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The Quickest Way To Stifle American Entrepreneurship? Keep Out Immigrants

Politicians talk about limiting immigration at the nation's peril.

The Quickest Way To Stifle American Entrepreneurship? Keep Out Immigrants

[Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Corbis/Getty Images]

Immigrants have a long history of starting successful businesses in the U.S.; more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. Yet despite this, we’ve been hearing a lot of talk about building walls and completely shutting some people out.

I’ve always believed that the best entrepreneurs are born and not made. And I’ve spent enough time around them to know.

Even though they wouldn’t describe themselves in these terms, I was raised by two of the bravest, hardest-working entrepreneurs I know. My parents, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic, did everything from driving taxis and selling furniture door-to-door to running a makeshift food truck to make a better life for me and my siblings.

And I’m an entrepreneur myself. I sold my first company, an on-demand laundry startup, by the age of 21. Since then I’ve gone on to invest in real estate technology and found Cofound Harlem, a startup accelerator.


Immigrants make up about 13% of the U.S. population—and yet immigrants, or their children, make up a disproportionately large percentage of entrepreneurs in the country: almost 30% of new entrepreneurs every year.

This includes some of the greatest entrepreneurs of our time. Google founder Sergey Brin was born in Russia. eBay was the brainchild of Pierre Omidyar, born in France to Iranian parents. And it’s easy to forget that Steve Jobs’s biological father hailed from Syria.

What is it about the immigrant experience that makes all of the above true, and are there lessons in there that any entrepreneur can learn from? On a recent episode of Open For Business, our eBay-sponsored podcast about building businesses from the ground up, we sought to better understand the nuances of this phenomenon. I spoke with immigrant entrepreneurs who are running high-tech firms and former Wall Street execs who left to start Main Street businesses.

Chinedu Echeruo, founder of HopStop

One person I interviewed, Chinedu Echeruo, emigrated from Nigeria and went on to found HopStop, the transportation app acquired by Apple in 2013. Echeruo was 16 when he emigrated to the U.S.; in Nigeria, he did everything from selling rabbits to re-inking used pens and reselling them to his classmates for extra money. Growing up in an environment that wasn’t particularly abundant forced him to be resourceful, get creative, and spot opportunities where others saw problems. This mind-set stuck with him and eventually yielded HopStop, which exited to Apple for a rumored $1 billion a few years ago.

What did I learn? Among other key lessons: That being an outsider can be a huge advantage. Whether you’re an outsider to this country, or maybe you’re diving into a totally new industry, being an outsider can give you a perspective that others simply don’t have. You may question the status quo and identify opportunities that others just don’t see.

When you look at the data, the research speaks for itself. The Kauffman Foundation found that immigrants are nearly twice as likely to start new businesses, compared to native-born residents.

With over 560,000 workers employed by immigrant-owned engineering and tech firms, the private sector (and the entrepreneurial heart of it in particular) is the legitimate, ethical, economic engine of the 21st century. And despite the rhetoric we’re hearing on the subject from the Trump campaign and others, the continued success of immigrants in the U.S. proves we are a stronger society because of inclusion, not exclusion.

John Henry is an entrepreneur and chairman of the startup incubator Cofound Harlem. He is the host of the podcast Open For Business.

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This post was correct on August 16 to reflect that HopStop was acquired in 2013, not 2014.

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