Jewish-Russian immigrants have an entrepreneurial spirit in common.
Vladimir Gendelman, Erik Raykinstein, Steven Smolkin, Alex Kheynson, Yuliy Osipov and Mike Starobinsky all share some common bonds: They were born in the former Soviet Union, immigrated to the Detroit area — most to Northgate Apartments in Oak Park — and today are all proud business owners.
From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, thousands of Russian Jews came to the United States, many to the Metro Detroit area, where the Federation offered help finding homes and jobs, and interest-free loans were available through Hebrew Free Loan.
Gendelman left his home in Kharkov, Ukraine, when he was 15 in 1989. Like many Russian Jews, his first stop was Austria, followed by Italy, where the young Russian Jew first practiced his entrepreneurial skills.
“You weren’t allowed to take any money out of Russia,” Gendelman said, “so people would buy things they could sell — everything from condoms and candy to watches and clocks.”
Many of the emigres were professionals, doctors and lawyers, and they were uncomfortable hawking wares on the street. That’s where young Vlad came in. He would sell the items on consignment from those people on the streets of Italy at a profit.
“I remember walking the streets with a strip of condoms flung over my shoulder like machine gun ammo, shouting ‘anti-bambino,’” recalls Gendelman, who also sold Russian stars with pictures of baby Lenin on them to the Italians, convincing them the picture was of a famous Russian soccer star.
The hustling, along with 10-hour shifts at a gas station, allowed Gendelman to come to the U.S. in 1990 with a few hundred dollars in his pocket.
His family came to Northgate, and he enrolled at Berkley High to learn English. He also took any job he could find, cleaning toilets at the Berkley Ice Arena for $3.25 an hour, delivering pizzas, selling vacuum cleaners, selling carpets.
“When I was 24, I asked myself, ‘What am I doing?’ I decided to become a computer programmer,” he said. After working in that field for a few years, Gendelman still felt unsatisfied.
“I always knew I wanted to own my own business, even in Russia,” he said. “So I decided to learn how to repair computers and opened up a business with a friend. Our first job took two days and two nights and earned us only $50, but we learned.”
That was only the beginning. In 2004, Gendelman opened Company Folders Inc. in Keego Harbor, a graphics design and printing company that employs 11 people. “I knew if I worked my butt off, I could build something to be proud of,” he said.
He and his wife, Janet, a teacher, live in West Bloomfield with their two children, Aaron, 2, and Noa, 4½. The family belongs to Temple Israel and the children attend preschool at the Jewish Community Center.
Gendelman has remained close friends with many of the young men he met at Northgate. “We all moved to America at roughly the same time, and every one of us has achieved success,” he said.
Hard Work Pays Off
So how did so many friends achieve the same kind of success?
“It sounds cliche, but it really comes down to the American dream,” said Mike Starobinsky, owner of Waterford-based Maxwill Solutions, a provider of computer and networking services. “You have the opportunity to do anything you want, and if you work hard, provide the best service and never say no, you can make it.”
Starobinsky never held lifelong dreams of owning his own company, he said. It came about through a circuitous path and now “he loves every second of it.”
Starobinsky left Poltava, Ukraine, and moved to Northgate Apartments with his immediate and extended family in 1989. He also attended Berkley High to hone his English. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after high school so got his cosmetology license and worked for about three years in his mother’s beauty salon.
“I knew it wasn’t my future,” said Starobinsky, who enrolled in courses in IT network management and engineering and got his certifications in Novell and Microsoft.
He worked for several different companies and started a side business in 2006, helping family and friends with their IT concerns. He was working at payroll giant ADP in Ann Arbor in 2008 when the economy tanked and he was laid off.
“That’s when I turned full time to growing my business. I went networking, passing out business cards and going door-to-door to sell my services,” he said.
Starobinsky had a knack for selling, and his business eventually grew. He recently had to hire someone to help him handle all the demand.
“Perhaps being Jewish has something to do with it,” he said of his success. “When I started, most of my referrals came from other Jews.”
He lives in Waterford with his wife, Alina, and sons Maxim, 8, and William, 4. They attend Chabad of Commerce. “We’re not Orthodox, but we believe in traditions and want to share them with our children. There’s something special about being Jewish.”
Anti-Semitism Spurs Move
Perhaps none of the friends had a worse experience before moving to the United States than Steven Smolkin, now owner of Simon’s Jewelry and Pawn Shop in Hazel Park. In 1989, while still living in Belarus, he was severely beaten for no other reason than being Jewish.
“It was the last straw for my family,” Smolkin said. “The next day, my parents applied to leave the country.”
He arrived in the U.S. in the early 1990s with his family. Sponsored by Jewish Family Service (JFS), the family shared a small two-bedroom apartment in Oak Park. He immediately took a job as a stock boy at a Jewish market (his first paycheck was $30) and enrolled in Oakland Community College. Later, he attended Walsh College in Troy, where he earned a business degree.
His dad, who was a jeweler in Russia, got him a job in a jewelry store, which he managed for three years. “I thought to myself, if I can do this for somebody else, I can do it for myself as well.”
He opened in 1995 with a 600-square-foot store. A few years later, it doubled. Last year he expanded again, to a 5,000-sqaure foot space in his own free-standing building.
“Opportunity just opened up for me,” said Smolkin, who still maintains close ties with the Russian Jewish community and whose children, Sharon, 12, and Isabella, 10 months, are learning to speak Russian.
He and his wife, Inna, and their children live in West Bloomfield and attend Temple Israel and Chabad of Commerce.
“Too Many Choices”
Yuliy Osipov also knows the sting of anti-Semitism. He was born and raised in Baku, Azerbaijan, a primarily Muslim country, where Jews were always the scapegoats and certain professions were denied them.
With the help of JFS, Osipov moved to Southfield with his family in 1990 with “no English and too many choices,” he said. “Here, if you want it, you can get it.”
He had been enrolled in Polytechnic University in Baku prior to his move to the U.S. He was 17 when he arrived and enrolled in Southfield-Lathrup High School where he graduated one year later. He attended University of Michigan-Dearborn, where he earned a degree in psychology in 1995, and immediately enrolled in University of Detroit Mercy to study law in the evenings so he could work, which he did as a carpet salesman and transportation manager.
A practicing attorney for the past 12 years, he opened his own law firm, Osipov Bigelman PC, five years ago and specializes in bankruptcy law. He’s a certified bankruptcy attorney and teaches bankruptcy law at U of D Mercy School of Law. Osipov was selected by Super Lawyers for the past few years.
He has a partner, Jeff Bigelman, (a third- generation Russian Jew) and three associates. The firm specializes in all aspects of bankruptcy, workouts and negotiations with the creditors as well as business litigation (www.osbig.com).
He remains active in the group Friends and Refugees of Eastern Europe (FREE), which connects Jews in a spiritual and social sense. He and his wife, Tatyana, and their children Lazar, 12, Sammy, 9, and Ariella, 6, make their home in West Bloomfield and belong to Temple Israel.
A Solo Trip
Erik Raykinstein’s immigration experience is different than his friends’. He came to the U.S. in 1991 from St. Petersburg, Russia, on his own at age 21. He flew to New York City for a relative’s wedding and ended up living with an aunt in Farmington Hills for eight or nine months.
By the time he arrived in the U.S., Raykinstein had already earned a college degree in economics and business law.
“I came here with no parents, no money, no English,” he said. “I immediately got to work doing miscellaneous jobs I could find for $4.50 an hour. It was enough to get by, but I asked myself, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’”
After he picked up English, he went to work in accounts receivables, followed by a stint as a sales rep for a chemical company. “But I had always wanted to own my own business,” he said. “I kept my eyes open for opportunities.”
Raykinstein also wanted to help other immigrants like himself to get jobs and a foothold in this new country. “I didn’t have much capital, though,” he said. “I only had myself to bank on.”
He opened a cleaning company, and his first two hires were Polish immigrants. “I found ways to improve on the quality of services my clients were used to getting,” he said.
That was the birth of Southfield-based P.I.C. Maintenance Inc., which he runs with partner Roman Kuchersky. Now in business for 20 years, the company employs 100-150 people and provides commercial cleaning and maintenance services in seven states.
Through it all, he’s remained close with many of his Russian comrades. “We gathered in the same places when we first got here, at the JCC or different places in Oak Park,” he said. “We’re still friends today.”
He lives in West Bloomfield with his wife, Kristina, and children Eli, 7, and Ari, 2. They attend Temple Israel.
Unlike most of his Russian friends, Dr. Alex Kheynson moved to Northgate Apartments from Moscow when he was only 6 years old during the Jewish migration of the late 1970s. His family moved from Oak Park to Southfield to West Bloomfield. He attended high school at Walled Lake Western, then Wayne State University and then the New York College of Podiatry. He now owns his own practice, Elite Podiatry, in Farmington Hills.
Kheynson lives in West Bloomfield with his wife, Viktoriya, and children Arielle, 3½, and Raphael, 2½. They have no synagogue affiliation.
“There is a relatively small Russian community here,” he said. “We share strong family ties, a solid foundation and a strong work ethic. We watched our parents do it. Now we do it — just knowing that we can never quit.”
All of these friends faced the challenges of starting over with nothing in a new country, but all saw the opportunity inherent in America. Nothing, not the language barrier, not hardship, not even a horrible economic downturn could stand in the way of their dreams.
Gendelman sums it up nicely. “There are doers and complainers in life,” he said. “You pick who you want to be. It’s all about attitude. Nothing could stop us.”
By Jackie Headapohl, managing editor