Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Birthday America, or Startups and Immigrants

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me"
        - "The New Colossus," Emma Lazarus, 1883

This year I'm especially proud to be an American. Working in VC has given me insight into so many founders' stories and helped me see how much of our innovation has come from immigrants and their children. US immigration policy is unnecessarily restrictive, but once you are here the sky is the limit. Other countries may have higher percentages of foreign-born citizens, and there are always the gold rush countries de jour (China and Dubai come to mind in recent times), but those places will never accept outsiders as their own. America is still the place whose national dream anyone can aspire to, and this is why the world's hungriest and most ambitious individuals still to come here to seek their fortunes, as they have for centuries. Democracy, capitalism, freedom of speech, and rule of law are the foundation; but immigration is the engine that will keep America exceptional long after China's economic growth slows.


Exhibit A: Some of the country's biggest entrepreneurial success stories in recent years, and where their immigrant founders or co-founders hailed from:
  • Amazon: Jeff Bezos, adopted at age 4 by his mother's second husband, a Cuban refugee [1]
  • Apple: Steve Jobs' biological father was Syrian 
  • Ebay: Pierre Omidyar, French (family was Persian immigrants)
  • Dropbox: Arash Ferdowsi, 1st generation Iranian-American
  • Google: Sergey Brin, Russia
  • Intel: Andy Grove, Hungary 
  • Sun: Vinod Khosla, India; Andy Bechtolsheim, Germany (family also moved through Italy)
  • Oracle: Bob Miner, 1st generation Iranian-American
  • PayPal: Peter Thiel, Germany; Max Levchin, Ukraine; Elon Musk, South Africa; Luke Nosek, Poland
  • Space X, Tesla: Elon Musk, South Africa
  • Yahoo: Jerry Yang, Taiwan
  • YouTube: Steve Chen, Taiwan; Jawed Karim, Germany (via Bengali parents)
  • Zappos: Nick Swinmurn, England; Tony Hsieh, 1st generation Taiwanese-American
It's not just number or famous people; it's at every level.

Exhibit B: According to recent research by the Kaufman Foundation and Rasmussen College, Latinos were 16% of the US population in 2010, but accounted for 23% of entrepreneurs [2]. This statistic is important because much of the current debate over immigration focuses on Hispanic immigrants, and opponents of easing immigration restrictions like to portray Hispanics as somehow different and not believing in US values.

Exhibit C is from last week's NYC Data Business Meetup. All three founders presenting were born outside the US, as were five of the six total people on stage: Todd, the founder and CEO of Continnuuity is from the UK; Dennis, the founder and CEO of Visual Revenue is from Denmark; with him was his Dutch data scientist Jeroen; and Neil, CEO and co-founder of Sailthru is another Brit. The event was organized by Matt Turck (France) and Shivon Zillis (first generation, India) of Bloomberg Ventures [3]. 

Exhibit D is from the Genacast portfolio: Enterproid, who creates the leading BYOD platform and whose office I am currently working out of, has three co-founders, of which one hails from England and another Hong Kong. Another Genacast comapny, DoubleVerify, was founded by a pair of Israelis. Gil himself is 1st generation Israeli-American.

[1] Jeff Bezos: The Founder of by Ann Beyers. The link goes to the relevant chapter.

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