Kent Trabing, WG’01
Editor, WCNY Magazine
The Wharton School has a claim on entrepreneurship, an early American trait abundantly observed in Benjamin Franklin. A founding father of the country and the founder of our university, he is often called our country’s first entrepreneur, having started America’s first hospital, lending library and postal service system, as well as having invented the lightning rod, bifocals, battery, hand paddles, and more! Born in England’s Massachusetts Bay Colony, he may also be called America’s first immigrant entrepreneur, if not her most prolific.
From 2015 to 2017, I created and hosted a podcast, The Immigrant Entrepreneur. My inspiration came in 2014 from alumni I had interviewed for this magazine: Due Quach, WG’06, (Vietnam) of Calm Clarity (episode 1); Vivek Tiwary, W’95, (Guyana) of Tiwary Entertainment Group (episode 4) as well as those I studied like David Sarnoff and Benjamin Franklin. You can find it on iTunes, where it stayed in the Top 10 for two months.
A podcast seemed like the ideal format to share the stories of these underdogs who persist in creating 27% of new businesses in this country despite being only 13% of the population. That includes dry cleaners and restaurants, but also 35% of Silicon Valley startups. Did you know that one-third of venture capital backed companies that go public, were founded by immigrants? Those companies create 20% of our GDP!
You don’t need anyone to hold your hand.
My first deep dive was a two-hour podcast interview with Due Quach (pronounced “Zway Kwok”). Her ideas and company, Calm Clarity were featured in this August’s issue of Fast Company.
She spoke openly of embracing her past as a Vietnamese boat baby, and her journey through Harvard, Wharton, Vietnam and finally back to the inner city, where she teaches youth and others to achieve a state of mind that she calls “calm clarity” based on neuro science. Here are some excerpts:
”When we got to start our lives over in the US, we were all so grateful that we survived. I have so many people to thank, because I had a lot of close calls during that period. It was not without scars. The reason I’m so fascinated with neuroscience is that it helped me understand how the brain can be so resilent. My mom worked as a maid, and my dad waited tables, until they scraped enough money to open a takeout restaurant in a low-income area in Philadelphia. The early 80s was a time of gangs and drug wars. I learned to run really fast. As a result of my time at the refugee camps, I was developmentally challenged and didn’t talk until I was 7 years old. Some of it had to do with not knowing how to process four dialects my parents spoke at home while also dealing with English in kindergarten. I was 7 years old when I finally started talking. Somehow, I went through some sort of growth spurt in my brain and caught up in terms of academics, too. Not only that, I jumped to the top of the class. When my parents first saw my report card during this time, they were shocked. Of course, they got used to it. So, after a while, if I brought home a 90, they would ask, ‘How come you made so many mistakes?’
“In Vietnam, it is not unusual to put 3-year-olds to work. At age 7 I was expected to contribute. Just at the time I learned how to talk, I became their translator. They would give me their government documents to make sense of and ask me to write out the menus for them. You just have to step up to that responsibility because your parents can’t speak English. Even through high school, I always helped my parents run the takeout. One of the things I learned from them is that, no matter how hard it is, you just have to push through. You are doing it to put food on the table and to take care of people. I learned sacrificing through my parents. They weren’t working to buy Gucci handbags. They were doing it because they wanted to make sure that we went to good schools. When we came to America, the school system was so violent. When my brother started first grade, he came back with a broken arm. The teachers didn’t care. My parents could not speak enough English to advocate for him. They figured the best thing they could do was to put us in a parochial school where at least we would be safe. I never had to deal with the worst of Philadelphia’s public school system, and I feel grateful that my parents sacrificed in order for me to do that.”
On Due’s inspiration for her company.
“By the second year of Harvard, I became aware that I didn’t fit in. I had no idea what my classmates were talking about. I didn’t know who Jimi Hendrix was. They didn’t realize that I grew up running a takeout restaurant. If you hadn’t shown that you were a genius in something, it was a hard place to navigate. Symptoms of PTSD began to happen, and I was having flashbacks. I didn’t know if I would end up back in the inner city. It was sink or swim. I was sinking. After a while, I realized the symptoms of PTSD were beyond my control. This is how the idea for Calm Clarity began, because I realized what I was experiencing was common. Most Harvard students have depression and anxiety. Nobody knows how to deal with it. We copied each other’s unhealthy habits of being competitive, of being disdainful, elitist and judgmental. When I went to the school psychiatrist, he had me walk through my life story. He told me, ‘No wonder why you are experiencing these symptoms, given the traumas you went through as a baby, escaping Vietnam and the refugee camps. Your brain chemistry is never going to be normal.’ I said, ‘Are you telling me childhood adversity could be a life sentence? That I would have to be medicated the rest of my life? I don’t know about this. I don’t see myself as a patient.’ I did start to take the medication, but I also wanted to know what it was doing to my brain. That is when I turned to neuroscience. As I learned what was happening in my brain, I was able to change my lifestyle and my mindset, eat better, and build a social support system. I not only made a full recovery, but created a business to share this knowledge.”
Of the 60 immigrant entrepreneurs that I interviewed, half were born in poverty and half came from the middle class. They spoke 31 languages and came from over 40 countries. Some escaped communist Bulgaria, China, Hungary or Vietnam, others fled war, others religious persecution. Some attended Wharton! Carmen Feliciano, WG’11, (Philippines) of Access Ventures and XBorder Angels; Dennis Mendiola, EE’90, W’90, (Philippines) of VoxpTech; Pablo Osinaga, WG’07, (Argentina) now at Google, had a music collaboration site called Bandhub; Reham Fagiri, WG’12, (Sudan) of AptDeco; Sasibai Kimis, W’00, (India) of Earth Heir; Slava Rubin, W’00, (Russia) of Indiegogo; and Melissa Shin Mash, WG’12, (Korea) of Dagne Dover. Two spotlighted in this issue are Edrizio De La Cruz, WG’11, (Dominican Republic) of Arcus and Kaihan Krippendorff, Eng’94, W’94, (Germany/Bangladesh) of Outthinker. Despite their varied backgrounds, they shared five lessons worth considering. Note: Their podcast episode is mentioned in parentheses.
1. Build scar tissue early.
Steli Efti (20), an icon of Silicon Valley, is founder of Close.io one of the top ranked CRM platforms for start-ups. Before that he ran an outsourced sales company for 200 venture-backed firms. A Greek-German with rough beginnings, dropped out of high school, plucked up the courage to read his first real book, and started a company. Steli shared as others did, that those who suffer early in life have an advantage, if they survive! Steli: “When immigrant entrepreneurs get emotionally crushed, depressed, anxious from mistakes or fail, it is not an instant amazing experience. It feels horrible. But if they survived the early onset of their very real disadvantages, they will build good habits. They will have become stronger personalities, and it will be harder to crush them. They will develop character and wisdom.”
2. The risk is that I won’t be able to contribute.
Parviz Parvizi (30) is founder of Lighthouse Signal, that brings end-to-end indoor cell-phone coverage to the public and to 15,000 retail locations in large buildings. Parviz came out of Iran as a child, during war, through high mountains on horseback. He explained in his podcast episode the gratitude he felt for life, that motivates his giving and his approach to risk: “I don’t often think on this, so I value having this conversation. Just thinking out loud, looking across time and space, having the chance to grow up here in 20th-century America puts one in the top 1% of human opportunity. From the get go, I won the lottery. OK — what do I do with that? How do I push the ball forward for society? The risk is not ‘Will I suffer an incremental change in my financial outlook?’ but ‘Will I be able to contribute?’ I think any American would have that view, but perhaps I have a more palpable sense of the other direction that things could have gone.”
3. Learning is being serious about paying attention.
The environments that immigrants leave behind are between stressful and dangerous. To succeed demands paying attention to the right things, the right books, the right friends and the right lessons from their difficult experiences. And they feel a serious burden. As one told me: “I was the one out of the country, I had to make sure that I could succeed in every way possible. It was up to me to be all and do all.”
Part of paying attention is being fast. Jose Prendes, (10&23), came from Cuba, learned English, and built up his company, Pure Formulas, to $20m per year, by paying attention to the market and to who he hired. He told me his favorite quote: “‘In business, it’s not the big fish that eats the small fish; it’s the fast fish that eats the slow one’. I loved that line because it tells you a lot. Adapting and reacting quickly to change is what’s important. If you do that, the chances of succeeding are higher.”
Those who came through America’s educational system were universally shocked at its low quality. Slava Rubin, (43) the founder of the world’s largest crowd-funding platform Indiegogo, and the recipient of the Joseph Wharton Award for Young Leadership shared passionately: “Becoming an entrepreneur is so hard and there’s so much stacked against you! Our educational system not only does not support becoming an entrepreneur instead the creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit get beaten out of you. On Indiegogo we’re empowering others to believe so all of a sudden, they say, ‘hey, if I see these other people doing it, I can do it’.”
4. Overcome the lack of resources.
Immigrant entrepreneurs face major disadvantages in their lack of capital, credit, cultural context and language. Carmen Feliciano (11), led the creation of the world’s first SMS-based donation platform and mobile remittance product, in the Philippines. Carmen also founded XBorder Angels, an investor network with global investments and today Blockchain Prize. Carmen grew up in the troubled southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines. Reading expanded her world and fueled her ambition. I asked her about resource constraints: “You need to be courageous and just go for it. You will figure things out on the way. Tell people what you need. People are very helpful in general. Even if you don’t have money, you have talent and you should be generous with it as well. Just help people and let people help you back.
5. Strong relationships with their parents.
IEs carry an old world, trusting relationship with their parents. Hiten Shah (37) of, CrazyEgg and Product Habits born of Indian heritage, in Zambia exemplifies this. As a very young founder he made and lost $1 million: He told me: “I met my father, crying and told him that it was over, that I didn’t know how to stay motivated. My dad responded, ‘Listen. You’re crying about this, but when your mother died, you didn’t cry. This is not that bad. It’s just $1 million!’ I just needed to hear that. He has the power to know what to say to me. Once I got that, I was good. OK, cool. It’s not that big of a deal. I called my business partner and told him, ‘My father said it’s not a big deal, and he would know if it’s a big deal.’
Immigrant entrepreneurs have much to teach — not only to native-born Americans and other immigrants, but also to their own next generation, lest they forget. It’s important to preserve what makes these individuals so compelling and so American.