Standing at the crossroads of innovation and immigration
Entrepreneurial success and innovative spirit can come in many forms, and emerge from innumerable paths. The same can be said for stories of immigrants' challenges and triumphs. Standing at the crossroad of those two themes are present-day innovators, business leaders, and entrepreneurs who are also immigrants to the United States. It is a fascinating confluence, and the National Museum of American History wanted to learn more.
Curators of Many Voices, One Nation, an upcoming exhibition exploring the balance between unity and pluralism in America, set out to acquire insights from several individuals about the intersections between entrepreneurialism and the immigrant experience. Interviewees talked about their places of origin, their journeys, and how they crafted their sense of self and American-ness, all while striving to become successful leaders in their respective fields. The results of this oral history project are now available through a brand-new online exhibition called Family of Voices. Through oral history excerpts and personal objects, participants in Family of Voices offered their unique experiences but also revealed common themes shared by many immigrants around the country.
For example, not every story of success began with a first job or great invention. For many, it was the importance of sports that first served as a cultural space to connect and learn from others, and to prove themselves.
"I joined every single after-school club, including bowling, and I was the worst bowler. Or softball—I couldn’t even hit the ball, but I joined. I signed up and I went," Hyatt Hotels Chief Marketing Officer Maryam Banikarim offered in her oral history.
Banikarim, who fled Iran with her family in 1979, explained that these sorts of activities also inspired her to embrace her heritage. She had gone for many years by the name Mary, but by her senior year of high school her preference changed.
"I had two cheerleading outfits. One of them said Mary and the other one actually said Maryam," Banikarim said. "So already by senior year I had come more into being confident or more into myself."
Many of the stories from the project emphasized the importance of languages as part of the immigrant experience. Interviewees volunteered their thoughts about both the challenge and importance of learning English as a new language, and many revealed maintaining non-English traditions within their homes and familial conversations.
"We only speak Portuguese among ourselves," Galdino Claro, a Brazilian-born executive who has lived all over the world, explained in his interview. "I only speak English with my son if it's a school-related thing or a business-related thing. But if it's any family-related, informal conversation, it is in Portuguese. He wouldn't talk with me in a different language."
Frits van Paasschen, most recently the CEO of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, offered a comparable depiction of language use in his home. Speaking Dutch to his children "has been a wonderful way for us to be closer," he said.
Bill and Mary Kim's Korean heritage is "one of the things we like to teach our children. . . . There are a lot of traditions that should be preserved, and I like to be part of that tradition and help the next generation."
As a scholar of American holidays, some of my favorite stories centered on food and holidays. Gert Boyle, the "One Tough Mother" who grew Columbia Sportswear into a global corporation, related the story of her family's first Christmas in America after fleeing Nazi Germany.
"My mother said she'd have to go buy a goose. She went to the grocery store to buy a goose and the grocer said, 'No, no, no. You buy a turkey. You want to be in this country, you don't buy a goose, you buy a turkey.' So we had turkey," Boyle said.
Chilean-born Juan Pablo Cappello, whose mother is American, remembers July 4, 1976.
"I remember the bicentennial. . . . [In Chile] there was a curfew and things were very controlled," Cappello said. "So coming here, this was just such a celebration of country. It seemed amazing to me."
Family of Voices reveals a deep appreciation for the opportunities our interviewees found when they came to the United States.
"I was happy to be able to demonstrate to myself—demonstrate to the world—that even though I was educated somewhere else," said Moroccan-born Khalid Fellahi, general manager of Western Union Digital Ventures. "Even if I grew up in a completely different environment, I managed to come here and be recognized as someone who can be a strong contributor to business."
Padma and Raj Vattikuti, philanthropists and community leaders originally from India, echoed the sentiment in their interview.
"America gave us such opportunity," said Padma. "We had to think like Americans and become an American. It took a longer time for me to come to terms with it because I always carried India in my heart. Anytime I thought of home, I would always say I would like to go home, that meant India. Now when I'm visiting India and I say I'm missing home, it is America now."
There are many pathways to being American. "Migration is not only difficult," said George Feldenkreis, chairman and CEO of Perry Ellis International who left Cuba in 1961, "it is also very traumatic if you have not gone through the experience. It's very painful to know that you're leaving all your friends, that you're leaving your family, that you're losing the security—the sense of belonging."
Visitors to the Family of Voices online exhibition will discover that each story is distinctive and unique, yet together they resonate with that underlying belief that it was worth leaving someplace familiar and finding a new identity and purpose in America. Perhaps the final word belongs to Shaista Mahmood, who with husband Ray lives just a few minutes from the National Museum of American History: "Yes, I was born in Pakistan, but this is my country."
Daniel Gifford is the museum's manager of museum advisory committees and a project historian. He worked with the Family of Voices team to collect and excerpt the project's oral histories. His last blog post was about birdwatching in America.