I had intended to publish a different blog post today, but decided at the last second to instead blog about my grandfather, Dominic Mercadante.
You see, Grandpa Dominic (who passed away when I was only a year old) wasn’t an entrepreneur. He wasn’t a business owner. But there is a lot that entrepreneurs and business owners can learn from his story.
Dominic grew up in Gravina, Italy, a small rural town in the Puglia region of southern Italy. When World War I started, Dominic and his five other brothers all went off to war to fight for Italy.
During the war, Dominic fought near the Austrian-Italian border and found his unit surrounded in a small town. When they ran out of food, they hunted rats. At one point, all they had to drink was vermouth and wine. Finally, they surrendered, and he spent the remainder of the war in a prison camp in what is now the Czech Republic.
Upon returning home after the war, he found that all five of his brothers survived (which is quite remarkable). Their father had died, however, and the postwar economy was tough. All five of Dominic’s brothers found work, but he could not. Finally, it was decided that Dominic would leave his homeland to travel to one of two place to find a better life — the United States or Argentina.
Choosing the United States, he set off on a ship headed for Ellis Island in New York City. While on the boat, he began formulating a plan to find work. He met a fellow Italian who had already been promised work as a piano polisher. When they arrived in New York, Dominic accompanied this fellow immigrant and was able to get work at the same employer.
A new immigrant. He didn’t speak a word of English. Didn’t have two pennies to rub together. But he had a job.
After a while, he applied for a job as a trolley driver — and got it. He would continue working as a trolley (and later, a bus) driver for the rest of his career.
The salary was minimal, to be sure. But he saved his money. He eventually met my Grandma Emily, had two kids — and kept working hard and saving his money. Through the Great Depression. Through World War II. Good times — and not-so-good times.
He saved enough money, in fact, to put my father through college (the University of Notre Dame, no less).
A truly American life.
As an entrepreneur, what lessons have I learned from my grandfather’s story? For starters:
1) No challenge is too great to overcome.
As entrepreneurs know, our careers can sometimes be marked by tremendous highs and lows. We have good years. We have not-so-good years. We have clients who drive us nuts. We have clients who leave. But not matter how challenging of a turn my career path takes, I always remember how challenging those first days off the boat must’ve been for Dominic. A new country; thousands of miles from his family and friends; penniless and not speaking a word of English.
And a realize that my problems aren’t so bad, after all.
2) The man with the plan wins.
My dad always used to tell me that “the man with the plan wins”. As an adult, I now realize he must’ve gotten that from his father. Dominic had a plan to come to this country, get a job, succeed, save money, and build a family. And he did it. He didn’t get bogged down or paralyzed by the sheer enormity of his problems. He put one foot in front of the other and chipped away at his challenges until he succeeded.
I know all too many people — entrepreneurs and wannabe entrepreneurs — who do get bogged down by the enormity of their challenges. They become paralyzed and think too far down the line when they should be focused on the very next step they need to move forward. It may sound cliche, but you need to plan your work, and work your plan.
3) Risk takers make the world go ‘round.
It surely wasn’t easy to leave Italy and move to the “New World.” It was a big risk. But Dominic jumped in with both feet and, by the end of his long, adventurous life, he had built quite a family here in America. If he had never taken that risk, he wouldn’t have met my Grandma Emily and had my father and my Aunt Rose. Aunt Rose would’ve never met my Uncle Bill and had their six kids (my cousins), who have given my Aunt Rose and Uncle Bill a gazillion grandchildren. My cousins, and their children, have done everything from building hotels, to publishing newspapers to protecting the President of the United States, to managing hospitals that save lives every single day.
If Dominic wouldn’t have taken that risk, my father would’ve never met his first wife (who passed) and then my mother, and had me and my sister and three brothers. Each of us has numerous children who are set to change the world. My father led an incredible life, which included developing the first digital sewing machine; working on technology for military aircraft; helping develop technology for the Mars Mariner Spacecraft; and holding a patent for the switches on the Boeing 777 aircraft.
Of course, I could get into a lot more detail of how Dominic’s family and extended family are impacting the world — but you get the idea. It was all made possible by the extraordinary risks he took.
He wasn’t an entrepreneur. He wasn’t a small business owner. But his story can guide us.
Take risks. Stick to your plan. Keep forward motion. Meet your challenges head-on.
Thanks, Grandpa Dominic (and my father, Nick, who passed last year) for teaching me these lessons, and more.