Examining America’s DNA this Labor Day.
As a real estate entrepreneur, I’m pretty nosy when it comes to studying businesses, especially when exploring the roots of America’s largest companies. What’s the background of the founders? How did their upbringing and early career forge the set of values that fuel these mega-corporations? I can’t seem to read enough on the subject.
While my voyage from Africa across the Atlantic started in a cozy cabin of the Airbus A380, the journeys of some of the movers and shakers of the construction development industry weren’t so glamorous. After engineering school, I joined Gilbane — a construction conglomerate with over $6 billion in annual revenues. I was pleasantly surprised by the onboarding experience; the company took immense pride in its family heritage. The two Gilbane brothers were the golden geese that fled the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s to come to America. Work ethics and integrity were clearly the secret sauce to the company’s success. Tough times had forged the brothers into men of steel whose descendants are building America to this day.
What was even more empowering to me was how one of the Gilbanes shared the xenophobia that his ancestors had to overcome just for being Irish. “No Irish Need Apply” was often imprinted on the doors of businesses, forcing the brothers to employ themselves as carpenters. Needless to say, most of those businesses have now vanished while the Gilbanes’ legacy puts almost three thousand Americans to work every day, tens of thousands more as subcontractors to their projects.
“No Jews Need Apply” was another common signage when Sam Zell’s father hustled to put bread on the table. Having narrowly escaped the holocaust with his family, he barely spoke a word of English at the time. But judging from Sam’s business acumen and conquests over the years, it’s clear that Mr. Zell’s genetics are more incredible than any fluency in English. Right before the 2008 financial crash, Sam Zell made news in 2007 after he sold his portfolio of 573 office properties, the Equity Office REIT, to The Blackstone Group (BX), the world’s largest alternative investment manager, for $39 billion. At the time, the transaction was the largest leveraged buyout deal in history.
In the 1960s Tanzania befriended China and adopted socialism, to its economic demise of course. Despite being enormously successful and politically well-connected, my late father was unjustly imprisoned for being too rich. Ironically his predicament would have been similar or worse in 1960s America, even amid the most successful capitalist society in history. It’s therefore vital to note the seismic demographic shifts that have rewritten the distribution of wealth in American households since the civil rights era. While Dr. King and others laid the foundation for minorities to find admission to America’s most prestigious circles, these socioeconomic transformations have also made it possible for me to realize the American dream beyond the basics of homeownership and a retirement savings account. I can be African and wealthy and not get penalized for it. Towering over 6'5" and three hundred pounds, my father couldn’t say the same in either country of that era.
On top of my engineering course load at Duke, I defied my dean’s wishes and enrolled in Arabic, Chinese and French. “Who said mechanical engineers don’t have to be fluent in multiple languages?” I muttered. Refusing to take no for an answer was part of it, but I also had a deeper understanding of global socioeconomic trends. From a young age, it was obvious to me that I needed to train myself to negotiate business deals with counterparts from all ethnicities. The first white man I ever met was a Swedish salesman from Scania, a heavy truck manufacturer that dominated the African market. Such home visits were not uncommon because Dad had one of the largest logistics businesses in the region. Moreover, he had business dealings with Arabs, Indians, and Chinese. Some of them had become citizens, deeply rooted in the nation’s fabric and very influential.
Today over 13% of the US population is foreign-born, with African immigrants leading the curve of being the most educated group.
“Perhaps most surprising is that, by many measures, the most-educated immigrant group in the U.S. isn’t East Asians. It’s Africans.” [Bloomberg]
The shift from mostly impoverished immigrants seeking a better life in the United States to affluent individuals leaving their countries behind marks a very significant shift in migration. The prosperity in some of the fastest-growing economies worldwide, many of which are in Asia, South America, and some African countries, has produced a new caliber of US immigrants that are now arriving in first-class seats of jumbo jets.
“Many of these new residents seek democracy, lower pollution levels, an English-speaking education for their children, and a stable legal framework.” [Big Shifts Ahead, 128]
Five years since I founded Abranova, a full-stack development construction firm, I have grown from spending time alone in my work truck to having thirty more hard workers join me. Of course, our story is incomplete without the fantastic relationships we’ve built with investors and our community of architects, engineers, vendors, and subcontractors. Some of these are family-owned businesses that span over generations. Beyond the transactions, the friendships I’ve developed over the years have helped me to appreciate that the industriousness of the American people is woven into the dream itself. It’s little known today that before the pilgrims boarded the ships to start their voyages across the Atlantic, complex deal structures were slated, first-lien positions were taken, and contracts were signed. Enterprise has always been America’s DNA. There’s no doubt that we have a wealthier and more educated demographic of immigrants today than we did six centuries ago. With great leadership, we have every hope to believe that America is capable of so much more today than ever before.
Moreover, our economy continues to run on premium fuel of the work ethics and values that came with every merchant ship and that which comes with every aircraft that lands at our airports. Being in the construction business, I can only tell you that without every steady foot that crosses our borders there wouldn’t be so many buildings decorating our city skylines. My assertions are entirely apolitical, I’m only highlighting the fact that the entrepreneurial spirit that’s behind the newfound wealth of Africa, Asia, and South America, is the same spirit that nourishes America today.
As I reflect on this labor day, I marvel at the words “IN GOD WE TRUST” printed on the dollar bill. To me, these words imbibe a mantra of hope that this American dream is for everyone to fully pursue and enjoy. It’s almost as though when Thomas Jefferson sanctified the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, even he couldn’t have fathomed the extent to which his ideals would stretch to literally include everyone. The stars that had to align for me to be in this position today are as marvelous as the cosmos itself. That’s how I came up with Abranova, we’re shooting for the stars.
Happy Labor Day!
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