Despite recent attempts at making it harder for immigrants to come to the United States, it’s indisputable that immigrant tech entrepreneurs are becoming an increasingly common phenomenon in this country.
A 2016 report by the National Foundation for American Policy found that over half of 87 American unicorns – a term for startups valued at one billion dollars or more – had at at least one immigrant founder. The foreign-born entrepreneurs also created an average of 760 U.S.-based jobs per company, according to the study.
Crunchbase News wanted to explore the role of immigrant entrepreneurs in the current technology boom. So last week, I interviewed a trio of entrepreneurs hailing from India, South Korea, and Iran. This week, I’m featuring another impressive trio from Brazil, Iraq, and Senegal.
As a young boy living in Iraq, Francis Dinha’s earliest childhood memory was of his family escaping the destructive bombing of their home in Northern Iraq. Five-year-old Dinha’s village was destroyed.
The Assyrian Christian family of nine fled to Baghdad – a city where they did not speak the language, having come from the Kurdish part of Iraq. There, they struggled to survive. At the age of 11, Dinha’s entrepreneurial tendencies came into play when his mother told him and his siblings there was not enough money for her to feed them lunch. Dinha took the little money his family had and bought a pack of cigarettes. He went on to sell the cigarettes individually to strangers so that his family could afford to have dinner that night.
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“Even when I was young, I knew the meaning of fear and poverty,” Dinha recalled. “But I knew there was something better for me out there.”
After escaping Iraq and coming to the U.S. in 1986, Dinha got a Master’s degree in applied physics and electrical engineering with a major in computer engineering from Linkoping University in Sweden. He then spent the next couple of decades working in technology at companies such as Ericcson before co-founding OpenVPN Technologies in 2004. OpenVPN is a provider of VPN security software and web-scale VPN services based on open source innovation.
“I am a person who thinks too much outside the box,” Dinha said. “So I didn’t fit in very well with the big companies.”
Dinha said he has felt at home in the United States, describing it as a true melting pot.
His biggest challenge starting out was a lack of money. But Dinha said he managed by not focusing on accumulating material belongings and instead on making his idea a reality.
“It was challenging to write a business plan and build this company one block at a time,” he said. “But I overcame the challenges by making sure I was disciplined and using whatever resources I could.”
In part due to his upbringing, Dinha has always been conservative in running his company.
“A lot of people challenged me that there was no way to build this without venture capital,” he said. “But I was able to bootstrap with raising just $1 million (from angel investors) that I never even spent.”
OpenVPN has been profitable since 2014 and has been growing 50 percent year-over-year in terms of revenue. Dinha describes the company as “virtual” with headquarters in Pleasanton, Calif., but engineers spread out all over the world in locales such as Norway, Finland, The Netherlands, Hong Kong, and Boulder, Colorado.
The strategy has helped him keep costs down and the team uses online tools and virtual meetings to manage projects.
Despite being approached by venture capitalists, Dinha prefers to stay financially independent. Purchasing property when he first moved to the Bay Area has helped him in that regard.
“This has been an amazing journey for me,” he said. “It’s not about how much money you raise. It’s all about the type of people you attract to the company. It’s about having a vision and balance in your life, enjoying the journey and building it one piece at a time.”
Alionco was young when he started the company and said the exit wasn’t necessarily one he was very proud of.
“A lot of things happened I didn’t agree with,” he said. But he learned from the experience.
In August 2014, Alionco founded Pipefy – a SaaS cloud computing company that aims to provide a BPM (Business Process Management) system that is simple and intuitive. This time, he wanted to do things differently.
“Before I was too young and didn’t have the right network,” he said. “This time, I started the company with a global perspective from day one.”
This included applying for Silicon Valley accelerator 500 Startups. Alionco got accepted in June 2015 and that is when, he said, “everything changed.”
Alionco’s new investors essentially mandated that he move the company to the U.S. Alionco incorporated the company in San Francisco with its backhand engineering team staying in Curitiba in Parana, Brazil.
“Being a Brazilian founder, I didn’t have a strong network,” he said. “But once you’re headquartered in the U.S., you have access to more investors and a talent pool that can only be found in the Bay Area.”
Alionco’s strategy has been to use his home country of Brazil as a big back office with the “brains” of the company being based in San Francisco.
“Worst case, an engineer costs us $50,000 to $60,000 a year in Brazil,” he said. “But in the Bay Area that wouldn’t be enough to hire pre-sales reps.”
The Brazil office has about 55 employees while the San Francisco operation has 4 employees. Alionco is looking to hire, though, in San Francisco – both a vice president of marketing and vice president of product management.
The company has been growing revenue 17 percent month-over-month. Customers include Visa, Accenture, Volvo, and Pfizer, among others.
“It’s hard to find people with experience in enterprise products in Brazil, as the country doesn’t have a tradition of building enterprise products,” Alionco said. “Seasoned people in this space are more easily found in the Bay Area.”
He’s realistic about being able to hire top engineering talent in the area.
“I was advised by a mentor that it will be difficult to be able to hire the brightest talent in the city even if you pay them a lot,” Alionco told Crunchbase News. “So that’s why we see it as a competitive advantage to be able to hire great engineers in Brazil and keep the C-level execs here in the U.S.”
Looking ahead, Alionco hopes to inspire other Brazilian entrepreneurs to forge their own paths.
“I’ve heard others say that Brazilians don’t have the mindset to think aggressive or big enough to be the best in their field and to instead just copycat others,” he said. “I want to prove that wrong and show other Brazilians that they can succeed.”
Malick Djiba is new to entrepreneurship. But he’s not letting that deter him.
Earlier this year, he co-founded Drive Voya, an app that will reward drivers for staying off their phone while on the road. Djiba is in the process of trying to raise seed money for his company. In the meantime, he continues to operate his law practice out of Austin.
Djiba emigrated from Senegal in West Africa in 2002 with his family after his father had been granted asylum for political reasons.
“The first day I landed in the U.S. – well, for this young African kid who’s seen nothing but sandy streets in a third-world nation – it was just magical,” he said. “That was one of the best days of my life.”
He recalls knowing no English when he came to school but ended up ultimately attending law school at the University of Iowa. After serving at a United Nations internship in The Hague, Djiba returned to the United States.
While in Austin, he was in a car accident at the hands of a drunk driver. His co-founder too was involved in an automobile accident after a woman on her phone ran into his car while he was picking up his son from school.
“We started brainstorming and looking at data and decided we needed to do something around the space of mobility and safety,” he said.
Over the past 15 years, Djiba said he has learned that America has “its own set of unique challenges.”
“It’s [The United States] not the perfect utopia I thought it was,” he said. “But it’s still a great country that has afforded me many blessings and opportunities that I wouldn’t even have conceived of if I had stayed back home.”
These days, Djiba’s keenly aware of being one of the only or few African-Americans at a startup event or co-working space in Austin.
“When you go to these places, it hits you that what you see is largely white males,” he said. “You feel it. As soon as you enter a space like that, you don’t see anybody that looks like you. You’re just there as an outsider and visitor. It’s a challenge to look past that and try to carve out a niche for yourself.”
Djiba is currently working to grow his new company with the help of DivInc, an Austin-based pre-accelerator focused on championing diversity in the tech startup ecosystem. Through DivInc, he’s a member of Capital Factory’s co-working space and is being introduced to potential investors and partners.
“The one thing I’ve realized entering the startup space is that no particular group of people has a monopoly on ideas,” Djiba said. “Ideas can come from anywhere. And that’s why I think a lot of investors and mentors are keen to see the startup space become more diverse.”
Immigrants’ contribution to the United States technology ecosystem is growing and becoming more important than ever. Foreign-born entrepreneurs’ grit and dedication are an inspiration to not only those in their home country, but to American entrepreneurs as well.