Entrepreneurship And The Immigrant’s Experience

I got into an enlightening Twitter discussion yesterday with a few friends, and the conversation centered around the intersection of the immigrant experience and the entrepreneurial experience. It’s common topic that’s been studied, and people who live in and around the Valley recognize how critical immigrants are to the creation of new companies and becoming part of the workforce. Lately, it’s been taken up as a key policy tenet of the tech leaders who have ties with politicians and those who have political clout.

But in this discussion (click here to open it), I realized something about the intersection of immigration and entrepreneurship — we often talk about “immigrants as entrepreneurs” coming to the U.S. from another country, but that’s just one definition. My friends mentioned how the same hunger, drive, and motivation exhibited by entrepreneurial immigrants map almost in-line with other cases where the protagonist has struggled to overcome some type of disadvantage. We conceive of the origin needed to be a different nation, when in fact it could be a different socioeconomic situation; or an underrepresented race or ethnicity; or a physical, mental, or learning disability; or any other physical state or state of mind that once trapped someone from reaching their destination.

When you unpack what those destinations can mean, it can broaden your definition of what it means to “immigrate” to a place like Silicon Valley. For instance, a black friend on the thread revealed that his family originally hailed from Alabama, moved up to the northeast, and from there struggled to grab whatever he could get his hands on. We tend to connect that kind of entrepreneurial hunger with someone coming from overseas, but people can immigrate to a state of entrepreneurship just by crossing state lines. On top of the racial divide he had to deal with, there was also a socioeconomic one, and now that he’s here in the Valley and building his own thing, he is in fact drawing upon two reservoirs of immigrant-fueled entrepreneurial energy.

From the context of having the relevant skills needed to survive and thrive in Silicon Valley, I also felt like an immigrant to this land. I didn’t know what to do here. I am not a technologist and I did not have an investment background. I immigrated here from a nation where those skills didn’t exist or weren’t valued, and when I got here, I realized everyone had them, so like a stereotypical immigrant would, I had to fight through numerous assimilation attempts.

The common thread in the stories is not about skills, or education, or where one comes from — it’s what does one overcome and continue to overcome. That may be the essence of what makes those who immigrate to a new place so formidable, their constant paranoia to keep trying to overcome what is ahead of them if not for any reason that, in their own heads, they don’t have any other choice.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

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