Immigration is deeply intertwined with American startups as many highly successful companies were founded by immigrants. A 2016 study by the National Foundation for American Policy reported that over 50% (44 of 87) of American startups valued at over $1 billion were founded by immigrants. We wanted to touch on a few of the 44 immigrant founders who have really made a splash in the startup world.
Probably the most famous of the bunch, Elon was born in South Africa. He then moved to Canada at the age of 18 where he started his college career before transferring to and graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. Musk gained his US citizenship in 2002.
Elon co-founded PayPal in 2001and received about $165 million from its sale to eBay. Musk also founded SpaceX, a company on the forefront of space exploration, and he was an early chairman of the board of directors at Tesla Motors, where he now serves as CEO. Elon’s current net worth is about $12.7 billion.
The founder of WhatsApp, Jan was born in Ukraine. He ironically moved to Mountain View, CA aka Silicon Valley at the age of 16 with his mother and grandmother. Jan quickly became interested in programming and he enrolled at San Jose State in 1994 to learn more. He didn’t finish his studies at San Jose State, but was hired as a very early employee at Yahoo! where he worked from 1997-2007. After leaving Yahoo! Jan founded the mobile messaging app Whatsapp, which was launch in 2009. By 2014, Whatsapp was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion. Koum’s net worth stands at $8.5 billion.
Gary Vaynerchuk is one inspiring entrepreneur. At the age of 3, Gary along with 8 family members immigrated from the Soviet Union to the US where they lived in a studio apartment in Queens. Gary took over his father’s liquor store in 1999 after graduating from college. By 2005, he grew the one store into a retail wine business called Wine Library growing the business from about $1 million to $50 million per year. Building off of that success, Gary and his brother founded VaynerMedia in 2009 whose clients include Fortune 500 companies like General Electric and Anheuser-Busch, among others.
Like many immigrants, Michelle went through a tough immigration process that at one point she thought would not work out. Her first attempt to immigrate from Canada to the US failed when she could not find an employer to sponsor a work visa. Shortly after though, Zatlyn was accepted into Harvard Business School. After graduating from Harvard, she and her eventual co-founder moved to California to work on their company, CloudFlare, which helps websites deal with traffic and security. Fortunately, she was able to secure a work visa through the company that she founded! CloudFlare has since grown to service over 4 million websites.
Raised on a kibbutz in Israel, Adam is a former Israeli naval officer who came to New York to manage his sister’s modeling career. In New York, he took business classes and became fascinated with the idea of starting his own company. His early ventures did not bring much success, but his fortunes shifted in 2010 when he founded WeWork, a company that provides shared workspace for entrepreneurs, startups, and small businesses. Currently, there are 145 office locations across 3 continents with a company valuation of $16 billion.
Born in Germany, Peter came to the U.S. with his family as an infant. He received his bachelor’s and law degree from Stanford University. Thereafter, he worked as a judicial clerk and then a private practice attorney before launching his venture capital firm Thiel Capital in 1996. He was then a co-founder of PayPal in 1999 where he served as its CEO until its sale to eBay in 2002. Thiel was the first outside investor in Facebook and still remains on its board of directors. Thiel has also founded various ventures leading to an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion.
These immigrant founders have achieved great success and combine with many others to make up a huge sector of the American startup economy. It is important to the future of American startups that we continue to encourage these individuals to immigrate to the U.S. and allow them a pathway to do so. At LawTrades, we’ve helped 100s of foreign entrepreneurs set up shop in the U.S. in hopes that we’ll include them in the second version of this list in years to come.
By: Stephen Schlett