By Luisa Kroll
As a child Thai Lee, now 56, moved around a lot. The daughter of a well regarded Korean economist, she was born in Thailand and spent many years in Korea. In her teens, she moved to the U.S. with her older sister. They lived with a friend of the family and attended high school in Amherst, Mass and later enrolled at Amherst College.
Intent on chasing the American Dream, she returned to Korea after college and worked at a manufacturer, in order to raise enough money to get an MBA. A few years later, she was back in Massachusetts and Harvard Business School. After stints at Procter & Gamble and American Express, she and her then husband bought SHI International for $1 million in 1989. Now a U.S. citizen, she is CEO and majority owner of a $6 billion (sales) IT provider, worth an estimated $1.1 billion.
Forbes put out our first ever list of the 50 most successful self-made women in America, as defined by their net worths, in May. One astonishing finding that we didn’t anticipate was the fact that 15 of the women, or 30%, including Lee were born outside of the U.S. in countries like Germany, Japan, Israel, Morocco and China. One worked as a nanny before coming to America. Another was a PhD scientist. One entrepreneur played semi-professional basketball in Shanghai before immigrating to the United States and later founding a semiconductor firm in California. All found success and made the bulk of their fortunes in America.
In comparison, in 2013 we did the same review of Forbes 400 members and found 10% were immigrants, still notable but not nearly as remarkable.
Which led me to wonder if indeed there was a larger pattern. Turns out George Mason University has tracked self-employment of immigrants over many years. In its most recent data available, George Mason found that immigrants accounted for 18.4% of all self-employed workers, or roughly 3.2 million immigrants who work for themselves. That’s up from just 6.9% in 1980. Immigrant women now represent 40% of all self-employed immigrants, up from 25% that same year. There are now an estimated 1.3 million self-employed immigrant women, up from 180,000 in 1980.
“There is growing evidence that the positive economic contributions of immigrant women are vastly underestimated and that these contributions are often based on the entrepreneurial activities of immigrant women,” says Dr. James Witte, director of the Institute for Immigration Research. The failure to recognize these contributions is because the entrepreneurial activity of women often takes nontraditional innovative forms. Facing some combination of cultural constraints, family responsibilities, and legal or structural barriers to standard employment relations, immigrant women create and discover entrepreneurial opportunities to produce economic value for themselves and their families.”
Many of these women are in low paying jobs, and their median incomes have actually fallen since 1980, but their numbers and influence are increasing. And as our ranking shows, some foreign born females have found extreme success.
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About the Author: Luisa Kroll is a Forbes staff member who reports on billionaires and how people make their fortunes.