How Entrepreneurship Is Different for Immigrants and Refugees
My parents come from Sri Lanka, and I was born in the UK. We were one of those families that moved every two or three years. I ended up spending my formative years in four countries on three different continents, ultimately fleeing the Middle East for the US when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Growing up as an immigrant and a refugee infused me with a very particular mindset. The immigrant experience — especially when compounded by refugee status — is one of transience and precariousness. Resources are scarce, homes are temporary, community is harder to find. Where natives feel comfortable with cultural rituals and norms, it’s an effort of will for people like me to fit in.
The immigrant/refugee mindset has caused me to navigate entrepreneurship differently than most. Oftentimes, this is a positive. Having faced a unique set of challenges, I’ve developed a unique set of strengths. But every strength has a shadow, and like all mindsets, the immigrant/refugee mindset has certain pitfalls that can impede effective entrepreneurship.
Here are the four most distinguishing elements of the immigrant mindset, and how to make the most of them.
1. Immigrants are good at bootstrapping, but may fear asking for help.
When I was applying to colleges, I was thrilled to get into Stanford University — my first choice. But when I told my parents I’d gotten in, they told me they couldn’t afford it because they weren’t willing to finance the tuition with a loan.
My parents’ aversion to debt is very common to immigrants’ mindsets. Growing up, my parents bought almost everything they owned outright. Even when it meant sacrificing the quality of my academic experience (a sacrifice which came with plenty of upside), my parents always preferred to bootstrap it.
Positive: Early and frequent bootstrapping taught me how to make a lot happen with limited resources. For Upscribe’s first two years, I refused to raise money, preferring to lay the foundation on my own.
Worth watching out for: You can only bootstrap so much before you get diminishing returns. There’s value in self-sufficiency, but there’s equal value in knowing how and when to ask for help. Upscribe just closed its first seed round, which gave us an influx of catalytic capital we couldn’t have amassed on our own.
2. Immigrants are focused on achievement, but may conflate status and value.
Immigrants often come to new countries with limited social capital — if any. For refugees, it’s even more stark, as you’ve been forced to flee your home country and rebuild wherever would take you in.
At the same time, you see the power in status and credentials. People naturally evaluate you differently if you have a college degree, especially if it comes from a Yale, a Harvard, a Stanford. By the time I became an entrepreneur, it took me a while to take job applicants seriously if they didn’t have college degrees.
But the value of credentials is diminishing. Case in point: Forbes named UC Berkeley the #1 college in the US, largely because of its accessibility.
Positive: The refugee experience and the entrepreneurial experience both benefit from hustling. Ambition is a necessary element of survival.
Worth watching out for: Status doesn’t necessarily equal value. Especially as credentialing grows less inherently valuable, be sure you don’t sacrifice skill development for status acquisition.
3. Immigrants know the value of community, but may unintentionally limit their horizons.
Upon relocation, immigrants tend to cluster in communities with other natives of their home countries. When my family got to the States, our community mostly consisted of other Sri Lankans.
What was great about this is that it gave me a safety net I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Ethnic connections become family connections, and I ended up with many different people who were eager to help me out. But as time went on, I realized I wasn’t really looking beyond the connections I had, and didn’t even know professional organizations like YPOexisted, for example.
At a certain point, I had to ask myself: if my network is all people who look like me, how broad is my perspective?
Positive: A strong network of fellow natives gives you safety and stability.
Worth watching out for: Not looking beyond your immediate community can make your network homogenous, and prevent valuable branching out and growth.
4. Immigrants are highly adaptable, but sometimes at the expense of acting authentically.
Living in such a wide variety of cultures forced me to become an expert adapter. Over time, I learned how to walk into any room and blend in, molding my behavior to prevailing personalities.
But I also found this distanced me from who I was authentically. Getting so good at changing my behavior, I found it more difficult to act naturally — and consequently, to connect with my personal purpose, rather than the purpose of the people around me.
Positive: Adaptability and flexibility are key to entrepreneurship, in which you’re constantly gauging external conditions and pivoting to meet/anticipate them.
Worth watching out for: Being overly adaptable can turn you into a yes-man, always trying to please people at the expense of expressing your true opinions and values.
Research indicates that immigrants are more likely to become entrepreneurs than native-born citizens. It’s often a matter of necessity; we can’t lean back on native institutions, so we have to create our own.
The mindset that allows immigrants and refugees to persevere through scarcity and achieve solid footing in the world lends itself naturally to entrepreneurship. But the shadows — the weaknesses underlying the strengths — may impede this process. As you negotiate your own entrepreneurial journey, take pride in your strengths, and watch out for the ways they can morph into weaknesses.