"I've really leveraged my ties back home to build this successful business," the 42-year-old entrepreneur said. "If I had been an American, I would not have started this company."
For a nation built by immigrants, of course, the economy has long profited from foreign-born entrepreneurs. Contrary to a widespread belief, immigrant entrepreneurs "deliver more than they take," said Edward Rogoff, a professor at Baruch College in New York City who has extensively studied these merchants. More than a fourth of all U.S. technology firms, he pointed out, boast at least one foreign-born founder — think of Google cofounder Sergey Brin, an immigrant from Russia. According to the Kauffman Foundation, American companies started by immigrants accounted for some $52 billion in revenue in 2005 and employed more than 450,000 workers.
Immigrants are starting businesses at a faster rate than native-born Americans, the Small Business Administration reported last year. Immigrant-run companies now account for nearly 4.6 million small companies, an estimated 16.7 percent of all U.S. businesses with fewer than 500 employees.
Many immigrant entrepreneurs have found success by exploiting one edge they have over their U.S.-born counterparts: their connections to markets back home. They have become what Rogoff and others describe as "gateway" entrepreneurs. "Immigrants have an advantage because they understand global markets better than [native-born Americans] do," said Vivek Wadhwa, an immigrant from India who started two successful software companies and now teaches business and engineering classes at Harvard and Duke universities and the University of California (Berkeley). "They help us compete."
Consider the story of 39-year-old David Kalsang, another gateway entrepreneur. His parents fled Tibet in 1959 for India, where he grew up, and he immigrated to the United States in 1996. In 2005, he started a company in New York City called Malamal, reselling Apple's iPhones to American customers. But after checking with friends back in India, he saw where his best prospects lay.
"My friends would call me up," he recounted, "and tell me, "˜The party's down here in New Delhi and Mumbai. You're missing out!' " India is expected to surpass China, he noted, as the world's largest market for smartphones and other wireless devices by 2013 (the United States currently ranks third). Another immigrant-run business, Biz2Credit, has helped Kalsang secure $300,000 in loans, which he spends on 3G smartphones in the United States that he resells into the burgeoning Indian retail marketplace. His revenues total $1 million a year.
"We are seeing a growing trend where immigrants from Asia and Latin America are coming to us to get credit so that they can tap into the markets where they came from," said Biz2Credit founder Rohit Arora, a native of India. His New York City-based firm has helped secure more than $400 million in loans since 1997 for some 7,000 small businesses — 80 percent of them run by immigrants. "Not only are they creating jobs here," he said, "they are growing faster than those businesses that just focus on their local markets."