What Being an Immigrant Taught Me About Success

UPDATED: September 23, 2016
PUBLISHED: September 23, 2016

The modern definition of success lies in the eye of the beholder. As an immigrant, how I define success is largely influenced by my life experiences. Over the years, my perspective has changed: from when I was a child watching my parents struggle to make ends meet to becoming an adult entrepreneur chasing the American dream, and eventually to the present day, as a husband, a father to twin boys and the CEO of an international corporation.

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What has remained constant over that time is my identity as an immigrant. My experience has had a lasting effect on what defines me both personally and professionally. As second-generation Americans, I hope my children maintain that aspect of their identity—grateful for the opportunities afforded to them as citizens, understanding and appreciative of the sacrifices my parents made, and maintaining an emphasis on the value of hard work and determination. Perhaps easier said than done in this hyper-connected age where, as The New York Times noted last year, “For the first time in modern memory, a whole generation might not prove wealthier than the one that preceded it.” But, as I said earlier, success is a personal definition.

As a child, I watched my parents struggle to build a life for our family in America. Like so many immigrants, we experience inauspicious beginnings. My parents exhausted their life savings to emigrate from Armenia and arrived in California—unable to speak English—when I was 6 years old. With the rest of our family still back in Armenia, we had no support network to call on for guidance or assistance. My father eventually secured a position working at a parsley farm. Shortly thereafter, my mother found a job at a local bakery.

My parents’ goal was to provide us with a better future. I saw my parents regularly skip meals to ensure my siblings and I had enough to eat. I saw them work countless hours at multiple jobs, seemingly never sleeping. I saw them sacrifice any semblance of a life of leisure by devoting their time, energy and spirit to the needs of their children.

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Although my family struggled, I’m aware that our situation could have been exponentially worse (and for many Americans—recent immigrants or otherwise—that is the unfortunate reality they experience each day). I merely mention some of these struggles to demonstrate how they shaped my perception of success, as well as my motivation and work ethic. Witnessing the sacrifices my parents made in an effort to provide a better life for our family has been the primary source for motivating me to succeed since I was 6 years old. Ensuring their sacrifices were never in vain remains of utmost importance.

My childhood perspective helped me understand the important of taking nothing for granted. That environment instilled a hunger inside of me, a desire to succeed at all costs. My parents were never shy about conveying the ills, and in some cases atrocities, present in our native Armenia, and reminding us of what life would be like if we didn’t succeed in America. For me, this instilled a visceral fear of failure and strengthened my appreciation for our new life. That fear generated motivation and a sense of urgency and necessity. Necessity is often referred to as “the mother of invention,” which I believe often determines the success of immigrants during their first years in America—for if they don’t succeed, their only remaining option is failure. These factors influenced and pushed me to succeed as an entrepreneur.

The impetus for immigrating to America is traditionally rooted in a desire for a better life. Whether that involves seeking freedom from persecution, obtaining an education, securing a successful career or simply forging a new beginning that provides greater opportunities, the common denominator among immigrants is typically the hope for a better future.

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Last year, a Pew Research study found that the poverty rate among second-generation Americans was actually lower than that among all U.S. adults. Additionally, the study found that children of immigrants are more educated than their peers and—when compared to the general public—place more importance on hard work and success.

A 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor U.S. report that was issued jointly by Babson College and Baruch College indicated that “first-generation immigrants are starting businesses at nearly twice the rate of their children’s generation and a 27 percent higher rate than Americans who are not immigrants.” Donna J. Kelley, lead author of the study and an associate professor of entrepreneurship at Babson college concluded that first-generation Americans “see more opportunities, perhaps because they view their surroundings with a different frame of reference than those who have been in the U.S. for a long time.”

Perhaps there is a unique sense of urgency, an appreciation for how devastating failure would be, that serves to motivate American immigrants, and is somewhat responsible for their success. From my experience, achieving success has much to do with the magnitude of one’s initial sacrifice. Immigrants often risk everything for the opportunity at a better life.

Having achieved financial and professional success, my greatest challenge now comes from my role as a father. How will I raise my children—proverbial “trust fund babies” who will never want for anything—to be self-motivated and maintain that sense of urgency, to appreciate the sacrifices my parents and I have made, and to strive to achieve success themselves. What will be their motivation to become productive members of society, given their level of privilege?

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I’ve worked hard to ensure they have every advantage in life. But to maintain my identity as a second-generation American (not to mention a respectable citizen with morals and convictions), I want them to appreciate how fortunate they are. I want them to live their lives with a work ethic that reflects that of my parents. I want them to learn to never take anything for granted and—once they reach an appropriate age—will insist they undertake traditional jobs of the manual labor or fast-food service variety. They will be introduced to the concept of work as if they had no advantages, and it is my hope that, in doing so, they will understand how fleeting and uncertain success and financial stability can be.

A positive aspect of all this is that once they have developed a strong work ethic and demonstrated their appreciation for the privileges they are blessed to have, they will eventually have the freedom to pursue any field, unencumbered and with the unconditional support of their parents. My children’s success will entail pursuing a field of work for which they have a true passion, and striving to meet and exceed their potential for excellence. They will be successes to me if they apply a respectable work ethic in each of their endeavors, and demonstrate an appreciation for the value of hard work, regardless of what they do or much money they make. If they live their lives to reflect that, failure is impossible.

Some might argue that the American dream is not what it used to be, that the opportunity to become a self-made success story is growing increasingly impossible. I am living proof that the American dream is alive and well, and the opportunity to achieve one’s dream remains possible for anyone willing to make the effort and devote themselves entirely to it.

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Sam Solakyan is CEO and founder of S3 Capital, Inc., a private investment firm featuring a diverse portfolio of 14 companies spanning the industries of healthcare, entertainment, hospitality, financial management and more.

A prolific entrepreneur, Solakyan has founded numerous companies including: Global Holdings, Vital Imaging and Paramount Management Services, all of which attained unparalleled success during Solakyan’s tenure as CEO.

Solakyan is a committed philanthropist, serving on the board of directors in several renowned national organizations including: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Youth Foundation and Covenant House California. As a benefactor, Solakyan generously supports a variety of organizations dedicated to improving the lives of children. 

A George Washington University MBA graduate, Solakyan resides in Glendale, California with his wife and twin boys.