes to all of them for doing this. And so eventually when we found out a way to save lives, we basically took that methodology that we had and we started saving other interpreters, other families. We had a system and others made referrals to us and we started doing the same thing with them, and because we had the right point of contact from that point on, up until when the blast went off, until the suicide bomber blew himself up at the Abbey Gate in Kabul at the Karzai airport. And so that was when our mission of evacuation kind of went through this break, this halt. Right now we’re putting up a team that are going to do some of those evacuations because we know there are a lot of interpreters, we know there’s a lot of folks that helped U.S. mission in Afghanistan. I have visited Fort Pickett, Fort Lee to get close to some of the Afghan refugees that are here in the state-side and to offer some support. We’re actively putting classes together for them to go deliver some of the services, whether that’s culture, whether it’s U.S. expectations and laws, and even giving them the broader picture of what to expect when they get out of those military bases and they start living in American society, just like all of us. So we’re doing things in different levels to help as much as we can through the group that we have through the nonprofit efforts that we have put together.  

Denzil Mohammed: So finding creative ways of getting evacuees out of Afghanistan and into some kind of safety. So we are expecting refugees and people on special immigrant visas to be resettled in the U.S., that has already started happening, coming from Afghanistan. Help our audience understand. Who are these people? What are they like? What are their backgrounds? And I do remember reading there was some 50,000 Afghan interpreters over the course of the war. 

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: These are people like me, now you’ve gotten to know a little bit about my story. These are engineers, these are doctors, these are people with unique skills that we don’t get to see as often in United States, they are bilinguals in most cases, some of them know more than two or three languages. They’re also folks that have been deprived of education in their lives, like there are women, for example, girls. So you get a whole mixture of different categories of population that come in to the United States. And I come from a background of serving immigrants, serving refugees in the United States because professionally that’s what I did for about six years of my life here. So for those that are not as equipped to be ready to join or to contribute immediately to the American economy, then what you do is you connect them to the right resources to make sure that they’re getting equipped or can establish them on the path to self-sufficiency. But eventually they will all be just like all of us, and their children will be just like our children here or the children of American-born citizens. 

Denzil Mohammed: I’m sorry, I thought people moved to the U.S. in desperate circumstances just to live off welfare. Are you saying that’s not how it is? 

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: Quite honestly, I think they’re quite the contrary. There’s a benefit welfare program that offers benefit, and these people are eligible by law to benefit from those programs. But no, like I said, these guys are not free-riders. They are engineers and they have skills to offer. With my program, I specifically initiated a work program how to transfer their certificates. So we have nurses for example, and they were nurses in their home country but they did not meet New York nursing standards, or whatever that was. So they had to go take some tests, to pass their test and exams, to be certified again as a registered nurse. But for that, it takes time. And until that takes place, they have to learn a little bit of language, they have to be ready to understand the medical terminologies or medical language, and they have to also work as maybe janitors or perhaps a cleaner somewhere to make a living. And some of those folks that have a large family or so may also benefit from welfare from other things, but that will be temporarily, because once they get back the job that they had studied for, the goals that they have for their life, it will just be like the rest of Americans. But I have to say, and I think this question alludes to this larger, larger picture, because we don’t get to talk about it as much, is the melting pot, the American melting pot. The crucible of everyone coming in and immediately overnight changing and losing their identities, losing their values and the things that they have, and automatically accepting American values. Keep in mind that they were. I mean, look at me!  I grew up in a war zone. I grew up under a very highly conservative society. And for us to come in and be exposed to a whole set of new values and information, it takes time for folks to go through this “melting process.” And I think we’re not realistic enough. And for those that question it, had they lived on the shoes of those families that are going through this transition every single day? I would almost guarantee you that they would have quite a different experience of what that would be like. 

Denzil Mohammed: That’s a really important point to make. That adjustment does take time, and so many of them didn’t have the luxury of MTV and these other things, movies and Hollywood, to acclimatize them beforehand, growing up in such an insular, very religious society. But, the one thing that these people want is freedom. They want opportunities.

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: When I first came into the United States, the sky was the limit. Opportunities left and right. And for someone like me and full of energy, trying to do as much as I can to scale up the social economic ladder, or perhaps being engaged, like the same energy with the same thing I did in Afghanistan, you know the sky was the limit. I wanted to seek every opportunity I possibly could for my family or for professionally or academically. And I managed to go through three different degrees in four and a half years. I did my associate’s, I did my bachelor’s, I did my master’s all in four and a half years of my five years of time in the United States. Part of that was that I saw opportunities out there and I wanted to utilize them, and because I know for a fact that a lot of these families that come into the United States as community members, if we support them and help them thrive, the community in general thrives. The community in general uplifts themselves, and they have better community members to contribute back to the community. But I can also guarantee you on the contrary, that if some of these families struggle and they cannot adjust their life, because we know how hard adjustment is, and if they struggle, I could almost guarantee you that then the entire community will struggle.

Denzil Mohammed: It’s important for America to remember not to re-traumatize these families who have been through already so much. This is a moment where we can really show how compassionate we can be, how welcoming we can be, how our value system is, which is that we welcome the stranger who wants to work hard, who’s fleeing something terrible. And we need to also remind people that people who were forced to flee generally don’t want to flee. They would rather stay in their home country and build it up, right? 

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: And for their children, and the school that their children go to. It just blows my mind. So I think it comes back to that one word in my mind: engage. Engage and you will learn because that’s where it all starts. But if you keep isolating yourselves and keep seeing your neighbors as this “other,” not as “we,” then that is the source of all evils in my mind. That creates a gap between you and the neighbor. But when you think about “we,” then you’re putting yourself in the same circle. You’re putting yourself in the same umbrella of, “we’re a part of this community, and we’ve got to help each other out.” 

Denzil Mohammed: I dare anyone listening to this podcast. Before you make an opinion public about Afghan refugees in your community, go say “hi” to one. Find out who they are for yourselves, and you will be incredibly enlightened, and you may be able to then share a different opinion on refugees being resettled in the U.S. Abdul Saboor Sakhizada, thank you so much for joining us and giving us all of your experiences and your perspectives, and really on the work that you’re doing right now to get people out of Afghanistan to safety, wherever that may end up being, whether it’s the U.S. or other places.  We really, really wish you the best of luck. 

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: Well, I appreciate you having me on the program. Thank you so much. And thanks for what you do, because it’s important for people to know the facts, the realities, and also the inside stories of some of these families. 

Denzil Mohammed: Jobmakers is a weekly podcast about the contributions of immigrants and refugees produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and The Immigrant Learning Center of Malden, Massachusetts, a not-for-profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for this final of this two-part special of Jobmakers. We return to regular Jobmakers next week with Spanish-born life science entrepreneur, Bernat Olle, founder of Vedanta Biosciences, who is revolutionizing the world of the microbiome. I am Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday afternoon for another Jobmakers.

Episode 27: Abdul Saboor Sakhizada [part one]

JobMakers podcast logo: Saboor Sahkizada: Afghan translator, child of warBefore coming to the U.S., Abdul Saboor Sakhizada worked for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan as an instructor, manager and translator, winning an award for his service in the process. Now he’s struggling to ensure that people  like him have the opportunity to reach safety in the United States and contribute to their new home. Tune in to hear his remarkable story and his insights into how the current wave of Afghan refugees will fare in the United States.

Part one of two.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. And this is a special episode of JobMakers.

[music playing]

Denzil Mohammed: Afghan refugees who’ve helped U.S. and coalition forces have begun their resettlement here. The U.S. has long given refuge to those forced to flee. That’s how the United States of America began, and in so doing it has enriched itself through the fighting spirit of those determined to survive, but for how long will America’s embrace last? The public’s support for resettling Afghans here hold. And furthermore, what does the American public really know about these refugees from Afghanistan? For Abdul Saboor Sakhizada, who worked as an instructor, manager and translator for the U.S. army in Kabul, it is not just crucial but necessary that the U.S. take in those who have helped our brave soldiers. In this two-part special of JobMakers we get to know Afghanistan and its people, examine the fallout of the government collapse and live how Abdul is actively working in the most difficult and chaotic of circumstances to get as many evacuated as possible. This week, we heard about the fascinating but tragic life in Afghanistan from Abdul, a self-described child of war. And we discover what those 50,000 interpreters had to endure every day, fueled by patriotism and targeted as traitors in this special episode of JobMakers.

[music playing]

Denzil Mohammed: Abdul Saboor Sakhizada. Thank you for joining us on JobMakers. It’s such an honor to have you on. How are you?

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: I’m doing okay. Thanks for having me on the program.

Denzil Mohammed: So obviously we’re going to talk about Afghanistan, but first of all, paint us a picture. What was life like in Afghanistan growing up?

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: So, oftentimes I refer to myself as the child of war. I was born in the 1990s in Afghanistan. And for anyone who knows that history of that part of the world, it’s nothing but destruction, violence and injustice taking place. And obviously right around 1990s you had the civil war and you had the dictatorship of Taliban. So I grew up right around that time. I was born around that time. I went to school right around that time and then up until 2001. So, yes, I guess I could officially say that I was a child who didn’t get to play with toys. We got to play with sitting at home and counting the bullets that were crossing over our heads, and rockets, and the airplanes, the jets that fly around. So it was, looking back, I guess we’re blessed in a way, or I am blessed in a way that to survive that sort of destruction that took place in that part of the region, but consider myself from that regards to having survived it lucky. But I wish that life for no one because it’s a state of hopelessness and it’s quite, quite challenging.

Denzil Mohammed: You reflect on your childhood and you’re amazed that you survived. Wow. That’s absolutely fascinating and really tragic. You know, you talk about counting bullets and jets. What exactly was happening around you?

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: I mean the country was divided or the city, and at least the capital where I lived or where my parents lived, the city was divided into different sections and the civil war and these different groups, mostly divided by their own ethnicity, of different ethnics fighting for power created a whole chaos of the search for power. They struggle to see who was going to be the most dominant force in the society. And then what you had in the middle of all these fighters or these groups, you had people like us who were living in and getting hit from every corner. Sometimes you had to make this risky journey from one side of the city to another side by going through one group of people, pretending to be someone else while transitioning to another group of people, then to pretending to be someone else. So it was quite challenging. Obviously a famine, the economic instability, the difficulties of you making sure that you have enough food on the table or at home for the families was very, very difficult. Like every morning we would go buy a pound of sugar or something because that’s all we could afford. We didn’t have a savings stock of food that we could rely on at home. And so it was crazy. There were countless numbers of days that we slept without food because we didn’t have it. We had to be strategic about how we want to eat in different times of the day because we knew we couldn’t make it. We didn’t have a three-time meal. It was like I said, I started by saying I wished that for nobody. Quite challenging. And as a child being very active you always want food, you always want bread. And then you go to your parents for giving you bread. And there isn’t any, so it’s hard. It’s a hard life to live under. But that’s beyond, that’s past now. Again, quite lucky to have survived that and I know millions of people did not make it.

Denzil Mohammed: You talk about such insecurity and instability. What was education for you? Traditionally we think of education as the way out of poverty, the way out of difficult circumstances. Where did education lead you?

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: Yeah I mean it’s an interesting question because reflecting back, because you could not forecast what the future would look like. A lot of folks would go. Nowadays we talk about, “Oh, I want to go to school because I want to be doctor. I want to be an engineer. I want to be this particular astronaut” or whatever. But when I went to school those ideas of what do I want to become, or what path do I want to take from early on in my education, it was not even a question mark in our heads. Honestly, a lot of days we went to school it was just to get away from home and have something to do other than just sitting at home and not being able to do anything. And the schools we went into. I mean, I remember our classrooms didn’t have windows. Our classroom didn’t have a roof. And sometimes the school was so boring because we didn’t have enough teachers and stuff. And because there was no roof, there was no windows, we were praying, there were days we would pray for the rain to come because when it rained the school was dismissed, everyone would go home. And so it was so funny. We didn’t have no chairs, no tables. And we would all sit on a floor. I remember to this day when I was in, like, fifth or sixth grade during the Taliban regime we used to wear turbans. We were forced to wear turbans and it was very difficult for me and my peers in my classroom. My classmates to manage the turban, because if it fell off you had to organize it back in your head and you have to learn the basics of how to put a turban back together. But there were other subjects. All of the subjects that we studied were all different fields of an intrafaith. An intrafaith, not interfaith, but intrafaith of diving deep into different books and different avenues of understanding the religious. It was almost like a religious school, except that it was considered to be a public school. The teachers were all sort of mullahs, those religious scholars or religious teachers who would come in and teach subjects. Our math teacher was a mullah.

Denzil Mohammed: At some point you started fighting in that country, didn’t you? Did you join the military?

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: So, fast forward when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, I was still in school. I was still studying. My oldest brother was old enough to support U.S. operation or U.S. mission in Afghanistan. And so he joined with the special forces and he became an interpreter. And he offered support. And from an economic standpoint we needed that extra help at home. My parents needed it. And so he was another person to bring bread on the table. And so it made sense. And there was not much else to do. So my brother initially started this path of us joining and fighting the resistance or the insurgencies, and the better hopes. Because early on the U.S. mission was, after the interim government was formed, the ideas of constitutional democracy, girls going back into school and all of it. So this hope, this new new idea just emerged into our heads. And that was hope. You could be anything, you could do anything. And you could become an engineer. Or these new concepts began emerging. We had new ideas, TVs began coming back to life. And I did not know what TVs were like at that time or before during the Taliban. And music and all of these things. So fast-forward when I graduated high school, following my two oldest brothers, I followed the same path in my own capacity. I began serving and helping U.S. soldiers and coalition soldiers, coalition international community, to kind of fight back and establish just a new shining city that’s about to rise. You can see it above the horizon. Or these ideas that are coming up into existence. So you could kind of imagine what that feeling would be like, that you’re not like a soldier grabbing weapon to fight because the last thing you want as a child, as a young teenager, the last thing you want to be is that you want to be close to guns and weapons because you grew up right around it. So you had enough of that. And so my goal was to support the U.S. mission and yet simultaneously helping my own communities thrive. Establish a government. Build a system where everyone was my own sisters and everyone could go to school. And so that kind of opened up the path for my sense of patriotism of helping build that nation. So that’s where I not necessarily putting a soldier’s quote unquote soldier uniform on, but perhaps in my own capacity, in my own way build the communities, help the communities.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s absolutely astonishing that suddenly you had hope. And all these things that we take for granted; music, televisions, just cultures, knowing about all these different things. That you lived in such an integral world for your whole childhood.

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: Yeah I mean it’s crazy because sometimes I go to high schools and I present and I talk to senior high school students that are about to go to college. And I talk about these ideas that don’t take these things for granted; you got windows, you’ve got air conditioning in your school! Oh my God! These are unfamiliar concepts to a lot of people in different parts of the region. And I think that societies like the United States right now had to do what it had to do to get to where they are now. But the fact that you could appreciate what you have is a whole different dimension of realities that you have to deal with as you’re growing up. Because you know that you could be in a different part of the world at a struggle in life without all these things that you don’t have. Electricity, for example, computers. Imagine writing hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes without having a computer or the cell phone.

Denzil Mohammed: I saw an interview with you on Fox News and you spoke about your time in Afghanistan helping the forces. Including with Pete Hegseth, is it? Tell us what it was like working as an interpreter?

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: So with Pete Hegseth and everyone we ran what’s referred to as the Counterinsurgency Training Center Afghanistan, and that was right around in 2007, 2008. U.S. mission began changing from hunting the insurgency to winning or nation-building to counterinsurgency. This idea of coin; winning the hearts and minds of the people. And I was one of the first. Pete Hegseth came later on, but when the inception of that academy took place, I was almost the only guy from the beginning of this program. And soldiers would always go back and forth and deploy, and they would complete their tours or complete their deployment, and return back to their homes. And Pete Hegseth came in and that was right around the time when I began slowly changing my role from doing interpretation to an administrative role, to more of teaching. Becoming an advisor. Teaching soldiers on culture, on language, on history, on politics. And then helping folks like Pete Hegseth understand what is it like to work with Afghans. And a lot of other soldiers who were getting deployed in Afghanistan. And so every soldier up until 2013 when the transition period began for that center that we were working on, because Afghan security forces began taking that doctrine of counterinsurgency and embedded it into their system. We were teaching them and every soldier that entered Afghanistan, they would have to go through our training center for five days before they would get deployed to their actual work zone or work area. And so that’s where Pete and I were instructors or advisors teaching them how to do this. Both in the capitol but also traveling outside the capitol, making trips to do it in the region.

Denzil Mohammed: Pete mentioned once this was not your job, but you were with him and other officers and you were pulling bodies out of vehicles, right?

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: Yeah. We had to. As a young man, I had to experience some terrible, terrible sceneries. There was one thing of being in your home and seeing the bullets and rockets go above your head and you’re counting them. And then there’s another feeling of you’re actually in the mix of the war zone. You’re actually seeing bullets being shot at you. So it’s a different feeling early on in Afghanistan. When I started joining the military, because I was right there with the soldiers. So there were a couple of instances where the service members of the United States, but also coalition were attacked. And the second one that I was part of. The first one Pete wasn’t even in Afghanistan back then. But the second one Pete Hegseth and myself, we jumped in on the becoming the QRF team, the Quick Reaction Team that responded to that VB ID that took place that took a bunch of our students basically. They targeted a bunch of our students who were supposed to come and start a class. And so we responded to that. And then that was when Pete was talking about how we were pulling bodies of soldiers and civilians from vehicles that were destroyed or basically were burning. Quite a horrible moment to live through. But that was something we had to do what we had to do because that was what we signed up for. Not necessarily to pull dead bodies every single day, but that was part of the struggle. That was part of the battle. That was part of the mission is that you’re going to end up finding yourself in those moments and you have to be prepared to respond. And so that was what Pete was referring to in my interview. And he was exactly right.

Denzil Mohammed: This was your environment, right? I mean, this is where you live. This is what was happening. That’s really, really fascinating. So part of what I’m doing here with you right now, at least in this portion of the podcast is painting that picture and having the American public understand what this place was like, what you all were going through, what your childhood was like to really understand the very, very stark differences. I mean, it’s a world away. A lot of what you’re describing to me. What was the experience like for you personally working with the U.S. military? What did that feel like? And what was the public reaction to your working with the military?

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: I mean, traditionally from a family standpoint, right? So my oldest brother began working, and then my second oldest and then followed up to me. It was all the sense of patriotism. You’re doing something for your country. You’re helping build the nation. You’re doing all of this work. And even reflecting on what we did in Afghanistan, and here we are on the state’s side and knowing where the mission of United States is right now, it will basically end and they would withdraw from Afghanistan. For me, or for us as a family, it always was a reflection of. We had seen enough destruction. We had seen enough violence. We had seen enough horrific scenery of people getting killed. Millions of people fleeing the country, taking refuge to the neighboring countries. Financially, it was not feasible for my family to do. I’m always stumped. I always think about this because had my father had the financial means to emigrate or take refuge to other country, we would have been probably somewhere else in the 1990s. But because we didn’t do it, we couldn’t, we didn’t have the financial means to out migrate or to leave the country we had to basically live and accept the realities that we lived. And so I have to say that even when I started working with the army from this idea of patriotism, the sense of patriotism, later on the conflict or this battle, this irregular war, became so complicated that, you know, the insurgents were very smart. They knew that a lot of these soldiers like Pete Hegseth would rely on Abduls, on the Sabbors, and their interpreters and their cultural advisers to help them understand the ins and outs of the community so they could better serve those communities. So they could better develop systems and policies that could help benefit the people. And the insurgents what they had to do was they started hunting folks like me, and folks like my brother and others of our peers. And because they knew what a critical role we played, because essentially we were the eyes and ears of the U.S. military of Afghanistan. We knew the language, we knew the body language, we knew the culture, we knew the dynamics that played into the different ethnicities and all of that. So they began hunting us. And a lot of thousands of interpreters have lost their lives and advisors have lost their lives because they were isolated and they were targeted. And it’s essentially that whole sense of patriotism of you being so proud of serving, building your nation, essentially flipped on its head. And the other side of the coin was quite evil, quite dark. And you have to go in hiding your identity. You have to disappear from society. You have to hide from your peers, from your friends. And so it is an overnight shift that sometimes psychologically very hard for you to process because here you are, you can’t go to soccer games anymore. Here you are. You can’t participate in wedding ceremonies, you can’t be away from home when the sun sets and all of those things. You can’t tell people what you’re doing. So essentially paints a very negative, dark picture in your mind. And you begin questioning every single thing you do from that point on. Not only for yourself, but also for your family, for your loved ones. Because no one wants to identify my parents, that his son is working because they could easily target him. I lost my uncle in host province. He initiated bringing a chapter of a TV station that was aired in Kabul at the capitol. He helped install their antennas into host, and one of the provinces and their districts that where he lived, and literally within three months he was dead. They dropped his body in a bag in front of their house. And so that was a lesson for hundreds of other villagers in that area, or people of that family. That this is what you get for doing this. If you go against us this is what you get.

Denzil Mohammed: You’re doing this work, and you’re talking about it within this frame of patriotism of doing things for your country. And at the same time, you’re seen as a traitor, someone betraying your country, and I guess your values and your history. And that’s absolutely fascinating. And how old were you when this is happening?

Abdul Saboor Sakhizada: So I started working with the U.S. armed forces when I was 17 years old, right after high school. It’s funny. Sometimes I talk about it and it hurts me because I played for the nationals of my country. I played soccer for the nationals of my country. And there was one point when I started working that I had to bring money to the family, that I had to decide between my soccer career versus working for the military. And I chose the latter as you could imagine. And I still think what we did was great, and I’m not trying to paint this negative picture, but seeing what my other brothers did and follow that path.

Denzil Mohammed: You mentioned being seen as a traitor, betraying your country. And come to the present day you also feel a sense of betrayal, but not from those people in Afghanistan, but from America and coalition forces. Thank you for joining us for the first of this two-part special of JobMakers. Next week, we come to terms with the pullout of security forces and the chaos and dread that’s resulted. Learn about the ad hoc and creative ways Abdul is getting family and friends out and find out how we can all be welcomers to those who helped us, those in need. We return to regular episodes of Jobmakers on October 14th. I’m Denzil Mohammed. Join us next Thursday at noon for the last of this two-part special of JobMakers.

Episode 26: Jim Stergios

JobMakers podcast logo: Jim Stergios on why immigrants are crucial to our successAs a child of immigrant entrepreneurs, Jim Stergios has special insight into the contributions of foreign-born people in the United States. As the executive director of the Pioneer Institute think tank, he also understands the current heated political conversation over immigration. Tune in to discover how he believes today’s immigrants are different and similar to the immigrants of his parents’ generation.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m Denzil Mohammed. And this is JobMakers

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Denzil Mohammed: At the start of this year. Pioneer Institute collaborated with The Immigrant Learning Center on this podcast due to our deep roots among immigrants in Massachusetts and beyond, particularly those who are overrepresented in one very important field. Job creation. Immigrants have always been inherently entrepreneurial, from Levi’s jeans and Coors beer to Goya foods and Tesla, but that penchant for creating jobs flies in the face of the myth that immigrants take jobs. For Jim Stergios, executive director of Pioneer Institute, it is a story that needs to be told. It is after all at the core of American enterprise, innovation and prosperity. It’s what gives the U.S. its edge over other countries and it’s the truth, for Jim and is also personal. His father and uncles got together and started their own business as young immigrants to the U.S. from Greece. There’s a common story about immigrant families, old and new, and Jim believes the entrepreneurial spirit of yesteryear is the same among today’s immigrants, as you learn in this week’s JobMakers. 

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Denzil Mohammed: Jim Stergios, thank you for joining us on JobMakers. How are you? 

Jim Stergios: I’m doing really well. And thanks for having me, I really appreciate the opportunity and you’re doing a great job. 

Denzil Mohammed: Pioneer Institute is the one who approached The Immigrant Learning Center about doing a podcast on immigrant entrepreneurship and immigrant contributions called JobMakers. Where did that idea come from? 

Jim Stergios: There are all sorts of divisions in how people talk about immigration and entrepreneurship and frankly they’ve lost the sense that entrepreneurship and the creation of jobs and companies are an integral part of why we seek, why we welcome immigrants into this country. If you look at the left, I think there’s a lot of thinking that, I guess, all sides are a little bit cartoonish on this, the left believes that America is sort of an oppressor society. If you go to the traditional right, I think they’d probably say maybe even libertarian-side free capital and free labor, let it all flow, and then you have the more revanchist right that we saw during the Trump years really take hold, which is, oh my gosh, all of immigration is a messiness at the southern border and that’s all it is. And you know, I, sometimes I have to tell you, sometimes I look at the Facebook page where we post up the fantastic work that you’re doing, talking about people creating jobs and people coming here with dreams and wanting to do stuff. And I shake my head and say, do people actually think that immigrants, that the whole immigration picture is about protecting the southern border? And it’s a sort of madness. So, watching that kind of a conversation that people don’t even have, they just talking past each other. I wanted to really emphasize real people doing real things, facing real problems, trying to build a real life here in America, which is why they come you know, things like, “I want to start a business, I have a dream, I want to start this business and maybe I can’t get there immediately.” Let me go do something else on there, solve that problem or find some capital. I’m gonna find some talent. I’m going to figure out how to train them. I’m going to do whatever I can define the connections to find a way to go to market and improve people’s lives. And then, yeah, I’ll make a buck at the same time. That’s kind of what this country has been about. And I think that whole thing has been lost. And maybe if I get to say one more thing, which I think is absolutely crucial, this conversation, and that is I think Americans lose sight of the fact that the entrepreneurial spirit really does come from immigrants. Immigrants come here for a reason, for the most part. You know, of course there are people at the edges, I get all that. But they come here for a reason. They want to do something, and they recognize that this society allows them to do stuff that maybe their home country would not. And that’s the beautiful mix between an immigrant wants to build something in the United States, which tends to like to see people build stuff. 

Denzil Mohammed: It’s a story I hear over and over again, no matter if you’re in big pharma, pharmaceuticals, life sciences or you run a doggy daycare or a corner shop somewhere, it is the same story. And I’ve heard from again from highly, very highly educated people talking about, well, back home in India and Pakistan, I didn’t belong to the right tribe or my skin color is not something that people would want to give me money to invest in my business idea. Dominican women who came from a very patriarchal society who would not have been able to start businesses in the Dominican Republic are able to do that here. That entrepreneurial spirit, business owner, or not that entrepreneurial spirit drove them to take a risk and to come here to create a better life. Now, the fact that we present facts, we present research, we present stories and yet even some of the simplest things like the data is questioned. People question the data, the question, the numbers, the question, the motivations of people who come here. what do you think is at the heart of this kind of response, this really visceral response to immigration today? 

Jim Stergios: I think it’s dislocation in the economy, number one, and there were certainly sort of, we’ve always had ethnic. I shouldn’t say “we,” the entire world has always faced ethnic and racial biases. We are not unique in that. We have a unique story around racial bias and around ethnic biases, we certainly do, but anyone who’s traveled. And I spent the first 10 years of my career abroad in Europe and in the far east, and look, these are things I saw everywhere. I think the second thing I’d say, and this is more now than when I was a kid. I feel like these days, there’s just so much divisiveness around what you have and protecting what you have. It’s probably because people feel more at risk. I hope it’s not more than that. I’d like to think it’s not. And I think that’s why we’re doing this podcast and trying to participate in this way. And just trying to inform people about real stories and real people, is when you understand real people and those things start falling away.

Denzil Mohammed: And immigration has always been to our benefit, which is a big part of the puzzle for me, that has given opportunity to people who have in turn created jobs and built up economies and expanded local economies. But you have a personal connection to immigrant entrepreneurship. And tell me a little bit about your parents.

Jim Stergios: I have the traditional immigration story where mom and dad, neither, both of whom completed high school, one with a GED, came over from Syria and Greece. Neither had anything to their name and they meet, they fall in love. My dad had been at war and World War II. A Marine in the far eastern theater came back, had some trouble, I think, in terms of trying to figure out what to do with his life after war. War is a tough thing. Moved from sales position to sales position, and finally settled on working with his brother, very family-oriented business, and his other brother and founded a window and door and other construction materials, manufacturing facility. You know, it’s sort of hard work putting together money, trying to move things ahead. You at some point achieve some success and it’s kind of a funny thing. I guess the difference is these days, if I think about the culture, I mean, it was a pretty religious culture at home where you did a lot of Bible study and you’d try to read things and we were pretty different from, I think, immigrants today in two ways. One is, we were more closed now. We would hang around with Syrians and Greeks a lot and our interactions outside of that were at the public school where we’d get to meet other kids, so I think that’s a little bit different these days. I think there’s more of a yearning to connect with other immigrants, especially given the tenor of the conversation these days. I think it’s probably a little bit different, especially in urban areas. And I guess the second thing is my dad used to always say, “Don’t go to college. Work, do what I do, become just like me.” And I think these days, immigrants probably have a very different view for the most part, if you’re starting a business, you understand what education means and because we’re in a different kind of economy, a manufacturing economy, which is low investment, maybe upfront, building, building, building to the point where you can make bigger investments. That’s education plays a huge role now, which is, I think one of the big puzzles we have on the policy side in Massachusetts, to think through how we make sure we can address that issue. 

Denzil Mohammed: What I’m getting at is this idea that somehow immigrants from the past were inherently different than immigrants of today? 

Jim Stergios: Oh no, no, no, not at all. That’s not the case. I think they’ve just grown up in a different world where, you know, Daniel Bell, the sociologist from Harvard wrote a book called The Post-industrial Society back in 1968, I think it was. And he was simply saying, look, education is going to separate people going forward. And all I’m pointing to is that, that has had an impact on how immigrants come to this country and, and what they do here. But frankly, even back in the 1960s, we had a whole recruitment effort of highly educated Indians, for example, to come here and work in the medical field. So nothing’s really changed that much. I’m just saying that the educational emphasis is so huge now in terms of what you can do going forward that it’s probably something that has changed some of the pattern of what I grew up with, but the values are the same, the reasons why people come here are the same. I’m often really struck by when I talk to immigrants about what they think about the United States and then what I hear Americans say about their own society. I would guess the polling is somewhere around like, you know, the positivity around being an Americans, like huge among immigrants and among the sour-puss Americans these days, it’s so “we’re a terrible place.” 

Denzil Mohammed: But bringing it into Massachusetts, where much of Pioneer Institute’s focus is what have you seen as the impact of immigration in Massachusetts? Particularly in the past few decades? 

Jim Stergios: Yeah, I think there’s one constant, and that is immigrants coming into this country change not the underlying values, though people always feel like those are at risk. It’s rather how we interpret those values and the cultural impact of people across time are huge. And if we go back to the 19th century, anybody who’s been brought up in Boston understands the imprint on how we’ve interpreted freedom and how we’ve interpreted governing and how we’ve interpreted business creation the hospitality industry because of the Irish immigrants that were here, the role of Catholicism in our society vis-a-vis what was there before. I mean, huge, huge change. And every wave of immigrants brings that sort of larger cultural impact. And I think it’s all positive and enriching. I remember as a kid traveling to Fitchburg and to Lawrence and to Worcester connecting with people who were on my Syrian side, Syrian Orthodox church. And, you know, it was just terribly enriching to those places as well. So, it’s the impact of immigrants isn’t just economic, it’s literature. It impacts what we write about, the stories that we tell, the ones that we find most fetching, the ones that we find most interesting, it’s all impacted by that. But then of course there is this amazing impact on opportunity. And I think anybody who was in Kendall Square 30 years ago and stands there again now says, “Oh my God,” and I’m not saying those are all citadels built to the ingenuity of immigrants, but there are a lot of immigrants in those buildings. They built a lot of them. And that same thing is true across society. I mean, if you look at some of our institutions, our strongest institutions, the one that give real oomf, real impetus to the development of companies here, and let’s just talk for a second about our hospital sector, top dogs, ones that actually help us identify ways in which we can invest in the life sciences, a lot of immigrants there, and the people who are doing, even back in the seventies, you’re talking about a couple of decades going back to the seventies and eighties, the development of tech in this state, all highly influenced, highly driven by immigrants. So, I think anybody who talks to you, especially with MIT, Harvard, Boston University, Emerson College, Boston College, all these different universities, they’re highly dependent on, especially in the STEM areas, highly dependent on the talent that they can recruit and actively seek to recruit it. Come on, we know what immigrants have meant for the state.  

Denzil Mohammed: You talk about Kendall Square, and I think you mentioned Moderna earlier, Pfizer, the other vaccine manufacturer, also founded by an immigrant, you know, maybe a century ago, but that tradition of immigrant entrepreneurship continues today and we’re all benefiting from it. But let’s not forget Field’s Corner. Let’s not forget some of these other places. The Immigrant Learning Center is based in Malden Pleasant Street, Main Street, all populated by many, many immigrants, immigrant-run businesses of every kind from the Irish pub to the Vietnamese nail salon. All of these places have been revitalized through people moving in when the rents were cheap and over, may take a generation or two, but it gets there to a place of safety and prosperity.

Jim Stergios: So that’s kind of what I was trying to get at earlier and didn’t say as well as you just said it. And what I mean is, look I’m not sour on Americans. I love this country and I love my fellow citizens, but, when you go to, everywhere from, Brookline to Malden, to Fields Corner, to Lawrence, who are starting those neighborhood businesses, yes, there are people who have been here for a century or more, but the real energy comes from folks who are immigrants and what would we do without these quintessential neighborhood businesses as well? So, that’s what I mean by replenishing the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s the desire, you’ve taken a risk to come here, the idea of taking risk, again, to put, you know, some money down and take a risk on your talent and your work ethic. You know, this is true when, I spent some time in academia and I would always have a laugh with one of my professors who used to say, “Jim, you eat every book you have, you are very desirous, you have big desires.” And I said, “I think it’s because I’m a kid of immigrants,” and I think it is true. Even there. She would always say, my best students are immigrants because they don’t take anything for granted. So, it’s all to be achieved. Look, I’m not trying to be overly sentimental here, but I do believe there’s something to replenishing the spirit of the United States that comes through immigrants. I think that often gets lost in the messiness of our conversation.

Denzil Mohammed