An Immigrant Experience

Editor’s note: Gilles Raymond is the Founder and CEO of News Republic, which offers news from 1,000 licensed content partners worldwide. He previously founded, successfully grew and sold two mobile app companies – IN-FUSIO and Mobilescope.

Four times in my life I have been an immigrant: in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Singapore, and currently in San Francisco.

Each time I have enjoyed a certain level of comfort (with many of my expenses covered by a company). But, every time, I have still had to grapple daily with language difficulties, cultural gaps, and constant minor, day-to-day life issues.

Being an immigrant gives you an external, objective view on the country welcoming you, and also, after few months, on the country you left behind.

Arriving in San Francisco I was intrigued by an interview with Paul Graham. Paul noted that non-Americans are less likely to build a successful company because of their accents.

I agree that not speaking fluent English is an additional challenge for any professional in the high-tech sector. In a world ̶where communication has become both art and science, where media and conferences are key to spreading ideas, where videos and TV dominate the world of news, where evangelization and elevator pitches are critical skills ̶ the art of public speaking is a key success factor.

It is wrong, however, to focus only on the issue of having foreign accent. As a serial entrepreneur, I know that creating a successful company goes beyond the ability to pitch it. Execution, team management, vision, and passion are also crucial elements for success.

The Facts are Friendly

Delving into this subject, and determined to search beyond the usual explanations, I found that three powerful elements demonstrate that immigration is actually a source of wealth and innovation in Silicon Valley.

An outstanding NYT article written by Gregor Aish, Robert Gebeloff and Kevin Quealy charted how Americans and non-Americans have moved from one state to another. As quoted in the article “Migration can reveal the dynamism of a state’s economy or a cultural renaissance”.

California is an interesting case study. From 1940 to 1975 the massive immigration to California came from other US States. By 2012, these migrants from other US states represented only 15% of the Californian influx vs 28% from outside the US. The non US immigration moved from 16% in 1980 to 28% (+75%) in 2012. In both the other biggest GDP contributor states, Texas and New York you also see a significant growth of non US immigration. In 1980, 14% of New Yorkers were born outside US, 24% in 2012. For Texas this growth in foreign-born immigrants went from 7% to 17%. The first basic conclusion can be that when an economy grows, it needs a larger, skilled workforce and therefore opens doors to migrants from abroad.

The answer is probably more complex, and if the first statement is right, one top down and one bottom up element leads to stronger conclusion.

Global research conducted by Duke University and the University of California, Berkeley published in October 2012 shows that on average, in the USA, 24% of companies in engineering or technology have one or more immigrants as a founder. This criteria reaches even 44% in Silicon Valley. It means almost half of high-tech companies have an immigrant non-US citizen as a key founder. So immigrants are creating values and jobs for the US economy and American workforces vs. just supplying labor for new work opportunities.

High-tech companies founded or co-founded by immigrants generated half a million jobs and $63 billion in sales in 2012. This is powerful evidence that even with a foreign accent you can be successful in the US.

But the most interesting fact is the number of foreigners who founded highly successful U.S. companies. Here are some notable examples:

  • Intel was set up by Andy Grove, who was 20 when he moved to the U.S. from his native Hungary. He is famous for speaking with a strong accent. Intel’s market cap is today north $100 billion.
  • Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar was born in Paris, and moved to US when he was a child. Ebay is valued at about $70 billion.
  • Yahoo was co-founded by Jerry Yang, a Taiwanese who moved to the U.S. at the age of 10, knowing only one word in English « shoe ». Yahoo’s market cap is $27 billion.
  • Google co-founder Sergey Brin was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 6. Google’s market cap is close to $400 billion.
  • Arianna Huffington was born in Greece and became a US citizen in 1990. She sold The Huffington Post for $315 million to AOL.
  • Tesla founder Elon Musk was born in South Africa and moved to the U.S. at 21. Tesla is worth approximately $22 billion.
  • And last, Jan Koum was born in Kiev (Ukraine), moved to US at 16 years old. He is the founder and CEO of WhatsApp, recently valued $19 billion by Facebook.

This phenomenon is called the “American Dream” – coming from anywhere in the world and from any part of society – rich or poor, educated or uneducated, and achieving your dreams of wealth and success.

As I saw these data points, I wondered why there are so many non-US born Americans in so many amazingly successful companies?

The answer is probably very complex. Nevertheless two major personal motivation factors are interesting tracks to explore as a common factor: resilience and Darwinian intelligence

Recently, I had the great pleasure to share a one-to-one dinner with a very successful Chinese businessman, a board member of a multi-billion dollar market cap company who has been living and working abroad for years. He told me the story of his childhood and how he was starving when he was a kid. He was part of a large family with many sisters and brothers. Despite the family’s lack of food, his mother shared their food with neighbors who were even poorer. When he asked his mother why she was giving food to the neighbors, his mother said “It is good for you to starve.”

Beyond the famous Nietzsche statement “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”, it is one of the many good examples of the psychological resilience of the young. The ability of a child to adapt to a difficult environment might lead him to over perform later on. Immigrant children usually went through a tough time in their initial country, or had many challenges to face when they arrived in the new country. These experiences gave them the will to move forward, channeling their hard times into a source of energy. In addition to offering them the origin of the resilience effect, it gave them the opportunity to train and develop their “Darwinian intelligence”.

Charles Darwin stipulated that “Intelligence is based on how efficient a species became at doing the things it needs to survive.” Nowadays, in such a fast changing environment, the main intelligence for survival may have little to do with the skills learned at school. On the run, the most crucial intelligence is the one defined by Charles Darwin:

When I asked my 12-year-old daughter what her biggest challenge as a newcomer to America is, she spontaneously answered “I cannot fully be myself. I have to adapt to be accepted.” As Aristotle stated “Man is by nature a social animal”. Being an immigrant forces you to evolve quickly, to modify yourself to the new environment.

For an immigrant, almost overnight, everything that was acquired as absolute truth becomes irrelevant in the new country. The differences begin with the way you say good morning, your sense of humor, the way you dress, and what you like to eat for lunch. It is a complete loss of reference that has to be rebuilt as fast as possible for your survival. For the newcomer, from now to the coming years it is a daily practice of his “Darwin Intelligence”.

There is no doubt that immigrants are facing many challenges on their road to success, and language is one of them. Those fences are small compared to the energy provided by an immigrant’s background. Resilience and the ability to adapt to a changing world are the most important fundamental qualities to become successful. For the last 300 years immigrants have contributed to the success of US, and continue to do so. It is the responsibility of US political leaders to guarantee that this three-centuries old behavior continues, for it is what has boosted US to the number one nation in the world.

Image via Shutterstock user Sanchai Kumar