Lebanese-American entrepreneur Richard Kabbany was a business major at California State University, Fullerton when he came up with the concept for his first business. “At the time, there was a huge push for green, renewable energy, and I thought, Well, if there’s a push for it and it makes financial sense, I need to start doing this,” he says. So, after graduating and realizing how poor the job market was, Kabbany forged ahead and launched Sun-Tricity Solar.
The company, which sells solar panels, had a slow first year. The technology was new, leaving Kabbany to counteract of sea of misinformation. In addition, he had no budget for advertising, and, as if things couldn’t get more difficult, he faced anti-Arab discrimination. “I knew if I told potential customers I was Arab, the conversation would instantly shut down,” he says. “They would always ask, Where are you from? And I would answer, Connecticut.”
It was the truth. After leaving war-torn Lebanon to seek better opportunities for their family, Kabbany’s parents had landed in Connecticut, where Richard was born. The family later relocated to San Diego, where today several of the children are entrepreneurs — creating jobs and business income in the community. Kabbany’s younger brother founded a social entrepreneurship nonprofit that employs 10 people, and his sister is a self-employed yoga and dance instructor.
A lot of the immigrants that make it here have that same tenacity, and that’s why they succeed as entrepreneurs.
Kabbany, meanwhile, persevered with Sun-Tricity Solar and between 2007 and 2016 helped hundreds of homeowners take advantage of renewable energy. At the same time, he fostered a new launch, last year opening Big Thyme Sandwich Company in downtown San Diego, a move inspired by Kabbany’s mother, Nawal, who ran a deli in the city. “I used to help my mom at her restaurant, and throughout college and high school I worked in restaurants,” Kabbany says. “My mission in opening Big Thyme was to provide good food for people, because there’s so much unhealthy food out there. I wanted to provide options that weren’t riddled with processed everything.”
Big Thyme offers a variety of international options, like the Beirut Baguette (feta cheese, heirloom tomatoes, fresh mint) and the Bavarian Breakfast (handcrafted sauerkraut, sliced bratwurst, organic fried egg), along with a homemade Kombucha float, made from probiotic fermented tea. It also provides jobs. Kabbany has six full-time employees.
Kabbany’s entrepreneurial trajectory, and that of his siblings, comes as little surprise. Research shows that immigrants and their children are more likely to start businesses than U.S.-born Americans. In California, for example, 44.6 percent of new businesses started between 2007 and 2016 were founded by immigrants, although immigrants comprise just 27 percent of the population. Nationally, 40.2 percent of Fortune 500 firms in 2016 had at least one founder who was either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. Immigrants comprise just 13.2 percent of the U.S. population.
Speaking of his own ancestry, Kabbany explains: “In Lebanon, people don’t rely on the government as much. They’re more independent. . . . If there’s a need, then there’s an entrepreneur creating a service for it. That is just the way it is. ”
And although Kabbany has seen less anti-Arab sentiment since 9/11, harmful stereotypes still affect his family. “My little nephews go to prominent schools in a good area, Carmel Valley,” he says. “They’ve been called terrorists after their friends realize they’re Arab.” He believes that overcoming discrimination instills a clear sense of purpose in many immigrant and refugee children. “All the little refugee kids who have had to fight to get here, they have this tenacity inside of them that just isn’t going to give up,” Kabbany says. “A lot of the immigrants that make it here have that same tenacity, and that’s why they succeed as entrepreneurs.”
It’s a tenacity that ultimately benefits all Americans. The 2.9 million immigrant entrepreneurs currently working in the United States generate a combined $65.5 billion in business income — money that gets redistributed throughout the U.S. economy. Even when excluding large, publicly traded firms, businesses owned by immigrants employed more than 5.9 million workers in 2007, the most recent year for which figures are available.
“When they go to a job interview and don’t get the job, they don’t give up. They go and start their own thing,” Kabbany says.