Take that, Trump: majority of unicorns founded by immigrants

Companies like Uber, Slack, FanDuel and Eventbrite all had at least one founder born overseas

Financial trends and news by Steven Loeb
March 17, 2016
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Immigration has been a hot topic on the campaign trail this year, with a lot of the dialogue escalating to vitriol and hateful rhetoric againts immigrants from the Trump campaign, despite the fact that without immigrants, there'd be fewer Unicorns.

Yep. A new study from the National Foundation for American Policy has found that the majority of private companies valued at $1 billion and above had at least one immigrant founder. Perhaps one of the other candidates should raise this point every time Trump denegrates Silicon Valley's hiring practices, accusing tech companies of abusing the system to bring in lower-wage workers. 

Clearly, some of those workers are job creators. 

Based on the study, out of 87 unicorns, 44 of them, or 51 percent, had at least one founder that was born outside of the United States.

Of course, the most famous immigrant founder has to be Elon Musk, who was born in South Africa and who also founded SpaceX and Tesla Motors. SpaceX, according to the data, is the immigrant-founded company that has created the most jobs, with 4,000.

Other notable immigrant founders include Garrett Camp of Uber, who is from Canada; Mike Nolet of AppNexus, who is from Holland; Amr Awadallah of Cloudera, who is from Egypt; Daniel Saks and Nicolas Desmarais of AppDirect, who are from Canada; Renaud Visage of Eventbrite, who is from France; Stepan Pachikov of Evernote, who is from Azerbaijan; Nigel Eccles, Tom Griffiths and Lesley Eccles of FanDuel, who are from the United Kingdom; Brian Lee of The Honest Company, who is from South Korea; and John Collison and Patrick Collison of Stripe, who are from Ireland.

(Note: Nigel Eccles will be a keynote speaker at Vator's Splash Spring event in May. Check it out here!) 

Slack is an interesting case, because it has three founders from three different countries: Stewart Butterfield from Canada, Serguei Mourachov from Russia and Cal Henderson from the United Kingdom,

When broken down by country, India had produced the most international founders, with 14, followed by Canada and the United Kingdom, each of which have eight. There are also seven unicorn founders from Israel. 

Immigrants are not only helping found these companies, but are also making them successful. 62 of those unicorns, or 71 percent total, had an immigrant in a "key management or product development position," the study found, with chief technology officer, CEO and vice president of engineering being the most commonly held roles. 

Silicon Valley immigration policy

Silicon Valley has taken a pretty strong pro-immigration stance, even going so far as to lobby the Supreme Court on behalf of President Obama's executive orders that allow the parents of American citizens, or those who were brought into the country by their parents when they were children, to stay in the country.

As I said earlier, though, there has been a bit of controversy over whether or not those same companies are actually using immigration policy to save themselves money by hiring lower-wage workers. 

Earlier this year, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump went after tech companies over H-1B visas, which, the pro-immigration PAC started by Mark Zuckerberg, has been lobbying to increase. Trump accused companies in the tech ecosystem of using these visa to pay workers lower wages, and to take away jobs from qualified Americans. 

H-1B visas allow U.S. employers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis in what are known as "specialty occupations." These are jobs that require highly specialized knowledge, such as computer science. These workers are supposed to be paid the same as all other works, but many have accused companies that hire them of, essentially, exploiting these workers by paying them lower wages. has lobbied Congress to get them raise the cap on the number of H-1B visas. Currently, 65,000 H-1B visas can be granted each year, with an additional 20,000 visas available for people who have obtained a master's degree or higher. 

In 2013, the Democrat-led Senate passed a bill to raise the number to 110,000, but the Republican-led House of Representatives killed the bill. 

"More than half of H-1B visas are issued for the program's lowest allowable wage level, and more than eighty percent for its bottom two. Raising the prevailing wage paid to H-1Bs will force companies to give these coveted entry-level jobs to the existing domestic pool of unemployed native and immigrant workers in the U.S., instead of flying in cheaper workers from overseas," Trump wrote. responded to Trump's accusations, saying that "The idea we should radically restrict pathways for highly-skilled immigrants to come and stay here is –again – just wrong."

Diversity in Silicon Valley

There's another aspect of immigration policy that is often overlooked: the impact that is has on diversity.

Numerous companies have released diversity reports in the last couple of years, and they show that how big that problem is, even as things get better. Microsoft, for example, saw the number of minorities, and women in tech roles, increase between its report in 2014 and 2015, it also lost 2 percent of its female workers at the same time.

Vator has made an attempt to tackle this issue during our "When will tech look like America" panel in April of last year, which featured  Freada Kapor Klein, Co-Founder of Kapor Center; Libby Schaaf, Mayor of City of Oakland; Kimberly Bryant, Founder of Black Girls Code; Nilka Thomas, Manager of Global Diversity and Talent Inclusion, Google; and Lisa Lee, Senior Diversity Manager at Pandora.

(Vator will be holding its Splash Spring event on May 12 at the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland. Our speakers will include Nigel Eccles, Co-founder & CEO of FanDuel; Sarah Leary, co-founder of NextDoor; Brett Wilson, Founder & CEO of TubeMogul; and Oisin Hanrahan, Co-Founder & CEO of Handy. Get your tickets here!) 

This study was first reported on by The Wall Street Journal. 

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