There’s a lot of debate these days about immigrant entrepreneurs and their impact on the United States’ economy. But one thing’s for certain: Immigrant entrepreneurs can be a force to be reckoned with and have the ability to offer insight and experiences that are valuable to all.
While there are few hard statistics on the number of immigrant entrepreneurs, a recent research report by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that the immigrant percentage of entrepreneurship has increased over time, from 17 percent in 1995 to 28 percent in 2008. If that trend continued, that number is likely even higher today.
In this article – the first of a two-part series – we’ll talk to three immigrant entrepreneurs about their experiences of building a company in the United States.
The serial entrepreneur was born in Seoul, South Korea, and previously co-founded Pixelberry Studios and Nurien Software. Kim was also a founding team member of Samsung’s smartphone and mobile gaming business.
Kim moved to Vancouver, Canada, when he was 11 years old. He went to college in the United States but then went back to Seoul to work at Samsung and other startups.
He officially moved to the United States after one of the lead investors in his startup – New Enterprise Associates – suggested Kim move to the Bay Area and incubate the company at their offices.
“It was a very smooth transition,” he said. “I was very impressed with all the infrastructure already in place and the quality of people that were helping us.
But the fact that his situation was more the exception than the norm was not lost on Kim.
The sheer number of startups in Silicon Valley made everything so competitive – from hiring to finding office space.
“If you do have a great prop up, momentum and backers, that’s when Silicon Valley shines,” he told Crunchbase News. “But if not, it’s a very difficult place to be a startup. If you don’t have a certain momentum going for you, it’s actually a lot harder to do a startup here. But I had the advantage of having a top-tier VC firm such as NEA as my backer. And, that was enough for me to able to get things done over here.”
Still, Kim concedes that hiring was a challenge.
“It takes years to develop a human network to put together a good team,” he said. “So immigrant entrepreneurs have it even tougher since they have to introduce themselves into the ecosystem. Those already in Silicon Valley know a lot of people, including people they worked with in the past.”
Since moving to the U.S. in 2011, Kim has grown nWay from four employees to about 80.
“Hiring is not hard, but hiring right is,” he said. “Every hire is a risk when you don’t know too many people or have a network in place. So my advice to other entrepreneur is to hire very slowly because the right team, culture, and chemistry will make or break a company.”
Like many immigrants, Kim hasn’t forgotten his home country. In 2014, he opened an office in Seoul that currently has about 14 people. Having grown up there, he knew that there was strong talent around server engineering and artists.
“So we took advantage of that knowledge and hired top people in those areas that may be harder to find here,” he said.
NWay is clearly doing something right. Its Power Rangers app was released earlier this year and picked up 6 million downloads in four days, and more than 23 million so far. Kim’s since partnered with Lionsgate and Saban, creator of the Power Rangers brand and they have become investors in nWay.
“It’s been a lot of fun actually developing and launching that game,” he said. nWay also previously worked with developers on games based on “Star Wars,” “James Bond,” “Indiana Jones,” “The Godfather” and “Star Fox.”
Mazda Marvasti, CEO and co-founder of Irvine, Calif.-based Applariat, was born in Iran before making his way to Southern California and launching a startup called Integrien that was eventually sold to VMWare. Prior to AppLariat, Mazda was the CTO of the cloud management business unit at VMWare, which became a $1 billion-plus revenue segment in just four years. Marvasti holds more than 20 patents on Big Data statistical analysis techniques.
Marvasti moved to New York in 1979, during the height of the Iranian Revolution.
“Half the people who come to the U.S. choose to,” he said. “The other half are running away from something.”
Marvasti didn’t speak any English when he first moved and admits to feeling “massive culture shock.”
“It was probably high school before I started to understand what the teachers were talking about in class,” he said. “Plus, it was a difficult time to be a person from Iran. I was bullied and beaten up in school. There was trash thrown in my front yard every morning. But I had a supportive family who helped me assimilate. And by the time I was a senior in high school, I considered myself just one of the kids.”
People kept encouraging Marvasti to change his name but he resisted. And now he’s thankful he didn’t.
“It’s an advantage because it stands out in a way that’s different,” he said.
After getting his PhD from Georgia Tech University, Marvasti ended up working for a major auto manufacturer for five years before deciding to move to Southern California.
“From an opportunity perspective, it seemed to be a much more viable place to be,” he said. “And I’ve been here ever since.”
Plus, he found the state to be very welcoming.
“Over here I blend in with everybody else,” he said. “There’s just more openness to different types of people, and to the notion of the best idea winning. It’s just a more inclusive place. California is truly different.”
Marvasti got into the high-tech industry in 1997 and hasn’t looked back.
His last startup had a 150-person team in Armenia, a country where Marvasti had visited and realized was home to “a lot of educated people driving taxis who wanted to do more.”
“When the company got acquired by VMWare, they inherited the Armenian team.
When I asked Marvasti why he didn’t open an office in Iran, his answer was not surprising.
“The sanctions in place makes it very difficult,” he said. “And actually a lot of Iranians have moved to countries like Armenia to look for jobs so there is another way of tapping that talent pool. But sadly, despite the fact there’s talented, highly educated people in Iran, the political climate and sanctions make it extraordinarily difficult to do business there.”
Marvasti’s latest company, Applariat, is developing enterprise software that enables companies to move all their apps into the cloud and make those applications look like cloud native apps.”
As an immigrant who has experienced discrimination and bullying, and seen it happen to his friends, Marvasti believes he has a better sense of understanding the perspective of other immigrants who are looking for a job than those who were born in the United States.
“But I don’t tend to favor them,” he said. “I’m more concerned with can you move the needle forward for my company? That’s the way I treat them – the same way I want to be treated. But in general, I find it interesting that immigrants can be cast in a bad light because my experience is they are hard-working and just want to be able to contribute.”
Vineet Jain, CEO and co-founder of Mountain View-based Egnyte, moved to the United States from India in November 1993.
Prior to Egnyte, Jain founded Valdero, a supply chain software solution provider funded by
When moving to the U.S. at the age of 25, Jain went straight to the Bay Area after spending less than one year in the United Kingdom.
“The lure of Silicon Valley was well-known, even then,” he said.
Jain ended up founding his first startup, Valdero, after leaving KPMG, who helped him get his green card. He has never taken for granted his ability to live and work in the U.S.
“One thing I keep saying is that no country on the planet is more welcoming to immigrants than the United States of America,” he said. “When it comes to the level of freedom you feel here to try out your ideas and the support system that is there irrespective of color, race or country of origin, I think this country is the best. And the Bay Area, despite its traffic and expense, is one of the best places on the planet to be an immigrant, especially in tech.”
He ultimately sold Valdero on the advice of an investor.
“It wasn’t a stupendous exit,” he said. “There were a lot of hard lessons learned. I took it as a failure that I couldn’t generate a lot of wealth for employees and investors.”
Egnyte is now in its tenth year and has grown to 400 people, having hired 100 people in 2017 alone. The company has raised $62.5 million in venture capital but hasn’t raised money since November 2014. It’s been cash flow break even since the fourth quarter of last year and briefly turned GAAP profitable in the second quarter of this year.
Personally, Jain said he did not experience discrimination as an immigrant. And he views his company as an extension of his family.
“I came here solo and am married and have one child,” he said. “We have no other family here. What sustains you here is the company and people you work for. Driving up to the office two days after Christmas last year, I saw our parking lot was full while so many others were empty. That day I felt so privileged, humbled and honored to have people working here who deeply care and were busting their chops to do a great year-end.”
But Jain too hasn’t forgotten his home country. Egnyte has around 45 employees in Mumbai.
And, one of his personal goals is to give back to his home country by helping support health care and education initiatives.
“The poverty there is very widespread and so many people can’t afford basic medication or surgery,” he said. “I really want to help somehow, and anonymously, give health benefits to deserving people. I want to help build the education system. Right now I do it indirectly through my mom but one day I hope I can get to a point where the basic needs of my family are all met and I can just focus on that.”
Stay tuned next week for the second story in this two-part series where we’ll talk to three other immigrant entrepreneurs about their experiences.
Top image and gif via Li-Anne Dias. Headshots via subjects.