7. Jose Wilfredo Flores
Country of origin: El Salvador
Occupation: Owner and founder, W Concrete
His advice to immigrant entrepreneurs: "Do it right and nobody can stop you."
At the age of 14, Flores made a month-long pilgrimage from El Salvador to Philadelphia to escape the country's brutal civil war. If he had remained in his homeland, he would've had one of two options: Join the guerillas or join the army. "The guerillas would come to our house," Flores told Kiplinger. "We had to hide. You couldn't say no because then they would think you were on the army's side and shoot you. A few hours later, the army guys would come and say, 'We want food. We want to take you.' If you said no, they'd think you were with the guerillas."
When he arrived in the U.S., he was crammed into a U-Haul truck with other illegal immigrants. The truck was pulled over by police. Most of the van's occupants were detained, but Flores was released because of he was a minor. He made his way to Washington, D.C., where his uncle and 18-year-old brother lived. "I came to America with no shoes, no nothing -- not even a dollar.”
Upon arriving in D.C., Flores worked part-time cleaning offices while attending Lincoln Middle School. “I didn’t have enough money to buy a French fry,” he says. At 15, he left school to work full-time in construction, using falsified documents that said he was 18. “Fake ID, fake Social Security, everything was fake. Nobody checked,” he says. He later became eligible for a legal work permit (he is now a U.S. citizen). By age 25, he had learned the concrete business and was supervising a crew of 50, earning more than $60,000 a year. Despite having secured himself a good job, Flores dreamed of starting his own business.
Ten years ago, he used savings and a line of credit to start W Concrete, in Jessup, Md. One of the company’s first jobs was to pour the concrete for the building that replaced Lincoln Middle School. Last year, the business brought in $6.6 million. "Most Salvadorans are humble people who will do whatever it takes to get ahead," says Flores. "In my country, there's no opportunity for poor people. The rich get richer and richer. The poor will always be poor and poor. Here, do it right and nobody can stop you."