| photography by Alex Lepe | Leaving everything behind and immigrating to another country can be likened to an act of entrepreneurship. Both require the same kind of courage and tenacity to walk away or escape what you have known to take a risk and begin again. Learning a new language, adapting to a different culture or trying to fit into a community that doesn’t always embrace newcomers didn’t deter these seven wonders from around the world. Armed with dedication and given opportunity, their achievements represent a microcosm of immigrant entrepreneurship. They have positively transformed the local landscape and serve as an inspiration to others.
Jean-Claude Mauridi – Refugee Services of Texas Case Worker
Country of Origin: Democratic
Republic of Congo
Born in Uvira, a township in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Claude Mauridi lived with his mother and five siblings. Mauridi experienced an environment filled with violence and rebellion due to political disputes. “I had a very difficult childhood. My father died when I was 7. It was very difficult for my mom to raise six of us, feeding and paying our school fees. Two of my sisters were forced to drop out of school to help mom working in a small family farm. At young age, I had to work during vacation to raise money for me to buy uniform when school start. I worked so hard in school to pass and make my hard-working mother happy,” Mauridi says.
At the age of 16, conditions worsened with crimes of mass killings, rape and torture running rampant. Rebel armies were kidnapping boys and men, forcing them to join or be killed. Despite Mauridi’s mother’s attempts to get him out of the country, he escaped alone with nothing and on foot to Tanzania.
Along with 200,000 other refugees, Mauridi lived at the Nyarugusu refugee camp in a tent for two years until the violence subsided and he could return home. Almost immediately he was kidnapped by rebels and refused to join. A friend helped him escape before being executed, and he returned to Tanzania but didn’t want to go back to that refugee camp where he had spent two years previously.
Deciding to risk living undocumented in Kigoma, Tanzania, Mauridi spent time in jail and worked side jobs installing computers until he could save enough to buy a ticket for a ship that would transport him to Lake Tanganyika. Across the lake was Zambia, where conditions for refugees were better. He was able to live in a house, learn English, complete high school and receive a sponsorship to attend college.
Mauridi immersed himself in his studies, but due to severe food insecurity and a deeply rooted distrust of foreigners, locals began committing violent acts toward refugees, including Mauridi. He applied for protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but it took five years for his case to be approved so he could be referred for resettlement.
In 2009 at the age of 30, Mauridi arrived in Fort Worth. Refugee Services of Texas (RST) greeted him and helped him get settled into his new home. Mauridi says, “The overwhelming difference [between the Congo and the United States] is respect of human right. In my country, Congo, and Zimbabwe, where I lived as a refugee, human rights are violated every second. There’s no freedom of expression, no freedom to choose who you want to be. The government that has the mandate to protect its population is the same government killing and infringing on their birthright.”
Mauridi is now married with two beautiful children and holds a bachelor’s and now three master’s degrees. He is an official representative and advocate for Texas for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) Refugee Academy, a Refugee Congress Delegate for UNHCR, and is active in a local refugee ministry that he helped establish at Christ Chapel Bible Church. He is a highly valued employee at RST, a leader among his community and a voice for refugees seeking hope and opportunity.
“I chose to be a caseworker, particularly working with refugees. Being a refugee myself, I felt like I understand refugees very well, their physical and psychological needs, so I felt the need and the passion to work with refugee agency and make a difference in the life of a hard-working, but vulnerable population,” Mauridi says.
“This a country of many opportunities, and education is the key to success. So don’t think twice, don’t waste time. Go to college and get as many degrees as you can. Climb as high as you can, and make the sky your limit.”
Ramiro “Milo” Ramirez – Owner, Salsa Limón
Country of Origin: Mexico
Ramiro “Milo” Ramirez came to North Texas at the age of 21 and attained a degree in Business and Art from Southern Methodist University. Since then he has proved to be an innovative and successful entrepreneur who has grown his authentic Mexico City-style street food concept, Salsa Limón, into a rolling empire of multiple food trucks, three storefront locations in Fort Worth and six new stores to open by end of 2017.
“During the great recession, our mostly Hispanic customer base from La Gran Plaza was seriously affected. Treats like salsita (mix of chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro) were sacrificed during hard times. With our cash flow dwindling, we had to take our brand outside the mall. Our solution was a food truck parked on Berry Street in the middle of the TCU bar scene. It was open all the time and introduced awesome Mexican street food to the general market,” Ramirez says.
Boasting a mantel full of awards and walls of positive press coverage, Ramirez was named Hispanic Businessman of the Year in 2014 by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Salsa Limón was named by USA Today as one of the 10 best places in the U.S. to get a burrito and named in “120 Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die” by Texas Monthly. Other than tapping into a college community that spread the “taco gospel” around town, Salsa Limón’s success can be attributed to its quality ingredients. “For some reason, food back home has a more organic quality. Oranges aren’t all beautiful, but they are super juicy. Cheeses have bolder and creamier saltiness…Food felt more free back in Mexico than it does here. In my case, it was very much backyard to table,” Ramirez says.
Working closely with family isn’t always easy, Ramirez admits. Although he says he owes a large part of his success to his mom and pop, as well as his sister, Rosalia.
Other concepts partially created by Ramirez include La Perla and Gorgonzilla food truck. So what else does the future hold for Ramirez? “[I want] a better system for our operation and better procurement and technology at our service. We will refine our quality and engage our customer at a personal level more,” Ramirez says. He’s also eager to grow Gorgonzilla with his partners and design a modular small-footprint living space that can travel. “Oh…and I want to learn how to sail,” Ramirez says.
George Popstefanov – Founder and President, PMG Digital Advertising
Country of Origin: Macedonia
Transferring to Texas Christian University (TCU) from another university at the age of 19, George Popstefanov is originally from Macedonia. At TCU he joined the E-Commerce program at the Neeley School of Business and was fascinated by the internet and the opportunities it could bring. Popstefanov says, “Right after graduation, I joined a small and growing digital advertising agency and was instantly hooked. Digital advertising allows me to combine my technical background with a passion for marketing to solve very interesting challenges/opportunities for some of the top Fortune 1000 companies.”
Today Popstefanov runs his company, PMG, a full-service digital agency that does everything from social media to search engine optimization. Currently operating with 92 full-time employees, PMG projects $20 million in revenue for the year. Popstefanov doesn’t believe there is such a thing as overnight success. “There has been hard work, partnership and collaboration by a lot of people. This includes my amazing clients, the entire PMG team, my work and personal mentors, and, of course, my very supportive family, especially my wife, Melissa. From invaluable advice to unending patience to being a source of great ideas, I rely heavily on my network for support and motivation.”
He adds that sometimes things are meant to happen over a period of time versus right away. Popstefanov encourages young entrepreneurs to not become discouraged when found in a difficult situation, but keep finding ways to move forward.
Popstefanov now considers North Texas his home, and one of his biggest goals is to continue to impact community in a positive way. He does this though providing opportunity to others less fortunate and acting as an ambassador for living and working in Fort Worth. “Outside of that, my time is consumed with being a great dad to my two boys, Stefan and Georgie,” Popstefanov says.
Neena Bhagat, M.D.
Country of Origin: India
Dr. Neena Bhagat was born in India, where she received her schooling, and moved to North Texas in 2006. Her residency and fellowship were attained in Brooklyn, New York, prior to that, and she has been practicing at Tarrant Nephrology Associates since 2010.
“We were middle class. My grandfather only finished 10th grade, and my mother couldn’t finish her education either. Everything I am today is because of my mom,” Bhagat says. “And secondly because of the support of my husband.”
Education is everything to her. “People can take almost anything from you, but that’s one thing nobody can take away from you.”
Her experience in New York was very different from her experience in North Texas. “I love Texas. The core values here are like back home.” In India, Bhagat says they are very family-oriented. “You extend a hand to your neighbor.” In the United States, she says that everyone is much more private.
“In the 16 years I’ve been here, I’ve never experienced any racism. I’ve always been treated with respect. My kids say that this is their country. We go back to India at least once a year, and they are happy to visit family. They enjoy India but are eager to come back to the U.S.”
Her greatest achievement is balancing her work and family life. Happily married with a 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, Bhagat had a traditional arranged marriage. “My husband and I met for an hour and a half and said yes.”
Bhagat chose the field of medicine for two reasons. Her mother once rented a house to a doctor, and she was fascinated with him. “My mother told herself that she would make sure one of her daughters was a doctor.” The other reason Bhagat gave for her interest in medicine was that she believes, “It’s magic to be able to heal.”
Wen-Jo “Walter” Chiang – Founder CP&Y Inc. and Adjunct
Country of Origin: China
Born in war times in China, Wen-Jo “Walter” Chiang was a refugee child who first relocated to Hong Kong in 1951 and then to Taiwan after that. “I had a very difficult time during my childhood life in Asia. My parents were moving us constantly (five times in 10 years), trying to get away from the Japanese war and China interior conflict wars. My family lived in Chongqing, Shanghai, Macao, Hong Kong and finally in Taiwan,” Chiang says.
He arrived in North Texas when he was 27 years old and describes the area as “a fast-growing and prosperous area in the United States.”
Starting as an engineering research assistant, he received his master’s degree in environmental engineering in 1970. In 1975 Chiang began serving as an adjunct faculty member of the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he still teaches water and wastewater treatment design and industrial wastewater treatment. After working as project manager for Dow Chemicals (formerly Hydroscience, Inc.), he started his own firm, Chiang and Associates, Inc., in Arlington in 1980. Today his firm is known as CP&Y and has offices in McKinney, Fort Worth, Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Oklahoma City and Phoenix.
He has been involved with projects throughout Texas, other parts of the U.S., and in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Puerto Rico and Mexico. Chiang is a member of American Water Works Association, Water Environment Federation, and is the chair of Municipal Wastewater Treatment for the Water Environment Association of Texas. In addition, he has also conducted lectures and authored/coauthored numerous technical papers and books in the Water, Wastewater, and Solid Waste areas.
Chiang travels to Asia at least once a year. He goes back to visit with relatives and friends as well as consult on engineering projects.
To what does Chiang attribute his success? “It’s very important to learn the knowledge, establish networking and make lifelong friends,” Chiang says. To motivate young minds, he encourages students to “work hard, engage in the community, have confidence and faith in your life.”
Joyce Brown – Founder of East Fort Worth Montessori School/Owner of Library Café
Country of Origin: Sierra Leone
Joyce Brown has ventured all around the world. After a childhood in Sierra Leone, Brown studied in Italy and Switzerland and then globetrotted extensively before making her way to the States. Moving from Washington, D.C. to Fort Worth, Brown moved to North Texas in her early 30s when her husband transferred jobs.
Brown describes her childhood as a happy one. Her mother was an educator, and her father worked for the government. It was her parents that instilled in her an unyielding drive and dedication, as well as the positive influence of her teachers.
One of the biggest differences Brown sees between the country in which she was born and where she lives today is the number of choices available. “In the U.S., you have so many opportunities.”
“I’m very grateful that my formative years were in Sierra Leone. There you are not just a child of your parents, you are a child of the community. I truly believe it takes a village to raise a child. We were a middle-class family, and my parents taught me religious tolerance and to never judge a person based on financial status. I was told that people are people, and you respect them for who they are,” Brown says.
Attracted to the diverse community in East Fort Worth, Brown compared it to the neighborhood where she lived on Capitol Hill. In Washington, D.C., Brown’s son had attended a Montessori school. When she began her search for a local school, she couldn’t find one with any diversity. It was at that time that she realized she wanted to open a Montessori academy in East Fort Worth. “We began 21 years ago with just six students in a Presbyterian church on Meadowbrook. Today we have two campuses with 514 students,” Brown says.
The East Fort Worth Montessori Academy focuses on meeting the needs of the whole child. Under Brown’s leadership, students are ensured nutritious meals and pushed to develop a love for learning. “Not only do these children need to know how to find the knowledge, but also how to apply that information to solve the world’s problems…I keep going back to the Nelson Mandela quote, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’ ”
In addition to classroom learning, the students have access to “outdoor learning,” where they tend to a garden and help take care of chickens and goats. A peace labyrinth has been built for meditation, and a wheelchair-accessible flower garden is onsite to share with visiting senior citizens. Parents are always welcome and have access to ESL classes if needed. “This is not our school; it belongs to the community.”
In addition to operating the school, Brown also opened The Library Café in July. It serves as a prep kitchen for the Montessori school and offers the public a healthy dining option in an area inundated with mainly fast food restaurants. “Like the school, the Café belongs to the community. We host local art exhibitions, open mic poetry slams, jazz and piano music, and author book signings. A portion of the money goes to the child nutrition program at East Fort Worth Montessori Academy and a Montessori school in Sierra Leone.”
The No. 1 thing Brown wants to instill in her students is that the sky is the limit. “Children are a product of their own expectations. You can be whatever you choose…a chef, carpenter or street sweeper…but you must do your very best.”
Dr. Nowell Donovan – Provost
and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, TCU
Country of Origin: Scotland
When Nowell Donovan was 11 years old, his father told him that he was taking him out for the day. Not owning a car, they took the bus to Dunnottar Castle, which is dramatically perched on nearly 200-foot-high cliffs overlooking the North Sea.
“It was a wild stormy day that imprinted on my imagination. What I remember is that I was just as fascinated by the rocks the castle sat atop as I was the castle itself,” Donovan recalls. The highly durable, striking red conglomerate rock he is referring to was forced to the surface 440 million years ago during the Silurian period.
“On the way home, I asked my father, ‘What do they call people who study rocks?’ He said they were called geologists. I said that’s what I want to do when I grow up,” Donovan says. “That Christmas my father bought me four university-level geology books that I still have today.”
Donovan was the first in his family to go to college. “My father was very intelligent, but he never got his chance. He was due to go to Cambridge, but his father fell down the stairs and broke his neck…He was never bitter, but he always told me, ‘Always make the most of your chances,’ ” Donovan says.
His love for rocks brought him to the States in 1975. With nothing more than a suitcase and carry-on, Donovan says being in Scotland that morning and then stepping off the plane in Stillwater, Okla., that afternoon was a major culture shock. “I had never experienced temps like that before. It was a wall of heat. I was wearing a white T-shirt, Polo wool sweater, thick corduroy jacket and a rain jacket on top of that. I thought I was going to die,” Donovan says.
While teaching at OSU, he met a professor from TCU who attended a field trip Donovan lead through the Wichita Mountains. Donovan later received a call from that professor who wanted him to lead a group of TCU students on a similar field trip.
“It was serendipity really. We had such a great time, and then the next week while back in the Wichita Mountains, I came across a brand new hammer. I knew it must belong to one of the students, so I packed it up and sent it to TCU. Because of that, they called me and said that there was an open position as an endowed chair that they wanted me to fill.”
In 1986, Donovan, his wife, Jeanne, and two daughters, Erin and Corrie, moved from the small town of Stillwater, to Fort Worth. After several years at the university, the previous provost was retiring. Donovan decided to go for the position and was the last interviewee of the day before being offered the job in 2004.
Since arriving at TCU, Donovan has been active in campus committees and events and published more than 100 scholarly papers, book articles and abstracts. Donovan has established several academic studies programs in Scotland and was a member of the founding faculty of TCU-in-Oxford, which eventually led to the creation of the TCU London Centre.
For Provost Donovan, education is critical. He believes that the ability to have creative thought is a unique human quality, and that passing along knowledge is the greatest characteristic of human beings. “We must inspire the spirit. It’s not just about passing the torch; it’s also about lighting the torch. I am hopeful about the future because of what I’ve encountered at TCU.”