‘There is Always Opportunity’ – Insights from an Immigrant Entrepreneur
Higher’s Rebecca Armstrong recently had the opportunity to sit down with Albert Yousif, who arrived in the United States from Iraq as a refugee. He has since worked his way up through the ranks to own his own business. We asked him to share his keys to success – as both employee and employer.
Rebecca Armstrong: How did you come to live in Michigan?
Albert Yousif: I came in 1993 to Michigan as a refugee from Iraq, through the Archdiocese of Detroit. My sister was the only person in the U.S. prior to my arrival. I came with my wife.
RA: What are some of the most important things that people or organizations did to welcome you to the United States?
AY: It was not like it is now. When we came, the welcome was very limited. I don’t want people to come to the United States thinking everything is for them, a river of honey, that it’s all set. It’s a new country and you have to provide for yourself. There was pressure to find a job.
RA: What has been the most difficult part of becoming a business owner in the States?
AY: Actually, there are two things. The language barrier was one. The English we spoke back home was more British English; the accent here is very different. I attended school and I learned how to practice English. The procedure was, you had to learn English, and I passed right away, so they put me as having a high school degree. I went to study computer software and computer repair. When your English isn’t good, it is more difficult to find employment. They know you’re not an American, that you’re an immigrant.
The second thing was financial. When you’re new to this country, you don’t have credit. God’s help was always in my life; maybe I am one of the luckiest people. Michael Patterson, my boss in the cleaning business, helped me. This was not on my first job— I started by working in a liquor store, and later in electrical supply. Michael came to buy something at the electrical supply [store], and he offered me a part-time job working the night shift. I used to work from 7am-5pm as a salesman, then at 6pm he picked me up, and I worked from 6pm to 1-2am. That was about 18 hours of work a day, in my first years. Michael Patterson inspired me, taught me what hard work means. He said, “You work hard to make money, and when you make money, then you get credit.” He promoted me to supervisor and asked me to hire more people like me. I hired my wife, some more people, both women and men. Then he gave me control over operations. After the first year, he asked me to be a partner. Life is based on saving money for the future. I didn’t have a car, so I went with a friend, or Michael Patterson used to pick me up, until I saved money and bought my first car. Michael kept pushing me, and I started to study, to go to seminars. In 1995, Michael wanted to retire, and he asked me to buy the company. I did, and I changed the name from Michigan Cleaning Service to 1st Quality, Inc.
I studied, and learned that national companies are guaranteed business. They have a lot of stores. I got my first work with a national business in 1996. We learned that they needed floor repairs, and I hired professionals, and we started to do floor repairs. When they needed floor replacement, tiles, we began to do that, too. The financial side was hard at first. When I bought my own home in 1996, I had to get a home equity loan based on that to finance my business and improve it.
Here’s a third difficult thing: I didn’t know about the work system here. Back home, our work system is totally different. Either you’re a government employee, or you have your own business, but there are limited ways to do business. Here, it’s totally different. The taxes here are different and new for us.
What motivated me was to get my own business. One day, I was cleaning and had to go into a CEO’s office with a special key. I was cleaning his office and I saw that he had a nice desk with a photo of his family. I was always thinking: “This is my target. A desk with my family picture on it.” That’s what always motivated me. I have a desk now, with my family’s picture on it, and I’m proud of that.
I knew I had to be a hard worker. Here you cannot work for six hours a day and expect to succeed in life.
RA: Do you think there are things about being an immigrant in America that encourage people to go into business for themselves?
AY: Yes. There is always opportunity.
Yes, the economy is hard, but I don’t agree with people, not only refugees, who say they can’t find jobs. It depends where you want to put yourself. If you put yourself in a box, you cannot get out of it. If you say to yourself, “I have a major degree in electrical work,” and sit and wait to find that job, that’s the wrong idea. There are a lot of people who graduated with that degree right here in the United States. Businesses can hire them. But if you look around, start from the bottom, you can find opportunity.
When you arrive here as a refugee, you can see your cousin, sister, or brother, with a house, a car, a life. But you cannot achieve that in a year. It takes a lot of hard work. But there’s always opportunity, if you look and you want it. I never thought I would come to the United States with a degree in business and economics and do this. I never thought I’d come to the U.S. and work as a janitor. But if that’s what’s going to pay my bills, if it’s an honest job, why not? I had to start as a worker.
RA: What advice would you have for immigrants who want to succeed as you have?
AY: Learn every aspect of your business. Whatever you want to do, learn all about it. If you’re going to open a store, you have to study, you have to start from the bottom. Don’t go into a big business you can’t pay off. Start small, and expand step by step. Keep yourself open to opportunities. If you’re selling just regular groceries, if there’s an opportunity to move into something different, why not? Educate yourself about what’s going on around you. The best advice is to be patient.
RA: What advice would you have for people— immigrants or not— who want to succeed in the economic crisis?
AY: We changed the name of my business from 1st Quality to A2Z Facility Maintenance when we added services. I saw there was a need for landscaping, and I thought, “Why not?” and I joined forces with a landscaping company. It depends what you want to do. In 2004-2005, I had the highest income since buying the business. Now it’s slowing down, a lot of people are discouraged, shutting down their business. Some companies force me to take less. I sit down with my employees and tell them, “If we keep doing this job, we have a choice, I will stay open.” They work for less, but we stay open. They keep their job, and we keep the business going until better times come back.
RA: Do you find any of your inspiration in your faith?
AY: Every day of our life, it doesn’t matter if we have money or not, we know God is the provider. I trust that God will provide. A lot of companies close their doors, and sometimes my accountant will come to me and say we’re overstaffed, we need to let people go. But as God provided for me, He will provide for them. So we keep them on. The worst thing for me is to let someone go. Faith has a lot to do with this. If I didn’t have faith, I would get discouraged, maybe.
RA: What positive qualities have you observed in the immigrants you’ve hired to work for you?
AY: I have so many. I have Nadeen, my office manager. When I finish talking with you, I could email you letters from past employees and how A2Z Facility Maintenance has affected them. This lady came through Detroit, a smart person but embarrassed to speak English. I started to pressure her to learn more and more about how to communicate with people, how to work with computers, and now she can run the business without me. Another one used to work for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. For her it was the same. After six weeks, I told her, “This is your job, you have to speak with customers.” Now she is answering the phone with no problems. That’s an example of confidence, of what they can learn to do. We have several American employees who have been instrumental in assisting their coworkers with the English language and other skills to improve their transition into the United States.
RA: Where would you like to see yourself in five years? In 10 years?
AY: If I could get more business, I could hire 30 more people. I could hire immigrants who don’t know English. That’s the kind of person who needs our help. If I can teach a refugee how to work so they can get out of taking cash assistance, that takes a burden off the taxpayer— that’s important to me as an American.
The employer and the government cannot do it alone. It’s important to have a network of people who are ready to hire immigrants. Let’s get together and learn from each other’s experiences. This would be a big boost for the economy. Businesses like mine need government help. Not by through financial support – I mean a tax break, or credits for hiring additional employees. The government could make it a priority to deal with companies that hire refugees. It’s like teamwork. I have about 28 employees, and 15 are immigrants. If I had a bigger business, I could hire another 15 immigrants, plus another 10 native born. Isn’t that what this is all about – jobs?