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In Miami’s multicultural melting pot, immigrant entrepreneurship thrives

For these five Magic City founders, thriving means not only making their entrepreneurial dreams a reality, but meaningfully integrating themselves within, and contributing to, their communities.

Clockwise from left: Natalia Martínez-Kalinina, Suzan McDowell, Rosa Polo, Rodrigo Butori and JP Aramouni. (Technical.ly/Julie Zeglen/courtesy sources)

This report is part of Thriving, a yearlong storytelling initiative from Technical.ly focused on the lived experiences of Philadelphia and comparative city residents. The goal is to generate insights about the economic opportunities and obstacles along their journeys to financial security. Here's who we're focusing on and why.

In Miami, immigrant entrepreneurship is the norm, not the exception.

The latest Census estimates count 54% of Miami-Dade County as foreign-born, compared to 13.6% of the entire United States. It goes further than that, though — research by the County’s Office of New Americans in partnership with the New American Economy Research Fund found that immigrants represented a whopping 73.9% of all entrepreneurs in Miami-Dade in 2019, equaling roughly 145,100 immigrant individuals who generated $2.9 billion in business income while working for their own businesses.

A relatively young city, immigrants were part of Miami’s original DNA, with Bahamians responsible for constructing much of the early city. Geography alone predisposed it to be an immigration hub: As the country’s southernmost metropolis, many Central and South American cities are closer to Miami than other US cities are. It’s about as close to Europe and Africa as any other city on the East Coast, and a couple-hour boat ride away from the Caribbean. Factor in a recent national study that found per capita, immigrants are about 80% more likely to start a business than US-born citizens are, and it’s no surprise Miami ended up as a thriving center for immigrant entrepreneurship.

“The data is really unquestionable about immigrants as drivers of innovation and drivers of economic development,” Natalia Martínez-Kalinina, founder of Base and a two-time immigrant, told Technical.ly.

“In Miami, you get to see that constantly to such an extent [that] I think we may have even become accustomed to it, and so I think we may take it for granted,” she said of immigrant entrepreneurship. “But it’s pretty remarkable how it happens from the bodega around the corner, to the auto dealership, to the large law firm, to the really interesting billion-dollar startup. We get to see it across a really diverse spectrum and it’s really remarkable.”

Emigrating in decades past from across the Caribbean, South America, and as far away as Lebanon, launching businesses in marketing, tech, and culinary craft, the Miamians’ stories you’ll read below are part of Technical.ly’s yearlong reporting series called Thriving, a look into the lived experiences of people in metros across the US to compare the opportunities and obstacles found on their pursuit of financial security and freedom.

Percent of US Residents Immigrant Entrepreneurs

For these Miamians, thriving does not just mean making their entrepreneurial dreams a reality; it means meaningfully integrating themselves within, and contributing to, their communities. The immigrant entrepreneurs’ sense of thriving is measured in part by the success and well-being of the other people and places with whom they share the Magic City.

Natalia Martínez-Kalinina: ‘Personal and professional lives are converging’

Natalia Martínez-Kalinina is a two-time immigrant born to Cuban and Russian parents: “I emigrated primarily from Cuba to Mexico, and then from Mexico, to the US,” she explained.

Explaining her immigrant story is something she’s mastered. Explaining herself as an entrepreneur proves a little more difficult, though.

“For most of my career, I always said I was very entrepreneurial, but not really an entrepreneur,” said Martínez-Kalinina, who is in her mid-30s. “I liked starting projects and leading different initiatives and doing expansions of things, but generally within the confines of a different and established company.”

Natalia Martínez-Kalinina. (Photo by Ekaterina Shcherbakova)

“In my mind, I really struggled to define myself as an entrepreneur for a very long time because I have tremendous respect for entrepreneurs and I’ve had the privilege — and I would say the headache, because it’s a complicated world — working with, supporting and advising entrepreneurs the decade that I’ve lived in Miami,” she said.

Yet it’s a title she’s arguably earned, currently as a founder of Base, a social experience-driven membership community launching in Miami, but before that as the founder and principal of NMK Group, an advisory business focused on economic development, organizational and human capital processes, and impact strategy.

And that’s without mentioning her founding and cofounding chops on endeavors as wide-ranging as a local microgrant foundation, an annual exhibition coinciding with Art Basel Miami Beach, and a weekly #MiamiTech Happy Hour with nation- and industry-wide popularity, among a number of other initiatives.

“To me, thriving is about community building and community benefit.”Natalia Martínez-Kalinina

Having lived in both Boston and New York previously, her arrival to Miami in 2012 seemed to happen at just the right time.

“It was an interesting moment because things that were new to me were also new in the discourse of Miami. So as a transplant, it felt like a really interesting time because we were all kind of in lockstep learning things together,” Martínez-Kalinina said of her early entrepreneurial days. “It made it really accessible to try to learn some of these [business] topics and feel like I could figure them out” — in comparison, she imagines, to landing in the more-established corporate worlds of New York or San Francisco.

Through time and effort, her “personal and professional lives are converging in a way that is really values aligned for me,” Martínez-Kalinina said.

“To me, thriving is about community building and community benefit. So I feel particularly excited to be building Base, especially with my two cofounders, because I think we’re building a company that adds value and that creates community,” she said. “For me personally, it’s a really tangible way of defining what I feel is thriving.”

Rodrigo Butori: ‘I was now living and fulfilling my own dream’

Freelance creative director Rodrigo Butori, 49, was born in Brazil and launched his advertising career at just 18 years old. By age 25, without having completed a college degree, he was a successful agency owner in a creative director-agency partnership.

“At that point I realized I was way too young and too inexperienced to carry a business on my back,” Butori told Technical.ly. He thought at the time: “Maybe restarting in a country like the United States was my way of getting some kind of graduation.”

Rodrigo Butori. (Courtesy photo)

He moved to Los Angeles in 2001 seeking an internship and over the next decade hopped from agency to agency, regaining his footing back to the creative director role he left behind in Brazil. In 2010, he got a call from two immigrant co-owners of an agency with offices in Portland, Buenos Aires and Miami.

“‘You have both worlds: of being Brazilian and working in Latin America, and the experience of working in the United States,’” Butori recounted, of the pitch from the co-owners. “‘Why don’t you join us?’”

Onto Miami he and his young family went, restarting his life again for a successful eight-year run with that agency that concluded in 2018.

“It was the end of a cycle — the agency was sold to a larger group and it was time to go,” he said. “And at that point, that’s when I started my entrepreneurship career, if you want to call it that. I started walking on my own feet. I went from an employee working for somebody else’s dream to following my own dream.”

A successful year or so freelancing for agencies across the country and Latin America came to a screeching halt with the pandemic. Yet on the flip side, it increased the feasibility and acceptance of remote work. As the country began pulling itself out of the worst of the pandemic, “the phone started ringing again, and it was a very busy time,” he said. “2021, 2022 were very busy years.”

“My dream was to start something that would give back somehow to a place that was a cornerstone of my life.”Rodrigo Butori

“Throughout this period of freelancing, I was now living and fulfilling my own dream,” Butori said. “My dream was also to start something that would give back somehow to a place that was a cornerstone of my life, which was the ocean, and that’s how I started Plastic Fisherman,” a global movement that draws on creativity to call attention to ocean pollution. It’s a project he wants to turn into something that can support himself — and an initiative he is 100% certain he would have not been able to start if not for venturing into entrepreneurship.

“It’s hard to imagine going back to being somebody’s cog versus being able to decide and own your own life,” said Butori, who likens balancing his freelance career with the growth of Plastic Fisherman to “spinning plates.”

Butori’s philosophy is of making whatever he does and wherever he goes, whether it’s entering into a new work arrangement or entering into a house party “0.5% better or 1% better or 10% better” than it was when he arrived: “I always wanted to somehow leave not only a positive influence, but somehow make [things] a tiny bit better.”

“So I think thriving for me is that,” he said. “That to me is a sign of success.”

Rosa Polo: Turning big dreams into reality

Rosa Polo, 67, arrived in the United States in 1984 fleeing terrorism in Peru in pursuit of the American dream. Though she arrived without papers, she had determination in tow, along with a long-held desire and preference to work for herself and the confidence that she could make it happen.

Speaking through her son in Spanish, Polo explains that although she studied nutrition and dietetics in Peru, her early years in Miami were spent as a housekeeper. That job, though, proved a prime opportunity to cultivate entrepreneurship. Housekeeping also meant helping her clients host holiday meals and parties, for which she’d do the cooking. The hosts’ and party guests’ rave reviews of her meals planted the seed for what would become her own catering and events business that she ran for almost 20 years before pausing for medical treatment.

Rosa Polo. (Courtesy photo)

Her achievements only continue from there. In 2015, Polo set the Guinness World Record for preparing the largest bowl of quinoa, a heritage crop from her home country. As one of the top students at Le Cordon Bleu, Polo was invited to do the cooking for an Obama fundraising event at NBA Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning’s home. An honor in its own right, that evening led to an invitation to cook at the White House as part of a celebration of Peru’s Independence Day.

Chef Polo has received honors throughout Peru, including receiving the keys to many cities and making an appearance in front of the Peruvian congress. Back home in Miami-Dade, two local municipalities have issued proclamations of a Rosa Polo Day.

For Polo, thriving is turning the big dreams she arrived in the US with into reality. As a mother, it’s raising two sons who have found success in their own lives. And as an immigrant, it’s that she’s been able to help those involved in the harvesting and export of quinoa back in Peru by raising the profile of the ancient Andean grain here in the States.

Suzan McDowell: ‘It’s financial peace’

“People come to me when they want access to Black people in South Florida in a variety of ways,” said Suzan McDowell, founder of Circle of One Marketing, a full service advertising agency. “In that space for Black Miami marketing, we dominate.”

A self-described “born Jamerican” with an American mother and Jamaican father, McDowell was born and raised on the island. She’ll admit that she was blind to the entrepreneurship that was on display in her childhood at the office of her father’s very successful dental practice.

“It was not until I became a small business owner that I saw my dad as a small business owner. He was just my dad who would always drill my teeth, I would never think of him as a businessman,” she told Technical.ly. “I have personally always been motivated by being successful because of my family, not wanting to let Dr. McDowell down. … For me, it’s that legacy of the McDowells in Jamaica that I want to make sure that I leave a stamp in America for my Jamaican family.”

Suzan McDowell. (Courtesy photo)

McDowell arrived in Miami more than 30 years ago from Los Angeles, thinking she’d only be here for a short stay to manage family matters. That turned into a 12-year run at a local radio station selling to ad buyers, all while hearing their misconceptions about local Black consumers and developing an understanding that would serve as the launch pad for Circle of One.

“Because I got that information, it allowed me to figure out how to sell Black people in South Florida in general,” she said. “That particular experience in Miami helped me understand how to thrive in Miami.”

But it was actually an event she produced as the former vice chairman of Planned Parenthood of Miami, a Safe Sex and the City party, that “opened a whole thing in me [and] changed my whole life.” After throwing the party and while still working at the station, someone phoned McDowell to produce a marketing campaign and, despite McDowell’s protests, insisted she was capable. Thus establishing herself with event production, McDowell stacked her successes and built the agency over a year and a half while at the station before taking it full time.

“The fact that my business has allowed other people to thrive makes my business a thriving business.”Suzan McDowell

“My original vision for Circle of One was to create a hot, happening, fresh, cool, modern, hip ad agency with a bunch of fantastic multicultural professionals who did bad*ss marketing campaigns, and that’s what we’ve achieved,” she concluded. “It’s become more than I thought it was going to be, but that’s the position that we hold.” Her aspirations for the business include expanding to other cities and launching a nonprofit apprenticeship program.

As for what thriving means to McDowell: “From a business perspective, [it] means I’m thought of as a master of my industry — which I am — and thriving means you don’t have to worry about money,” the 40-something said. “I can’t say how much money that is, because it could be $10, it could be $10 million — it’s financial peace.”

But her sense of thriving relies on its contagiousness, too.

“One of the reasons I know Circle [of One] is thriving, and what makes me proud, is that we’ve employed a lot of people,” McDowell said. “Businesses have been built from the experience that people have gotten from Circle, it has extended the life of a lot of people’s businesses. … The fact that my business has allowed other people to thrive makes my business a thriving business.”

JP Aramouni: ‘You have this momentum where everyone’s doing something’

JP Aramouni, 39, was born in Lebanon during the peak of its Civil War in the ‘80s, “when the country was basically torn to pieces,” he said. He remembers how from one week to the next, the picture of his childhood would change from playing outdoors to seeking shelter.

At 7 years old, his family moved to San Diego, telling Aramouni the trip was just a visit to go see family:

“I spent my childhood, I would say from the ages of 7 to [my] mid-teens, just collecting stuff to take back to my friends, thinking that we were going to go back at some point.” Not until he got his citizenship at 17 did it crystallize that the US was his permanent new home.

JP Aramouni. (Courtesy photo)

Shortly thereafter, he’d attend college “with the idea of wanting to study economic development and contribute that to the developing world, especially coming from a war-torn country at the time.” After graduation and three days into a consulting job in Washington DC, he was sent overseas. It was a move that would launch a decade-long span living across the globe. After finishing business school abroad, he pivoted to tech, joining Uber in its early days for a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to launch the technology in other countries.

Aramouni would finally end up moving to Miami in 2019.

“The idea was wanting to move back to be closer to family — at least one flight away,” he said. “I had no real pull to Miami before, but one of the companies I was advising that offered me a full-time role had just opened up a headquarters here so I came to visit for a day in January 2019 and I’m like, ‘This city feels amazing.’”

“In Miami, you have this momentum that I only saw in emerging markets, so that’s what excited me about Miami and that’s what’s kept me here.”JP Aramouni

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Miami-Dade’s demographics, “[Miami] feels like all these developing countries that I’ve spent time in because you have this momentum where everyone’s doing something, everyone’s hustling, people are building things, there’s new projects going up here and there,” Aramouni said. “[There’s] this kind of fast-paced change you don’t see in most developed cities in the US. In Miami, you have this momentum that I only saw in emerging markets, so that’s what excited me about Miami and that’s what’s kept me here.”

Aramouni’s startup, Plaey, is the third company he’s founded.

Just prior to arriving in Miami, he started an advising business helping founders and leadership teams with market expansion and growth strategy that he still maintains part time. At the end of 2019, he cofounded Blue Space. Inspired by a Miami-based company that activates parking lots as ghost kitchens, Aramouni and his cofounder activated empty Miami marina slips as floating studio spaces “and basically created a WeWork on the water.”

The idea proved particularly prescient as the pandemic put a premium on access to well-ventilated spaces. He and his business partner sold Blue Space last year.

With Plaey, Aramouni is tackling the issue of loneliness and burnout amongst remote workers (who moved to Miami in droves during the pandemic). It’s no wonder then, that he says to thrive professionally he has “to feel like I am working on something that is beyond me, that has a purpose that’s impacting society as a whole and is changing people’s behavior in some way or another.”

“It’s building a business that is sustainable and scalable and also impactful — as an entrepreneur specifically, to create something that doesn’t exist and have that impact people in ways they wouldn’t have imagined,” he said. As for thriving on a personal level, it’s “having time for yourself, for your friends, for your partners — just being able to step outside of your head and really have a support system beyond you.”

Series: Thriving

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