By Gerelyn Terzo
The immigrant community has been instrumental in building some of the most innovative companies in America. According to a 2018 study by the National Foundation for American Policy, more than half — or 55%— of U.S. unicorns (privately held companies valued at $1 billion or more) were started by immigrants. While the report may be a couple of years old, the trend has never been more apparent, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic that has left many in the immigrant community feeling abandoned.
Video conferencing platform Zoom has filled a void throughout the pandemic, one that resulted from global lockdown measures that prevented people from traveling and led to a surge in demand for video calls. As a result in recent days, Zoom impressed Wall Street with its first-quarter financial results, which included an eye-popping 169% increase in revenue compared to one-year-ago results.
It’s hard to imagine that Zoom — which has become a household name during the pandemic — might never have seen the light of day were it not for the persistence of its founder, Eric Yuan. These days, Zoom is the go-to platform for everything from meetings between teachers and students to entertainment and concerts.
Yuan is a Chinese immigrant who was denied a U.S. visa eight times before “lucky No. 9” paved the way for him to come to California. According to the Financial Times, he might have arrived in the United States a whole lot sooner were it not for what he describes as a “petty misunderstanding” involving an immigration official, which had a domino effect and created a false impression that he was not truthful on the application. However, Yuan was not deterred and revealed in an interview with Bloomberg that he was prepared to submit the application 20 or 30 times before he got the approval.
It was during those flights between China and the United States, when Yuan was visiting his wife (then girlfriend), that the origins of Zoom were seemingly born, though it was years before the company launched. Yuan first took a job at Webex, where he worked before the company was acquired by networking giant Cisco in 2007. But management at the tech giant couldn’t appreciate Yuan’s vision for video conferencing, which led him to quit and create Zoom alone.
In 2018, Yuan was spotlighted as the No. 1 CEO by Glasssdoor, where he boasted a near-perfect employee approval rating. The Zoom chief joined an exclusive club whose members extend to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, and Sundar Pichai, among others. Yuan told Bloomberg, “For me as an immigrant, I’ve got to work harder and harder to make sure people are happy, keep our customers happy, and I think we should be fine.”
Today, Yuan’s net worth exceeds $10 billion. He attributes his success to the principles that he learned from his father, which he sums up as “hard work and stay humble,” coupled with Silicon Valley’s “openness to people from different backgrounds.”
Immigrant Contribution to Corporate America
Zoom is one in a sea of successful companies whose founders migrated from other countries. Uber Co-Founder, Garrett Camp, came to the United States from Canada. SpaceX Founder, Elon Musk, is a South African native who migrated to the United States via Canada. Palantir’s founder, Peter Thiel, came to America from Germany when he was only one.
Musk, perhaps the most high-profile U.S. immigrant entrepreneurs, came to the country when he was in his 20s on an H-1B visa. He has since gone on to build a handful of multi-billion dollar companies, which in addition to SpaceX, includes electric vehicle maker Tesla. These days Musk has his sights set on building a city on Mars and recently launched two astronauts into orbit for SpaceX. To this day, Musk has triple citizenship in the United States, Canada, and South Africa.
If you’ve ever enjoyed one of the KIND bars, you might be surprised to learn that the company’s founder, Daniel Lubetzky, migrated to the United States from Mexico, which is one of the many countries that has seen increased business opportunity due to the proliferation of online money transfer platforms.
Lubetzky came to the United States when he was just 16 years old and went on to launch KIND in 2004. In addition to being an American immigrant, his dad was also a Holocaust survivor. In fact, it was an act of kindness that his father experienced that inspired the KIND brand. Lubetzky explained that during WWII, a German soldier secretly threw a potato by his father’s feet, which gave him the fortitude needed to survive.
“For him to have pity on another human being from the other side and take that risk showed that sometimes you can find moments of kindness and light the darkest of moments,” said Lubetzky.
The KIND founder says he is able to recognize and appreciate the things that Americans tend to take for granted, such as the “entrepreneurial culture” in which he started his business. His advantage in part comes from an appreciation for the free market system and democracy in the United States that are not as prevalent in other countries where nepotism and monopolies thwart economic freedom.
Meanwhile, Zoom’s Yuan isn’t the only entrepreneur who had to sweat it out. Jyoti Bansal, founder of AppDynamics, had his sights on coming to Silicon Valley amid a fascination with startups when he was living in a small town in India. As the son of a business owner, Bansal studied software engineering and received an employment-based green card on Independence Day in 2000, paving the way for him to eventually launch his business. However, it didn’t happen overnight.
Bansal describes a U.S. immigration system that is overly complex and presents challenges as immigrants pursue getting a greencard. This hurdle was particularly acute in his own journey since he was determined to work for a startup but they often don’t have the ability to handle visa processing and costs.
Due to red tapism surrounding the H-1B visa, he was prevented from starting his own business and had to work for another startup instead. It wasn’t until 2007 that he received the employment authorization document (EAD) that he needed to launch AppDynamics. In 2017, Bansal sold his business to Cisco for 3.7 billion USD.
Despite all of the challenges that U.S. immigrants face, entrepreneurs from other countries have contributed immensely to American society while creating tens of thousands of jobs.
Gerelyn Terzo is a freelance writer for numerous online outlets.