America Still World’s Center For Opportunity

My first job after service in the Marine Corps was with the Revlon Cosmetic Company. Revlon was founded by the iconic business man and fashion arbiter of the day, Charles Revson. The business in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s was totally identified with Mr. Revson; his lavish lifestyle, marriages, famous temper and hugely successful product launches were regularly trumpeted by the business press of the day.

Charles Revson was a visionary. He was exceedingly difficult to work for, almost impossible to please and volcanic in his temperament. And yet, his employees were amazingly loyal and to this day there is a fraternity of old colleagues who stay in touch and regularly reminisce about the old days working for the “Old Man”. As tough as he was to work for, he was nevertheless exceedingly generous to those who could stick it out and help build his dream franchise.

Revlon was the first cosmetic conglomerate, completely dominating the fine department store sales channel. Etherea, Bill Blass, Norell, Charlie, Ultima II and the eponymous Revlon brands sold briskly to fashionable women all over the world. In those days you could not find Revlon products in drug stores or mass merchandisers. Mr. Revson preached the trilogy for his product’s placement: space, location, and demonstration. This meant premium position in prime department store real estate with a well-trained beauty advisor ready to assist consumers.

Mr. Revson was a second-generation Jewish immigrant. He was one of many such immigrants (first or second generation) that created the modern cosmetic industry. Helena Rubenstein, George Barrie (Faberge), Francois Coty, Germaine Monteil, and Max Factor all launched cosmetic brands that enjoyed great international success. Amazingly, after the death of each of these pioneers, their Companies suffered from a lack of entrepreneurial creativity and suffered dramatic declines.

Each of these visionary entrepreneurs found in America the ingredients to create a stew that could only be cooked in this country. The opportunity to succeed, or fail, with creativity, hard work, courage and the ability to recognize and leverage market opportunities was, and is, uniquely American. Mr. Revson often said that he could never have created such an enterprise in his family’s native Poland and loved and revered America until the day he died.

The movie business greatly parallels the developmental history of the cosmetic industry. Sam Goldwyn, Harry Cohn, the Warner Brothers, Carl Laemmle and Mack Sennett came to this country with nothing and built the great studios, developed the star system and created product distribution channels that are largely still used today. These creative giants made major contributions to America by entertaining fans, promoting the star system, and generating thousands of jobs and support industries where none had previously existed.

Today, we see many instances where immigrants have found this country to provide the perfect amalgam of resources, talent, technical support and educational opportunity to base and launch a new enterprise. Sun Microsystems, JDS Uniphase, Google and Yahoo are just a smattering of famous tech company names that owe their existence in part to an immigrant founder. Biotechnology, medical technologies, engineering, finance and banking are industries that are heavily populated with successful entrepreneurs from Asia, Europe and Israel. America, and the world, is a better place for their contributions.

Immigrants, both legally and illegally, make super human efforts to get to America, and for a great reason. This is still the land of opportunity for those willing to work, take risk and pursue their goals and dreams. Polls tell us that Americans are dispirited, the country is on the wrong track and needs a new direction. As an American, I am embarrassed. Just being born in this country is a winning lottery ticket. People all over the world know this and many will do anything, even risk their lives, to get inside our borders.

Chinese immigrants have created a wonderful tradition of successfully building laundry and restaurant businesses in America. Koreans are amazingly prosperous green grocers. Vietnamese own thousands of independent liquor stores. The Cambodian immigrants dominate the doughnut shop business on the West Coast. Pakistani immigrants own a significant percentage of the convenience stores in the country. Indian ownership of roadside inns and hotels at virtually every highway interchange is famously detailed. Mexican owned Mexican restaurants are everywhere and native Americans flock to them.

These immigrant groups come to this country for the obvious opportunity that exists every day and every where. Opportunity that native Americans claim no longer exists. These immigrants network, work long hours, plan, learn an industry and save the seed money necessary to bootstrap their start-up businesses. The same steps that Charles Revson, Isaac Singer, Levi Strauss, Sam Goldwyn and countless other immigrant entrepreneurs took to launch their enterprises are now being undertaken by this new wave of immigrant entrepreneurs, and it could only be accomplished in America.

The immigrant presence in America, their participation in our economy and their enjoyment of the freedoms unique to America validate the fertility of our economic system. They also greatly benefit all of us by their enterprising efforts. There has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur and never a better place than America in 2008. Now we need native Americans to realize that the glass is way more than half full. Immigrants already know this.

Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.

After putting himself through the University of Kentucky (B.A. Broadcast Journalism, 1969) and serving in the United States Marine Corp, Mr. Ficke commenced a career in the cosmetic industry. After rising to National Sales Manager for Vidal Sassoon Hair Care at age 28, he then launched a number of ventures, including Rubigo Cosmetics, Parfums Pierre Wulff Paris, Le Bain Couture and Fashion Fragrance.