Why the Children of Immigrants are Essential to Innovation

22 Jul Why the Children of Immigrants are Essential to Innovation

When I was growing up, there was no label for my cultural situation; I was just hyper-aware of being different from my friends. My dad had a funny Italian accent, and mom a Scottish lilt, and we were all making our way here in the U.S. They didn’t understand American teenage “nonsense,” or excess, or sleepovers (“Why can’t they sleep at their own house?”). And when relatives came to visit, they stayed with us for at least a few weeks.

Today I might be called a “third culture kid,” but I don’t really like its connotation. However, its underlying psychology is the closest thing I’ve found to explain why I never feel fully at home anywhere, and yet feel at home everywhere. After spending time in both my “mother countries” (Italy and Scotland), I feel as if I almost fit, but not all the way — like a puzzle piece with a missing corner that leaves a little gap. It’s the same with having 3 passports; lots of options, but where to stay the longest? And often, especially these days, America feels the most foreign of all.

In one respect, this feeling of not belonging might seem like a disadvantage. However, now that I’m in my 40s, hindsight shows me that my teenage distress and lack of understanding contributed, in the end, to my greatest strength: With the international work I’ve done throughout my career, I’ve found it quite easy to sail between cultures and make sense of it all. Foreign languages are easy for me to pick up, and I have an ear for accents. The unknown of a foreign culture doesn’t scare me — it intrigues me, and makes me want to understand how and why a people and culture became a certain way. How it all works. It’s why I’m good at problem-solving and creating companies, because I automatically go to the 40,000-foot view to see what’s working and what’s missing, to float above what I don’t understand and see the larger picture.

It’s also why I’m a bit of a global nomad, because I can be at home anywhere and nowhere; and it’s likely why New York City is the one place that feels most like home. I’ve lived in other cities and countries, but I always come back to the place that lit up my brain at 18. Everyone was here. Creating big things. We’re all here in a big hodgepodge of survival, of creation — the pursuit of something grand. And on any given day, one can hear a minimum of 3 different languages while walking down the block.

In fact, I’m certainthat mix of thinking from different parts of the world is one of the chief reasons why innovation is happening in the culturally-rich startup community here (and yes, in other cities). When I went to school at NYU Stern, we were thrown together in those dreaded group projects, and when you have to create and present an idea with classmates from China, Russia, India and the Hudson Valley, you find a way to make it work. You transcend language. You transcend culture.

That is the root of innovation. As a child of immigrants, it’s easier for me to think differently — to approach problems from several angles — because it’s been required of me throughout my entire life. I’ve always straddled three worlds, never quite fitting 100% into one of them. This trained me to, in essence, translate the world, to make things comprehensible. I was a champion speller as a child because I was my father’s living dictionary. I love the written word because it was our way to connect.

And in a time when immigration is such a hot-button issue, where we want to keep people out and argue if that’s good or bad, I’ll simply say this: Immigration is the root of innovation. So when you see an immigrant child struggling, don’t you dare be frustrated at their if they aren’t fully integrating. They never will — and this is a very good thing. Be patient, and be kind. They are facing a very unique, difficult challenge, and it will benefit them — and us — for a lifetime.

Photo credit: Ana Paula Hirama