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By Steve Kelman

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The contributions of immigrants -- it's not just high tech

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Whether it's Silicon Valley or a New York yogurt factory, the vitality and energy immigrants bring to the U.S. economy are tremendous assets.

Many, especially in the tech world, are familiar with the contributions of immigrants to high-tech business in the United States -- according to some estimates, some 40 percent of NASDAQ-listed tech firms were founded by people not born in the United States. But a fascinating and inspiring article recently appearing in the Financial Times of London about Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish immigrant who brought Greek-style yogurt to America, reminds us that these contributions to our country are not limited to the high-tech sphere.

Ulukaya came to the United States in 1994 to study English, started working on a farm in upstate New York, and in 2002 opened a small plant making a Turkish-style cheese. He started his yogurt company, Chobani, in 2007 when he bought a yogurt plant that had been shut down by Kraft Food. His idea was to bring a more-natural, less-sugared yogurt onto the market. (And it's worth noting that he got a $1 million loan from the Small Business Administration to buy the plant.)

Several years later, Chobani yoghurt sells a billion dollars a year of product, and the company employs 2,000 people. It all started by getting one supermarket on Long Island to sell his yogurt.

There is an important message here, which seems to be becoming more and more accepted in political debate: Immigrants are a source of amazing vitality and energy in the U.S. economy. We should be lucky they want to come here.

With the sad news coming from my hometown of Boston this week, Ulukaya's story is something to cheer us up about the human spirit and about the United States.

(By the way, I'd like to thank all the friends, former students, and others who contacted me either on Facebook or by email to express sympathies for our loss here in Boston.)


Posted on Apr 17, 2013 at 12:09 PM


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Reader comments

Thu, Apr 18, 2013

I agree that a lot of wonderful things come to us through immigrants. The example given is a contribution produced by a "legal" immigrant. I hope the author is not subliminally suggesting this as an argument for approval of undocumented (formally illegal) immigration or that undocumented immigrants be provided with million dollar small business loans.

Wed, Apr 17, 2013 Lance Johnson USA

An interesting new worldwide book/ebook that helps explain the role, struggles, and contributions of immigrants and minorities is "What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to understand crazy American culture, people, government, business, language and more.” It paints a revealing picture of America for those who will benefit from a better understanding. Endorsed by ambassadors, educators, and editors, it also informs those who want to learn more about the last remaining superpower and how we compare to other nations on many issues. As the book points out, immigrants and minorities are a major force in America, as Mr. Romney and the GOP recently discovered. Immigrants and the children they bear account for 60 percent of our nation’s population growth and own 11 percent of US businesses and are 60 percent more likely to start a new business than native-born Americans. They represent 17 percent of all new business owners (in some states more than 30 percent). Foreign-born business owners generate nearly one-quarter of all business income in California and nearly one-fifth in New York, Florida, and New Jersey. Legal immigrants number 850,000 each year; undocumented immigrant numbers are now dropping from half that number a few years ago. They come to improve their lives and create a foundation of success for their children to build upon, as did the author’s grandparents when they landed at Ellis Island in 1899 after losing 2 children to disease on a cramped cattle car-like sailing from Europe to the Land of Opportunity. Many bring skills and a willingness to work hard to make their dreams a reality, something our founders did four hundred years ago. In describing America, chapter after chapter chronicles “foreigners” who became successful in the US and contributed to our society. However, most struggle in their efforts and need guidance in Anytown, USA. Perhaps intelligent immigration reform, White House/Congress and business/labor cooperation, concerned citizens and books like this can extend a helping hand, the same unwavering hand that has been the anchor and lighthouse of American values for four hundred years. Here’s a closing quote from the book’s Intro: “With all of our cultural differences though, you’ll be surprised to learn how much our countries—and we as human beings—have in common on this little third rock from the sun. After all, the song played at our Disneyland parks around the world is ‘It’s A Small World After All.’ Peace.” www.AmericaAtoZ.com

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