By Daphne Mallory
Overcoming adversity is part of life for immigrant entrepreneurs. We sometimes face adversity when fleeing our home countries. We may experience social isolation due to language barriers. Adversity can be a gift. For some immigrants, it’s been the secret ingredient to a successful business.
Robert Atallah, CEO of CedarLane Natural Foods, is such a person. He is no stranger to adversity.
Robert emmigrated from Lebanon to the United States in 1974 at age 24. His country has gone through war and social unrest. “That’s why I went into food. I know that food is always needed, in the days of peace as much as in days of war,” Robert explained.
However, he did more than just select food as his primary product. He helped to pioneer the organic and all-natural food industry. Through retail partners, consumers can try wholesome packaged meals such as uncured turkey bacon egg white omelette, gluten-free tamales and eggplant Mediterranean moussaka. He employs around 700 employees at his facility in Carson, California.
One of the keys to Robert’s success is his ability to remain mobile and pliable. “It’s hard to have longevity in business if you don’t respond to the needs of the consumer. Be open. Travel to other markets to see what’s developing. Even if you don’t sell overseas, you’re still affected by what will be injected in your market within the next 2 or 3 years,” Robert explained. He makes it a point to study both current and future needs of his customers to position his business for success.
The adversity that many immigrants experience by not having a safety net is perfect for developing mental toughness. Robert explained that many of the services offered by churches, charities and government institutions are non-existent in other countries. “Living with depravity forces you to do what it takes. You keep on dreaming and taking the punishment until you get there. You’re not looking at the clock. You work hard,” Robert explained.
Social progression in a new culture can also be difficult. Robert felt disconnected from his peers. Slang words and cultural references were foreign to him, because he did not grow up in America.
“You don’t know who the people are, what they feel, or how they live. You cannot share their feelings.” It did not stop him from the success he experiences today. In fact, through his company, Robert promotes a form of social progression around healthy eating, which has impacted the food industry.
Another immigrant entrepreneur familiar with adversity unknown to most people is Jenny Q. Ta, CEO of Sqeeqee. Jenny was born in Vietnam. Her dad was a prisoner of war. Her mom fled the country with her when she 6 to escape persecution. She spent a few years in a refugee camp in Hong Kong before being allowed to move to Fresno, California in 1999.
Jenny’s mother launched a small restaurant when Jenny was in high school. Jenny helped out as a waitress. Her mother has been supportive of Jenny, including raising her the first $100,000 to get her start on Wall Street. Jenny recalled, “She ran to some of her friends and gathered money for me.”
Jenny runs an online platform that allows users to access and monetize their social networking activities from one website, and using an all-in-one profile. She created her business to solve the problem of using multiple login credentials to access your social profile, ecommerce websites and engage in other online activities.
Adversity has helped Jenny’s succeed. She explained, “I am able to sustain where I’m at because of my background and what I’ve been through. It helps me to fight daily for my partners and for my business.”
Jenny is a female in a male-dominated industry, which can make her entrepreneurship journey tough at times. She shared, “I had to put my own blood, sweat and tears into my work to break barriers to get to where I wanted to go and where I am now. I share my story so that others will learn and hopefully not make the same mistakes that I did.”
Though the road is hard, Jenny encourages other immigrants to start a business. She shared, “The ability to make decisions and create things that impact people’s lives and the ability to make an idea blossom into something amazing that people are not only using, but using to make a difference, is incredibly satisfying.”
Jenny credits faith, careful financial planning and sheer determination as additional keys to her success.
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About the Author: Daphne Mallory is a contributor for Entrepreneur.com and hosts her own show, Family Business with Daphne on KSAW-ABC.