How 12 Immigrant Entrepreneurs Have Made America Great
Witnessing the immigration debate unfold in America over the past several years has, for me, been the conversation that sparked my response.
Perhaps this conversation is especially meaningful because of my work as a leadership coach for immigrants where I often partner with immigrant entrepreneurs whose drive and impact I admire.
Perhaps it’s because I worked for startups led by international founders whose choice to start businesses in America created jobs for people in office buildings that, somewhat poetically, had views of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
Perhaps it’s because my family’s history includes surviving the Soviet Union and moving to America when I was just 5 years old.
Regardless of my own experience or take on the matter, immigration remains a focal point of American politics and culture with increasing importance. It’s vital that we discuss what immigrants bring to their country of choice: sizable contributions to business, technology, and entrepreneurship.
In the United States, the narrative of immigrants becoming successful entrepreneurs may sound like a well-worn fable of the American Dream.
Some may call it “fake news”.
However, statistics enforce the fact that immigrants are vital to the American economy.
- One in four American entrepreneurs are immigrants, a number that has increased dramatically over the past decades.
- When it comes to starting businesses, 40% of new companies have an immigrant involved in their founding.
- Of the 2017 Fortune 500 list companies, nearly half were founded by immigrants or their children.
As an immigrant myself from Ukraine, I have gained a perspective about immigration that others may not have had the opportunity to develop.
To provide greater context about what immigration sparks, consider these twelve immigrants who embraced the opportunity and brought something great to America:
Hamdi Ulukaya — Chobani
Born in Turkey to a family of sheep farmers, Hamdi Ulukaya arrived in the United States in 1994 to study, unaware that, 11 years later, he would found Chobani, one of the best-selling yogurt brands in America.
When Ulukaya discovered a Kraft yogurt factory in Upstate New York in the midst of closing, he purchased what would become Chobani’s first production facility. Bringing the Greek yogurt he’d grown up with to American supermarkets paid off, allowing Ulukaya to reemploy many of the former Kraft employees.
Ulukaya’s incredible immigrant story doesn’t end with his own; 30% of Chobani’s employees are refugees or immigrants.
Phil Libin — Evernote
When Phil Libin immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union, his family settled in a rough Bronx neighborhood, a noticeable change from their uncharacteristically comfortable life in St. Petersburg.
However, Libin’s knack for computers flourished throughout high school and soon led to well-paid programming gigs, a spot at Boston University, and, later, made him a tech entrepreneur and millionaire. Before the 1990s were over, Libin had sold two ventures for $26M and $24M.
Evernote’s 200 million users are well-acquainted with Libin’s most recent contribution to technology and productivity — and Evernote’s $1B valuation.
Levi Strauss — Levi Strauss & Co.
Now a staple of startup casual, jeans were once a utilitarian fashion breakthrough, ushered in by German immigrant, Levi Strauss.
Having settled first in New York City, Strauss headed west when the gold rush heated up in San Francisco. Expanding his family’s dry goods business, he partnered with Jacob Davis, a tailor from Reno, Nevada, to patent and produce the long-lasting, reliable workwear that lived well beyond the gold rush: blue jeans.
Passing on the wealth of his empire, Strauss became one of the most prolific philanthropists of San Francisco, providing 28 scholarships to the University of California, Berkeley, and supporting several charities.
By the time Strauss passed away in 1902, he’d amassed a fortune of $6 million and helped establish a brand that, today, boasts $4.6B in annual revenue and employs over 13,000 people worldwide.
Sergey Brin — Google/Alphabet
Long before we used “Google” as a verb, Sergey Brin escaped the former Soviet Union, moving to America to avoid Jewish persecution at the hands of the Communist Party.
A young computer enthusiast, Brin excelled in computer science and attended Stanford University where he met future Google co-founder, Larry Page, and released the first version of Google in 1996.
Best known for his contributions as Google’s co-founder and the President of Alphabet which increased his net worth to $56.3B, Brin has invested in Tesla Motors and space tourism, expanding his focus to include backing Mosa Meat, a lab-grown meat startup.
Jan Koum — WhatsApp
Starting life in rural Ukraine, it would have been hard to imagine that Jan Koum would one day start and sell a billion-dollar company.
Fleeing persecution in Ukraine as a teenager, Koum settled with his family in Mountain View, California, an ideal landing pad for a budding computer enthusiast. After dropping out of San Jose State University, working at Yahoo, and failing to be hired at Facebook, Koum eventually partnered with other programmers and, in 2009, founded WhatsApp.
Ignoring offers from venture capitalists, WhatsApp boomed in popularity and Facebook took notice, purchasing the 5-year-old company for $19B. As a self-made billionaire and Facebook board member, Koum donated $555M in Facebook shares to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation shortly after selling WhatsApp.
Rashmi Sinha — SlideShare
Earning an undergraduate degree in her native India, Rashmi Sinha came to the US to complete her Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuropsychology at Brown, an impressive accomplishment that later influenced her entrepreneurial journey and product creation.
After graduating from Brown, she started several successful tech businesses in the Bay Area and, in 2006, Sinha leveraged her tech background to develop Slideshare, combining the power of social media and information sharing.
In 2012, LinkedIn purchased SlideShare for just over $118M leading Sinha to return to life as an entrepreneur.
I.M. Pei — I.M. Pei & Associates
Now a 101-year-old architecture and design icon, I.M. Pei was born in China, moving to the United States in 1935 to study architecture. Briefly advising the National Defense Resource Council on strategically bombing Japanese and German infrastructure, Pei eventually returned to his passion for creation.
Founding I.M. Pei & Associates in 1955, Pei spent a career building iconic buildings around the globe, from the Louvre Pyramids to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum to the Bank of China Tower, leaving an impact on the skylines of cities around the United States and abroad.
Several of Pei’s children continue their father’s legacy of architecture and design, today running Pei Partnership Architects in New York City.
Toni Ko — NYX Cosmetics
Immigrating from South Korea to Southern California, Toni Ko came up in a family of entrepreneurs, working in her family’s cosmetics business from the ages of 13 to 25.
Realizing she wanted to leave the family business, Ko started her own venture, a cosmetics brand that took on luxury brands at affordable prices, NYX Cosmetics. As the company smashed sales goals and the 2008 financial crisis sent shoppers in search of affordable products, NYX Cosmetics products found their way from Ko’s rented 600-square-foot storefront to the shelves of major retailers.
When L’Oreal purchased NYX Cosmetics in 2014, her big gamble paid off to the tune of $500M. Continuing her immigrant entrepreneur journey, Ko launched sunglass brand, PERVERSE, in 2016.
Andy Grove — Intel
After surviving the Nazi occupation of Budapest with his Jewish family, Andy Grove faced dire times again in 1956 when he was forced to escape Communist Hungary and enter the United States as a refugee.
With little money or opportunity, Grove worked odd jobs and studied chemical engineering, eventually earning his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.
What Grove is best known for is something that changed technology forever: revolutionizing Intel and microprocessors. As CEO and President, Grove grew Intel to the 7th largest company in the world and employed 64,000 people during his leadership.
After retiring from Intel, Grove lectured at Stanford University, donated $26M to the City College of New York, and served on the board of directors for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), later named a distinguished refugee by the organization.
Pierre Omidyar — eBay
Pierre Omidyar, born in Paris to Iranian immigrant parents, arrived in Baltimore because of his father’s medical residency at Johns Hopkins University. As Omidyar and his interest in computers grew, so did his early entrepreneurial attempts that led to varied success.
It wasn’t until he built a platform to help his future wife buy and sell Pez dispensers online that he struck gold, eventually naming the company: eBay.
As collectors took to the site, eBay’s popularity and profitability grew, quickly becoming one of the most visited websites on the Internet and changing the way people buy and sell.
Omidyar, now worth around $11B, continues to inspire and support other entrepreneurs through his venture capital firm, Omidyar Technology Ventures.
Mike Krieger — Instagram
After immigrating to the United States to study at Stanford University, Mike Krieger, a Brazilian tech entrepreneur, met Kevin Systrom through Burbn, an early photo, and location sharing app.
As Krieger and Systrom worked together, they transformed Burbn into a new platform, launching Instagram to almost immediate success. Upon launch, servers crashed due to excessive downloads and even led to a desperate call to Facebook’s former chief technology officer, Adam D’Angelo, seeking a solution.
Of course, the path to being purchased by Facebook for $1B was not without its challenges; Krieger was nearly forced out of Instagram and the United States due to H1-B visa complications.
Eren Bali — Udemy
Eren Bali’s crowded one-room schoolhouse left much to be desired for a child curious about math and science in a small Turkish village.
Bali’s first exposure to the Internet introduced him to mathematics forums that provided the knowledge and growth he missed at school, leading him to place second in the International Math Olympiads.
Seeing the potential for online education, Bali built a company with co-founder Oktay Caglar in Turkey for six years before moving to the Silicon Valley area to continue their work on what would become Udemy, an online course, and learning platform.
After more than fifty rejections by investors, Udemy found traction and funding. Now, Udemy educates 24M students through 35,000 instructors globally, an exponential result from Bali’s early frustrations with traditional education.
In a 2000 Esquire article, Andy Grove of Intel wrote: “It is a very important truism that immigrants and immigration are what made America what it is. We must be vigilant as a nation to have a tolerance for differences, a tolerance for new people.”
Nearly twenty years later, Grove’s words are even more relevant as America continues to succeed as a nation of immigrants and entrepreneurs despite misguided nationalist policies and short-sighted challenges to legal immigration.
It has been immigrants, bringing their unique skills, resilience, and diversity from abroad, who have made America great, from Main Street to Wall Street.