Joanna Drake Earl
General Partner, Core Ventures Group
Silicon Valley is a terrific place to realize the American Dream.
From its earliest chapters in the mid-1900s, Silicon Valley has been an environment uniquely friendly to ambitious self-starters who may have big ideas, intelligence and chutzpah, but not much more. In many traditional US industries like finance and entertainment, family wealth, industry connections and years of climbing the corporate ladder are often the best ways to gain entry. But in Silicon Valley one can arrive without financial resources or connections, find windows into the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and go on to build a company from nothing into a billion dollar, multi-decade corporation. This market opportunity is the foundation of the mutually beneficial relationship that exists between Silicon Valley and immigrant entrepreneurs.
Andy Grove of Intel (Hungarian), Vinod Khosla of Sun Microsystems (Indian), Sergey Brin of Google (Russian), Pierre Omidyar of eBay (Iranian) and Jerry Yang of Yahoo (Taiwanese) come to mind as popular poster children for the Silicon Valley meritocracy that has empowered gifted “outsider” provokers in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s to drive wholesale market transformations of major industries.
Their stories are not just Silicon Valley lore. In fact, the pace and success of immigrant founders seems to have intensified in the last decade. The most recent crop of immigrant success stories is too long to list: from the well known pioneer of online payments, electric vehicles and space travel Elon Musk (South African), to Arianna Huffington (Greek) Co-Founder of Huffington Post, to Steve Chen (Taiwanese) Co-Founder of YouTube, to Jan Koum (Ukranian) Co-Founder of WhatsApp , to Mike Krieger (Brazilian) Co-Founder of Instagram, to Adi Tatarko (Israeli) Co-Founder of Houzz. I’m proud to be partner today to Shinya Akamine, Founder of Postini and one of the few successful Japanese born founders in Silicon Valley.
The data is telling. Amongst start-ups valued at over $1B in 2016, the “Unicorn class”, more than 50% were founded by immigrants. It is not just founders; over 70% of the companies have immigrant key management or product development leadership. The trend is increasing. According to a study by NVCA, in 2006, 25% of startups that went public were founded by immigrants; 2013, the number was up to 33%. (National Foundation for American Policy study, 2016)
The critical role of immigrants in Silicon Valley driving breakthrough technologies is not a surprise. Why? Because diversity of experience and perspective is what enables entrepreneurs to solve old problems differently. Disruptive thinking and a hunger to have impact are what propel and sustain founders to attempt the impossible and to inspire their teams to bring their revolutionary ideas to life. Clearly comfort, safety and confidence don’t prompt change.
No wonder our tech community is so up in arms at the latest threat to Silicon Valley’s ongoing relationship with immigrant talent and our most reliable source of exceptional founders and great companies that will transform industries and drive economic growth. Our unequivocal experience is that “outsiders” with different experience and worldviews fuel the Silicon Valley innovation engine.
In our next column, we will talk about the diversity headline that is not going away: “Where are the women of Silicon Valley?”