Country of origin: India
Occupation: Founder and CEO, the Marketing Zen Group
Her advice to immigrant entrepreneurs: "If you have an idea, put it out there and then figure out how to improve it. Look beyond the bottom line and toward the bigger impact."
Kabani came with her family to the United States from India in 1994 at age 9. Kabani's father drove a taxi, and her mother ran a café, which she later turned into a Subway franchise. "I saw them work hard and doubly so because they were in a new country trying to adjust. They worked very long hours, and I was a latchkey kid well into high school," she told Kiplinger. By age 10, Kabani had started her first business selling gift wrapping paper, with her younger sister working as her assistant.
In 2008, she earned a master's in organizational communications from the University of Texas at Austin, where she wrote her thesis on the impact of Twitter and social media. "When I finished grad school, I knew I wanted a job in social media. I applied to several companies, but no one would hire me." The demand for social media professionals simply there yet. Instead of letting rejection discourage her, Kabani founded the Marketing Zen Group, a full-service online marketing and digital PR firm.
Today, Kabani's company has gone from being a one-woman show to employing 30, including her husband Arshil, who serves as vice president and legal counsel. In 2011, annual sales reached around $1 million, a figure that is expected to double in 2012. Kabani has been featured in national publications such as Forbes, Bloomberg Businessweek and Entrepreneur.
Kabani took her oath to become a naturalized citizen on October 29. "It's been a long process that took three years,” she says. Her husband is a natural-born citizen, so she was able to apply through him. For other aspiring immigrant entrepreneurs, Kabani advises: "Pursue entrepreneurship if you have a passion for something. A lot of people see it as a way to make money -- and it shouldn't always be about that."
5. Sergey Brin
Country of origin: Russia
Occupation: Co-founder and director of special projects, Google
His advice to immigrant entrepreneurs: "Success will come from simplicity."
During a wave of resurgent anti-Semitism, Brin's family left Moscow for America in 1979 when he was 6 years old. They settled in Adelphi, Md. Brin followed in the footsteps of his father, a mathematician and economist, by earning a B.A. in mathematics and computer science in 1993 at the University of Maryland. From there, it was on to Stanford University where Brin received a masters of science and Ph.D. It was at Stanford that he met Larry Page. The now-legendary duo later came up with the idea for Google, launching the search engine in 1998. When the company went public in 2004 (opening at $85 per share), Brin became a billionaire overnight. His net worth is now $22.5 billion.
These days, Brin continues to innovate. Google teamed up with fashion designer Diane von Furstenburg during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week earlier this year. The models in her show captured their runway experience wearing Google Glass, technology-driven eyewear that allows users to take pictures and send messages. The product has generated lots of interest in the tech world. In September, his company also announced its newest project, Google for Entrepreneurs. It's aimed at connecting business owners with local programs and online resources to help their companies get off the ground.
[More from Kiplinger: Where the Most Millionaires Live in America]
In 2007, Brin was included in a CNN Money feature that asked several prominent entrepreneurs to share how they were able to achieve such success and stay ahead of the curve. He stressed how keeping things simple at Google -- focusing on a few small projects and doing them really well -- has helped the company become a household name: "Technology has this way of becoming overly complex, but simplicity was one of the reasons that people gravitated to Google initially . . . success will come from simplicity."
6. Carlos Castro
Country of origin: El Salvador
Occupation: President and CEO, Todos Supermarket
His advice to immigrant entrepreneurs: "Never let discrimination be an excuse for not being successful."
Castro fled to California from civil war-torn El Salvador in 1980 at age 26, forced to leave his wife and young children behind. "At the time, I worked in the factories. The guerilla unions were taking over the factories and the jobs . . . there were many kidnappings and killings," he told Kiplinger.
Castro, who entered the U.S. illegally, eventually landed in the Washington, D.C.-area. He worked as a janitor and as a dishwasher and cook at a restaurant before becoming a legal resident in 1986. He started working construction and saved enough money to reunite with his family in D.C. By 1987, he had opened a small construction business of his own.
In 1988, a family friend suggested that he and his wife Gladis start a Hispanic grocery store. The couple spent the next couple of years trying to learn as much as possible about starting a small business. Once they had enough money, they opened the first Todos Supermarket in Woodbridge, Va., in 1990.
The first year was rough. Money was tight, and both Carlos and Gladis still had to work other jobs to help make ends meet at home. "My wife was making more cleaning houses than we were at the first store," Castro recalls. He eventually turned things around and opened a second Todos location in Alexandria, Va., in 1998. By 2001, business had grown so much that he had to move the first store from its 5,000-square-foot space to a 15,000-square-foot building. "That's when profits really started to roll in," Castro says. In 2007, he opened another location in Dumfries, Va.
Todos Supermarkets took in $15.9 million last year and projects sales of about $18 million for 2012. When it comes to starting your own company, there will be plenty of naysayers, Castro says. "That's why it's important to always believe in yourself."
7. Jose Wilfredo Flores
Country of origin: El Salvador
Occupation: Owner and founder, W Concrete
His advice to immigrant entrepreneurs: "Do it right and nobody can stop you."
At the age of 14, Flores made a month-long pilgrimage from El Salvador to Philadelphia to escape the country's brutal civil war. If he had remained in his homeland, he would've had one of two options: Join the guerillas or join the army. "The guerillas would come to our house," Flores told Kiplinger. "We had to hide. You couldn't say no because then they would think you were on the army's side and shoot you. A few hours later, the army guys would come and say, 'We want food. We want to take you.' If you said no, they'd think you were with the guerillas."
When he arrived in the U.S., he was crammed into a U-Haul truck with other illegal immigrants. The truck was pulled over by police. Most of the van's occupants were detained, but Flores was released because of he was a minor. He made his way to Washington, D.C., where his uncle and 18-year-old brother lived. "I came to America with no shoes, no nothing -- not even a dollar.”
Upon arriving in D.C., Flores worked part-time cleaning offices while attending Lincoln Middle School. “I didn’t have enough money to buy a French fry,” he says. At 15, he left school to work full-time in construction, using falsified documents that said he was 18. “Fake ID, fake Social Security, everything was fake. Nobody checked,” he says. He later became eligible for a legal work permit (he is now a U.S. citizen). By age 25, he had learned the concrete business and was supervising a crew of 50, earning more than $60,000 a year. Despite having secured himself a good job, Flores dreamed of starting his own business.
Ten years ago, he used savings and a line of credit to start W Concrete, in Jessup, Md. One of the company’s first jobs was to pour the concrete for the building that replaced Lincoln Middle School. Last year, the business brought in $6.6 million. "Most Salvadorans are humble people who will do whatever it takes to get ahead," says Flores. "In my country, there's no opportunity for poor people. The rich get richer and richer. The poor will always be poor and poor. Here, do it right and nobody can stop you."