Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and help from those who know what you want to learn. I have found that most folks, regardless of race, are fundamentally willing to help others IF it does not cost them out of pocket. I am not shy about learning and will seek advice from experts who know things that could help me. One example is when I was researching my book, The Opium Lord’s Daughter, I did a lot of research, including visiting China to seek advice from scholars who knew so much about the subject. Most of them were very generous with their time, and they wanted me to be successful since I was writing about a subject matter close to their hearts.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Wang came to America as a student, first at Boston University, and then transferred to the University of Oregon to pursue a degree in architecture. While still in school, Robert started his business designing and building homes. The enterprises became successful, and he made the decision to concentrate on business and not education. When the housing market imploded in the 80s, he moved to Los Angeles opened a Home Health Care supply company, importing wheelchairs and other products to support the burgeoning Home Healthcare sector. Another success, he sold the business and became an investor in technology start-ups, and was instrumental in starting several technology companies. Here, he came into an opportunity to lead a company with a vision to make launching satellites a private sector business instead of government run programs; he became chairman of Kistler aerospace, the first privately held company to develop and build the world’s first “reusable launch rockets” to reduce the cost of launching satellites into Low Earth Orbits. Working with leading scientists, former astronauts and securing investors worldwide, Robert thrived until September 11, 2001. The government shifted priorities, and the funding disappeared. This was his last full-time operational business as he spends his time now with personal investments, working on a second novel about China, and enjoying his family.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in Japan, and my family moved to Hong Kong when I was three. When I arrived in Hong Kong, I only spoke Japanese as a three-year-old, and I had to learn Cantonese and later English. My family was ultra-conservative, and my upbringing was very strict. As “Number One Son,” I felt pressure from my parents as they had expectations for me to fulfill. In my early teens, I began to question these expectations and resented my parents for dictating how I should live my life. Through the influence of older children from family friends who studied abroad, I expressed my desire to study in the U.S., and my parents agreed. I remember I promised myself then that I would not return to Hong Kong after college as I felt the U.S. was a better place for me where people could be themselves.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the U.S.? Can you tell us the story?
The “trigger point” was my desire as a teenager to break from a highly disciplined lifestyle with expectations of me on how I speak, behave, and conduct myself. I felt boxed in, and I had a desire to spread my wings and explore what was in store for me in the U.S..
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I was 19 when I left Hong Kong in 1972. I arrived in Boston at nighttime, knew no one, and carrying two large suitcases…I was terrified. I took a taxi from Logan Airport to Boston University, and I remember I was shocked at how expensive the fare was. I barely had enough cash to pay for the ride because I carried Travelers’ Checks as most travelers did back then.
It was quite a struggle to integrate into U.S. culture as an immigrant. I arrived during a very turbulent time with the Vietnam War and Watergate. But despite the unstable times and cultural shock, I managed to make new friends and fell in love with the U.S. It was a country where people could speak their minds about anything and had the freedom to do anything they chose as long as it was legal. I loved it!
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
His name was Walter Jacobs. I took a job as a janitor job at a department store called I.J. Fox during the first summer in the U.S. and he was my boss. He was a kind man, and I learned quite a lot from him. Here’s a funny story about him: my father in Hong Kong was a successful businessman in real estate development, so money was not an issue. But I wanted to experience my life in the U.S. independently, learn how to survive without family help, so I took a job. It was an awakening, and I learned to save money and survive on minimum wage. My father insisted I buy a car and even specified it had to be a BMW, an expensive car to maintain, so I hardly drove it. On a Monday morning, after getting drunk the night before with friends, I overslept and would have been late to work (I was never late). Instead of taking the tram from Commonwealth Avenue to downtown, I drove my BMW, cursing the whole way that the parking would cost so much. It was not quite 7:00 AM, with no traffic downtown. I stopped at a light, and a car pulled up next to me. It was Walter, my boss in his Pinto. When he saw me, I waved, but his expression was anger. He pulled his car in front of mine and got out, and began yelling at me. It took me a few seconds to realize he was angry because he thought I stole the car. I was earning minimum wage and could not possibly have afforded a BMW. I lied to him and told him I inherited the car and showed him my registration. Walter Jacobs was a hardworking middle-class man with integrity and honor. He took time to teach me about American culture. I remember he told me the story of Thanksgiving and why Americans eat turkey then.
So how are things going today?
I am most blessed. I wake up every morning thankful for the life I have, truly! I am happily married, with three grown daughters, three grandchildren, retired, and enjoying my life. By not returning to Hong Kong, I may have disappointed my parents, missed tremendous opportunities that my family would have afforded, but I have no regrets at all.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We try. My wife and I support education. Last year during the early days of COVID, my family put together a group that fed UCLA Emergency Room workers gourmet-style meals for months. They were not allowed to eat at the regular cafeteria to contain the virus and ate so poorly while working overtime, saving lives. When PPE was scarce, my wife and her friends flew in 20,000 NK-95 masks from China and donated them to hospitals as they were out of masks and had to re-use old ones.
You have first hand experience with the U.S. immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
Based on recent history:
- Allow refugees to apply for asylum, especially from the south, without discrimination.
- Engage more advocates to help new immigrants settle.
- Make it easy for immigrants to learn what services are available to help them integrate into U.S. society.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- DO NOT use being a minority as the reason/excuse for not putting yourself out there to achieve what you desire. I’ve learned that I have to work harder as a minority in a mostly white person’s business world, so work hard!! Results speak for themselves regardless of race. Look at Ang Lee (film director), I. M Pei, the late GREAT architect, and so many others.
- DO NOT let other’s prejudice affect you. I had experienced racism by the British in Hong Kong since childhood, and I have experienced discrimination in the U.S. When I feel I am dealing with a racist, my view is that it is their problem, NOT mine. I have managed to do deals with racist business folks by showing them they can benefit from doing the deal. Greed is a potent motivator in the business world.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and help from those who know what you want to learn. I have found that most folks, regardless of race, are fundamentally willing to help others IF it does not cost them out of pocket. I am not shy about learning and will seek advice from experts who know things that could help me. One example is when I was researching my book, The Opium Lord’s Daughter, I did a lot of research, including visiting China to seek advice from scholars who knew so much about the subject. Most of them were very generous with their time, and they wanted me to be successful since I was writing about a subject matter close to their hearts.
- Learn to deal with rejection. You may have a great idea or a project that needs investments; don’t be surprised that others are not eager to invest and reject your ideas and proposal. When that happens, I usually try to respectfully change their minds by addressing why they rejected my proposals. I try to radiate confidence that I would be able to deliver the results I proposed. It may not change their minds, but I have changed many minds when I am first rejected by being persistent and confident in myself.
- MOST important of all: regardless of race or circumstance, you MUST be willing to work hard. We live in a country that offers, in theory, and practice, opportunities for anyone to be successful if you have a good idea and willing to work hard at achieving results. I am a living example of this; I have worked hard ever since I started my first business at age 22 with borrowed money. I am blessed that I am naturally motivated and have a burning desire to make it independently without family. Please don’t ask me who I asked for my first loan (it was Dad). Yes, my father did NOT support my not returning home to work for him, and he did his best to persuade me not to start my own thing. I must have been more persuasive!!
We know that the U.S. needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the U.S.’s future?
There are more than three things that make me optimistic about the U.S.’s future, but I will offer three:
Even with so many problems we face as a nation, we have proved that Americans can overcome difficulties throughout history, especially during a crisis. We are at our best when we are challenged.
- The best example is when we landed on the Moon. I saw the landing in Hong Kong as a teenager and was so proud of the U.S. that it motivated me to come here. We are a “CAN-DO” people. We can be united to accomplish what is best for us.
- Good old “Yankee Ingenuity” cannot be beaten!!! We are the ones who invented the most marvels of modern living in the world. Others may copy and improve upon our inventions, but we created them!! The Free Enterprise System offers the best motivation for any American and will remain forever if we don’t lose it.
- We attract the best immigrants in the world to build our society and economy, from farmworkers to brilliant engineers/inventors, scholars, etc. Even our adversaries send their children here to study, and many will NOT return home because they love our country.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, V.C. funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Since I am retired from business and have begun a new career as an author, my first book has received many excellent reviews and awards. It’s a historical novel about the First Opium War between England and China that resulted in Hong Kong taken by England as a base for importing Opium and forcing the drug upon the Chinese for trade (tea, porcelain, etc.). Not too many westerners know this history that continues to shape China’s policy towards the West even today. As a super-power, China will never allow itself to be bullied by Westerners ever again. I would love to meet someone important in the publishing or entertainment world who will read my book and meet with me. It is NOT about selling my book for profit. I am fortunate enough in this regard already. I believe that it is crucial for the western world to understand how this piece of history has impacted modern China and its relationship with the West.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
My website is RobertWangAuthor.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us.