A majority of the most valuable public U.S. technology companies have an immigrant as founder or chief executive. But does that still hold true for the current generation of high-valuation startups?
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To answer that question, Crunchbase took a look at founders and CEOs across several groupings of startup unicorns. The research included the most heavily funded private companies, newly minted unicorns and companies that recently crossed the $5 billion valuation mark.
The short answer? Yes, immigrants are still heavily represented in the ranks of U.S. unicorn founders and CEOs. They hail from multiple continents, and are leading companies in sectors from e-commerce to crypto to pharmaceuticals.
The long answer? Yes, but maybe less so. Early data indicates the proportion of high-valuation U.S. startups founded or led by immigrants may be trending down some. One factor is the growth of startup hubs outside the U.S., making it easier for founders to launch companies in their home country. The other, most notorious factor: the hurdles of securing a visa as a would-be startup founder.
“There is no visa specifically for someone who wants to start a company,” according to Manan Mehta, founding partner at Unshackled Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based firm that invests in U.S. startups with immigrant founders.
While U.S. student enrollment of foreign nationals roughly doubled from 2007 to 2018, there hasn’t been a corresponding strategy to speed or simplify graduates’ pursuit of a green card, Mehta said. And although that issue predates Trump’s election, the current administration hasn’t helped, deciding not to implement an Obama-era visa program for startup founders.
Still, a striking percentage of funded private companies that crossed the $1 billion valuation threshold this past year are immigrant founded. Below, we take a look at 19 such companies, along with a look founders’ countries of origin.
We also look at the most heavily funded, highest-valuation private companies overall with immigrant founders and CEOs.
The big picture
If investors are backing fewer immigrant-led U.S. startups, it may be because there are fewer available to back. For the 2018-19 period, U.S. immigration declined to 595,000 people—the lowest level since the 1980s, according to one oft-cited study. It’s a level that leaves even some members of the Trump administration’s inner circle concerned that immigration levels are too low to support economic growth.
Of course, one needn’t be a new immigrant to launch a high-flying startup. Many of the successful founders on our lists above immigrated years or decades before their companies took flight. The lists, overall, include immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children as well as those who came later, commonly to attend universities.
Lastly, we should keep in mind that immigration, like unicorns, venture funding and startup valuations, has historically been rather cyclical. The issues confronting immigrant founders today may very well fade away or morph into something completely different in coming years.
Illustration: Li-Anne Dias.