Morris J. Vogel is the president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York.
John and Caroline Schneider operated a German lager beer saloon in the basement of New York’s 97 Orchard St. in the 1870s. John dealt with patrons in the front, while Caroline prepared customer meals in a tiny back apartment, where the couple also slept, ate and lived. Meanwhile, upstairs in the tenement, Natalie Gumpertz , a single mother, depended on a living room sewing machine to support her four children as a dressmaker. Other immigrant entrepreneurs, such as Harris Levine, followed her, running full-scale garment sweatshops in the building’s cramped tenement homes.
Small business in America is not always glamorous and not always a path to fortune. But for generations, small business has been a path out of poverty for hardworking, risk-taking Americans and, along the way, one of the principal drivers of new job growth in America. And for generations, immigrants have played an outsize role as this country’s entrepreneurs.
When people talk about immigrant entrepreneurship, they usually note such success stories as Alexander Graham Bell, Andrew Carnegie or Sergey Brin. They point to the fact that more than 40 percent of America’s Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, and they note that many of the most iconic American brands, including AT&T, Procter & Gamble, Pfizer, Kraft, DuPont, Colgate-Palmolive, Sara Lee and U.S. Steel, were founded by people who came here from other countries.
These are important stories to remember, because they remind us that the new ideas, hard work and penchant for daring that millions of immigrants brought with them to our shores have been essential in helping make the U.S. economy the commanding global force it is.
But it’s equally, if not more, important to remember the stories of 97 Orchard St. As Congress takes up the daunting challenge of immigration reform this year, it’s common to hear praise for America’s immigrant tradition allayed by concerns that today’s immigrants are somehow different. Less educated. Less able to succeed. Less able to integrate.
The stories of 97 Orchard St. serve to remind us that yesterday’s immigrants were not all Alexander Graham Bell. They were, in many respects, quite similar to today’s immigrants. The vast majority were uneducated. They were hard-working risk-takers who came here for a better life for themselves and their children. And, both because they were risk-takers and because they often lacked education or connections, they often resorted to entrepreneurship. Our economy is stronger because of their determination.
Immigrant entrepreneurs have had a profound impact on our economy. It’s common to say that small business drives job growth in America, but this actually misstates the point. It’s new business that drives job growth. According to the Kauffman Foundation for entrepreneurship, all net job creation over the past 30 years has been attributable to businesses less than five years old.
Immigrants such as those from 97 Orchard St. have been driving much of that job creation. In 2011, 28 percent of all new businesses started in the United States had immigrant founders, even though immigrants make up around 13 percent of the population, according to a recent report by the bipartisan Partnership for a New American Economy. Immigrants are more than twice as likely as the native-born to start businesses, and immigrant-owned businesses now employ one out of every 10 workers at privately owned companies in the United States. Many of these workers are employed at Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Intel, Qualcomm and eBay, but the vast majority are employed at small businesses that bear far more resemblance to 97 Orchard St. than to Silicon Valley.
So as Congress considers the first substantive reform of our immigration laws in nearly 50 years, I invite our senators and representatives and all others to remember 97 Orchard St., now the home of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum , and what the experience of past immigrant entrepreneurs can tell us about the immigrant entrepreneurs coming to America today.