Imagine being a woman newly arrived in a different world, where everything seems strange, but where you also have the opportunity you’ve been looking for to change your life for the better.
Millions of immigrant women experience this terrifying, yet exciting situation as they immigrate to new countries in hope of finding economic opportunity and a chance to build their own business. Challenges such as language barriers, culture shock and sexism are burdens for women when it comes to entrepreneurship, yet many women transform them into advantages.
Sexism can play an especially large role in the process. Indeed, some assume that women business owners are led by male figures. Women like Sheela Murthy, founder and president of Maryland-based Murthy Law Firm, say they are not always taken seriously, and are often asked multiple times, “Who really owns this business?”
It can be a struggle trying to succeed despite those expectations, but it’s not impossible. Murthy was born in India, and decided to start a firm specializing in immigration services after her own dreadful experience of obtaining citizenship. Although she was asked about her position repeatedly, she was still able to create opportunities for others through her law firm. Her story shows that, though immigrant women immigrate to different parts of the world, they strive forward, bringing down obstacles in their way to reach their objectives.
Transitioning to a new environment is difficult, especially when it means learning a new language and adapting to a new culture. Pum Lefebure came to the United States as a foreign exchange student from Thailand and quickly realized that she had to work twice as hard as the classmate sitting next to her because she did not speak English or have any knowledge of the culture. But with dedication, she was able to succeed and become the founder of Design Army, a fashion company located in Washington, D.C. She was able to adapt to American culture and learn English, while still holding on to her native culture.
Lefebure isn’t alone. “Research conducted by EthniFacts shows that immigrants in the United States consistently exceed the rest of the population in optimism and in aspiration to reinvent themselves through hard work and entrepreneurialism,” says Nely Galán, an immigrant entrepreneur and the author of SELF MADE: Becoming Empowered, Self-Reliant, and Rich in Every Way.
Many immigrants to the U.S. are motivated by the American Dream and the idea that a person can transform their life, namely by becoming his or her own boss. And they put in long hours of work to achieve those rewards.
Take Bolthale Johnson, founder of Johnson Enterprises in South Carolina. “Having a flexible schedule has allowed me to juggle being a wife, mom to an amazing three-year-old, a student and an entrepreneur,” she says. Being the owner of her own business has given her flexibility and balance between work and family.
Another benefit of being a owner can be a less onerous struggle with the language barrier. As a worker, an immigrant may face more pressure to master the English language, in to communicate with her boss. But as a business owner, her native language can become an advantage, if she focuses on serving customers that also speak her language. It can also provide an opportunity to aid other members of her community with helpful services or products and by introducing them to entrepreneurial values.
Sabina Zunguze created A Gift to Africa after watching many African women in her native country, Zimbabwe, struggle to sell their hand-made products. Her Tampa, Fla., company helps them reach the U.S. market and, as a result, many of the women she works with in Africa are now able to feed their children and send them to school. Zunguze’s work shows that many people can benefit from the services that women entrepreneurs provide — and that immigrants often have special insight into connecting parts of the world that need opportunity with those that need services.
Most immigrant entrepreneurs primarily aim to help people who are much closer to them. Immigrant mothers like Gicela Lopéz are determined to provide their children with a bright future. Lopéz came to the U.S. as a teenager and now owns Taqueria Izucar in Brooklyn, N.Y. She says she sacrifices time with her family to work, so her children can attend school and, hopefully, college.
This type of perseverance can have a lasting impact on immigrants’ children. “Coming to this country, you have no foundation to build on, so you have to have determination, commitment and a drive to succeed. I watched my family work hard to make it here, and it had a lasting effect on me,” says Negar Jahanbin, whose father immigrated from Iran and built his own business. Negar is the proud owner of SYNERGY HomeCare of the Main Line, which provides home care services for the elderly in Gilbert, Ariz.
Nola Andaya-Milani, founder of Migrentrepreneur Woman Blog, believes that through the struggle, immigrant women entrepreneurs can emerge stronger. “Being immigrants, we are straddling two countries, two cultures. This means, we have two resources to draw from and two markets (not to mention the global market) to explore. All we need is to realize that we can create our own opportunities through entrepreneurship,” she wrote at The Story Exchange.
Indeed, immigrant entrepreneur women have a double advantage. Their ability to interact with diverse customers, including other women, allows them to expand both their business and their worldview. Instead of having to comply with a culture, they can tie two different cultures together: the American culture and their native culture.
And when they achieve that balance of understanding two cultures and two languages, they can become a success in both life and business.