The new American dreamers

Their stories are as old as the United States itself: immigrants who arrived on American soil and worked hard to turn opportunities into successes.

• Caroline Mulligan, who left Ireland at age 21 in 1991, now owns a bustling hair salon on Boston's posh Newbury Street.

• Yolanda Zambrano married her Colombian sweetheart, already living in the US, in 1990, and eventually piloted a small travel agency into a award-winning business with $7 million in sales last year.

• Punita Pandey parlayed her engineering degree from India, MBA from the University of California at Berkeley, and a decade of experience in Silicon Valley into her own dotcom start-up in 1999, winning high-tech customers such as Dell, Sony, and IBM.

But these women and others add a twist to the traditional tale. None of them came to the US with a blueprint - or even a vision - to create their own businesses. But today, all of them are successful entrepreneurs. Their stories reflect the confluence of two trends - the vital, expanding roles of both women- and immigrant-owned businesses in the US economy.

For several decades, census data have shown that immigrants are more active as entrepreneurs than native-born Americans. And in the 1990s, many high-skilled newcomers became a driving force in the high-tech centers of the new economy.

"Immigrants are risk-takers," says Steve Moore, an economist with the Club for Growth, who carried out a 1998 study on "the newest Americans" for the National Immigration Forum and the Cato Institute. "I don't think Americans fully appreciate the economic contribution of immigrants, especially when it comes to the businesses they create." His study found a high propensity to start businesses of all kinds, including high-tech giants like Intel and Sun Microsystems, and estimated that those firms pay at least $29 billion annually in taxes.

Women, meanwhile, have come into their own as business owners. Their companies - now about 5.4 million in the US - are growing at more than twice the rate of all businesses, says the Center for Women's Business Research. Their share of venture capital is small, but growing. And immigrant women own businesses at a higher rate than native-born Americans (7.2 percent to 5.6 percent in 1990), according to Robert Fairlie, of the University of California at Santa Cruz. The highest rates were among female immigrants from Korea, Greece, Taiwan, and Iran.

Some follow the more-traditional immigrant path of small-scale service or retail businesses (related story, page 15). Others try their wings among the global elite of high-tech firms. But either way, immigrant women from various continents are writing a new American story.

Hard work and confidence

From the time she was a little girl, Ms. Mulligan had her eyes on the US. "I knew from young, I wanted to come," she says in her Irish lilt, "and I knew that if I didn't do it early on, I never would."

So as soon as she finished a four-year apprenticeship for hairdressing in 1990, this oldest child in a farm family of six daughters applied for a visa. Within a year she was in the US, and five months later she had a permit to work as a hairdresser.

Then the tough part began. Without her own clientele, no salon in Boston was interested in hiring her, except to do the same work she had done for years at home as an apprentice.

After two low-paying jobs, she finally found a spot at a salon that advertised regularly, attracting new clients. She worked for seven years alongside another conscientious young stylist, Cheri O'Donnell, who is third-generation Irish in America. Then they hatched their dream to open a salon on Newbury Street, the city's most prestigious and competitive location.

A small, slender woman who looks younger than her years, Mulligan exudes an easy confidence. "If you're not confident, a client is not confident," she says matter-of-factly.

In December 1999, the young women went off to the Small Business Administration (SBA) for advice, where they got help from retired professionals, accountants, insurance people, banks, and lawyers. "Once you do your business plan, they go over it with you; they told us we had what it took to be successful," she adds with a broad smile.

But they still had to pound the pavement for space, convince brokers who thought they were too young, and design the salon from scratch - put in plumbing, upgrade the electricity, lay a hardwood floor, and paint. But they got their prestigious address and a small loan. And 98 percent of their clients followed them.

Now Bridgid Lee Salon has four stylists, some 800 clients, and is busier than they had expected. O'Donnell has a new baby and Mulligan is expecting soon. Mulligan's husband, David, is Irish, too - a self-employed contractor - and they are proud new American citizens.

"It's a lot of work, and Cherie and I put in 100 percent," she says. But being in business with another woman means they'll both "be more understanding about family." She doesn't find the prospect daunting.

"It's very rewarding," she says. "I never get up and say 'I wish I didn't have to go to work.' "

Quality service and a niche

Yolanda Zambrano's thriving business, Alpha Travel in Worcester, Mass., mirrors the rapid growth among female-owned firms in the '90s. Yet she started from scratch - lacking even English when she landed in the US in 1990.

She had energy, commitment, and the gumption to take advantage of the opportunity that fell into her lap.

Having studied accounting at night college in Colombia while working by day at a travel agency, she hoped to finish school in America and become a CPA. But as she pursued her first goal to learn English, she also wanted to learn as much as possible about her new country, so she volunteered in several places in the community, including a travel agency.

One day the owner, tired of the business, suggested she might like to buy it.

Stunned, she found herself saying "yes," though she only had $2,000 in savings. "When I got started, of course, all the problems arose, because I didn't understand the system or know anything about the organizations available to help minorities," Ms. Zambrano says. "I did it all on my own for the next 2-1/2 years."

At first she had to charge credit cards to the max, but she eventually secured a small loan and the $20,000 needed for her license. "By then, I knew I had a great market on my hands," she says.

Her aim: to provide top-quality, personalized service for those traveling to Latin America. She hired and trained a bilingual staff and focused on the Hispanic community as a customer base.

"We emphasize that every customer deserves the same respect, quality service, and a good price," she says. Her agency helps them in whatever way needed, including wiring money to relatives.

The company soon became a full-service agency, providing travel packages all over the world, while specializing in Latin America and the Caribbean. It recently began serving Africa and African-Americans. Her goal now is to go corporate, and develop accounts with companies doing business in Latin America.

The one downside to her efforts to build a new business, "due to the stress of all the problems," she says, was the end of her marriage in 1998. Now, her brother and sister have joined her here.

Alpha Travel has grown from $100,000 in 1990 to $7 million in annual sales today and recently opened a branch office. Earlier in 2001, Zambrano won an award from the SBA as the Minority Small Business Person of the Year for New England. Success has come, she says, by "focusing on the goal, being professional and responsible, and taking advantage of the wonderful opportunity this country offers."

She is thrilled to be a new US citizen, "to be able to vote, be 100 percent a part of the society, and to do something for it."

Alliance to help women

Women-owned firms are doing so well, they're finally capturing the attention of the financial world. This summer, a group of international banks launched the Global Banking Alliance to encourage women entrepreneurs, and to help overcome the inequity in the distribution of start-up capital. According to Fleet Boston Financial, women received only 4 percent of the $48 billion in venture capital raised in the US last year.

Punita Pandey understands that challenge well. Having resigned from an exciting Silicon Valley job to launch her own Internet start-up in early 1999, she found she had to go it alone until last October, when her global customer-service firm,, attracted its first venture capital. After the long dry spell, this was a major accomplishment at a time when backing for dotcoms was drying up.

But Ms. Pandey's vision and adventurous spirit - and her own earnings from the stock market - helped her stay the course.

As an engineer from India, she is part of a remarkable trend of recent decades in which high-skilled immigrants have fueled the boom in high-tech centers across the US. A study by UC Berkeley professor AnnaLee Saxenian found that in 1998, Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs ran 25 percent of Silicon Valley's high-tech businesses, accounting for 58,000 jobs and more than $16.8 billion in sales.

"I believe that one of the things that sets the US economy apart from other industrialized nations is that we have the benefit of this highly educated, highly motivated group of workers from all over the world," economist Moore says. "Japan doesn't have that, and it gives us a leg up on the competition."

The study also highlighted how immigrant-owned firms were facilitating global trade and investment through their linkages to other countries.

Pandey's vision is a global one, a natural for someone who has been "nomadic from my early days." Her family moved often when she was a child, and her first job was with an Indian international consulting firm. She looks at the world "as though no boundaries exist."

In 1987, she came to the US for graduate study, but was immediately offered a full-time job, so she went to school part time. After working with McDonnell Douglas, Deloitte Consulting, and Healtheon, which gave her experience with the Internet, she heard her calling, she says, and hasn't looked back. Her goal became the creation of a firm to offer Internet-based customer service in real time with a human touch. The model offers high-tech businesses outsourced service via e-mail, Web, voice, and fax in all parts of the globe on a 24/7 basis.

"We are creating a new paradigm for customer service," the CEO says.

When customers are frustrated, they're going to turn elsewhere, so she has designed a system to provide the highest levels of customer satisfaction, increase the client's understanding of customer needs, and reduce costs. The company has headquarters in California, with operations in India, where her brother (also an MBA) has assembled teams of highly qualified service reps.

Pandey is a high-energy risk-taker, but she says she has benefited from the advice and mentoring of friends. Ultimately, she approached and shared her vision with the CEO of a company that offered services that complemented those of her firm. That company had an existing relationship with Dell and other big-name companies. "It was a long process, but he agreed to be a partner and allow us to offer our services to their customers."

Word spread fast. Now they are making some strategic changes, to focus primarily on technical support requiring a great deal of expertise.

"We can deliver the kind of service that doesn't even exist today," she says.

Even though the economy has taken a downturn, Pandey feels it's a good time to build a company. "Every entrepreneuer goes through hardships. That's the time to focus on fundamentals."

"Being confident is absolutely a must for an entrepreneur," she adds. "Being passionate about what you do could not be more important ... and I have never felt I was at a disadvantage.

"So what if you are from a different country? So what if you are a woman? So what if you are short, as I am?" she laughs.

"The creation process is so exhilarating - to conceive something, assemble a team, execute, and offer your customers something which is valuable for them, your company, and all the individuals involved," she says. "There have been lots of ups and downs, but I have never been more satisfied."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The new American dreamers
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today