Your Favorite Startup or Venture Capital Firm Was Founded By An Immigrant
By: Paytra Gessler
The word “immigrant” is something to be worn loud and proud on your chest. Immigration has brought and continues to bring some of the most innovative minds leading the top companies in the world — cough cough Elon Musk (we had to, he’s always trending on Twitter). In fact, 48% of today’s Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children and the number keeps growing.
So why has the narrative shifted to make immigration seem bad for the economy? Immigrant-owned businesses are creating hundreds of thousands of jobs here in America. Foreign-born startups are moving to the USA to grow. Our top tech advances in this century can be traced back to immigrants.
The immigrant experience with entrepreneurship in the USA is unlike any other. We sat down with two of Founders Committee’s own, Daniel Merja (Albanian native) and Liridon Fetahu (Kosovo native) about their experience moving to New York City and building a business as an immigrant (no, they didn’t bribe us to write this).
What’s your elevator pitch? What do you do?
Liridon: I have worked in the finance/accounting departments of fortune 500 companies. Outside of my professional career, I am also a freelancer helping small businesses and individuals with their bookkeeping, tax, and business consulting needs.
Daniel: Bond, James Bond. Kidding! In short, I’m an electronics engineer and finance person with a passion for entrepreneurship. On a day-to-day basis, I co-run a syndicate VC with my amazing team: Founders Committee.
What was the turning point in your life that you realized you wanted to create this company?
Liridon: I have always been fascinated by the markets and the way they channel limited resources to their best use and venture capital is just one channel. Every aspect has to be perfect, or at least close to it! This is where the venture capital firm can have an impact by guiding each portfolio company to success. I have seen this behavior in many of the major banks and firms and naturally that sparked my interest to be involved more directly.
Daniel: It made sense to create FC after experiencing first-hand the life of the startup founder, and the challenges you face. Yes, it’s about innovation, but innovation costs- and venture capital was the answer! But, a group of angel investors forming a syndicate and helping you take your first steps is the go-to today.
What part(s) of your country or culture has directly influenced your idea to build your company(s)?
Liridon: I couldn’t say that any one aspect of my culture had a direct influence in business because over there it’s quite the opposite. Instead of creating ideas or taking the risk and building a company from the ground up, everybody expects the government to resolve their life’s problems. Maybe this is what influenced me. I am the exact opposite and believe that you have to take a risk in order to achieve anything in life. You can’t just expect someone else to resolve your problems. This is very reflective of the coffee culture in my country and the poor overall business environment.
Daniel: The school system in Albania is very intellectual, yet lacks education on real-world situations and hands-on experience. Our culture is a mix of “you have to be the smartest kid in the class” and “be wise about your decisions.” Thankfully, immigrating to the USA gave me the push to obtain the actual experience I needed to build my company.
What do you feel has been more difficult about your experience as opposed to someone who is born in the USA?
Liridon: The most important thing for me was to adjust my immigration status. It goes without saying that without your paperwork, there’s not much you can do in the USA. This is a very lengthy and expensive process- an obstacle that someone who was born in the USA doesn’t have to worry about. In fact, I couldn’t get permanent employment from one of the companies I contracted for because it required a higher clearing level which you can only have if you are a US citizen.
Daniel: Imagine this: you are racing someone for many years and the odds are against you. The person you are racing is already 16 years ahead of you, and the referee says now it’s time for you to start. Now I have to run twice or thrice as fast to catch up and try to outrun the person I just passed. Being born in the USA has its benefits, but I’ve learned to run the race faster to catch up- and that is an invaluable lesson.
What do you feel has been easier about your experience as an immigrant?
Liridon: Everything is harder as an immigrant.
Daniel: Being an immigrant is never easier. For example, when I was a student with a visa, I was not able to work full-time like the permanent residents and citizens. Not to mention I was only on this visa by luck since my name was picked from the lottery. Yeah- literally a lottery. Don’t even get me started on those 50–80 pages of applications and paperwork folders!
Do you have a specific moment/experience to share where your roots affected (either positively or negatively) a business interaction?
Liridon: Well, this one is a double-edged sword and depends on who you ask, but I have never concerned myself with obscure opinions and politics. Where I come from, people tend to be direct, which is better than beating around the bush in my opinion. However, being direct could also lead to prejudice where the person who is being direct is seen as ‘aggressive’ so it is very important to make sure the directness comes across as constructive and not destructive.
Daniel: I guess the positive side was that back home people interacted a lot and business was usually conducted in person, so it helped me learn salesmanship at a very young age.
What advice would you give to another person from your country trying to follow a similar path as you?
Liridon: Fix your papers, keep an open mind, get integrated in this great pool of cultures with smart people, and embrace new ideas.
Daniel: Either do it all the way or not at all. Also, read everything that you can possibly read and become your own attorney. The immigrant life is tough but with hard work, luck, and determination- everything can be achieved. Let’s not forget that we are a nation of immigrants!