In 2015, I spent a year at home in Los Angeles, working for my parents’ company in construction management. My parents, who immigrated from South Korea in the early 1980s, have been active members of the Korean American community throughout my life. When I started working in the office at KOAM Construction, my dad taught me basic business operations, including how to fill out a balance sheet and how to estimate materials for project bids. We had conversations where he wanted me to understand not only how the business was run but why.
I remember the thrill of a big project win and the anxiety of litigation battles, but most importantly, I saw how my dad always had a sense of connection and service to his community. It’s an influence that I carry with me today as a business journalist. Seeing the work it took for my parents to run a successful company gave me a reason to be a writer. After that year, I returned to journalism with an interest in reporting on how industries were transforming.
As millennials, innovation in the workplace often feels integral. But I became curious about what lessons other young people have learned from working for their immigrant parents. Here are three such stories:
It taught me the value of hard work—and passion
Jacqueline Horani, 30, launched her legal consulting company, Horani Law, PLLC, in March of this year. Based in Nebraska and New York, Horani’s goal is to offer affordable legal advice to small businesses and nonprofits by offering her services on a sliding scale. Horani says that growing up in her parents’ businesses made her think about how to help entrepreneurs create sustainable communities.
Her mother, born in Germany, and her father, born in Jordan, met at the American University of Beirut. They immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s where her father completed his PhD in animal nutrition. By the time Horani was born, her family had settled in Nebraska, where her mother eventually opened a resale shop. By the time Horani was eight, she was helping run the register. When Horani was 10, her father opened his own restaurant and gourmet grocery store stocked with Middle Eastern foods, and she bused tables and restocked shelves.
Horani says that having these sorts of responsibilities at a young age gave her insights into the hard work and passion that goes into running a small business. “There is a lot of stress in creating everything yourself,” Horani says. “When I went to law school, a lot of my passions kept coming back. [I asked myself] ‘How do I give myself the ability to do something I love but also feed back into this community of family-owned businesses?'”
It taught me the value of compromise
Rudy Patel, 28, works with his father and younger brother in their family-owned company, beyondGREEN. Based in California, they developed their first product in 2016—a biodegradable bag for pet waste called bioDOGradable.
Patel was born in India, and his family immigrated to the U.S. when he was 7. His father had a master’s degree in chemical engineering and worked in plastics manufacturing. Patel received his bachelor’s degree in finance, and took a job at a healthcare analytics company while living at home. In 2016, his father asked him about what kind of product they could launch from a plastics-substitute material he invented and planned to patent. Patel remembered a job he had in high school at a pet store, and they came up with pet waste bags.
Now, the company is growing to create a variety of biodegradable plastic-substitute products, including trash liners, grocery bags, injection moldings, and even medical products. Patel says there are cultural and generational differences in working with his dad but that they also have provided learning opportunities. “It’s old-school versus new-school,” Patel says.
His dad has to keep an open mind about the fun, startup culture that Patel and his brother want to create for their team, he says. Patel helped decorate the office, and in the lounge, he put in a TV with Amazon Prime and an Xbox. For Patel, working with his dad means learning how to adjust to a traditional 8-to-5 workday and to have more flexibility with the issues that arise in manufacturing. “If you’re going to work with your parents who come from a different culture, both parties have to meet in middle,” he says.
It helps me maintain perspective
Vahe Kuzoyan, 36, cofounded ServiceTitan, a California-based software management platform for the home services industry, in 2012. Kuzoyan had immigrated from Armenia with his family when he was 6 years old. After graduating from college, Kuzoyan partnered with Ara Mahdessian, whom he had met on a ski trip through the Armenian Students’ Association. They used their backgrounds in computer science to build software that helps tradesmen like their fathers manage their small businesses.
In running the company’s day-to-day operations, Kuzoyan remains motivated by his parents’ story of perseverance. “Like most immigrants, the goal was to come to America and put ourselves in a position where we could have a better future,” Kuzoyan says.
His father had a background in music, and in the U.S. worked numerous odd jobs before he found a job as a plumber. He eventually bought the plumbing business from the previous owner. As a high school student, Kuzoyan tried to help his dad on plumbing jobs but felt that he had no mechanical aptitude. His dad told him to work in the office, where Kuzoyan discovered his interest in computers.
When business challenges arise at ServiceTitan, Kuzoyan says he’s able to manage stress and maintain perspective by remembering his parents’ story. “I saw my parents give up everything and take their kids to a place where they had no idea what was going to happen. If they were able to make it through, [I can say to the company] ‘it’s all right guys, we’re going to be fine.'”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the year Horani launched her business.