Tomas Gorny grew up in Poland under communism. But after moving to the U.S. and taking odd jobs like washing dishes and saving money from small ventures, he cofounded the tech company IPOWER in 2001, which he sold 10 years later for $1 billion to Warburg and Goldman Sachs. In 2006, he cofounded Nextiva, a phone and videoconferencing platform valued at $2.7 billion where he’s now CEO.
Gorny is hardly alone: More than half of the most valuable startups in America were founded by immigrants, according to a new analysis by the National Foundation for American Policy. The new research, which I authored, shows how vital immigrants have become in founding America’s most valuable companies.
“Immigrants have started more than half (319 of 582, or 55%) of America’s startup companies valued at $1 billion or more,” the analysis. “Moreover, nearly two-thirds (64%) of U.S. billion-dollar companies (unicorns) were founded or cofounded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Almost 80% of America’s unicorn companies (privately-held, billion-dollar companies) have an immigrant founder or an immigrant in a key leadership role, such as CEO or vice president of engineering.”
The research is an update of NFAP studies in 2016 and 2018. However, due to the growth in billion-dollar companies, the 2022 study involved gathering and verifying information on the founders of more than 580 unicorn companies tracked by CB Insights. “Unicorns” are privately held companies (i.e., not traded on the stock market), valued at $1 billion or more that have received venture capital financing.
According to the analysis, 58% of immigrant-founded billion-dollar companies had only an immigrant or multiple immigrant founders, with no native-born founders.
Many of the immigrant founders of billion-dollar companies have remarkable life stories. Guillermo Rauch, an immigrant from Argentina, founded Vercel, a cloud platform for web developers. The company has 400 employees and is valued at $2.5 billion. Rauch taught himself web development—at age 11— and learned English by “reading software manuals.”
“As a kid, I was fascinated by the idea of being able to create and innovate alongside a global community of developers right from my hometown outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina,” said Rauch in an interview. “My own experiences fueled my desire to solve the challenges I faced while using the web. Immigrating to the U.S. gave me the opportunity to start Vercel to help build a more interesting, intuitive, and open internet by empowering developers to create the moment inspiration strikes.”
Many innovations are only realized via entrepreneurship. Think back to the creations of Nikolai Tesla and Alexander Graham Bell—both immigrants who founded companies and invented useful products. The study notes, “The best ideas will never be applied or perfected without people willing to take a chance on those ideas, and billion-dollar companies are among America’s most innovative.”
There is no startup visa in U.S. law. Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s (D-CA) bill to create one was part of the COMP ETES Act that passed the House of Representatives in February 2022. Since immigrant entrepreneurs cannot gain permanent residence by starting a business, the immigrant founders of billion-dollar companies typically gain their green cards as refugees or family-sponsored or employer-sponsored immigrants. Several came to America as children with their parents.
One-quarter (143 of 582, or 25%) of U.S. billion-dollar startup companies have a founder who came to America as an international student. International students generally must gain H-1B status and (or) an employment-based green card to stay in the United States after graduation.
Two more findings of note from the research: The more than 300 immigrant-founded U.S. companies have a collective value of $1.2 trillion. That makes those companies more valuable than all the companies listed on the main stock markets of several countries, including Argentina, Colombia and Mexico.
The research also found the billion-dollar companies with immigrant founders created an average of 859 jobs per company, with the majority of the employees in the United States.