Interviewed by: Eirini Giannaraki, Spring 2019
Life before migrating
M. Siddique Sheikh was born and raised in Gujranwala, Pakistan. His father was a businessman supplying the city with wholesale sugar, wheat, rice and other items. He was also a dealer for a few cooking oil companies. “My father was the businessman of the year awarded by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, head and chairman of the business organization. My family had thirteen kids,” Mr. Sheikh says as he remembers his childhood.
Mr. Sheikh highlights that his father was very generous and supported several causes. This influenced his own life as well: “My dad was helping less fortunate people by putting them into business. I had seen him working with the government, working with other non-profit organizations in Pakistan. This is why when I moved to the United States, with my work I tried to promote humanity, to promote helping other people”
For the last 35 years, Mr. Sheikh has been Chairman and Founder of the Pakistan American Business Association (PABA) which was founded as a non-profit organization. Under this organization, Mr. Sheikh has organized a number of seminars and trade shows.
Reasons for Migrating to the United States
Mr. Sheikh decided to come to the United States to visit his brother. He remembers: “I graduated high school in Pakistan in 1969. I came to the United States with 10 dollars. At that time, in order to get 10 dollars my father had to take my passport to the State Bank of Pakistan to get them. Today, by the grace of God, I have 125 people working under my business.”
“At that time, my brother was a diplomat in the United States and so I came to visit him with a tourist visa. When I came, I did not have a plan to stay. However, my brother convinced me to continue my studies here. Education was the reason that I decided to stay here.”
Mr. Sheikh remembers when he and his brother announced this decision to the rest of the family back in Pakistan: “It was a difficult decision for me because back home, I had a big family and I was always helping everybody - my father, my mother but also all of my siblings. The first two years after my arrival were very difficult as I was missing my family very much.”
At that time, back in the 1970s, Mr. Sheikh argues that migrating to the United States was not common in Pakistan: “The economy was good, even President Kennedy and then President Nixon visited the country because they wanted to see and develop a good relationship with Pakistan. Pakistan has been on the side of the United States all these years.”
British English language is compulsory in all public schools in Pakistan from 5th grade to high school, Mr. Sheikh recalls: “So, once I arrived, I had a good foundation in English. However, I also took English classes for two years before going to college. The vocabulary was there but I had to practice and add more words that people use in their daily lives. British English and American English are different. I learned the British grammar and English style, but now I know only the American English and have forgotten the British English (laughing).”
Before going into business, Mr. Sheikh graduated from Columbia Tech where he studied automobile engineering. “When I graduated, I did an internship at an automobile company in Maryland. I started at minimum wage. I was not looking for the money but for the experience. I wanted to learn how to apply what I learned in the classroom, that was my goal,” he says.
Mr. Sheikh worked for five years at Jerry’s Ford: “I was still doing my internship, when Mr. Jerry Cohen offered me a job at his company. I still remember our dialogue. He was very nice and kind and he said to me ’why don’t you come and work with me?’ First, I had the authorization for work and then I got my green card through Jerry Cohen. I was managing the cars, how they function, how they can be repaired, but I was also supervising a team of technicians. I think they were impressed by my knowledge and the way that I was working. I also talked about some of the negative things that were going on there, I corrected them; throughout my life I always try to have honesty, sincerity and loyalty as the main values which my parents taught me.”
In 1980, Mr. Sheikh started his first business: “I bought a Texaco; it was a non-profitable, run down business and the owners wanted to sell it. I saved money for ten years. But still I did not have enough money so I borrowed some money and then my realtor, who founded this Texaco business, helped me with the commission and I paid him back when I had enough money.”
The beginning was not easy, Mr. Sheikh remembers: “I did not have enough money to buy even my inventory; gasoline. So, I borrowed 5,000 dollars from my brother. Back then I was working from 5am and went home at midnight. I was leaving my children sleeping in the morning and I was coming back and they were sleeping again. For a few years, I worked like that.”
Mr. Sheikh initially grew his business by buying truckloads of various products and reselling them to small businesses: “So, in 1985, I gathered a few people under the Pakistan American Business Association and we started buying truckloads of oil for the stations. They were giving us this group pricing which was a lot cheaper than buying it individually. This way we were generating more profit.”
Current state of business
Today, Mr. Sheikh has 125 employees in 15 locations across Washington, DC metro area. His son and two sons-in-law are now managing his business. He also has investments in insurance, banking, and property.
Mr. Sheikh says: “Right now, where my heart is in the process of organizing an international trade show and conference between Pakistan and the United States in Fairfax, VA. In this event, Pakistani businessmen will meet with businessmen who live here. Our aim is to provide an opportunity for connecting both sides, as we say build trust through trade.”
Entrepreneurs in the United States
Mr. Sheikh remembers how he decided to transition into self-employment: “I knew that if I kept working for companies, I would have so much time not worrying about responsibilities but at the same time I did not feel that I have an incentive to stay there. Starting my own business was not easy; I knew that nothing would come easy. You have to plan it, raise it and then the fruit comes after years. The actual process is not difficult; you fill out the paperwork, you pay the license and then you are in business. Overall, if you don’t work hard and you think that you can just sit in a chair and make money, this is not going to happen! The opportunities are far better here than in any other country. Also, the fact that the United States has very good laws is also a factor that allows business to flourish.”
Mr. Sheikh also highlights the importance of training when it comes to starting a business: “I went to six different schools because I wanted to keep learning. So, I went to Texaco school in New Jersey and Shell School in Chicago, to BP schools, before that to EXXON school, I just wanted to continue to learn. There, they taught you strategies how to promote the product you want to sell, sales and service training, how to price each item, what you should do and what you should not do.”
The Pakistan American Business Association (PABA)
The Pakistan American Business Association is a nonprofit organization that serves as an economic bridge between the United States and Pakistan. Founded in 1986 by Mr. Sheikh in Washington, DC, the association provides training, community service, and business networking. It has also hosted highly successful business conventions and trade shows.
Mr. Sheik explains: “So, people from all over the world come in the US legally and they are looking for jobs and we want to help them achieve the American Dream. Our mission is to create economic prosperity for both the United States and Pakistan through collaboration and partnership.”
Since 1986, PABA has become a premier business networking and advocacy organization, embracing cultural and business objectives of both Pakistanis and Americans throughout the world. PABA serves as a cultural mediator for individuals. It first encourages people to learn the business, while connecting them with the right accounting firm, the right bank, the right insurance. Mr. Sheikh states; “Once people arrive to the United States, they don’t know where to go and what to do. This country offers great opportunities to move on, if you desire. And if you desire you may owning your own business. When you work for a salary, you will always be dependent on others. When you have your own business, you depend only on yourself. When you become a business owner you will also have the opportunity to help others.”
Mr. Sheikh remembers some stories of previous individuals who initially received assistance from PABA: “In the past, one person was working for me at minimum wage per hour. Now he is working for a Fortune 500 company and he is making many times that. Another person who was from El Salvador worked for me for minimum wage per hour. Now, he is a millionaire as a business owner.”
Mr. Sheikh highlights how PABA appreciates diversity: “I also wanted to help other people who come from other countries, not just Pakistanis. I do not ask where you are from, what is your religion, people from India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, people from Cuba, from Mexico, from France, England, they come to our organization and we help them.”
Immigrants in the United States
Mr. Sheikh states that most of the immigrants who come to the United States are determined to succeed, work very hard and contribute to the new society: “My children were born here and they are educated here. They know where to go and what to do; they are much smarter than me.” However, thinking about his story and other first – generation immigrants’ stories, he says: “We had to come and learn everything from zero and we had to work twice as hard as my children are going to have to work. So, immigrants come and work in such jobs and they work so hard and make things better and without immigrants it is going to be very hard to keep this country great.”
Finally, Mr. Sheikh emphasizes the significance of accepting and embracing diversity: “I think that we should all start working in the right direction, don’t think what language, what country, what color, what religion. We should just act like good human beings, treat others with respect.”