America is a country of immigrants; a nation molded by the millions of individuals who arrive with little more than a determination to experience their true American Dream. For many, including me and my family, hard work and persistence turn that dream into reality.
At 18, my family immigrated to the United States from Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. At that time, we had no idea about our future or what we could expect coming to the United States. We left as refugees, trying to escape political turmoil and religious persecution, hoping for a fresh start in a democratic society that offered the religious freedom and economic opportunity we lacked. Though we knew little about where we were going to live or how we are going to survive, my parents were hopeful that they would be able to leverage their skills and experience to find jobs in the U.S. With only two bags of clothes each and $650 for a family of four, we arrived in the United States full of hope and excited by the opportunity of a better future for our family.
It was the early nineties, and California – our new home – was in the middle of a recession. My parents struggled to find jobs, as their postgraduate degrees disqualified them from finding entry level positions, and their very limited knowledge of the language prevented them from getting more senior level roles. Plus, my mother had to take care of my 5-year old brother. Since I had the best grasp of the language, I was able to find minimum-wage jobs, barely making enough money to support our family. We lived frugally, and I was able to save enough money to attend night classes, first at the community college and later on completing my bachelor’s degree at SF State.
With minimal knowledge of the language, and limited financial resources, we did what many immigrant families do – opened a small business. Ours was selling computer hardware and software.
It didn’t take long for us to learn that running a small business is a 24/7 job, and for immigrants like my father and me, there is the added challenge of learning everything while simultaneously trying to establish a foothold in our new community. Because we chose computer software – a low-margin, high-competition industry – we quickly learned the importance of providing high-quality customer service, and bolstered our product offering with hands-on training, services and support. For us, success came through a steadfast commitment to understanding the needs of our customers, and constantly evolving our business to meet those needs.
As a result, we maintained a strong base of customers that kept our business afloat and afforded us time to assimilate into a new community, while acquiring invaluable skills that have served both me and my father in our respective careers. For example, although sales and customer service are the most visible components of running a small business, this was just the tip of the iceberg for us. Learning how to manage back office systems for inventory management, invoicing and order processing – as well as educating ourselves on basic marketing and the ever-evolving computer software industry – taught us to think about business holistically. Eventually, we expanded our retail operations to include higher margin service offerings, such as software education classes and network support services, which doubled our revenues.
As with many small businesses, our store didn’t make much money, and we ultimately decided to sell. However, the time spent running the business forever altered my career path and influenced my professional passions. We walked away from that experience with something much more valuable than money. The wealth the business created was an understanding of the English language and local culture, and a bevy of critical business skills that have proved useful time and time again. That experience helped my father start a successful career developing and testing software for some of the Bay Area’s most innovative tech companies, and gave me a decades-long passion for helping small business owners succeed.
Throughout my career, my humble beginnings have stayed with me. I’ve never lost that appreciation of the small business and its role in helping everyone achieve their dreams, and have gravitated towards companies whose missions align with that passion. At BigCommerce, where I currently serve as CMO, I often reflect on the significant amount of time my dad and I spent taking care of our business’ tedious back-end operations, which largely now can be automated by ecommerce technology providers. Alleviating that burden offers businesses of all sizes and origins an opportunity to write their own story, just as my family did.
It’s impossible to deny the impact that retail giants like Amazon, Target and Walmart have on our economy – Amazon alone recently announced plans to hire an additional 100,000 employees this year. That being said, we must also recognize that small business plays a vital role in creating jobs, and continue to flourish despite a retail climate where big box retailers are scrambling to reinvent themselves.
Much has been written about the decline of traditional brick-and-mortar retail, but many forget that with the rapid growth of ecommerce, the barriers to establishing a business have never been lower. Every day, I hear stories about small business owners outperforming their peers by using a nimble approach to innovate and grow, and each time I can’t help but think back to my own experience selling computer equipment and software at our small family store on 2nd Street in San Francisco, just blocks away from my current office.
It’s vital that we continue to foster an environment in which everyone has equal opportunity to pursue business ownership and establish roots in our communities. Now, more than ever, it’s our responsibility to nurture an environment of inclusiveness. By investing in the growth of others, we’re investing in the success of our country and creating an economic foundation that can stand the test of time from the bottom up.