Best Big Idea

America has given the world some amazing ideas, but this one tops them all.

from Reader's Digest Magazine | May 2004

The American Dream. Kaleil Isaza Tuzman moved to the United States from Colombia when he was 15. Within a few years he was hustling to get ahead, hawking customized baseball caps to pay the bills his Harvard scholarships didn’t cover.

After graduating, he landed on Wall Street, but every night he dreamed of working for himself. During the booming ’90s, he got a shot when he and a partner started govWorks — a software company that helped municipal governments go online.

They raised $60 million and expanded like crazy. Then dotcoms started turning into dotbombs — govWorks imploded too. Says Isaza Tuzman, “Entrepreneurs have to be ready for both success and failure. In Colombia if you fail, you become a pariah and no one will do business with you. The wonderful thing about this country is you can get up again.”

From national parks to moon landings, America has given the world some amazing ideas. But the American Dream is still the biggest — the stubborn notion that with hard work and a bit of luck you can be whoever you want to be. Historian James Truslow Adams once wrote that Americans believe “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

These days there’s pressure on the dream idea. A 1978 study of boys born and raised after World War II found an astonishing 23% of the poorest had reached the top of the income heap by 1973. Now, in a typical generation, only 10% work their way from bottom to top.

But every day, some still do make it. After govWorks went bust, Isaza Tuzman built on what he had learned. His newer company, KIT Capital, restructures firms and finds them venture capital. In 2003, Hispanic Business magazine named him to its 100 Most Influential list. Not bad for a dreamer, in a country big on dreams.

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