Real Leaders

Where’s The Opportunity? Ask an Immigrant

Rick Perez was eight years old when he arrived in the United States from Mexico, brought north by parents who believed in the promise of the American Dream.

Beyond their hopes and prayers for his future, they also believed firmly that learning to speak English would mean  success. At first, he knew some basic English words such as cat, dog, and milk, which was challenging as the only Spanish-speaking kid in a new school. “Everything was just bigger here,” says Perez. “Everything centered around rigorous thinking, and society seemed more open to new ideas. It was great.”

Fast-forward to 2019 and Houston-based Perez has built one of the world’s largest recycling companies, with 750 employees in 13 countries. Much of this success can be attributed to a resourceful way of thinking that he developed growing up. “Mexico has a very systematic way of thinking, and the way social classes are arranged, you’re limited in your ability to scale and grow,” he says. “In America you have no limitations, and it was just wonderful when I realized I could create my own way of doing things. It didn’t matter where I came from or what I had done before. If you’re willing to work hard, you can be successful at anything.” 

Some of his early resourcefulness included throwing parties at age 16 to make extra money, and later on, buying soft drink bottles that were headed to landfills in Mexico. He shipped them to the United States and China where they were turned into fiber applications for items such as carpets. As the saying goes: One man’s junk is another’s treasure. Excited by the potential of making money from discarded items, Perez cleared a room in his parent’s home. With a phone, fax machine, $1,000 in start-up capital, and a part-time waitering job at a local steakhouse, he founded his empire, Avangard Innovative, when he was a college junior.

Believing in the importance of viewing problems with the fresh eyes of an immigrant, Perez set about gathering talent around him that saw the world from a newcomer’s view. “We now have people with an ability to look at partners around the world from a local perspective.  The way we look at things in America might not be the same way we approach things in El Salvador or Honduras. We find the best practice to fit that particular country, with an ability to scale like we do in America.” Perez is adamant that the melting pot of ideas and people around him is the reason they have scaled so rapidly.

Another advantage of the immigrant influence in business is the blending of best practices from different cultures. “Those with an ability to take the best of both worlds always seem to be the most successful.” For Perez, this diversity has spilled over into technology, where he spotted the usefulness of an app in managing the waste streams of large companies — an impossible task without harnessing the power of big data. His company now leverages technology to manage recyclables like any other valuable product. 

“Avangard Innovative is actually a social issue that’s also making money,” says Perez  “Why look at where the herd is headed and follow? Instead, look at where the gaps are. I saw garbage thrown off a cliff or burned in some countries. I wondered why they were throwing money away.”

Many people equate immigrants with a drain on resources, assuming that one more immigrant means one less job for a local. But many immigrants create completely new jobs and industries for Americans that never existed before. Think about that the next time you’re about to throw a soft drink bottle in the trash.    

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