Women have never had it so good before: many organizations have made promoting women to top positions a mainstay issue. Although women may do better where governments extend more of a helping hand, I find it most stimulating to read about US-American women leaders, especially about immigrant women. As an immigrant myself, I like to learn how others are beating the odds of culture, language, gender relations, and different kinds of education—and creating or seizing opportunities. Since most immigrant women are struggling desperately, I set out to interview and learn from the successful ones—especially given America’s almost-Hollywood fascination with success.
American Brand of Success
Over time, an important concept of success developed into an obsessive-compulsive success syndrome: we study with American Success Institute, read about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “paradigm of success” and “The American Idea of Success” by Richard Huber. Even Mark Twain contributed to the ideology of success in his “Poor Little Stephen Girard.” The American perception of success evolved from the concept of “opulent materialism competitively won,” as described in Success in America by Rex Burns, Acres of Diamonds by Russell Conwell, and Ten Commandments of Success by Charles Schwab—to name a few. After World War II, the raw materialism of hard-work-based success acquired a new spin, such as personal magnetism, self-confidence, and positive attitude—influenced by two Carnegies, Andrew and Dale.
However, the latest research clearly shows that the essence of success, as viewed in mainstream media—wealth and fame—is not quite true to American reality today, no matter how hard some media force-feed it to the public. Instead, numerous polls and articles reveal that Americans’ true success priorities align with integrity, respect, family values, self-realization and such. Money and fame can’t buy these traits; they are by-products, not the definition, of a true American brand of success.
Criteria for Immigrants’ Success
Booker T. Washington said, “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.” With this in mind, we sampled immigrant women’s views and experiences on their starting point; distance covered to achieve their goals; original goal and how it evolved; personal stamina; and contributions to America’s well-being and culture.
We asked some of the most successful immigrant women leaders to assess their own achievements—on a 1 to 10 scale (score 1 meaning minimal achievement; 5—achieving your original goals; 7- achievements exceeding original expectations). This scale provides a dynamic perspective on success: a journey, not a destination.
Roses and Thorns on the Way to Success
Roses or thorns notwithstanding, once the decision to replant in America is made, women leaders press forward no matter what. Let’s take a closer look at what price three diverse women leaders paid for their success.
Winnie Chan got her BA in Hong Kong but wanted to study fashion design in New York and immigrated alone. She did become a fashion designer, boutique owner and co-founder of MAYLAN Skincare. The price she paid for success was having no personal life while working hard and long hours. She says her son remarked once: “You do not know how to have fun”—that’s the immigrant mother’s image in the eyes of the second generation. Winnie adopted a philosophical approach to her challenges: “Discrimination can’t be avoided. Our skin speaks it all. People automatically know we are immigrants…. Of course I encountered many incidents of discrimination.” Although this annoyed her, she went on with her life, feeling it was not worth getting upset because of someone’s intolerance. Winnie self-scored 7 on our success scale.
Ana Maria Quevedo is a bright example of a trailing spouse’s sacrifice for her husband’s better career. An aspiring journalist coming from an affluent family in Perú, she felt miserable “under the emotional pressure cooker of being an immigrant.” “I wanted to leave at many points through this journey,” she says. “It’s hard to be treated like you are second-class, a token Hispanic, or some novelty.” Too proud to tolerate this, she built her own business for publishing and editing. Once she realized immigrants are natural culture ambassadors and integrators, she saw her mission in life and wrote articles and books on what it takes to be a success in America (e.g., Living in a Double World). Her sense of accomplishment and recognition as a role model led Ana to assess her own success at 7.
People typically assume that those who immigrated as children have enough time to assimilate and escape cultural adaptation issues. Not quite so. Mercedes Martin, a black Latina, grew up in a close-knit, Miami Cuban community steeped in tradition. Like other similar communities, it sometimes felt ghetto-like. She struggled to perfect her English and adapt to all-American culture, eventually becoming Diversity and Inclusion Director of Ernst & Young. In this position, she sees herself as a visionary who inspires others by harnessing her innate cultural values: charisma, “personalismo,” trust, and passion. Her family made tremendous sacrifices to give her a good education and pinned so much hope on her that—ever self-critical—Mercedes believes she is not realizing her full potential yet, and rates her achievements only at 4 on our scale.
Lessons from Our Fathers
My father used to say, “My little girl can be a big achiever—just go for it!” Little did he know that after being a success in my native Ukraine, I would have to start again in America. He also said, “There’s no elevator to success, you have to take the stairs, one step at a time.” I did my best, and so did many others: “weaker sex” or not, immigrant women are undeterred—we move up one stair at a time—even if we’re climbing an Empire State Building!