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Think Like an Immigrant to Excel at Business Development

Most 18-year-olds are getting ready to graduate from high school and start college, but when I was that age, I was starting my life over from square one. That was the year that I immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union. As a Ukrainian-born Jew, I had faced a great deal of antisemitism, hatred, and corruption. This ultimately led to a wave of mass emigration of the Jewish population in the 1990’s, my family among them. We arrived in Los Angeles when I was 18 years old with little money and no English. But through resilience, grit, motivation, and an openness to learning, I achieved my American dream: I got my MBA from one of the top programs in the country and founded my own multimillion-dollar company. When I think back to what really drove my success, what immediately comes to mind is business development. My network and relationships have been critical components of my success as an entrepreneur, businessman, and human being. But the truth is, I am naturally an introvert and was not always gifted at creating connections and relationships. These were skills that I had to learn and practice. It was not easy and there have been many roadblocks and barriers to success along the way. But my immigrant mentality is what gave me the resilience, grit, motivation and skills to be able to climb to the top.

In this article, I am going to break down the key parts of that “immigrant mentality” that made me so successful at business development, and suggest ways that you can adapt these to your own life and career, even if your ancestors arrived on the Mayflower.

Immigrant Mentality Tip #1: Hardship Makes for Great Leaders

A book published by clinical psychologist Martin Eisenstadt in the 1970’s shared a rather interesting discovery: a large number of some of the world’s most powerful and talented leaders have lost one or both parents at a young age (notably among them: Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.) Eisenstadt surmised that the feelings of lack of safety generated by this type of childhood trauma in many cases actually became motivating in adulthood. In other words, when safety is not a given, humans will often work extra hard to create it. That leads to resilience and grit in the face of hardship, which ultimately makes for successful leaders.

While I did not lose a parent in childhood, I did experience a good deal of hardship and feelings of lack of safety. Indeed, one of the primary reasons that immigrants leave their country of origin is due to hardship or lack of safety.  As I mentioned previously, I was born and grew up in the former Soviet Union, where conditions were harsh and I faced a great deal of antisemitism. I lived through two wars. I’d often come home from school with blood on my shirt because I’d been in a fight with antisemitic bullies at a school where I was the only Jewish kid out of 1,500 students. But instead of feeling sorry for myself, I thought about my grandparents who marched from Moldova to Uzbekistan to escape Hitler in World War II with nothing but the clothes on their backs and felt grateful that at least I had a spare shirt to put on for school the next day.

My father, a well-established lawyer, sat me down when I was 12 years old and explained that I would have to work twice as hard in order to make just half of what my non-Jewish counterparts were making. In spite of this discrimination, my family was actually fairly financially stable in the Soviet Union, at least compared to others. But between the bullying, overt discrimination and hatred, and constant corruption I was never able to feel truly at home there and ultimately, it was actually me that finally asked if we could leave. I was willing to sacrifice everything we had – money, status, comfort, language, for the chance of living in a country built on principles of tolerance and freedom. A place we could actually call home.

When we finally left the Soviet Union in 1992, we had to start over from square one. My father could no longer practice law and we lost a significant source of income and status. But instead of lamenting those losses, I weathered the patronizing comments and the pitying looks as I began to learn English as a second language and worked menial jobs in order to put myself through community college. It wasn’t easy, but I was eventually able to complete my bachelors degree at USC and later on completed my MBA at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.

When I think about how I did it, my mind always goes back to the schoolyard and those bloody shirts. Sadly, in recent years there has been an uptick in antisemitism even in the United States. But still, it is nothing compared to life in the Soviet Union. In America I get to live a free, moral and ethical life in a home that accepts me for who I am and that offers institutionalized protections against overt discrimination and corruption. I was willing to do whatever it took in order to have that freedom.

Takeaway: When confronted with a barrier to your success, ask yourself what lessons you have learned in the past, and remember how you got through previous hardships. If you lack hardship in your history (lucky you!) inspire yourself through the stories of others.

Immigrant Mentality Tip #2: Be Open to Learning & Creative Solutions

As an immigrant in an English-speaking country, you have to learn the language in order to succeed- the sooner the better. Immigrants also lack the roots, security and connections that give their American-born counterparts an upper hand in the business world. And there are many other things immigrants must learn. Some of these are very nuanced cultural rules. In Russian culture, when someone asks you how you are, you respond honestly and indeed, you often complain! In the United States, when someone asks you how you are, unless it is a close personal friend or family member, you put a smile on your face and you say, “I’m good, how are you?” I learned that one the hard way…

Instead of feeling sorry for myself that I didn’t have the built in networks that some of my peers in business school had, or parents who could afford to bankroll my education, I decided to turn my deficits into strengths. I learned how to be extra creative. How to work hard. How to create and foster new connections. And instead of getting frustrated by having to learn all of these little cultural rules in order to fully integrate into society and the business world, I took a different approach: Don’t take anything for granted. Assume you know nothing. Everything is a learning opportunity.

Transitions happen all the time in the business world. Whether it’s people changing jobs, new deal-flow opportunities, or market fluctuations you have to be able to keep up with the times and roll with the punches. And the best way to do that is through business development. Business development isn’t always comfortable at first, especially if you aren’t a natural extravert. It requires you to put yourself out there and go outside of our comfort zone, just like an immigrant learning a new language and cultural landscape.

Takeaway: The next time you are faced with a situation or opportunity that goes outside of your comfort zone, think like an immigrant and ask yourself the following: “I don’t know how to do this, but it’s learnable. What do I need to do to learn it? What creative solutions can I come up with? How can I turn this to my advantage?”

Immigrant Mentality Tip #3: Always Be Prepared For Disasters

You may recall the toilet paper crisis that took place in the beginning of the pandemic. People hoarded toilet paper to the extent that it caused a nationwide shortage. For many, this was a surprise. Americans are used to having commodities available at the touch of a finger (thanks Amazon.) But for me, having grown up in a communist country, I’d seen that kind of scarcity before. Where I grew up, day-to-day commodities were not always readily available. We learned to grab what we could when it was available, and keep a stash at home. Even now that I live in (usually) bountiful America, I always keep a fully stocked refrigerator and pantry, because there is still that little part of me that remembers visiting the grocery store in the Soviet Union and being greeted with empty shelves.

It’s been 3 years since COVID-19 shook the world to its core. But the pandemic wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last global crisis we face. Whether it’s a pandemic, a recession, or global warming, there are always challenges that are going to be out of our control. And those challenges can dramatically impact businesses, the job market, and your income.

Business development is how you keep your refrigerator fully stocked. It ensures that you have contingency plans and extra resources at your disposal. It gives you optionality and leverage if layoffs start happening. It helps you get deals and clients while others struggle to keep their head above water. It is your life raft.

Takeaway: Create contingency or backup plans. Ensure these plans are in place and accessible before there is a reason to use them. This may be in the form of close relationships, job offers, mastery or expertise in a niche area, an emergency fund, etc.

Developing an immigrant mentality will serve you well in business development. Hardship breeds resilience, grit and determination. Lack of established roots makes you more open to learning and creative solutions. The less you assume you have the answers and the more you are open to learning and adapting the more successful you will be. You’ll be able to weather challenges more easily, learn and grow at a faster rate and ultimately, succeed no matter what.

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