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CONTRIBUTOR POST: Lessons of Entrepreneurship from Immigrant Parents

by Manav Thaker

Being a first-generation American is a rare opportunity to access the boldest generations of our time – immigrants.

As first-generation children, our parents’ journeys of leaving their homeland to come to the “land of opportunity” are engrained in our identity. Their hardships are not just tales or stories. They never had to say “back in my day” because “back in the day” occurred during our childhood. My parents came here with the promise of possibilities, going through hardships and sacrificing to break open their glass ceiling. The sky was now the limit with a paid laid out for their children towards safety, success, and stability.

Unfortunately, that path was not for me.

I’ve taken risks throughout my life and my career. I traveled in the exact opposite direction of my parents by moving outside of the US for opportunities. And even after returning to the US, I’ve taken risks by starting my own company. If there was a “traditional” path, I veered way off the road a long time ago. My parent’s courage, sacrifice, and resilience in leaving their lives behind, starting from scratch by emigrating to this country to provide their children with more opportunities, is what inspired my heads-first attitude towards change and innovation. Though my opportunities were vastly different than what my parents had imagined for me, they were connected to my parents by an underlying thread: Risk-taking.

It turns out it’s more than a thread. Immigrants are the O.G. entrepreneurs. Just look at the numbers. 15% of the US workforce consists of immigrants, but 25% of entrepreneurs. Immigrants start businesses at twice the rate of their native-born counterparts. Immigrants are also accomplishing this without the traditional pathways to success: Immigrant business owners without college degrees brought in one in every nine dollars ($43 billion) generated by the self-employed individuals of the US.

The immigrant experience in the US should be a benchmark for startup founders. Every immigrant has a story about leaving their home country to start anew in an unfamiliar culture, with limited knowledge of the language, and in search of a better life for their children. And every founder has a story about leaving his previous job to pursue his dream of building a company, often in the face of steep odds. My parents knowingly took risks so that their children didn’t have to take a longer route to success the way they did. But they didn’t know that what I saw them do every day — continuing their education, raising kids, and working multiple jobs to save and build a foundation — was transforming the way I internalized success.

Being an immigrant in this country isn’t easy. Being a founder is just as hard.

We don’t hear that word often enough: Hard. It’s hard being a founder. If you’ve heard the term “hard,” it only accompanies a message of success: Stories of founders who hustled more than anyone else and succeeded against all odds. For the budding founder, these types of stories are aspirational. Maybe even necessary. The stories make it all seem doable, like success is within reach, and if they try a little harder, they too can make that dream possible. And why not? When every IG influencer is an “entrepreneur,” and every Twitter bio is a 1X, 2X, or 3X entrepreneur, you’re thinking, ‘if they can do it, why can’t I?’ It can’t be that hard. Even Squarespace proclaims it’s “hustlin’ time” and makes it seem that you can achieve peak entrepreneur if you put up a landing page and work after hours from “5 to 9.”

This is startup Cibola, the founders’ fabled land of opportunity. Founders are on their way to entrepreneurial Ellis Island. They’re the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” as they wait for the “golden door” to open in the form of a unicorn company. Our glorification of startup culture perpetuates an illusion on its way to turning startup founders into the next Hollywood waiters. It reminds me of another fantasy: The American Dream. Immigrants moved to this country with an idea of freedom – breaking free of their experience and achieving the American Dream of endless, fruitful land. As a founder, you imagine what freedom you’ll have when starting a business: Freedom in creating a product from scratch, having your idea, and bringing that to fruition. Freedom of being out of the corporate office and not having a boss. Freedom of having control over your time, accountability, and ultimate vision.

Those freedoms are still an illusion. It’s a trap door, hiding the fact that we forgo the freedom of health and financial stability. The lack of sleep, proper diet and exercise, and focus on mental health experience when consumed by their startups. We’re not free from anxiety, pressure, and the need for validation. We tell ourselves it’s all worth it because we believe we’re building something meaningful, but there is cognitive dissonance in what we want to achieve long-term and what we need to do for ourselves today.

Every startup is disruptive. Every founder is changing the world. In researching this article, I found that even Inc. Magazine’s mission was to “help entrepreneurs change the world.” A mix of hubris, delusion, and exploitation, the idea of founders having an exponential national or global impact is the distinction between immigrants and startup founders: Selflessness.

I know; it sounds counterintuitive. How can you be for-profit and be selfless at the same time? Prioritization. 95% of startups fail. 42% of them fail because there is no market for the product or services that they’ve created. Founders need to go into startup life selflessly, solve problems for others. “Changing the world” is not a destination. Immigrant parents’ goals were to provide value for the next generation. They focused on the people (their kids) and not a place. The sacrifices they’re making in the present allow for opportunities in the future. As a founder, especially if you’re venture-backed, getting caught up in your hype is very easy.

In advising startups, I’ve seen that rush to relevance and the ease of creation combine to cause founders to skip over the essential steps in the process, mainly having a solid mission, solving an actual for a specific set of people. Startups are a long game, longer than you think and longer than you think (or are told) they will be. You’ll need to get validation from the value you’re providing others. If you’re in for your glory and don’t provide value, you won’t succeed.

And with every dream, whether you’re an immigrant or a startup founder, there are hurdles along the way. Founders need to understand the sheer number of sacrifices they will have to make. The journey isn’t for the faint of heart; you’ll lose a lot of sleep, and financial success will be a roller coaster. This path is for those that are more than just risk-takers. It’s not only for those who are willing and able to run towards the risk, but those who understand they are working towards a better tomorrow, even if tomorrow doesn’t have an exact date. As a founder and the first generation of immigrant parents, it’s all about the journey, the ability to dream while also knowing that this will be nearly impossible. With the right business, the right problem to solve, and the proper funding, maybe I’ll have the chance to reach my version of the American Dream that my parents worked so hard to provide.

Until then, the work continues.


Manav Thaker is a founder and executive with over a decade of experience developing growth and product strategies with B2B, DTC, lifestyle, and e-commerce brands. He’s the Co-founder of Subziwalla, a first-of-its-kind online grocer making it easier for anyone to enjoy multicultural food at home. As a serial entrepreneur, Manav has founded, fundraised, and failed with multiple startups, giving him first-hand knowledge of where startups go wrong in their growth strategy. That experience helps Manav work with lean teams and early-stage founders to scale and become mainstream market leaders through a personalized growth playbook. He loves talking with founders and is always open to help. You can reach him on Twitter @manavpthaker.
This article was originally published in DORD Magazine.

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