Stories I Only Tell My Friends: The Difficulty of Moving Abroad as an Entrepreneur

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he first time I created a professional resume in my life was after moving to the United States.

Years ago were spent being my own boss. Running your own business was the rave in the early 2000s, and its money-making flexibility gave my life balance. Even as a student of mass communication at the time, construction sites, not the media, were my future.

I excelled in print journalism, but turned down internship opportunities at two prestigious news agencies. Building was a more exciting learning curve, writing media columns a cherished hobby. But this ambivalence created a problem that came to haunt me in America: I was an entrepreneur without an engineering degree and a freelance journalist.

My construction business model has thrived on a little secret: working with Italian experts has led me to some of the best hands in the business. What I learned in a major in public relations and advertising (PRAD), I applied to developing and structuring my business for success.

Getting a job in America required mentionable corporate experiences, among other things. Working for yourself isn’t going to cut you the best resume, even if your business has been doing well. Anyway, I’m not an engineer, so experience won’t count. And journalism, the stone thrown back, didn’t judge me harshly.

But again, my work is more commentary than reporting. There’s a bigger conundrum: disrupted by social media and abused by blogging, journalism, a vacation that I enjoy leisurely, isn’t going to make much money for me, at least not without experience and a cognate American upbringing. Long and slow thing for an old man.

Start a business? Caution. Do you still understand the market, enough to take out thousands of loans? A different plan instead: getting a small job to learn the culture, saving money for a new business, in the meantime, getting clarification on a new career path in addition to finding new ones, returning to the school, being a father and a husband, paying both white and black tax, ah!

For compatriots who worked in Nigerian companies before moving to Western countries, the process is less cumbersome. Even if they cannot access their previous areas seamlessly, depending on the profession, they may have acquired some technical skills – Quickbooks, SAGE, Access, Excel, Canva, project management skills, advanced PowerPoint skills; knowledge of planning, public speaking, operating systems, etc. Many informal business people struggle with these things; worse if they have not had a higher education. In America, they can dwell for years on what HR professionals call survival jobs.

Our parents’ generation of immigrants grew old in survival jobs. Many came as traders. Some who might have gone to school did not consider themselves worthy of the white man’s office jobs. They worked crazy overtime in factories, nursing homes or taxi companies, earning a tenth of what today’s immigrant professionals earn working just 8 hours a day – the real American dream.

Entrepreneurs and other creatives can adapt, I know that. Nigerian musician elDee The Don, for example, re-invited himself as a tech in America, earning plenty of tutorials in addition to his regular tech work. Freelancing? Too competitive and unlikely, at least in the meantime, to finance its needs. And survival jobs can get you stuck; you have neither the time nor the money to drive professional mobility, with Sisyphean bills slamming in the back of your head.

Read also: Why DJ Tunez may be right that Diasporas are depressed, Nigerians at home better off

Where the man, an entrepreneur, is the newcomer, immigrant couples may face particular marital challenges. The three Nigerian men who spoke to me on the subject affirmed it. A Nigerian woman in America, before my move, warned about this: “Businessmen who have had some success in Nigeria find it difficult to adapt here. It is difficult for some to find a satisfying job and they can go wild.

While working in a state-run development center, I met a Nigerian who was a big importer, with a turnover of over N100 million as a young man in the 1990s. He frequently visited America on vacation at a time when it was easy to get a green card, but turned down the prospect. Life went by and he is now in America earning a whopping $5,000 a month after years of service. “I was a sad man for years here because I always thought about what I was before. But I’ve made peace with myself now.

For today’s business immigrants, digital technology can help. Some of us learn to be left-handed in old age – corporate culture, technical skills, etc. Not so long ago, I discovered Upwardly Global, a non-profit organization that helps immigrant professionals find relevant jobs in America. They guide you, like an adult holding a baby’s hand, through the intricacies of professional job hunting and career building in the country, using a host of free courses, mentors, networking and other resources.

I was totally embarrassed after the first round of classes, where it became apparent that the resume I sent out to potential US employers was a complete joke. I learned a lot in a few weeks, with a bolder and clearer vision of my professional trajectory (which will be discussed in a future article).

As an entrepreneur back in Nigeria, I remember sending one of my employees on a three-month AUTOCAD course, an application I never knew how to use. I thought I wouldn’t need this skill, especially when I could pay someone to apply it while I focused on business development. For Nigerian entrepreneurs planning to move abroad, especially to the United States, I have only three tips: decide on a solid career, acquire relevant technical skills, volunteer and thank me later.

Read previous stories in this series here.