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The immigrant discount

The immigrant discount

As a management consultant, I once worked on a landmark study that became significant for the firm. I managed to turn around the study when it was running well behind schedule. I ended up playing a key role in a road show to raise funding to launch a financial services company in Eastern Europe. I met billionaires, government officials, and CEOs of major companies. In that study, we figured out that there was a segment of the population that was profitable to serve since they submitted fewer insurance claims. Our goal was to build an entire business around them. This study was so successful that I became good friends with the billionaire owner of the business and his wife. This study made my career. I even wrote up the work as an article that the firm sent to all our clients.

When I moved to the USA and Canada, that successful study was painfully discounted in the eyes of recruiters and my employers. Since it was an African company exploring opportunities in Eastern Europe, people in Canada and the USA automatically assumed the study was not prestigious and they had nothing to learn from the insights. That is ironic, considering that many companies in Africa are often miles ahead of US and Canadian companies in certain areas.

For example, with African banks, most things can be done via SMS. That includes transfers and payments. That only recently became possible with some banks in the US. African banks were forced to build banking tools for a population lacking widespread internet access, laptops, and even apps. They mostly used simple phones without broadband. So the banking tools had to be very easy to use and not take up much bandwidth, and often could not exist as Apps.

I call this the immigrant discount. It is just assumed that everything in the West is better, and all our experiences and expertise must be discounted. Our skills are discounted, our degrees are discounted, and our reputations are discounted. Each time I moved, my previous experiences were discounted. Even my Canadian experiences were discounted in the USA.

Just about every Western nation has a natural birthrate that cannot grow the population. Without immigrants, those economies would struggle to grow. The US grows because it has a vibrant culture of accepting immigrants. For all his flaws, President Lyndon B. Johnson was prescient enough to push through the one piece of legislation, immigration, that kept America relevant to the world. Japan is struggling because it is not growing and does not have a culture of inviting sufficient immigrants to offset its declining population. China is now in that position. Soon, South Korea will be there. Despite this, the immigrant discount will probably not go away.

The immigrant discount is a financial penalty. It has a measurable cost. When I moved to Canada I had to give up one year of my life and join the Ivey MBA program just to break in as a peer. Before I did this, I could barely get any interviews. There is the cost of education, the lost earnings, the lost time, and the loss of self-esteem. Yet, I could not change who I was. Just because I had an Ivey MBA does not mean I now have the culture and background of a Western person. I still relied heavily on my previous experiences and lessons. I tried very hard to fit into Western companies, and I was very successful, rising to director level at a top 3 Canadian bank and being entrusted with the management of a $1 billion portfolio. However, I always felt there was a discount.

I did two things to change this. First, I learned how to think and communicate, verbally and in writing, so that I could better package and present my experiences. I did not shy away from my tough past. I talked about it and used examples from my past to explain a point I was making. I had lived through the disintegration of a socialist planned economy and the violent birth of a brutal capitalist economy. There are many lessons in business there.

The second thing I did was build my own business. When I worked within a team, at a bank, for example, there was always some vagueness about who created the most value. Was it me? Was it someone else? With my own business, it was clear when I created value. And I also was free to create value in various areas, even creating art pieces like a limited edition Bill Matassoni book shown below.

I can say that once I was running my business full time, even the lowest income year from my businesses exceeded my highest income year as a management consultant or corporate finance director, by multiples. The most important benefit of starting my own business was that it allowed me to reach out and work with people who appreciated my perspective. As an immigrant, I understand the very unique challenges other immigrants face.

What I have learned is that the immigrant discount is only a discount if we work in a company for people who do not, and probably cannot, ever appreciate what we bring to the table. It is a choice we make. I would discuss with my friend, who immigrated to Canada as a child, that we were not fully appreciated in the corporate world. He is a close friend and has stayed in banking. He chose to stay, and I chose to leave. He is relatively senior now, but he is not happy. When we speak, he often tells me he cannot wait to retire at 65 to start living his life. He is making a choice to give up his best years to work in a place with a steep immigrant discount. We will get what we tolerate, and I did not want to tolerate this immigrant discount. Neither should you. You probably cannot change the minds of the people who apply this immigrant discount to you. Yet, you can change your life and build something that is true to who you are.

Life is all about choices. When the Soviet Union was collapsing, I pleaded with my parents to move out of Russia. They said the grass always looked greener on the other side. As I shared in an earlier email, during the Ukraine war, I brought my sister’s family to Mexico. Phase 2 was to bring my parents and brothers, and my sister’s husband’s family. I did all the work to set up their lives there. They stayed for just six weeks before returning to Russia. I know, and they probably also know, their lives will not be better. Yet, they are semi-comfortable. They know the language and live a reasonably comfortable life. They have chosen permanent reasonable comfort over short-term pain (and not that much pain, given the amount of support and care they had from me) to build a far better future life. It’s a choice they have made. Yet, oftentimes, those choices become permanent just when we can no longer handle them.

I hope you will learn from my family and my experiences and make good choices for you. If I settled to work at a place where the immigrant discount is applied to me, I would not have had a great life. I would just get by. Yes, to some degree, the immigrant discount is applied to me even now that I am running my own company. I even get the female discount. But to a much smaller degree and in a way that doesn’t really impact me financially or emotionally. It would be nice if I could apply those discounts to my bills.

I did not just want to get by financially in a career I did not like. I wanted a full life. That is why I built an authority-based business. The goal was to bet on me and build a business around my name. Help more people. Earn more. And live a happy life while caring for the people I love.

An authority-based business is not for people who want to get rich overnight. It is betting on yourself and building a business for the long term. If you are inclined to build your own business the way I built mine, potentially initially on the side while working full time, and want Michael and me to coach and guide you through the process, you are welcome to learn about the Authority-Based Business Coaching Program and apply to enroll. Levels of effort and installment options are available.

Here are the details:


Take care,

Kris Safarova

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