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Against all odds: The sheer force of immigrant startup founders

USCIS Independence Day 2024: Welcoming 11,000 New Citizens Across America

Magazine, TechCrunch, Niko Bonatso

I’ve long said that I don’t care where you come from, if your name is hard to say, or you have a “funny” accent. There’s a reason for that. For centuries, some of America’s biggest companies have been founded by immigrants. Beyond household names like Levi Strauss (Germany) and Elon Musk (South Africa), more than half of unicorns in the U.S. today came from the minds of scrappy entrepreneurs who were born outside the United States. This country’s economy wouldn’t be the same without them.

It’s not easy to move to a new country to join an industry or found a company. Especially not when political moods can easily shift to create new headwinds. We’ve seen this happen periodically with U.S. immigration policy and visa programs. (I am hopeful that President-elect Biden’s more positive stance will lessen those headwinds in the very near future.)

Yet, despite the challenges of being an immigrant, so many have carved their own path to success. What makes them so special? What is it about immigrants, in particular, that so often leads to such impressive founder stories? Why are they twice as likely as native-born Americans to become entrepreneurs?

The short answer is: Everything that seems to work against them ends up being a huge advantage. From political roadblocks, to cultural barriers, to market differences, immigrants have a knack for transforming challenges into strengths.

Business as unusual: Visas and perseverance

On the surface, one might think a great idea is all it takes to secure a coveted visa and launch a startup in the U.S. Sadly, for immigrants, there are several steps they need to take first (and a lot of red tape to get past). While the U.K., Germany, Canada, Chile and other countries offer straightforward startup visa options, the same can’t be said for the U.S., where plans for a similar startup visa were quashed in 2017. Further airtight immigration restrictions under the Trump administration make it extremely difficult for entrepreneurs trying to start their company in America.

It’s no secret that perseverance is key to success for anybody in any field, but foreign-born entrepreneurs have no choice but to make it part of their journey. Just look at Eric Yuan. He might not be a household name, but the China-born entrepreneur was denied a visa eight times in the 1990s before finally landing a job at WebEx and ultimately founding the $35 billion company we all know and love (and need) today: Zoom.

Time and time again, immigrants have proven their scrappiness and found a way to work within the United States’ complicated visa system. Whether they’re getting creative with student visa options, or have the sheer willpower to try again six or seven or eight times, even before starting their companies, immigrant founders often prove they have the resilience needed to overcome any obstacle.

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