Business, Change Agents, News

Russians who mean business in Detroit

What would make a group of people from another country seek out the Motor City as a place to thrive and start businesses? Metro Detroit as a land of opportunity? Yes, you heard it right.

Russian born owner Vlad Gendelman has settled in to his Keego Harbor office nicely.

For several area Russian immigrants, metro Detroit has been very, very good. Each came here from half a world away to seek out a new life and ended up living the American dream – homes, their own businesses and freedom – all after fleeing the hammer and sickle of the former Soviet Union. 

A long way from home

Making the 5,000-mile trek from Kharkov, Ukraine in May of 1990, Vladimir Gendelman says his reasons for coming to metro Detroit included relief from rampant anti-Semitism and having some distant friends and family here, but also the chance to own something. As the owner of Company Folders Inc., he credits hard work and determination for his success – traits he swears by for anyone wanting to improve their lives.

After staying briefly with friends when he arrived here, he and his parents moved to the North Gate apartments in Oak Park. At the time, the complex served as a kind of hub for many immigrants able to share language, culture and potential job connections.

A $4/hour job for one would become a leg up for other friends as well. They would move from job to job, for more pay each time, until they could get on their feet. No job was too lowly. No amount of money was out of range. The goal was always to move up and support those success-minded friends who were there in the beginning.

“Opportunities are everywhere. They don’t come to you; you have to recognize them when they show up,” says Gendelman.

Metro Detroit Russian transplant Vladimir Gendelman believes hard work can overcome all obstacles.

Starting out with little more than a few dollars in his pocket, Gendelman now employs a staff of people in his North Oakland County business – a testament, he says, to finding what Winston Churchill once described as “the opportunity in every difficulty.”Gendelman sees not just Detroit, but Michigan itself as one of the best places in for business because of its proximity to Canada, freeway infrastructure and general growth potential as we emerge from the downturned economy. 

From minimum wage to maximum profits

Hazel Park entrepreneur Steven Smolkin has a similar story: coming from Russia and settling in the metro area in 1990, a few months before Gendelman. He also first lived near the same apartment complex as Gendelman when he arrived. Beginning in minimum wage jobs, he recently expanded his Hazel Park business Simon’s Jewelry and Pawn to a larger, 5,000-squar-foot location.

Another believer in metro Detroit, he declares there is one main impediment to success in any community – Detroit or elsewhere. “The biggest obstacle to success is you,” he says. “Instead of looking at setbacks as failures, look at them as education. We all face challenges; it’s what you do with them that separates those who make it from those who don’t.”

Smolkin and Gendelman help their countrymen and women whenever they can when they come to America. One of the common threads now, as it was in the beginning upon arriving here, is a belief in helping one another get a solid start.

Cleaning up in Detroit and across the Midwest

Another successful transplant from the former Soviet Union is Eric Raykinstein. Coming here with only $20 in his pocket, he now owns P.I.C. Maintenance, Inc., based in Southfield. At last count, his six-state janitorial company employs more than 250 people and boasts accounts with the big three and several major corporations. After overcoming the English language barrier (one of the biggest challenges for immigrants), he has gone on to a great amount of success by any comparative measure.

As with the others profiled, Eric stresses the importance of having and sticking to a plan and not making excuses. “Hard work trumps almost anything,” he says. “Even in difficult economic times, people have to be willing to take any job available – even at minimum wage to start. From there, the sky’s the limit.”

Much is made of the lack of opportunity in metro Detroit. But it seems even with challenges in front of them some can find success and even thrive with the right mindset and a willingness to do whatever it takes to make it.

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