NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- From a bakery and restaurant specializing in Caribbean cuisine to corporate training classes, millions of immigrant entrepreneurs are flourishing in the U.S.
According to the 2007 U.S. Census Survey of Business Owners, 2.7 million, or 13.6%, of U.S. business owners are foreign-born -- entrepreneurs living the American Dream.
And according to the latest
, created by the
, the rate of businesses started by foreign-born entrepreneurs rose to 0.62% last year, after rising 0.51% in 2009.
Immigrants face a host of unique issues when starting a business in a foreign country, from communication issues (not fully understanding the language) and culture issues to building (or rebuilding) a network of friends and business contacts.
Further, access to capital and wading through the regulatory and legal system is particularly troublesome for immigrant-business owners.
David Egner is the executive director of
, a philanthropic initiative aimed at accelerating the transition of southeast Michigan into an
. Fostering entrepreneurship, including businesses started by immigrants, correlates with the group's goal, Egner says.
"There's a very large population of immigrants starting businesses in the state that we need to nurture and bring into our culture," Egner says. "It's hard to find the connection to the right resources as an immigrant. We've got to make sure that entrepreneurial ecosystem is supported."
On the other hand, immigrant entrepreneurs have a lot of advantages.
"First of all, by the very definition they are risk takers," says Foulis Peacock, founder of
, a recently launched website dedicated to immigrant small-business owners. "These are people that have left the security of their home country -- basically giving up all that security to come here and start a new life."
"America is the land of opportunity. We want to come here and really take advantage of those opportunities," says Peacock, who came to the U.S. from the U.K. some 20 years ago. "The best way to achieve the American Dream is becoming an entrepreneur."
These entrepreneurs can start by tapping their ethnic community in the U.S., Peacock says, and "recognize a need that's being unmet right now. These niche markets are small -- maybe overlooked -- and it gives you the opportunity then to fill that need."
Here are five examples of successful immigrant business owners:
Tom Pendleton, founder
Tom Pendleton spent many years working in the sign and display business after coming to the United States, making such things as the neon signs for beer companies seen in bars and restaurants. But a few years ago, he had an idea, researched whether it was a viable business and came up with a product line, leading to the creation of an international company now doing business on three continents.
"I noticed that there wasn't too many safety products, especially for adults or the police or the emergency services, that had reflective vests that would actually light up," Pendleton says. With his background experience with LEDs and accessories, "I thought these folks should all be wearing LED vests."
"We came up with a whole bunch of safety products that we thought were very practical and unique and should serve the consumer or emergency care or for commercial companies preaching safety," he says.
In 2006, Pendleton and his wife started
with their savings, offering safety products designed to increase visibility for consumers as well as law enforcement and emergency responders.
Through his contacts and friends abroad, the company has been able to expand from the U.S. to Europe and Asia. A friend in the U.K. with a print design business has taken over running European operations. Pendleton, through an old connection in Hong Kong, is able to import some products made in China.
Pendleton says starting a business in the U.S. was definitely easier than the U.K., due to the extensive paperwork and bureaucracy there. But perseverance still was key when starting the business, he says.
"I knew it was going to take three to five years for the business to take off and become fully profitable," Pendleton says. "I knew that I would have to invest and it took lots of time and energy with little reward for the first several years. My wife and I were willing to do that."
Miguel Zabludovsky, founder and CEO
New York City
Miguel Zabludovsky moved to New York for a girl after graduating from Boston University in 2004. The girl didn't last, but Zabludovsky entered another relationship -- a student-mentor relationship with a former professor who gave him the courage to open his own business.
At 29, Zabludovsky is the founder of
, an eco-friendly and affordable laundry, dry cleaning and home cleaning service. The 4-year-old company is used by more than 5,000 customers in New York, according to its website.
Zabludovsky's father owned a detergent company that exposed him to the laundry business, but he only saw possibilities in the U.S. one day while dropping off his own clothes to be cleaned.
"The whole experience was a complete disaster," he says. "You take it to these dirty places. The wash-and-fold is not what you're expecting as a consumer. From the start there was an appearance issue, there was no customer service, the prices were all over the board."
"I wanted a place that would pick up my stuff every Monday ... and charge me a monthly price. And I wanted to have my clothes to be cleaned with nontoxic chemicals," he says.
Zabludovsky drew up a business plan and began by shuffling around clothes to contracted dry cleaners. He finally built his own dry cleaning facilities in 2007 and started cleaning clothes.
"Four years later we're one of the top five dry cleaners in New York and possibly the top three in terms of quality," he says. Last year, Slate NYC brought in $1.2 million in revenue -- nearly five times the industry average, according to Zabludovsky.
Slate NYC wasn't immune to the recession. To diversify, Zabludovsky started a maid service and supplemented revenue lost from people who weren't dry cleaning as much.
"Home cleaning is like dry cleaning: It's very fragmented. We felt that we could do a good job there as well, and try that with the delivery of clothes," he says.
Access to capital was an issue. Slate NYC was originally financed through Zabludovsky's savings and contributions from family. In moving to Brooklyn to a larger space, Zabludovsky says, he was turned down for an U.S. Small Business Administration loan, even backed by collateral, because he wasn't a U.S. citizen.
He ended up going to a specialized lender to fund his expansion.
On a positive note, Zabludovsky said having Mexican roots helped him hire for the company's 25 full-time employees.
"I'm Mexican. I speak Spanish. I can find really good people to work for us," he says.
Zabludovsky says having a mentor, whom he describes as a "shrewd Turkish businessman," was important. Starting a business "is very emotional, but if you have someone who can coach you emotionally and has the experience -- that for me was a huge advantage," he says.
Bhuvana Krishnan, franchise owner
Bhuvana Krishnan graduated college with degrees in electrical engineering in India at the height of the Internet bubble and ended up getting a job in computer programming. She came to the U.S. on a work project at the
in 1998 for what was supposed to be three months, "but then they needed me on another project," she says.
"One thing led to another and then met my husband and stayed here," she says. "This became home."
Krishnan went back to school, got her MBA, moved to Georgia and slowly gathered the courage to fulfill a long-term dream of opening her own business.
"As an Indian, entrepreneurship runs in our blood, but the environment in India was just not conducive to that," she says. "America is the land of opportunity. If you're good at something, you can make it here. While in India there is just so much bureaucratic stuff to overcome ... particularly as a woman. I couldn't have done it entirely on my own as I can here."
is a nationwide franchise network of virtual assistants providing services to business owners. "At some point in their business, they need help -- and they need skilled help -- and that's where we come in," according to Krishnan, the owner of Cybertary's Alpharetta, Ga., franchise. Cybertary is a "team of professionals that can provide these services on a demand basis."
Krishnan contemplated starting a business along similar lines as Cybertary for several years. She had the intention of setting up the business while still working full-time at an insurance company "and that just didn't happen," she says.
Through a friend, Krishnan was introduced to the Cybertary franchise network and chose in late 2009 to open a franchise because "my time to market would be drastically reduced" and she'd have support on the back end if needed, she says.
"I quit my job and started this at the height of the recession," she says. "It was definitely a big risk, but one that I haven't regretted."
As an immigrant business owner, Krishnan wishes she had grown up in the U.S. to learn the culture and history better, but she doesn't seem to have a problem getting clients. Like Zabludovsky, Krishnan says she has an advantage in being a minority: relating to the local Indian community. And people from other minority groups also tend to gravitate to her.
"They feel more comfortable talking to me. They feel like I understand it as an immigrant," she says. In her local community, "there is a huge Indian and Asian community ... I definitely have an advantage there."
But she tries not to limit her network to the Indian community. Krishnan suggests that other business owners widen their comfort zone when it comes to getting clients and strengthening professional networks.
"Building relationships as an immigrant is by no means easy," she says. "Trying to build a business in a foreign land is not easy at all, but the more you go out and talk to people and network and the more you're seen in the community ... You will form more relationships and grow your business."
Yuri Schneiberg, founder
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
Yuri Schneiberg came to the U.S. from St. Petersburg in Russia in 1979 with strong computer programming skills and a desire to use those skills in education. He and his wife originally ran a computer programming school with two campuses, serving 1,500 students, but sold it in 1997.
Shortly after, they shifted the client list from consumer to commercial clients and started
, which provides vocational training in IT and other business disciplines to Fortune 1000 businesses and government agencies.
The company operates training sessions all over the country and virtually, and has five regional sales offices across the U.S. and one in Canada.
This September, Schneiberg will be adding to LearnQuest's offerings by launching The Entrepreneurship and Small Business Management certificate program. It was the recession that sparked the idea.
"As unemployment continues to be high, and we
have 25 years of experience, we would like to offer some help to our peers in small business," he says. "We want to share our experience with other small-business owners, including immigrants. This is definitely one of our target audiences."
As an immigrant and small-business owner with an MBA -- his son has one as well -- Schneiberg says his practical experience will help others who are starting out.
"Those who would benefit the most would be the people who've been in business for a year, got a taste and what they learned is what they don't know. They're ready to take off, ready to start hiring," he says. "Our program will put them in the right position, where the growth is not already a mile ahead of them."
Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill
Lowell Hawthorne, CEO
Lowell Hawthorne grew up in Jamaica, where his family owned a bakery business. It was the entrepreneurial spirit of his parents that stuck with him even as he came to America.
"Once I arrived, like most immigrants I had to find employment," he says. Hawthorne ended up being employed by the New York Police Department, eventually making his way to become an accountant within the NYPD's pension section.
After 10 years, he decided he wanted to bring what his family did best in Jamaica to the U.S. He called a family meeting to gather support and got it; family members ended up taking out second mortgages on their homes to back the launch.
opened its first establishment in the Bronx, N.Y. -- where there is a large Caribbean population -- in 1989, finding strong demand. Golden Krust opened 17 restaurants throughout the boroughs of New York City in just five years and became a franchised establishment by default in 1996, Hawthorne says. It has expanded to 125 franchised stores in nine states along the Eastern Seaboard.
Hawthorne says his success depended on serving its primary customer -- the Caribbean community.
It also would not have succeeded if there was no family support.
"There are seven of us family members, along with spouses, and each person brings a very unique skill to the organization. I was able to capitalize on those skills," Hawthorne says. In the beginning, for instance, Hawthorne's father would come from Jamaica to help bake.
Hawthorne also says that to get the product to a quality he was used to in Jamaica, he ended up importing equipment, raw material and employees from Jamaica. Bringing employees to the U.S. was a whole new set of challenges, including having to secure work Visas.
"It was very challenging, but like anything else we did what we had to do," he says.
For an immigrant business owner, learning the rules and language of franchises wasn't easy.
"There was no school, no institution that one could have gone to learn the business. So I basically applied to various franchise organizations to learn about the franchise business and tried to get the best attorneys on board and best accountants on board," Hawthorne says. "There was a whole lot to do and there were not many Caribbean businesses that were in the franchise business."
Golden Krust is expanding its reach by moving to the retail market and selling to the
chain, penal institutions and institutional accounts, Hawthorne says.
"It was not easy putting it together, but we did it," Hawthorne says. "It was worth it to the very end."
--Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.
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