Jordi Muñoz with one of his drones. (Courtesy 3D Robotics)

Jordi Muñoz with one of his drones. (Courtesy 3D Robotics)

10 immigrant entrepreneurs in the US

2013-04_2256330_NBCLatino-ImmigrationNation_640x90_v1According to a new report, the Kaufman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity released by the Kaufman Foundation, immigrants were twice as likely to start businesses as native-born Americans in 2012. The number of new Latino entrepreneurs has also nearly doubled, from 10.5 percent to 19.5 percent since 1996. Here is just a sampling of some immigrant pioneers in various fields:

1. In 2012, Sofia Vergara became the highest-paid female actress on television at $19 million. But few may know that besides being a two-time Emmy-nominated actress, the immigrant from Colombia is also a very successful entrepreneur. She is the co-founder of a 16-year-old talent management company, Latin We, which made an estimated $27 million two years ago. She has a clothes line with Kmart, and just last month, she also launched The Nuevo World social network, which connects Spanish-speaking celebrities with their fans on social media. So far there are only seven celebrities hosting pages on the site, sharing personal blogs, videos and photos, but Vergara herself is enjoying the personal connection with her fans.

“I love keeping my fans up to date with everything I’m doing on Twitter,” Vergara, who has more than 4 million followers on Twitter, told Forbes. “I’ve been desperate for a social way get to know them better and to share with them in more detail what I’m interested in, and what I think they would be interested in – and to hear what they think!”

2. Cesar Millan, self-taught dog expert originally from Mexico, became a household name with his television series, “Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan,” which was broadcast in more than 80 countries worldwide. Millan immigrated to the U.S. at 21 to train dogs. “I didn’t know I had something to offer…where I grew up, you grew up thinking that Americans knew everything,” he told NBC Latino. He says he jumped the border and was homeless for two months. That’s when he realized Americans were not connected to their dogs. He now has a new series, Leader of the Pack on Nat Geo Wild, and a new book, the “Short Guide to a Happy Dog.”

3. Beto Perez is the Chief Creative Officer and co-creator of Zumba back in the 1990s, and today has one the largest fitness empires in the world. When he was an aerobics instructor in his native Colombia, he forgot his usual exercise tapes, so he improvised with some salsa and merengue music he was carrying in his bag. And that’s how the exercise phenomenon was born, which incorporates hip-hop, soca, samba, salsa, merengue, mambo, martial arts, and some Bollywood and belly dance moves into a fitness routine. He moved to Miami, not knowing a word of English, and today Zumba Fitness, an organization that sells Zumba videos and products, has approximately 12 million followers taking weekly classes in at least 125 countries.

“Over the years, fitness became too complicated and difficult,” Perez told Reuters. “They forgot about normal people — mothers, grandmothers and the housewives who want to stay in shape and have some fun. That’s the essence of Zumba.”

4. Maria De Lourdes Sobrino is the woman behind the multi-award-winning, 31-year-old brand brand Lulu’s Desserts, which manufactures more than 45 ready-to-eat Mexican-inspired desserts, including rice pudding, gelatin and flan. It all started because she missed the ready-to-eat gelatin snack from her native Mexico. So in 1982, she founded her company, based on her mother’s recipe. Today, she says she has about 30 employees and sells her products in Walmart and grocery stores throughout California and Texas. She’s in the process of expanding her market to include the East Coast, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.

“I am proud to continue our service to our consumers — especially the Hispanic market,” says Sobrino, who was 29 when she started her business. “The contribution of Latinas is very important to the economy of our country. I wrote  “Thriving Latina Entrepreneurs in America” because a lot of people don’t understand we bring talent and ideas. We take a lot of risk. I brought capital from Mexico from selling property and savings.”

5. Marcelo Claure is the founder of Brightstar, a specialized wireless distributor and a leading global services company serving mobile device manufacturers, wireless operators and retailers. It is the largest Hispanic-owned business in the U.S., with a presence in approximately 40 countries, and was ranked #58 on Forbes 2012 List of America’s Largest Private Companies. Claure was born in Guatemala, moved to Morocco as an infant and spent his early youth in the Dominican Republic and his high school years in Bolivia. According to The Miami Herald, while passing through Boston in 1995, Claure went into a cellphone store to buy a phone, and by the time he walked out, he owned the store.

“The owner hated owning a retail store, was looking to get out, and said to me, ‘If I could find someone who wanted this store, I’d hand them the keys right now for nothing,'” Claure told The Miami Herald. “I told him I’d take it, and if the store made money, he’d get 49 percent of the profit.”

Within two years, Claure owned 150 stores in the Northeast and had set up a network of drivers who carried phones in their car trunks and delivered them to customers to make the purchase hassle-free. In 1997, he moved to Miami to launch Brightstar.

6. Jordi Muñoz is a 26-year-old immigrant from Tijuana who never finished his degree at the University of Mexico, but is now the president of a drone-making company called 3D Robotics Inc. He says he loved building things ever since he was a boy, and he learned to program micro-controllers by ripping off the sensors from his Wii and then programming the code to work with the sensors to make his toy helicopter fly. Then, he discovered a blog called DIY Drones, founded by former editor-in-chief of Wired, Chris Anderson, where he started posting his ideas in a forum on the blog. Anderson believed in his idea, loaned him $500, and soon after, 3D Robotics became a million-dollar company selling up to 80 to 200 packages a day at $500 to $2,000 each. Anderson even left his job to run the company with Muñoz.

““It’s amazing what you can do with $500,” says Muñoz who after three years, has approximately 70 employees in San Diego, Tijuana, and San Francisco. “The support here is incredible. In Mexico, nobody would send me a check like that. There are good people here who trust. You can start a business in your garage, a big corporation like Apple. You can really do it…The U.S. has a flexible mentality…There is no way you cannot be successful in the U.S. You only need to work hard.”

7. Carmen Castillo came to the U.S. from her native Spain with a student visa, and 20 years later she is the founder and owner of SDI International Corp. — a global technology services corporation which serves many Fortune 500 companies. Castillo wanted to own her own business ever since she was 6 years old and believes her success comes from her proactiveness. “We really have to figure out what’s going to be next,” she says in her bio. “The difference between us and most of our competitors is that we are truly global suppliers. You have to be a true global player to be able to hold and sustain a contract with a Fortune 100 company.”

8. Dr. Rafael Yuste immigrated to New York City from Madrid, Spain, 26 years ago, with two suitcases, a medical degree, and not knowing a single person. Today, the neuroscientist is not only a professor at Columbia University, where he leads a laboratory, he is also one of the six researchers to help launch the new decade-long scientific effort to examine the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity — a multi-billion-dollar project the Obama administration announced earlier this month.

“For me, one of the best things in my life was to come here,” says Dr. Yuste about the opportunity he’s had to develop his career as an American citizen. “I think the Brain Activity Map has been the demonstration that the U.S. is a beautiful country, because an idea that came out of a brainstorming session, in a year, makes it all the way to the State of the Union address of the president…it goes all the way up to transform the country — in this case, in science.”

9. Maria Contreras-Sweet, founder of PROAMÉRICA Bank in Los Angeles, came to the U.S. from Mexico with her mother and siblings at the young age of 5. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, while she was still a high school student and working in a jewelry store, she was approached to work for the speaker of the California Assembly. That opportunity broadened her horizons, and after getting her degree in political science, she opened the Contreras-Sweet Company, an international management consulting firm for Disney, Coca Cola, and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, before she founded PROAMÉRICA Bank, a 7-year-old financial services provider for Latino entrepreneurs.

10. Adriana Ocampo was born in Colombia and raised in Argentina. She moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was a teenager, and she says the first words out of her mouth (in her native Spanish) when she got off the plane was, “Where’s NASA?” Today, she lives in Washington, D.C., where she is the Director of the New Frontiers Program at NASA, managing three new missions, including one exploring the planet Venus.

“My parents always taught us to never give up, and your dreams will come true,” says Ocampo about what led to her success. “And coming to this country — the country of dream makers.”

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