It’s no coincidence that Washington’s economy has surged as waves of immigrants have settled here. “If we didn’t have these immigrants,” says John McClain, a senior fellow at George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, “we wouldn’t have this economy.”
Lots of immigrants arrive with the skills to land top jobs with technology companies, engineering firms, accounting businesses, and others. At least one-third of the physicians at Inova Fairfax Hospital were born outside the United States.
Of the more than a quarter-million jobs created in the area in the past five years, 40 percent were in service industries like construction, hospitality, and retail—jobs typically filled by immigrant workers.
Immigrants dominate many low-wage fields. Most of the parking attendants at Colonial Parking’s more than 200 garages are foreign-born. Says Barbara Kline, owner of White House Nannies: “When I first started the business in 1984, we had all American girls. Now 80 to 90 percent of our nannies are immigrants.”
Recent years also have seen a boom in immigrant entrepreneurship. There are 51 large Korean-owned companies in Fairfax—up from five in 2001. Twenty-eight local firms made Hispanic Business magazine’s list of the nation’s 500 largest Hispanic-owned companies.
Immigrant businesses tend to start small. Extended families often pool their money and go into retail or service—dry cleaners, small groceries, nail salons. “You don’t need to know English to do these things,” says Yen Le, executive director of Maryland Vietnamese Mutual Association.
Such businesses grow into million-dollar enterprises, but they often don’t reach the size to get attention in Washington business circles, according to Henry Barratt Jr., a founder of Blue Water Capital, a McLean venture-capital firm.
When immigrant entrepreneurs need capital to expand, they often have too much pride to turn to anyone but friends and family. “These are people who will not bang on your door and ask for money,” Barratt says.
“I still don’t feel like I made it,” says Arjun Rishi, 42. He’s sitting in a white-leather booth at IndeBleu, the Penn Quarter restaurant that’s a cornerstone of his growing luxury-service empire. “I’m always looking at what’s ahead.”
Rishi left India as a teen to go to Longwood University near Richmond. He worked summers in the construction business where his father worked and took out loans to get his business degree. “There wasn’t somebody following me around with a bank book,” Rishi says.
After graduation, friends in the technology industry talked about how manufacturing companies tracked export shipments on paper. Rishi, his brother, and two partners designed a software solution and in 1990 opened Export Software International (now Vastera), working out of Rishi’s bedroom in his father’s Reston townhouse. Ford, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft signed on as clients, and the year he left, Vastera did $63 million in business.
As CEO, Rishi worked seven days a week for seven years—no vacations. When the company went public in 2000, its market value climbed to $500 million. Rishi became rich.
Burned out by the job and troubled by 9/11, he stepped down in January 2002 and began looking for a fuller life. That included a condo at the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown, a year of travel, and a Watergate home for his father and a new house in India for his mom.
Passionate about nice restaurants and boutique hotels, Rishi began dreaming of starting a luxury brand. His Bleu trademark now includes a Tysons Corner salon, a dance studio in Sterling, and the restaurant in DC’s Penn Quarter. Says Rishi: “I want Bleu to be synonymous with fun and balance. Everyone here works too much.”
David Min Sik Kang came to the United States with a dream in 1982 from a rural village in Korea. “I wanted to make a lot of money,” he says.
Then 24, Kang and his wife lived with extended family in Springfield. Kang stocked shelves at his brother-in-law’s small grocery in Northeast DC for $150 a week. Four years later, Kang took over the business and named it Kang’s Farms. “I didn’t mind working 15-, 16-hour days,” he says. “In Korea, everyone works that hard.”
Within a few years, Kang bought a big warehouse in Lanham to sell produce, chicken, and fish to local restaurants, including the Boston Market chain. As profits climbed, he bought two strip malls in the Virginia suburbs and a supermarket in Germantown.
Kang’s latest venture is Grand Mart, a supermarket that features ethnic food specialities as well as household staples—a combination that means one-stop shopping for immigrant families. Kang has opened seven Grand Mart stores in the Washington area and five in Atlanta, and he plans 1,000 more nationwide in the next five years.
The stores bring in $5 million a week. He recently bought a Saudi prince’s home in McLean. Says Kang: “When I opened my first store, I realized I hit a gold mine.”
Alicia Vicentini comes from a line of entrepreneurs. When Vicentini was growing up in Argentina, her mother started a jewelry business, her father a textile factory.
“Even when things weren’t easy,” she says, “they never gave up. When I struggle, I sometimes wonder: ‘What would Dad do? What would Mom do?’ ’
Vicentini came to Northern Virginia in 1972 when she married an American State Department employee in Buenos Aries. Working in personnel at the World Bank, she saw an opportunity to start a staffing company as the federal government begin to outsource its workforce.
Banks turned down her loan applications—one told her to come back with her husband—but she secured a $100,000 start-up loan and opened SSI Business Solutions in Old Town Alexandria. She worked 50- to 60-hour weeks, and within seven months the company was turning a profit. Within ten years, it was grossing $18 million.
Vicentini mentors the Hispanics who work for her, in part because she learned from other immigrant entrepreneurs. “It’s important that we immigrants help each other,” she says.