The Economic Success of America’s Immigrant Entrepreneurs

Today, NAE released its latest research, “Reason for Reform: Entrepreneurship,” which focuses on the success and economic contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs in America. Perhaps not surprisingly, immigrants tend to be an entrepreneurial bunch: Though they made up just 13.2 percent of the total U.S. population in 2014, they represented 20.6 percent of our country’s entrepreneurs. In fact, according to the Kauffman Foundation, immigrants were almost twice as likely as the native-born population to start new businesses in 2015.

These immigrant-owned businesses carry a lot of weight. They’ve created millions of jobs and generated billions in business income. And some of America’s most successful and beloved companies were founded by immigrants or their children. In 2016, 40.2 percent of Fortune 500 firms had at least one immigrant founder or a founder who was the child of immigrants. Further, foreign-born entrepreneurs are estimated to be behind more than half (51 percent) of the United States’ billion-dollar startups.

As part of our Reason for Reform campaign, NAE has spent the past year collecting hundreds of stories from business owners, students, farmers, faith leaders, city officials, and others from across the country who are affected by our immigration system. Here are just three stories highlighting the vital contributions of America’s immigrant entrepreneurs.

Maurice J. “Sully” Sullivan
Founder, Foodland
Location: Hawaii

Shortly after emigrating from Ireland to Hawaii at the age of 18, Maurice J. “Sully” Sullivan was stationed at Hickam Field in Honolulu during World War II. Through his work in the mess hall there he met many local farmers and See Goo Lau, the owner of a small grocery store in Kailua. After the war, Sullivan wanted to return to the mainland to find work, choosing Buffalo, New York as his destination. Because of the inclement weather he encountered in Buffalo—he arrived there in winter—he was back in Hawaii within a week. After returning, Sullivan decided to start a one-stop food supermarket with Mrs. Lau. That was the start of the largest supermarket chain in Hawaii, as well as the modernization of the Hawaiian grocery business and the establishment of a now prominent family business (Sullivan married Mrs. Lau’s daughter). Today Sullivan’s daughter, Jenai Sullivan Wall, runs the company and its 32 stores, which employ more than 2,500 people. As a company rooted in its community, Foodland is also involved in local projects that have contributed more than $6 million in educational supplies for Hawaiian schools.

Shukuri Ali and Mahamed Mahamud
Owners, The Taste of Three One Café
Location: Maine

Shukri Ali and her husband Mahamed Mahamud were realizing a dream when they opened The Taste of Three one Café in Lewiston, Maine in 2008. The couple, both of whom fled Somalia during the chaos of the 1990s, arrived in Lewiston in 2002. By the following year, Ali had already begun working double shifts as an interpreter in the community — sometimes putting in as many as 18 hours per day — so that she and her husband, a hospital chef, could open their own restaurant. Five years later, they debuted The Taste of Three one Cafe, a small, homey spot downtown that serves Somali food, as well as Caribbean, East African, and other international fare. “We wanted to create a restaurant where everyone was welcome, a real community space,” Ali says. And they quickly achieved that: By early this year as many as 200 people were cycling through the beloved 15-seat restaurant on its busiest days, enjoying everything from curried goat to spaghetti with muufo (Somali flatbread).

Ali’s story is part of a long history of Somali immigrants in Lewiston, Maine. Somali immigrants began arriving in the community in 2002, and now make up almost one in 10 residents. Somali-owned businesses now crowd Lisbon Street, a stretch of downtown Lewiston once plagued by high vacancy rates and empty storefronts. “It used to be the kind of place people were afraid to go to at night,” says Ismail Ahmed, who used to work with newly arrived immigrants in the community, “but the Somali businesses changed it.”

Aslaug Magnusdottir
Founder, Moda Operandi
Location: New York 

Aslaug Magnusdottir, a former corporate lawyer from Iceland, arrived in the United States for graduate school. She has since become one of many immigrant entrepreneurs in New York City’s fashion industry. After working for Bloomingdale’s and Gilt Groupe, Magnusdottir noticed a gap in the fashion market. There was, she says, the customer who loves the runway pieces and the designer who wants to sell them. But production costs are high and traditional retailers see those purchases as risky, so a lot of pieces go unproduced.

Magnusdottir founded Moda Operandi, a website that works directly with designers to sell pieces by pre-order that would not have otherwise been produced. When the site launched in February 2011, it catered mostly to American customers, but soon it gained an international customer base. Today, American designers use it to export their products abroad. “Designers don’t get exposure in those distant markets,” she says. “Coming from a small country where there’s no access to fashion, that was something I was passionate about.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…