5 Famous Immigrants who Made it to the Top
It’s no mystery or surprise that the cultural landscape of this country grows more diverse by the day. Multiculturalism and immigrant success stories are the new normal, which means that in many ways that immigrants and their children now drive the MO of the nation’s value systems and ideals—which is a great thing! “Immigrants are the true believers and the torch-bearers of the American dream,” writes journalist and futurist, Guy Garcia, who collaborated with Nely Galán on SELF MADE. “They have always embraced the core American values of persistence, hard work and self-reliance.”
From our own neighborhoods to our offices to the media and even to the red carpets of Hollywood, the immigrant success story is rampant, each one unique with its own set of obstacles and triumphs.
Here’s a look at 5 inspiring immigrant success stories .
1. Gloria Estefan
She was born in Havana, Cuba in 1957, but her family fled the country when she was a toddler during Castro’s rise. Her father, who was recruited into the 2506 Brigade, a CIA-funded group of Cuban refugees involved in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, later joined the U.S. Army & served two years in Vietnam, and came back with multiple sclerosis due to exposure to Agent Orange.
Growing up, Gloria wrote poetry and took guitar lessons, but she had a very meager social life, as she often had to take care of her younger siblings while her mother worked and studied. Music was her main form of release, her creative escape from the many responsibilities she carried as a teen.
In 1975 Gloria met Emilio Estefan, who at the time led a band called Miami Latin Boys. The moment he heard her sing, he asked her to sit in with the band. Weeks later she became the band’s de-facto lead singer and the group changed its name to Miami Sound Machine.
Gloria and Emilio were married in 1978 and had a son, Nayib, in 1980, and Emilio gave up his position as keyboardist and focused on promoting the band. That same year the band signed with Discos CBS International, a Miami-based Hispanic division of CBS records, and between 1981-83, they recorded four Spanish language albums. The Miami Sound Machine was beginning to make noise not just in the U.S., but all over Latin America. Latin-flavored hits like Dr. Beat and Conga took the charts by storm worldwide, and the Estefans seemed unstoppable.
Until 1990, when the family was involved in a horrible traffic accident with a tractor-trailer on a snowy interstate highway, in which Nayib suffered a fractured shoulder and Emilio endured minor head and hand injuries. It was Gloria who was hit the hardest, with broken vertebra in her back that would require a four-hour operation to realign her spine and insert steel rods to buttress the fracture. At the time it wasn’t clear if she would recover, and she had to go through extensive physical therapy. Gloria was intent on making it, and with lion-like persistence, and tremendous support from fans, friends and family, she finally did.
Over the next four years she would release four more albums. In 1996, the North American leg of her Evolution tour placed it as 24th highest grossing tour of the year. In 2006, she wrote a kids’ book, and in 2009, a cookbook. In 2009 she also released her 29th album, 90 Millas, a tribute to the music of her native Cuba, which landed her as number 11 on the Latin Female Artist of the Year chart.
In 2015 she and Emilio created an autobiographical musical, On Your Feet!, with debuted on Broadway, and that same year the couple was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their contributions to music and Latin American culture.
2. Karina Smirnoff
Born in the Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union, Karina Smirnoff grew up with an extremely severe case of ADHD, which remained undiagnosed throughout her childhood. Her parents were constantly at a loss for how to handle her excess energy, until they enrolled her ballroom dance classes at the age of nine, which kick-started what would ultimately become a killer career as a world-renowned dancer.
As an adult, she partnered with Roman Nabatov in 1996 and entered her first dance competition, the U.S. Amateur Latin Championships, placing 22nd. She partnered with Paul Killick in the 1999 British Open Dance Championships, finishing in the top five of six different events. She partnered with Slavik Kryklyvyy and dominated the ballroom dance competitions for the next four years. She won Five U.S. Latin Ballroom Championships, a World Trophy Championship, and an Asian Open Championship. She was tapped to join Dancing with the Stars in 2006 and remained with the show for seven seasons. In 2009, she performed in the Broadway production of Burn the Floor, a ballroom dance show that earned rave reviews.
3. Iman Abdulmajid (Known as Iman)
Born in Somalia in 1955 to a progressive family, Iman has said that she’s always felt “nerdy” and had a difficult time fitting in. Studious and curious, she flourished in school and studied Political Science student at University of Nairobi, where she worked as a translator to help pay for her some of her tuition.
When photographer Peter Beard saw her on the streets of Nairobi in 1973, he began following her, which Iman mistook for a proposition for sex or naked photos. Instead, he offered to pay her for photos, so she—ever clever—asked for the exact amount she needed to pay off the balance of her college tuition. Beard agreed, took the film back to New York, leaked them to the press, with claims that he found her in the jungle and that she descended from African royalty. Beard did everything he could to convince Iman to move to New York.
From the first day of her arrival to the U.S., Iman was put off. A press conference was held at the airport, where she was met with reporters who offended her by making the assumption that she did not speak English, and directed their questions to Beard. Iman not only spoke English, but five other languages, as well.
Signed by the Wilhelmina modeling agency, Iman became an instant favorite among designers and editors, and one of the first models of her era to become successful in both print and runway. Yves Saint Laurent devoted an entire collection to her called “The African Queen.” She married basketball star Spencer Haywood in 1983, with whom she had a daughter; but five years later they were divorced and endured a six-year custody battle. That same year she also suffered a car accident in a taxi, and had to take a hiatus from modeling.
In 1989 she quit modeling altogether, and to ensure she’d never go back, she sold her New York apartment and moved to Los Angeles, where she met David Bowie, and married him in 1992. She appeared in several films, and in 1992, the BBC granted her a film crew to shoot a documentary about Somalia, Somalia Diary, to raise awareness of the plight of her homeland and bring in more international aid.
In 1994 she launched her own cosmetics line for women of color under her name. The Iman Collection was developed for all women of color—Hispanic, Asian, Native American, African American, and more. It was a great success at first, despite the challenge of limited staffing, marketing and finance, and the fact that she had to compete with the likes of Revlon and other major brands that were also marketing to women of color. She still managed to sell $12 million.
In 1995 Iman made a deal with Ivax, a Miami-based drug and cosmetics company, which provided her with a sales staff and distribution network, while she maintained control of the company. The company grossed $30 million the next year. In 2000, she launched the prestige line, I-Iman, sold at Sephora stores, and aimed at all women. She secured a licensing and distribution deal with Proctor & Gamble, which placed her products at major retail chains like Target and Wal-Mart.
She also wrote two books, I Am Iman and The Beauty of Color, and produced one of the top-selling jewelry lines sold on the Home Shopping Network. In 2010, she received the Fashion Icon Award from the Council of Fashion Designers.
4. Christiane Amanpour
The daughter of an English mother and an Iranian father, Christiane was born in London, but spent time in Tehran growing up. The 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran forced her family into exile, an event that also sparked her interest in journalism. She studied at University of Rhode Island and graduated summa cum laude, and then began working behind the cameras as an electronic graphics designer at WJAR-TV in Providence.
In 1993 she began working as an assistant at the international assignment desk for CNN, and at first had a hard time getting on-air, due to her accent and dark hair. But 1985 she gained notice for her report on her home nation of Iran and won the DuPont Award. In the late 1980s and early 1990s she covered the Bosnian crisis, which helped make her internationally recognized. She reported on the first war with Iraq, as well as coverage of Haiti, Rwanda, Somalia and Afghanistan.
She interviewed many of the world’s top leaders, including Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair; France’s Prime Minister Jacques Chirac after the September 11 attacks; the first interview with King Abdullah of Jordan; and Middle Eastern Heads of State, Mohammad Khatami and Hosni Mubarak.
As CNN’s Chief International Correspondent, she headed a number of documentaries on global and social issues, and at CBS she was a reporter for 60 Minutes. In 2009 her own primetime interview program, Amanpour, was launched, which allowed her to speak to a number of leaders and decisions makers on world issues. In March 2010 she left CNN and moved to ABC where she was an anchor for This Week for over a year, and then appointed global affairs anchor of ABC New. She has since returned to CNN.
Christiane has won four Peabody awards, two George Polk Awards, three DuPont-Columbia Awards, a Courage in Journalism Award, Nine Emmys (as recently as 2015), and an Edward R. Murrow Award. She had received recognition from the Library of American Broadcasting, nine honorary degrees, and is a Cable Hall of Fame inductee.
5. Elaine Chao
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Elaine Chao arrived to the US on a freight ship at the age of eight and immediately entered the third grade. Speaking no English, she would copy words from the chalkboard, and her parents would help her prepare for lessons at home. The Chao family—five sisters and the parents—lived in a small one-bedroom apartment, and her dad worked three jobs to support the family, with no relatives or friends on whom they could depend. Though they arrived with nothing, in time the father managed to build a multi-million dollar shipping business.
Elaine studied at Mount Holyoke, where as a Sophomore, she was dormitory chairman for Freshman students; in her Junior year, editor of the yearbook; and student representative for the economic department as a Senior. She also played on the field hockey team and was a member of a horseback riding club. She went on to earn a Master’s Degree at Harvard Business School.
Elaine served as a White House fellow in the Reagan Administration, where she worked in the financial sector for banking giants like Citicorp and Bank of America. At the U.S. Department of Transportation in D.C., she served as deputy administrator of the Maritime Administration; and as deputy secretary, chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission. In 1991, she also served as head of the Peace Corps.
In 1992 she became the CEO of United Way of America, where she took a smaller salary than previous presidents, cut the staff to help restore finances, and restructured the organization to regain public trust.
In 1993, she married Senator Mitch McConnell (Kentucky, R), and played a huge role in his political campaign, often hosting events on his behalf and raising a large part his funds. She joined the Heritage Foundation in 1996 as a distinguished fellow, and in 2001, President George W. Bush selected her for his cabinet as Secretary of Labor for both of his terms. Elaine Chao was the first Asian American woman to serve at this level of government.