Multigenerational Immigration and Entrepreneurship: Tips and Tricks from Immigrant Entrepreneurs

Anastasiia Dehtiarova,  growth coach for immigrant entrepreneurs, interviewed Maryjo Marlar, retired  entrepreneur, and her daughter Jeannine van der Linden, founder of DeKamer, for a podcast on multigenerational immigration and entrepreneurship. 

Maryjo grew up in an immigrant household, and Jeannine in a second generation immigrant family. As an adult, Jeannine also immigrated herself, taking the family “from the Old Country to the new Country then back to the Old Country in two generations” as she says. To create success as an immigrant entrepreneur has a unique set of challenges, and what better way to understand the journey to learn from those who have already walked this path.

Growing up in an immigrant household

Maryjo’s family immigrated from the Azores Islands of Portugal to the United States. As a result, Maryjo grew up in a first generation immigrant household. As a daughter of an immigrant family, a lot of pressure was put on her to be successful, and possibly raise her family in the same manner. 

All Maryjo wanted to be was American, and so she never spoke Portuguese even though the family spoke Portuguese at home. When she married her first husband, they lived a traditional life: working father and stay at home mother. 

As a child of an immigrant family, Maryjo felt that a lot was expected of her. For the most part, people move to other countries to live a better life and for their children to have a better life. It’s no wonder then that immigrant parents want their children to be successful and start gaining wealth. 

Maryjo did so, by becoming an ‘accidental entrepreneur’. Her journey as an entrepreneur started when she was approached by one of her neighbours to assist with admin, and before long her duties grew as she became more interested in the products that he sold. This ultimately resulted in her creating her own business selling machinery to install  specialised plastic pipes used for construction and plumbing. 

Daughter of Maryjo, Jeannine grew up in the household, and even admits to not being focussed on a specialised major in college, as she thought she would end up working in her mother’s business. Though, something shifted for Jeannine when she eventually found her calling and went to law school. Not long after that, she met her (Dutch) husband. From the beginning he was clear that he wanted to raise a family and grow old in The Netherlands. After some time in the States, they made the decision to move, with their two children (four and two years old), to The Netherlands. Shortly after the move, her mother-in-law  was diagnosed with cancer. 

From here, things changed drastically for Jeannine. She had to make things work. As a predominantly English speaking mother of two children under school age, looking after her sick mother-in-law, finding a job seemed impossible. The only  position she was truly qualified for  in The Netherlands was as an attorney at the International Court of Justice, where American legal rules are relevant. But, as a mother of two and a nurse to her mother-in-law, it would not have been possible. 

That is when Jeanine decided to start her first coworking space. The house they live in has an office space attached to the building, which is great for renting out. As a result, she too (like her mother) became an accidental entrepreneur. Now Jeannine’s business has grown and DeKamer has more than nine locations across The Netherlands.   

Finding a way and making it work 

Both Maryjo and Jeannine had to find a way to financially support their families. They became accidental entrepreneurs due to factors that did not allow them to work as employees. 

This trend is not new amongst immigrant families – or women. For some, starting a new business was not even the goal. Jeanine uses her uncle as an example. He missed being able to buy and enjoy a specific specialty sausage that was only available in Portugal, and so he started making it in his garage. This then grew into a business of its own. 

Rightfully, Jeannine mentions that this is the case for many immigrant families. Food can be a lucrative business that can grow beyond expectations. 

Often, like in Jeannine’s case, it is about seeing a gap in the market and creating a business to fill that gap. She explains that coworking wasn’t a well-known concept in The Netherlands when she started her business. She saw that gap and created a solution. 

These businesses add to the economy. They might seem insignificant at first, but as they grow and become more lucrative they ultimately play an important role in the economy. They also uplift a community and create more job opportunities to empower the economy of the community. 

Learning new skills as an immigrant entrepreneur

Maryjo explains that immigrant businesses usually start off small, and in most cases, as a one-man-band. As the business grows, it makes sense to start employing people in the vicinity or community, and especially within the family. 

In the beginning they learn how to manage tasks they never dealt with before. Learning skills like how to run a business, set up plans, and make connections. As the business grows immigrant entrepreneurs need to learn the most important skill of all: trust. 

Immigrants do not trust easily, and see it more beneficial to ensure the business stays within the family. The reality is, says Maryjo, that as a business grows it is important to start trusting people outside of the community. 

“There comes a time when the business is scaling and elements such as policies and plans should be put in place to ensure the success of a business,” explains Jeannine. 

Another challenge they face is the fact that these businesses have developed a culture that cannot be translated into policies, explains Maryjo. But for the sake of growth, it is important that these policies be set up, firstly to ensure the business continues in the same manner, and secondly, for consistency (clients expect a certain level of service from the business they support). 

Lessons from multigenerational entrepreneurs

As both Maryjo and Jeannine have experienced, trust is the most important aspect of any business. Without trust, a business cannot grow and expand. 

Maryjo and Jeannine both agree that there will come a time when a business enters its growth stage. It is up to the entrepreneur to decide how to go forward. This decision, Maryjo says, can make or break a business. 

Another major aspect that Maryjo feels is important for entrepreneurs to know is to learn to ask others for advice. Building a new business from the ground up is no easy task, and doing it alone can be daunting and difficult 

Having a community of entrepreneurs (seasoned or new) to serve as guidance is beneficial to any type of business. Helping one another in times of need can ensure the success of a business.