Why So Many Immigrant Founders?

As an angel investor, and as podcast host who interviews angels and founders, I am constantly amazed by the over-representation of immigrants among the promising startup founders I meet.

In the first sixteen episodes of my podcast I interviewed eleven founders, of whom three are foreign born or are US born of immigrant parents. This admittedly unrepresentative sample is not far off the mark. In a 2011 article, Forbes Magazine (Link to Forbes Article) quotes a study that found 40% of Fortune 500 companies to have a founder who was either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. Here are some samples from my experiences.

David Chang (Link to David's Podcast Page) came to America at age 3 from Taiwan and grew up on Long Island. He distinguished himself in computer science as an undergrad at Cornell. Later on he attended Harvard Business School after seven years on Wall Street. Still in his forties, David Chang seems to have a lifetime of achievement behind him including six startup exits, stints with TripAdvisor, PayPal and Goldman Sachs as well as close connections in the world of VCs.

Gong Ke Gouldstone (Link to Gong Ke's Podcast Page) came to America at age 13 with little English. Yet, barely a decade later she had graduated in computer science from MIT and was working at one of America’s iconic startups. Later she started her own consumer company which achieved impressive growth. While doing all this she also married and had three children. Google and Harvard Business School followed. After a stint at Trip Advisor she is now VP of product development at WeSpire, a startup.

Armon Sharei (Link to Armon's Podcast Page) wants to train our immune system to fight cancer. We hear a lot of claims like this, however when a mega-pharmaceutical company like Roche inks a $500 million deal to work on it, we pay attention. At age 29, Armon convinced not only Roche but gimlet-eyed VCs to back him. How did he do this? How did he go from a boy growing up in Iran to being one of the stars of MIT’s storied Langer Lab?

The study mentioned in the Forbes article linked above theorizes that people who leave their home country to make a life in a new country are risk takers and thus have a greater tendency to go into entrepreneurial pursuits. I wonder if this is the entire explanation.

I came to America from Brazil at age 11 so I tasted life in the old country and then observed the experience of my parents here. My observations were also informed by reading “The Bonfire” (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4480713-the-bonfire) by Cecilio J. Carneiro, the Brazilian novelist and uncle to my father. The novel relates the emigration of my father’s family from Lebanon to Brazil in the closing days of the 19th century. Later on I watched Barry Levinson’s under-appreciated movie "Avalon" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avalon_(1990_film)) that tells the story of a Jewish family (much like Levinson’s own) that emigrated from Russia to America.

The thing that stood out for me in all of these immigrant stories is not the propensity to take risk but a belief in the possibility of creating a better life in another country. Energy, focus and optimism are what I saw. This trinity of qualities will resonate with anyone familiar with startup founders. Perhaps these qualities translate into taking risks others would avoid, but it could just easily be the willingness to take your destiny into your hands.

What do you think drives immigrants to found companies? Do feel free to comment regardless of whether you are a founder, an immigrant. neither or both.