Many great American entrepreneurs are immigrants. 

Think about our amazing foreign-born inventors and industrialists Alexander Bell, Nikola Tesla, Leo Baekeland, Andrew Carnegie and Igor Sikorsky, all the way to Sergei Brin, Elon Musk, Pierre Omidyar, Peter Thiel and Jerry Yang today, just to name a few. I have enjoyed this privilege too, in my own (smaller) way. What advice and tips can I give to the thousands of the foreign-born optimists who embark in an entrepreneurship venture in the U.S.? Here below are a few words of counsel from my own journey.

I waited until I was 45 to be an entrepreneur.By that time, I had the right experience and backing to succeed. Sometimes it pays off to be patient! This may sound a bit like “tongue in cheek” advice, but think about it: To launch a company while maximizing its probability of success, you need to have: A vision of a business or technology area of significance that is broken and needs a new solution; a good product or service to address this “burning house;” a vision of the technology you will create and /or use; a clear idea of who your first potential clients are going to be; a thorough operational understanding of what it will take to achieve early revenues and then profitable growth; a mastery of finance to assess how much funding you will need for your start-up; and the experience and network to secure financing quickly and effectively so that you can concentrate on running the company and growing the business, as opposed to spend all your time fundraising. Uncle! That is a lot to do, and for many people it takes time and experience to master all these skills, which are all fundamental requirements for a successful entrepreneur. One of the achievements I was the proudest of in my own entrepreneurial journey is that the early business plan we created for the company (a 50 pages document, covering all the areas mentioned above, including its revenue projections year by year), proved to be accurate within 5% or so for the first six years of the company: Essentially, as soon as we “ran out” of our original business plan, we went straight to our Wall Street IPO!

I can summarize my own experience outlining a half-dozen “tips” for all entrepreneurs:

  • Do not start a business just because “I have to be an entrepreneur,” or “everyone around me does that.” Have a groundbreaking concept, a plan and a vision!And be absolutely persuaded that one, the world will be a better place with your company; and two, that you are the only one who can create it and make it successful.
  • Prepare meticulously, with a thorough business planthat will include all the required product / service; technology; markets; customers; operations; and financing.
  • Communicate:Be ready to promote your vision and business in multiple ways, from a one minute elevator pitch to a one hour formal presentation.
  • Raise the funds you need quickly and effectively:You need to focus on your operation and growing your business. If you have to spend all your time fundraising, your business will suffer.
  • Above all, think about your clients first!If you have a good product or service clients want to buy, and you keep your first clients happy, all the rest will be easier! Easier than the opposite scenario, when you have solid funds but so so offerings and no happy clients.
  • In particular, think how your best clients can also become…your best source of financing: The perfect trifecta is when your products / services, clients and financing are all in harmony. This is often referred to as having great strategic partnerships—often a much better way to achieve revenue growth and sustained funding than going to pure financiers and VCs. We did that with my company, and our first (and largest, still today) client became our strategic partner.

Immigrant entrepreneurs: my advice and tips are obviously the same, but I will add one, cultural:

Embrace the great American culture, but stay true to your roots.

What do I mean by that? One, you need to become fluent as soon as possible with American culture, because otherwise you will always be somewhat “outside.” For example, in sports, like most people from Europe or South America (and now Africa and Asia as well), I was raised following soccer, enthusiastically. But now I also enjoy the quintessential U.S. sports that are American football and baseball. I also follow our exciting politics with great interest. In a country where most business discussions start with chit chat on a number of social topics, it is fundamental to be engaged in most American typical social and leisure activities. But this is also a country that embraces diversity with a unique fervor, since it was built on diversity: Staying true to your roots will bring you much welcome attention and differentiation. A couple of personal examples here to illustrate this important point:

When at Accenture, after having having been promoted and becoming the company’s first “Market Maker,” my then CEO told me, in front of several colleagues: “Well, this is easy for Etienne! After all, once he has talked to a potential client, with his accent, Gallic mannerisms and all, that client will always remember him—and not just because he knows how to find a great restaurant.”

At my company, our first hospital system client was one founded by a couple of catholic nun orders. Many local hospitals had boards with a nun as Chair, and many of these nuns enjoyed speaking French. As one of them told me, “You know, Etienne, our order (originally St Vincent of Paul”) goes all the way to the War of Independence: When Lafayette set sail to help in the fight against the English, there were nuns of St Vincent of Paul in his ships! This is how catholic healthcare started originally in America.”

In a country built with diversity, your own roots will help you create special bonds.


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