In the U.S., so many families have a “let’s-make-it-happen-no-matter-what” optimism that stems directly from our heritage as immigrants. But we rarely look closely at what immigrants’ realities actually look like. What does it actually mean to think like an immigrant?
Thinking like an immigrant means making things happen for yourself as if there were no guarantees. I came to this country as an immigrant at the age of 5. I’ve been working—putting myself through school, helping my family—since I was 14. That’s the kind of line that gets you applause when you’re giving a speech, but if you went back to the moment when I made the decision to start working, it didn’t feel like an aspirational goal. It felt like a Hail Mary pass, born from necessity.
One night, my parents, who emigrated to New Jersey from Cuba, were up late talking about paying for my schooling. They worked several jobs to make ends meet, and I knew they were struggling. I overheard my mother ask my father how they would pay the tuition at my Catholic junior high school. “Jesus will help us,” he answered. I felt a knot twist in my chest.
In my adolescent mind, I was about to get kicked out of school. I knew I had to do something quickly. From that point forward, I would take all my cues from my parents’ immigrant mentality—a playbook that ultimately informed my entrepreneurial path to success.
1. Solve your own problems
When I was 14, I remember lying in bed and thinking about a sweet old lady across the street who sold Avon products door-to-door. She had offered to give me free makeup in exchange for helping her sell the products at my school. I went to see her the next day and suggested another deal: Instead of free makeup, I’d split the profits with her 50/50 (I know, a gutsy move, but the words came out of my mouth before I even had a chance to think about them).
After a few months, I had enough money saved to start paying for my Catholic school tuition myself. (The nuns and I agreed to tell my parents that I had been awarded a partial scholarship). I learned an important lesson about financial ownership that year: If you have a problem, you learn how to fix it through work.
2. Create your own opportunities
Immigrants understand that uncertainty is part of life. So instead of waiting to be “discovered” or for some brilliant new job to pop up, they hunt for opportunities and pursue them, full-force. After high school, I started doing various things for different TV networks, until I was faced with a game-changing opportunity to be a manager at a small Spanish-language news station based in New Jersey.
I worked long hours and learned everything I needed to know on the job. Then I got laid off. My boss told me that he had decided to sell the station to an insurance agency. At that point, I knew I had to start my own business and pave my own my career path.
3. Always bounce back
When things go wrong, immigrants find a way to bounce back quickly. After I got laid off from my first job, I started my first business, from which I didn’t make a dime for four years. While I worked long hours trying to build that business, I still quietly took stringer assignments and side gigs—whatever I needed to do to pay my bills.
When I finally partnered with Fox and built my presence in the entertainment industry, like many an immigrant before me, I saved and saved and saved some more. I had built my career in the television industry and even landed an office space in the 20th Century Fox lot in Century City. I’d see celebrities walk by my office daily, everyone from Keanu Reeves to J. Lo, setting up a shot for their next film or TV show. But when the bills got too high, I started looking for a new office space.
After months of looking, I found a location in Venice, which at the time was a charming blend of beach-town chic and gang-related violence. When I told one of my staff, she couldn’t fathom my decision. “Why would you leave the prestige of the Fox lot to go to some dump in Venice?”
What she didn’t understand was the last—and most fundamental—immigrant business rule.
4. Never allow yourself to fall under the spell of a business, idea or person
No one or no thing is going to magically come to your rescue, like some career version of Prince Charming. The Venice office was a better investment for me, so I moved my office there. After that, I took my earnings and started a second business investing in commercial real estate, which became my most successful business to date.
By the age of 45, I had achieved the ultimate immigrant dream—working because I wanted to, not because I had to. It was a privilege I learned largely because I had an immigrant mentality.
As a nation, we muddle the conversation on immigration, focusing on a political discourse about who deserves to stay in the country and who doesn’t. But what we forget about is how our own shared immigrant values not only built the foundation of our economic success, they also show us how anyone in the entrepreneurial community can find her way to a prosperous future.
Nely Galán, former president of entertainment for Telemundo, is the author of the new book Self Made and a featured speaker of the White House’s United State of Women Summit.