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Born to Run: How Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Shaping the U.S. Economy

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Immigrants make up just 8.7 percent of the U.S. population but I was rather surprised to find out that so many of us -- 28 percent according to the Kauffman Foundation -- are entrepreneurs.

A recent National Venture Capital Association study reveals some truly astonishing findings on the topic:

  • Over the past 15 years, immigrants have started 25 percent of U.S. public companies that were venture-backed, a high percentage of the most innovative companies in America
  • 40 percent of U.S. publicly traded venture-backed companies operating in high-technology manufacturing today were started by immigrants
  • The current market capitalization of publicly traded immigrant-founded ventured-backed companies in the United States exceeds $500 billion
  • Immigrant-founded venture-backed companies are concentrated in cutting edge fields: high-technology manufacturing, information technology and life sciences.

Foreign-born entrepreneurs are blended into the American culture so well that we don't think much about the fact that Intel Corporation was co- founded by a Hungarian, eBay was founded by the French, Yahoo! by the Taiwanese, The Huffington Post by a Greek, and Google by the Russians. I was recently at a Los Angeles Business Journal event witnessing an award acceptance by the Shipito company, which was selected ahead of hundreds of others as the fastest growing private company in the LA area. What else does it have in common with the previously mentioned companies besides the success story? The founder of Shipito is a Czech immigrant.

Someone might ask 'so what,' but I am asking 'what?' What makes us -- people with accents -- become entrepreneurs here in the United States?

Englishman Sandro Monetti had a triumphant career in London as a journalist and TV host but hearing the song "California Dreaming" one day suddenly made him realize that there are places on Earth where you can survive without an umbrella and English pubs.

"I don't regret for a minute the decision to move to America," revealed Monetti.

"But one thing I've learned is that nobody is going to give you anything here (including a job) ... especially when you're from another country. You have to go out and earn it by creating your own projects, building your profile and seeing where that leads. That's what I've done. Putting your destiny in other people's hands requires more patience than I have."

I lost my own patience either after knocking on too many doors of, what I thought at the time, were my dream American companies. But would I have been as daring otherwise to have started my own corporate advisory business in a foreign country, in a foreign language, thousands of miles away from my family? Eventually, the frightening thought -- "I am on my own" -- gets transformed to an alarming "I am all I have" which gradually leads to a liberating "I am an entrepreneur."

Gunjan Bagla was a graduate of India's top engineering school and admitted that it took him a while to have the courage to start his own business once he moved to the United States. After he raised several millions from local venture capitalists, he realized that for him there is not much difference between working for a large company or a start-up: "In each case you are trying to serve customers and delight them. If you can do so, other good things follow," reveled Bagla, adding that his favorite Indian proverb is "Do your duty."

It is evident that most people who arrive to the United States are, by default, representative of the most ambitious and valiant part of the society in their own counties. But what is interesting is that most foreign-born entrepreneurs I've talked to, especially those who left their countries already as adults, did not have a particular plan to start their ventures here.

We all were rather forced to do so given the fact that we could not match our career paths with the established system of the career path here in the Untied States: you go to the right school, than you go to the right college, you get the right internship, you get your first job -- you are in. Note of caution to the foreign-born: If you get a compliment from the HR person interviewing you that "I love your accent," it is almost a guarantee that you will not hear back from her -- ever.

As I am writing this, I can almost hear that very American song, "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen. The lyrics seem so descriptive of the immigrant entrepreneur experience:

"In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream. At night we ride through mansions of glory... We'll run till we drop, baby we''l never go back... Someday girl I don't know when we're gonna get to that place. Where we really want to go and we'll walk in the sun. But till then tramps like us baby we were born to run."

That's the bright side of the immigrant experience. Being an outsider makes you run twice as far and as fast you thought you could, and arrive with a business idea you never thought you had. The beauty of America is that once you understand how the ecosystem works and start building your own business that you passionately believe in -- you are in too. And hopefully this message will inspire others who so far might have no idea they are born to run -- to run companies that is.