August 21, 1982. That was the day Thomas Chen landed at Kennedy Airport from Taiwan. He was 27, had little cash, spoke no English and knew only one person in his new home.
"I came to America to find opportunity," he says simply.
By most accounts, he's achieved that goal. Today, Chen is president and one of the co-founders of Crystal Window & Door Systems, which last year booked $42 million in sales and has some 450 employees working at offices in eight states.
Yes, the soft-spoken man is rich. However, money isn't this entrepreneur's only animating force.
"After a point, the money isn't important," Chen insists. "You want your dream to keep going. I want to keep expanding our business. The second dream is to create more jobs and to give back to the community."
It didn't take long for Chen to start adjusting in his early days in New York. Within two weeks of arrival he found a job working for a moving company. It paid $40 a day, and Chen considered himself lucky to get it.
"Because of the language barrier, I couldn't do anything," he recalls. "Most of the [available] jobs were low-paying, labor jobs. I needed to learn the language first."
Within a month of his arrival, Chen had signed up for English classes, spending his early earnings on private tutoring and group classes.
The money that was left over was stashed into savings (he received raises, and found better-paying jobs as his language skills improved). Within 18 months, Chen had salted away $10,000. A former metal worker in Taiwan who had never been to college, he decided it was smart to spend the money on a business he'd know best: welding.
In his basement apartment, he fashioned steel into window bars and gates, then sold the safety devices to customers in Chinatown and Flushing. Meanwhile, he read books and took classes on business management. The research paid off; He did well enough to start Crystal in 1987 with two partners.
Though his finances and lifestyle have change drastically, Chen has acute memories of his not-so-distant past. And because of his experience, he is committed to hiring recent immigrants who have similar dreams of success. To help them, Chen's ensured that Crystal provides free English classes for employees. He also has given Queensborough Community College a $250,000 endowment to provide scholarships so immigrants can enroll in the school's intensive English classes for free.
"He's not only a donor, he's a role model," said college president Eduardo Marti.