Immigrants make up 13% of the U.S. population. They come here in pursuit of the American Dream, an opportunity for a better life in exchange for hard work. For many, their unique skills and fresh perspectives lead them to entrepreneurship.
That may explain why one small-business owner in six in the U.S. is an immigrant, according to a recent report by the Fiscal Policy Institute's Immigration Research Initiative. Professional and business services, such as waste-disposal services and office administration and cleaning, boast the largest number of immigrant business owners, followed by retail, construction, educational and social services, and leisure and hospitality industries. "Immigrants are such a varied group with people from countries all around the world that have a wide range of skill sets . . . and these [fields] have always been a natural fit" both locally and nationally, says David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of FPI's Immigration Research Initiative.
The seven entrepreneurs featured here come from diverse backgrounds. They made their millions (and, in one case, billions) in industries ranging from Internet technology to restaurant services. Here are their stories.
1. Josie Natori
Country of origin: Philippines
Occupation: Founder and CEO, the Natori Company
Her advice to immigrant entrepreneurs: "There is no better place in the world for an immigrant to succeed than in the U.S. Follow your dream and make it happen."
Moving from the Philippines to Westchester, N.Y., to attend Manhattanville College in 1964 was a complete culture shock for Natori. "The cold winters, the food and the sense of humor were just different. I was very homesick," she told Kiplinger. But it never stopped her.
After earning an economics degree, she went to work for Bache & Company on Wall Street, moving to Merrill Lynch in 1971. But climbing the corporate ladder wasn't enough. "While I loved the [corporate] culture, I also had a very strong desire to build something myself," she says.
In 1974, Natori became a U.S. citizen. And after giving birth to a son in 1976, she and her husband Ken brainstormed a variety of ideas for starting her own business -- from opening a car wash to running a McDonald's franchise. It was by chance in 1977, however, that she would become a high-end women’s sleepwear designer after showing a nightgown (made from what was originally a hand-embroidered blouse) to a buyer at Bloomingdale's.
In the early days, Natori ran her company solo. "It's easy to take for granted the amount of work that goes into [making] the clothes you see in stores," she says. "There are so many elements -- from the design concept to production -- that all need to work in order to make something happen." Today, she has nearly 400 employees. Her husband is chairman, and her son, Kenneth, is vice-president of finance and e-commerce. Her business has expanded to include fragrances, eyewear and home décor. In 2011, Natori teamed up with mass retailer Target for a budget-friendly line of lingerie and loungewear. That same year, her company generated $150 million in retail sales.
"Some people may see their immigrant status as an obstacle," she says. "I have always viewed it as one of my biggest assets. Natori is unique in the design world, because of its East-meets-West aesthetic. All of that is due to my background and heritage."