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An American Story

An American Story

I hope everyone had a happy Fourth of July, whether it was a holiday for you or not. The United States’ birth as an independent nation was, among other things, an economic event that changed history far beyond our borders. We hope and believe it was for the better.

This week will be a shorter-than-usual letter. Between the holiday and a few other surprises that we’re preparing for readers (more on that soon), the next and final installment of the Train Wreck series just wasn’t ready for prime time. Next week, we will look at each part of the series and add up the total global debt. I can tell you, it’s a lot more than you can possibly imagine.

This week, in the spirit of July 4 and Independence Day, I’m going to share the inspirational story of a friend who “Came to America.” But it’s also a teaching moment. I think the story is timely as we reflect on what this country means, to both its residents and the broader world. I hope you enjoy it.

Coming to America

I have met some interesting neighbors in my high-rise apartment building (and indeed, as I have traveled the world, hearing many of your personal stories). One neighbor, just a few years younger than I am, has been extremely successful in business. The corporation of which he is now chairman has 20,000+ employees. We became friendly first in the gym and then through regular dinners together, as our wives get along very well. He is from India and I’ve been slowly teasing out his life story. Recently, I really began getting the good stuff. I’m not going to use his last name because he’s well-known in his industry, and I don’t have his permission. I do hope he writes a book about his experiences someday. They are hilarious, unbelievable, and inspiring. He also uses them to teach business principles to his own employees. I hope to help him find a ghostwriter because, as you’ll see, he deserves a great one.

“Prashant” first came to the US in 1976. At the time, the Indian rupee wasn’t readily exchangeable within India, so he arrived with only US$7. He came to Cincinnati to study computer systems. Funny enough, he chose that city because he had heard astronaut Neil Armstrong speak at a large gathering in Mumbai, and Armstrong was then a professor at the University of Cincinnati. He certainly didn’t know where Cincinnati was on the map.

In those pre-internet days, applying and getting accepted was a harrowing process. Getting a student visa was difficult, too, as you had to prove you could pay tuition and support yourself.

His family bought him an “American” suit, and donning his tie, he began his trip to Cincinnati, going through Heathrow and changing planes, staggered at the size of the London airport. When he finally landed, someone gave him enough change to call a friend in Cincinnati. His friend told him to take a bus downtown, but of course Prashant only had seven dollars. He finally got someone to take him to the downtown Greyhound station, where his friend met him. It was his first hitchhiking experience in America, but not his last.

Not ever having been on a plane before, he took none of the food from the stewardesses because he thought he would have to pay for it. He had been flying for 26 hours plus transit time and so when he got to the apartment, his friend offered him a meal that consisted of meat. He was so hungry that he ate meat for the first time in his life. Welcome to America!

A Stranger in a Stranger Land

Like other foreign students, Prashant took any job he could to be able to pay for his expenses. One spring day, walking through the student union, he saw a sign that read, “Are you a confident person? Are you a leader? Are you focused on your goals? Would you like to run your own business some day? Are you an entrepreneur?”

Prashant wasn’t sure if he was any of those things, but he knew that he desperately needed money for the summer. The sign was recruiting door-to-door salesman to sell books in rural areas. You had to pay $100 to go through their one-week training program and then have enough money left to get to where you were going. He had $150, which he spent on the training and traveling to the very deep South, namely southern Alabama and Mississippi.

Being in the South for the first time, my friend learned of white and colored water fountains. (Yes, they still existed in some places into the 1970s). I grew up seeing those when we went to Fort Worth to buy school clothes in the late 50s. I recall at about age 10 that I wanted to try the colored water because it sounded fun. My mother stopped me and very uncomfortably had to tell me about what it really meant. To this day, I don’t understand the thinking behind that. Every summer, we would go to her parents’ home in Aberdeen, Mississippi where I was with black children for the first time. It was my first exposure to racism, as the small West Texas town I grew up in had no black people. But back to the story…

Prashant traveled with two other young men, one of whom had a car. They would go to a town, find an apartment they could rent, and then divide the city map, knocking on every door in town, with the one who had the car driving to even smaller towns further out. To put this in context, this was the Alabama where George Wallace was governor. The freedom riders were still in force. Prashant went with enthusiasm but little understanding of the culture.

In Meridian, Mississippi, they saw only two three-bedroom apartments listed in the local newspaper. They went to one and the wife agreed to rent to these three nice boys, but she said her totally-blind husband would have to make the final decision. She told my friend not to say anything because they had never allowed a “colored” person into their home.

When they were introduced, the blind husband finally asked to hear the third boy. His thick Indian accent gave him away, and the husband asked if he was colored? Prashant answered truthfully, “Yes, I am colored.” After more questions, the blind man said, “Okay, since my wife said you could come, you can stay.” When they left a month later, that man hugged Prashant and said thank you for teaching him to look beyond what he couldn’t even see.

In those years, the company Prashant worked for would literally have them up and knocking on doors at 7 AM. I quizzed him on that: Did you really knock on her door at 7 AM? Did people tell you that might not be welcome? Not knowing it might be a problem, he did it anyway. Sometimes guns greeted his knock, but he was also invited into the homes of KKK members, who often ended up buying books. He didn’t know anything about the KKK or that he should be scared. Ignorance was bliss.

Prashant would sell cookbooks and Bibles till 9:00 p.m. at night, go back to the apartment, wash his clothes and sleep to the next morning, six days a week. On Sunday during the day, the boys drove three hours to training sessions. He was told to not take time off for meals, but rather figure out a way to ask whoever’s door he knocked on to share a meal. He rarely bought a meal, or needed to, as many hospitality-minded Southerners invited him to eat with them.

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Later, he was often told that he was the first “colored” person that had ever been in their homes. In one large mansion, the white-haired patrician and several aggressive dogs greeted him suspiciously. After 90 minutes, the patriarch bought seven sets of books for his grandkids. At one point, Prashant met Wilt Chamberlain. He knocked on every door, rich or poor, regarding everybody he met as a potential buyer.

One family bought books on the condition he would go to church with them. That sounded like a good deal to him because it meant he got to eat lunch on Sunday afternoon. It turns out this large Baptist church had a television show. The pastor, playing to the TV audience, introduced this young man as someone who had come all the way from Bombay (now called Mumbai) just to attend their service. He asked Prashant, “What is your biggest desire in coming to our church?” Prashant, thinking quickly on his feet, said, “I want to meet every member of this church.” He did it, too, and of course sold many books.

Prashant made $7,000 in his first summer selling books. To put that in perspective, his first engineering job paid $16,000 a year. Think about this: A young man from India, well-educated in English but with a thick accent, in the deep, deep South, back when their accents were difficult to understand, too. Talk about a stranger in a strange land.

After graduation, his career took off quickly. He helped build a company to 20,000+ employees. I suspect his net worth must be in the hundreds of millions, but he and his wife are still the humblest couple in the building.

Later, Prashant went to a Harvard executive leadership training course, and they asked at the end of the course how he would rank it against similar experiences he had. He said it was the second best. What was the best, he was asked? “Selling books door-to-door in southern Mississippi and Alabama. There is no better training ground.”

I said earlier Prashant arrived with only $7, but he had more: A special check from his father that would have taken 45 days to clear. He never cashed that check. When his parents came over to visit their son, the father was aghast at what Prashant had done to not take any money from the family. He then took his parents back to Meridian, Mississippi to meet the couple where he had first stayed. They greeted him and his parents with open arms and hugs and tears. I am sure his father was very proud of him.

“Only in America. I love this country. Anybody can do anything if they have the drive and hard work and determination.” Prashant ended up becoming a great business leader, the creator of tens of thousands of jobs, and an inspiration to all who work for him.

I feel a connection to Prashant because I sold Christmas cards and newspapers door-to-door, as young as 10 years old. I started doing one job after another. My father was an alcoholic in those years, and not in a very good place in his life, and my mother had to create her own business. We didn’t have a lot of money. After the fifth grade, I bought all my clothes and everything besides food and a roof over my head. We were that poor. However, we didn’t feel poor. That’s just what you had to do. With a little luck and persistent drive, life has turned out to be very good to me. I, too, love America. But as my Train Wreck series illustrates, I’m not comfortable with the direction we are going.

We need more immigrants like Prashant, who come here with literally nothing and then create thousands of jobs in the heartland, not just Silicon Valley. Our immigration policy is a mess and needs to be reformed. But we need more like Prashant. They along with their children and the descendants of immigrants from the past, which we (99%+) all are, will create our future together.

The problem is we don’t know who the Prashant’s or Sergey Brin’s or the other thousands of successful immigrants will be before they get here. We need a process that will bring young, motivated, educated immigrants who simply want to work and build their own dream, whether it’s a small business or one that ends up becoming a great enterprise. And of course, a process to bring them legally. The immigrant storied names from Silicon Valley all came here legally.

Prashant is now regularly asked to lecture on business and personal development. I have read some of his essays. What struck me was a couple of lines when he talked about what he learned from his early days:

Risk-taking is paramount. I took a risk when I decided to go to the U.S. and chart unknown shores alone and faraway home and family. It was a risk that I gained from.

Curiosity leads to learning. As you expose yourselves to newer and richer experiences; you learn different things—some good, some bad—but all important to the journey of life. It is what you learn is all that matters.

Life teaches you many things. Experiencing different situations and people prepares you for future experiences. Today, when our lives are surrounded by so much negativity, I reflect on those days. There was so much positivity – from strangers, acquaintances and friends – all of who were simply doing their job and being humane. Many of them like N.S. and others did so much to make us comfortable in a total foreign land, which I today proudly call ‘home’.

Prashant feels that corporations should regard new employees as “immigrants” to a new culture, figuring out how to welcome them, train them, and bring them into the family. Would that we do more of that…

Any serious economist worth his salt believes we should allow more immigration, not less. Now they may quibble with each other over what type of immigrants, but more is generally considered good. It’s a simple equation: GDP growth is equal to the growth in productivity times the growth in working population. If you want your GDP to grow (something even Paul Krugman and I can agree on), you need more workers. And America has had a growing population largely because of immigration for 350 years.

I find it a great irony that every generation of immigrants eventually feels that the newer immigrants are somehow taking something from them or not up to their standards. No one wanted my Irish forebears. We did terrible, almost evil, things to keep the Chinese out in the 1800s. We mocked the Scandinavians and their accents… and the Eastern Europeans, and the Italians, etc. Much of Georgia was an English penal colony, who eventually migrated throughout the South.

Students of history know that this is not the first time, nor will it be the last, when immigration is a divisive issue. I find it shameful that our Congress and president cannot agree on a very straightforward immigration bill, letting more join us in pursuing the American dream. That is what will make America great again.

Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, Maine, and Beaver Creek

I have several visitors coming over the next nine days, then I fly to meet a special new acquaintance in Los Angeles for a day. I’ll come back, write my letter, and then Shane and I go to visit some friends in Puerto Rico. Then of course, the annual Maine economic/fishing conference and a few weeks later, a board meeting for Ashford, Inc., at the Beaver Creek Park Hyatt which the company owns. If you are in Puerto Rico or Beaver Creek, drop me a line and maybe we can get together. And you can tell me your story.

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And with that, I will hit the send button. You have a great day and if you get the chance, welcome an immigrant to America. Let them tell you their story. Then tell me we don’t need more of them…

Have a great week!

Your constantly thinking about the future analyst,

John Mauldin Thoughts from the Frontline
John Mauldin

P.S. If you like my letters, you'll love reading Over My Shoulder with serious economic analysis from my global network, at a surprisingly affordable price. Click here to learn more.

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Robert Watkins
July 9, 2018, 9:13 a.m.

I think we can all agree that no one is against intelligent but legal immigrants! All who fit that categorycontinue to be welcome in America. However, people like your cleaning lady, who have come here illegally,  are costing Americans jobs. We know that 80% of illegals cost taxpayers much more in infrastructure costs and welfare than they produce in taxes each year (and yes illegal kids do get aid / welfare!) With our debt, we can ill afford those people here in America! Do it right or not at all!
July 8, 2018, 1:34 p.m.

Doesn’t India need people like Prashant, too? The marginal value that he could have added to India is almost certainly more than he could have contributed to an already well-functioning economy like the U.S. It’s terribly cruel (as well as economically inefficient in a global sense) for poor countries to pay to raise up young people, only to see them snatched away by the rich countries just when they’re about to become productive.

John Crossman 00462661
July 8, 2018, 12:57 p.m.

A wonderful story and I agree with you.
My granddad was born in Australia. His father
was a pick pocket in Dublin who was shipped to
Australia as a convict. Granddad came to America
became a doctor and served in the Army in the
Spanish - American War and the First World war.
He received a Silver Star. He was a risk taker
and only in America could this poor Irish kid
make such a success.
John Crossman

Stuart Harnden
July 7, 2018, 3:22 p.m.


Your story of Prashant is one that we should be reading about every day if only there were more Prashants coming to this country with a strong desire to work and assimilate into our society.  His story reads like my grandfather’s from Sweden, who came in the early 1900’s to New York City at 17 in charge of 2 other siblings and none could even speak English.  They too also became successful American citizens.  Unfortunately, that was a by-gone era.  With today’s lavish benefits heaped upon arrivals, legal or illegal, any thoughts they might have do what Prashant or my grandfather had to do, are quickly dispelled.  They soon learn they don’t have to, all they need to learn is who to vote for, the rest will be taken care of.  We reap what we sow, we ask nothing, we get nothing.

Stuart B. Harnden
Bedford, NH

Tom Arnold
July 7, 2018, 1:51 p.m.

Thanks for taking the time to write this story. It is, of course, inspiring,
not so much for the US, but for the determination that this young man had to
succeed and become an independent person.

Not every immigrant may feel the same, but the ones I have met share
his sense of commitment and work ethic. We should not be afraid of
having more of them join us.they make us stronger!!

John Thich
July 7, 2018, 12:13 p.m.

Great story!  Thanks for sharing this.  I came to the US in 1964 at the age of 15.  A US military family I had met in Vietnam helped me get across the Canada-US border and put me up until I finished high school.  From there it was on to a PhD in Chemistry and a post doc at the California Institute of Technology.  Along the way, I worked nights and weekends to put myself through college and even sold Good Humor ice cream out of a truck for a couple of summers.  I am forever grateful to the many who lent a helping hand to me during difficult times.  Temple U offered me a tuition free scholarship when I most needed it.  I have worked all my life in corporate America and have been sent to assignments all over the world.  My life would not have been the same without the opportunities afforded to me by this great country.  I am a proud US citizen who supports legal immigration to this country regardless of race or religious beliefs if any.  I agree with your statement about the current state of affairs with our gridlocked congress and the president’s immigration stance.  However, I am personally ashamed as a US citizen at what this country has come to represent to all those seeking refuge and the opportunity to pursue their own happiness.  Hopefully it changes.

Liz deForest
July 7, 2018, 10:42 a.m.

These issues are extremely complex.  I work with a refugee family from the Congo.  They were in the refugee camp for 20 years after the 1996 civil war.  They are more educated than the average Congolese as there is no public education there.The parents are literate in 2 languages and one speaks 4 and the other 3.  Meanwhile other refugees come illiterate in all languages and speaking one.  Sadly we have a one size fits all system and they put all these people in the same English classes.  This is how some wind up homeless on the street and others thriving.  I hear many stories from within the community.  Once I was out shopping with the mom to get Congolese food as they needed help with the hour long drive and did not have a car yet.  The woman serving us ripped into her for being off food stamps already,  She spoke first in Swahili to the mom, then in English to me explaining she had been here 10 years and is still in section 8 housing and on medicaid.  She told her to have her husband quit his job to make less money so they could get more stuff, that it would be better for the family in the long run.  Instead they are not on housing assistance, instead they are living within their means and we have helped them to live in a more modest home in a good school district.  I told them in 20 years they will care more about the schools than they will how big their home was.  More recently they were victims of a medical collections scam.  The hospital where the dad was treated confirmed the charges.  I asked my lawyer to help pro bono and they dug deep to find it was a scam.  The paperwork fooled another volunteer who is an economics professor.  The volunteer program covers not more than 10% of refugees at most here and the rest are beyond vulnerable.  If people don’t have friends in the community there is no one to help them in these circumstances.  Right now, more than anything, refugees need our time and service more than they need money so we can help them understand our systems and culture.
I desperately want immigration reform, not to keep people out, but to help them succeed when they are here.  To keep them out of dependence cycles.  To help them become educated.  To help them integrate. 
My friend volunteers with a refugee family where the dad was a physics professor.  They are thriving and rising.  They are the poster children like your Indian friend.  What we are not looking at is the ones that do not grow up with these habits, attitudes and beliefs.  They come here set up for failure.  This needs to stop.

Willis Smith
July 7, 2018, 8:21 a.m.

There are special qualities about someone who leaves all that is familiar to them and goes to a place where they hope to better themselves.  I am convinced that some of those qualities are built into the DNA and can be transmitted to some of their offspring.  Health, energy-level, intelligence, independence, creativity, risk-taking, and persistence are some of the qualities that these people tend to have.  These qualities have been differentiating people for eons.  Obviously, the friend of John has many of these qualities.  The Latin American people who travel across our border after traveling hundreds of miles through some dangerous areas also have many of these qualities.  Anyone who has hired them to do work knows that they are usually a cut above many of our U.S. citizens.  However, measuring these qualities apriori in prospective immigrants is not feasible. With climate change and global warming, it is likely that hundreds of millions, if not a billion or two, of people will be unable to continue living where they are.  Drought has been a major contributor to people in Africa and the Middle East leaving for Europe.  Legislating who gets into our country (among those that want to come) will be a difficult task.
July 7, 2018, 7:55 a.m.

Hi John –
On the cusp of turning 76, I am overdue to write my own story about experiences and lessons learned.
Turns out that one of my greatest pleasures is ghostwriting for (small) business onwers whose first language is NOT English.
Doing so pro bono came naturally … with years of having advised small businesses – my pay-it-back vehicle.
Recently, however, I accepted a nice consulting position to rewrite an eco-company’s marketing materials and website info to help them achieve greater clarity and call to action.  That led to reinventing their business model … something which I already performed for two international artist friends.
Ironically, the motivation and source of my driven desire to improve my writing is that my freshman English professor at Dartmouth College decided that I didn’t deserve to pass his course.
My suspicion is that he made up his mind day one when I responded to his statement, “Each of you will write a theme a week for this class.” with this question, “What is a theme?”
Being a boy from a small midwestern town did not prepare me to compete with my prep school classmates.
And so it goes.
But here is what I’d like you to pass on to Prashant:
I’d be very interested in co-ghostwriting his story with one of my boyhood buddies, coincidentally an author/retired Cornell professor of teaching students how to write books.  Of course, he has the time to pursue such a calling.
I’ll be interested to learn if this “Comments” page is the right path to make connections.
B.J. Batchelder, former CEO, now sculptor, artist, furniture design/builder, ghostwriter

James Corbett
July 7, 2018, 7:28 a.m.

“I hope everyone had a happy Fourth of July. . .” Fourth of July is the date, Independence Day is the proper name for the holiday. :-)

“I find it a great irony that every generation of immigrants eventually feels that the newer immigrants are somehow taking something from them or not up to their standards.” The immigrants of old left the old country and often saw or communicated with their relatives no more after they left. No one put everything in their language to accommodate them in America; they learned English as a necessity. But they were also proud to become American citizens. Lastly, there wasn’t a welfare state back then to sap entrepreneurial spirit.

Immigration should be a legal process. Everyone here illegally should be shown back where they came from. Otherwise, you make those who have properly applied look like fools and you encourage even more illegal immigration. Either we are a nation of law or we are not. Those countries that don’t control their borders eventually cease to be nations. I have nothing against immigration, but it should all be legal.

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