Immigration Reform Will Foster Innovation and Competition
I hated being an auditor, but I loved working with Ashraf.
More than twenty years ago, I was a senior accountant working for an international accounting firm. My biggest audit client was a pharmaceutical company. It was a giant job. And although I was only in my mid-twenties, I was running it. Well, not exactly. There was a manager and a partner looking over my shoulder but, I had some responsibility, okay? I ran that accounting project for three straight years. And in my third year, a new staff member joined my team of ten. His name was Ashraf and he was from Egypt. And he rocked.
Ashraf was polite and smart, and he worked his pants off. He came in early, stayed late, and never complained. His language skills were fine, his dress was sometimes awkward, or, perhaps, just atypical of accounting style (you won't find bright colors here), but his mind was like a computer and his body like a machine. I could count on him to complete every task I gave him correctly.
His talent and work ethic inspired us to work harder.
Ashraf was almost as old as I was. He had graduated college back in Egypt and now in America he was taking his MBA at a local university and also sitting for the Certified Public Accountant examination. His specialty was statistics--and he was really good at it. An effective audit is all about good sampling. Sampling and confirming accounts receivable invoices. Selecting transactions to investigate. Picking out certain contracts to examine.Auditors never look at all the data. We take samples. That was Ashraf's forte. Of course, our firm had certain procedures for selecting samples to audit. But Ashraf improved on those methods--he was able to pick a better, more representative sample. He had his own innovative approach. He brought a whole new level of skill to the job.
That's because he loved his job. And he loved being in the U.S. While the rest of us were complaining about work during the day and getting hammered at happy hour that night, Ashraf stuck to his task. His missed his family in Egypt, but he knew he was working towards a better life. He said he'd like to bring his family over so they, too, could have a better life. He appreciated the freedoms, the opportunities--all those corny things we roll our eyes at when we listen to speeches on the Fourth of July or wait impatiently for the ballgame to begin.
We employed an MBA student with the brains of a genius, for cheap.
Ashraf told me he planned to start his own business one day. He wanted to take what he learned about statistical sampling and create a software application that companies could use to do it better. Remember--this was in the early eighties. He had friends, other Egyptian students, who wanted to join up with him. He told me he would work on the application at nights and on weekends. He would save up money from his job at the accounting firm so he would one day be able to quit the job and be able to afford to work full-time on his new business. The kid was super smart. There was no question that his application would be terrific. There was no doubt that he would succeed.
The accounting firm I worked for really had a great deal going for them with Ashraf. They employed an MBA student with the brains of a genius for a lower salary then they would probably pay someone from this country. They could get away with it then (like many do now) because they took advantage of his foreign background (i.e. ignorance in the ways of the business world here), his willingness to work, his gratitude at earning even what he was earning when compared to what his lifestyle would've been like back at home. They got a young man who would put in 80-hour weeks and never complain. He would keep his mouth shut and his eyes down. They could keep him holed up in the audit room, away from any client interaction (Did I mention his loud suits?) while he ran numbers and did all the math. The job paid for his education and would, hopefully, one day pay for his business, too. It was mutual exploitation. And neither party was disappointed in the other.
Ashraf's presence had a noticeable effect on the rest of the audit team. His work ethic raised our own level of output. We liked Ashraf. We respected his commitment. And we admired his abilities. It also got us thinking--even me, the senior on the job. Ashraf was smarter than me. He worked harder than me. He had a better attitude than me. How many Ashrafs are there? Wouldn't firms, big or small, benefit from hiring more people like him? Any business would want him. I could see the writing on the wall.
Immigrants create more opportunties when they augment our talents with theirs.
Ashraf was the future. And I better get used to it. It is Ashraf, and so many immigrants like him, who invests harder work and more innovation in the job. I could complain or fight it, or I could learn from his example and join him. I could push myself to innovate, to work harder, to learn more, and to do a better job. Just so I could keep up with him.
That's what I did. I matched his hours. I set the example as the senior. I used his strengths to offset my weaknesses. Ashraf was better at statistical sampling and crunching numbers than me. But I was better at analyzing higher-level financial data and then communicating issues and suggestions to our clients than he was. I was able to translate his work into a better job. He was able to provide me with better data to do my job. Instead of fighting him I did well because of him. Ashraf elevated my game.
That was the one and only year I had the privilege of working with Ashraf. The next year his visa ran out and he reluctantly went back to Egypt. I wonder where he is now. I regret that we lost this asset.
The Immigration Bill will let us all benefit from people bringing in new ideas.
I think about Ashraf now that the Immigration Bill is stalled in the Senate. The bill is not perfect. There are unknowns and legitimate concerns. But it's a good bill and it will help small businesses. The bill will let hundreds of thousands of Ashrafs take their university degrees and work for businesses like mine, big and small, without fear of being deported. It will let them start up their own businesses in this country and then stay. Some of these businesses will grow, and succeed, and employ people, and provide potential products and services that my small business could use.
Will all these immigrants compete for jobs and for my customers? Yeah, they will. But it's a big country. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. And I have no doubt that the smart business people I know will utilize the strengths of those skilled (and unskilled) immigrants who will have the opportunity to prove themselves. They are our assets, not our liabilities. There are other countries vying for these assets, these talented people. Those are our competitors--not Ashraf. Not the 11 million undocumented immigrants here. They are our assets. And they will help us all, personally and professionally, step up our game.
GENE MARKS | Columnist | Owner, Marks Group
Gene Marks is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.