Why an immigrant mindset is such a valuable asset during COVID

December 2, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

There’s a certain worker undeniably in high demand during this pandemic: multiskilled, flexible, resilient, and tolerant of risk and the great unknown. 

Basically, immigrants.

“Immigrants are more likely to be people who inherently embrace uncertainty,” said Brian Laung Aoaeh, who was raised in Nigeria and Ghana and launched a fund, Refashiond Ventures, to invest in supply-chain innovation. “This is actually a phrase I use to describe myself—and it’s come up in job interviews in the past: ‘I embrace uncertainty.’”

The act of migration itself underscores an appetite for risk. Outsiders bring with them fresh perspectives, new ideas, and a certain hustle and hunger to survive. In the middle of this current and historic upheaval of the world order, some employers are finding that’s not just welcome but necessary. 

To be sure, an entrepreneur’s birthplace or country of origin is not actually what makes immigrant workers so valuable. “Are you special because you are an immigrant? No, it’s more about the ethos of being an immigrant,” said Nitin Pachisia, founding partner of Unshackled Ventures, which invests exclusively in startups in which at least one founder is an immigrant or the child of immigrants. “For us immigrants, there are creative ways of looking at a problem. When you come from another ecosystem, you question the why behind it. Then you take a variable and change it. That’s how big innovation happens.”

As Pachisia describes, it is more an embrace, intentional or not, of hardship and struggle that immigrants’ displacement represents. To be sure, other groups within the United States have similarly faced adversity and demonstrated perseverance. Too many Black Americans, for example, have not tasted the political and economic stability of many of their white counterparts; the median wealth of Black families ($17,000)—is less than one-tenth that of white families ($171,000), according to one congressional report. 

So employers might consider the idea of hiring immigrants as shorthand for hiring people who’ve worked outside traditional systems to advance, who’ve grappled with trauma or uncertainty, who’ve seen some life. They know that there is no going back to what used to be—only plotting a path forward. 

Losing her father at a young age, for example, defines Lori Shao’s worldview as much as her migration from China during middle school. “That has really shaped a lot of my decision making,” said the CEO and founder of Finli, a payments platform for schools and small businesses. “I always have a sense of urgency.” 

She connects this to the pivot she’s had to take in recent months to save her business. Finli manages payments among families and businesses through its app; think of, say, a tutor who runs a homeschooling pod and the six sets of parents who need to pay him.  

“Our biggest competitor pre-COVID was the traditional way of doing things,” she said. “It was businesses saying to me: ‘I am okay with a wall calendar. I am okay with a landing page as my online presence. I am okay with checks in an envelope. I don’t need to reach a wider audience.’”

COVID changed everything. 

Now, she says, having to adapt is being forced upon clients such as day cares, karate studios, or art academies. “They all recognize, ‘I need to change in order for me to put food on the table,’” she said. “Life really begins outside of your comfort zone. It’s not even about growth. It’s surviving.”

That’s a familiar mindset in so many parts of the world, where daily life forces adaptation in ways big and small.

“There’s much more uncertainty outside the United States,” said Aoaeh, of Refashiond Ventures. “You wake up in the morning, and you make your plan, and that’s when Lagos traffic decides to act up.”

He connects this background and an ability to respond to crises (often with good cheer and on-the-fly workarounds) with his professional success. Besides the fund, Aoaeh runs a supply-chain networking group and teaches in the engineering school at New York University. 

This approach has certainly helped immigrants ascend in corporate America, even in the golden years before the Armageddon of 2020. A 2011 study found two out of every five U.S. Fortune 500 companies had at least one founder who was an immigrant or child of an immigrant. Last year, that number grew to an even higher share—45%. 

In the meantime, entrepreneurship is on the rise: Applications for employer ID numbers were already at 3.2 million in September, according to the U.S. Census, compared to 2.7 million a year ago. And those numbers are only going up—77% more business applications were filed in the third quarter of this year than the second. 

This trend is one Unshackled’s Pachisia notes as well. “There is more entrepreneurial activity,” he said. “Every period of uncertainty does that. There are more problems to be solved.”

He traces Unshackled’s founding in 2014 to his discovery that workers on a temporary visa, such as the H-1B, could not launch companies because their stay in the U.S. was contingent on an employer. “The entrepreneur in me did not like that answer,” he says. “Immigration was not being solved for by VCs. And there’s a lot of documented history that immigrants have built some great companies.”

About 150 to 180 companies a month are seeking financing from Unshackled, compared to 100 to 120 last year, he says. 

There’s similar energy around Aoaeh’s fund. “When something like COVID happens and you can’t get toilet paper or rice, Americans start to understand and care about supply chain,” he says. 

Rapid-fire decisions Aoaeh made in March allowed him to go fully virtual without losing time. Friends commented on his ability to go with the flow. “It seems like you’re thriving,” they said to him. 

Chaos, change, and uncertainly? Of course he was.