Derek Cha arrived in America as a 12-year-old with his parents and three siblings. They came for familiar reasons: “In 1977, South Korea was a poor country,” Cha says. “My parents were looking for better opportunities and education for us.” After the family settled in California, his mother worked as a seamstress; his father had jobs as a dishwasher and janitor. Cha delivered newspapers, helped his father with cleaning work after school, and got his first job at McDonald’s at age 16.
Today, at 49, Cha is the owner of the 350-store chain of SweetFrog frozen-yogurt shops, which has more than $34 million in annual revenue. He employs about 800 part- and full-time workers in the 70-some locations he operates himself. (Like all the companies featured in this story, SweetFrog made the 2014 Inc. 500 list of America’s fastest-growing companies.) Cha founded the Richmond, Virginia-based business in 2009, as the U.S. was slowly emerging from deep recession.
Risky? Yes. But increasingly, it is immigrant entrepreneurs like Cha who are most willing to take the risk of starting a business–and without the growth of immigrant-owned businesses like Cha’s, the recession would have been much worse. From 1996 to 2011, the business startup rate of immigrants increased by more than 50 percent, while the native-born startup rate declined by 10 percent, to a 30-year low. Immigrants today are more than twice as likely to start a business as native-born citizens.
Despite accounting for only about 13 percent of the population, immigrants now start more than a quarter of new businesses in this country. Fast-growing ones, too–more than 20 percent of the 2014 Inc. 500 CEOs are immigrants. Immigrant-owned businesses pay an estimated $126 billion in wages per year, employing 1 in 10 Americans who work for private companies. In 2010, immigrant-owned businesses generated more than $775 billion in sales. If immigrant America were a stock, you’d be an idiot not to buy it.