With immigrant mindset, entrepreneurs embrace change, opportunities

Ella Zibitsker is a Russian immigrant and founder of Skokie-based Computer Systems Institute, which provides vocational training on seven campuses
Ella Zibitsker of Computer Systems Institute teaches her students that hard work pays off.

By Ann Meyer

— Ella Zibitsker has built a business around change through hard work and determination.

Zibitsker, a Russian immigrant, launched Computer Systems Institute in 1989 to help adult students transition to technology careers, but shifted the company’s focus to underserved high school graduates a few years ago. Her goal is to help the Skokie-based institute’s students change their lives by offering job training in health care, computer networking and business administration as well as classes in English as a second language, she said.

“No one wants our students. Colleges don’t accept them, but we do,” she said. Zibitsker hopes her can-do attitude carries over to the institute’s 2,000 students, who hail from  inner-city neighborhoods and  40 different countries.

Improving your lot in life

The institute, which employs 200 full- and part-time teachers, has had success with students who have struggled at other schools in part because its curriculum and services help instill in them the belief that they can improve their lot in life through determination and hard work.  

Those characteristics are part of the immigrant mindset that often leads to success, said Glenn Llopis, president of the Glenn Llopis Group,  an Irvine, Calif.-based performance development company dedicated to teaching entrepreneurial skills for innovation. “People need to roll up their sleeves. People need to make things happen,” he said.

That’s the same philosophy that Alena Tsimis, a Russian immigrant and  managing director of Evanston-based marketing firm Imagine Studio, embraces. She and a partner launched the firm after they were laid off from MarchFirst in 2000, when it was difficult to find a job. “We had no savings, no money to start a new company,” Tsimis said. But the two women proceeded to launch the business from their homes, working from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., she said.

“Whatever we have right now came with very hard work and sacrifice,” Tsimis said. “It was survival.”

Immigrant mindset,  entrepreneurial success

Immigrants show a disproportionate propensity to launch businesses, according to data from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo. Immigrants start businesses at a rate of 62 per 10,000 people, compared with a rate of 28 per 10,000 native born Americans, the foundation reported.

Immigrants tend to be risk-takers or they wouldn’t have left their native countries, said Rob Fairlie, professor of economics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who is the author of the Kauffman Foundation study. While many immigrants arrive in the United States with advanced degrees, their credentials don’t always transfer, Fairlie said. “They face a lot of obstacles in the labor market,” he said, “so they turn to starting a business.”

Regardless of where her students were born, Zibitsker said she is trying to instill the survivor instinct.  Most Computer Systems Institute students are recent high school graduates from economically depressed areas who need additional skills to find jobs, Zibitsker said. “There are so many kids who want to get into professional careers, but nobody told them how to do that,” she said. “We are working in a forgotten market,” she said.

Zibitsker, an engineer who came to the United States 30 years ago with her husband and daughter with $700 in their pockets, measures the success of her company “by each student getting a job,” she said. “We want to build wealth” for students.

She created a methodology for teaching job skills and offers students a small stipend as a reward for good performance. “What’s important for any business is to learn the pattern of success,” she said. Zibitsker also has added services as needed, such as providing career attire to help students look their best.

The entrepreneurial mindset includes the ability to see opportunities where others don’t, said Llopis, the son of two Cuban immigrants. As a child, Llopis was encouraged by his parents to “think like an immigrant,” he said.

A circular vision helps detect problems

Llopis refers to a “circular vision” that’s common among immigrants. It includes the ability to detect   problems before they arise, navigate a crisis and develop a strategy for change. Those characteristics also lead to success as an entrepreneur, he said. “Entrepreneurship is second nature to the immigrant,” he said.

Zibitsker said she learned to trust her own intuition more than anyone’s advice. “That’s what brought you in the business in the first place — your instinct,” Zibitsker said. “Trust your intuition and work with those you trust,” Zibitsker said. Zibitsker’s daughter Julia Lowder is her executive vice president.

Immigrant entrepreneurs often see opportunities that others miss because they have a different perspective, Llopis said.

“We believe that most people aren’t going to understand the way we think, act and innovate,” he said. “We don’t subject ourselves to a corporate environment. We just start things on our own.”

Employees also can adopt the survivor mentality by looking for new opportunities in their current situations and by trusting their gut instincts. “Corporations and school systems wire us to think a certain way,” Llopis said. “The truth is we’re learning this cookie cutter approach that doesn’t apply anymore.”

Instead, employees and business owners need to be open-minded and reinvent their business philosophies and processes to impact the outcome, Llopis said.

“If you don’t have leadership that understands reinvention and survival and renewal, you will become irrelevant,” he said.