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A Nation Engaged: Are Immigrants More Entrepreneurial Than Americans?

fernando martinez
Ole Restaurant Group

This week, we’re participating in a national week of conversation along with other NPR member stations calledA Nation Engaged. It’s a coordinated conversation around a topic, and the goal is to get a wide variety of voices answering the same question.

We’re asking: What does it mean to be American? And what could the next president do to advance your vision?

There are almost 8,000 self-employed immigrants in Kentucky. And in 2014, immigrant-run businesses in the commonwealth made more than $300 million in income.  

Fernando Martinez came to the United States from Cuba in the 1990’s on a raft he built. His long journey took him to a refugee camp at Guantanamo Bay and then to San Diego before he finally settled in Louisville in 1996.

Martinez opened Havana Rumba in 2005, and now owns seven restaurants in the city. He says America means freedom, liberty and opportunity. He says the next president needs to go back to those ideals.

We spoke with the restaurateur about why many immigrants open restaurants and what entrepreneurship means to him.

On opening his first restaurant:

"I remember waking up in the morning having panic attacks and throwing up in the shower. Because here I had nine years of my life, sacrificing my wife, my mom, my kids. And I had the responsibility of opening a new business. I remember opening the restaurant and looking at the bank account and having $3,000 left. That was it. That’s all we had.  And for the first two weeks we had three, four, five tables a night and those $3,000 went like that. But we were lucky enough that our first review, I think it was the Courier-Journal, their headline was, the writer wrote ‘I’m smitten by this small Cuban place in St. Matthews.’ The next night we had an hour wait. And it was like that for the next five months."

On why immigrants are more likely to open businesses:

"Most immigrants come from a place of having no opportunities to having all the opportunities. For the first time in my life, when I came to the States, I had total control of what I was gonna do with my life. I didn’t have that before. Before everything was decided (for) me by the government. Owning a restaurant, what I thought about politics. So when you’re put in a different situation, I mean, it’s easier for you to see opportunity."

On what entrepreneurship means to him:

"I think people are born entrepreneurs. I think there’s something inside you - it pushed to get up and do something. Everything that had happened to me has been a learning experience. You know, those panic attacks. You know, I learned how to, because, you know, I never had to deal with that pressure. So now instead of getting worried, like I used to do, I find solutions. And that’s what being an entrepreneur is all about. You have to be really good at fixing problems because that’s what I do every day."

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.