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13 successful tech leaders who struggled as immigrants before making it in America

13 successful tech leaders who struggled as immigrants before making it in America
  • The tech industry is filled with powerful stories of immigrants who made it big after moving to the United States.
  • For many now-moguls, however, there were struggles and strife along the path to their success.
  • Paypal cofounder Max Levchin, who was born in Ukraine, lost his accent by watching American shows on a TV he found in a dumpster.
  • Jan Koum lived on food stamps and taught himself computer networking through a book he bought at a used bookstore. He would go on to sell his company, WhatsApp, for $19 billion.

More than a third of the top tech companies in the US were founded by people born outside of the country. Their success stories drive many immigrants to come to the US in hopes of realizing the American Dream.

But just looking at their success makes it easy to overlook the fact that many immigrant tech industry giants had to overcome other problems – from language barriers to financial constraints – to achieve their extraordinary success.

Here are 13 tech leaders who struggled as immigrants but later proved the American Dream possible.

Eugene Kim contributed to a previous version of this article.

Sergey Brin had a "difficult" first year in the US.

Sergey Brin had a "difficult" first year in the US.
Google cofounder Sergey Brin. Kimberly White/Getty Images

Google cofounder Sergey Brin was just 6 years old when his family left the Soviet Union to settle in Maryland. His first memory of the US was of "sitting in the backseat of the car, amazed at all the giant automobiles on the highway," his mother Eugenia Brin told Moment Magazine.

She says Brin struggled to adjust to the new surroundings early on. He was bashful and spoke English with a heavy accent, which made the first year a "difficult year for him."

"We were constantly discussing the fact we had been told that children are like sponges, that they immediately grasp the language and have no problem, and that wasn't the case," she said.

It may have taken Brin longer to learn English, but he ended up in Stanford's PhD program in computer science, where he met Google cofounder Larry Page. Now Google is a $1 trillion company, and Brin has a net worth of $66.5 billion, according to Forbes.

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Jerry Yang only knew one English word when he arrived in the US.

Jerry Yang only knew one English word when he arrived in the US.
Jerry Yang speaks at the New Economy Summit 2014 in Tokyo on April 10, 2014.. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

Yahoo! cofounder Jerry Yang, born in Taiwan, was only 8 years old when he moved to San Jose, California, in 1976. As the story goes, Yang only knew the English word "shoe" when he first set foot in the country. He says it took him three years to become fluent in English.

But that didn't stop him from achieving academic excellence. Yang got both his bachelor's and master's in electrical engineering at Stanford University. There, he met David Filo, and together they cofounded Yahoo!, arguably the biggest internet portal in the '90s.

Yang stepped down as Yahoo CEO in 2009 and left the company in 2012. However, he was able to build an estimated net worth of $2.3 billion along the way and remains an active investor.

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Jan Koum lived on food stamps before he sold WhatsApp for $19 billion.

Jan Koum lived on food stamps before he sold WhatsApp for $19 billion.
Jan Koum. Shutterstock

WhatsApp cofounder Jan Koum was born in Ukraine, where grew up in a house with no hot water.

Koum was only 16 years old when his family moved to the US. They settled in Mountain View, California, where they lived on food stamps. His mother worked as a babysitter, while he was a cleaner at a local grocery store. His father died in 1997, never setting foot in Mountain View, and his mother died of cancer in 2000.

Koum taught himself computer networking through a book he bought at a used bookstore. He ended up attending San Jose State University and was later employed at Yahoo! as the company's 44th employee.

Fast-forward to 2009, Koum founded WhatsApp, a messaging app that was later acquired by Facebook for $19 billion. His estimated net worth is $9.8 billion, according to Forbes.

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Max Levchin lost his accent by watching American TV shows.

Max Levchin lost his accent by watching American TV shows.
Max Levchin. Steve Jennings/Getty Images

Paypal cofounder Max Levchin was born in Ukraine but moved to the US when he was 16 years old.

Levchin says his family was quite poor when they got here in 1991, and he had a strong accent while speaking English. Although he was fluent in English, Levchin had a hard time understanding all the cultural references people were making at school.

To help his cultural assimilation, Levchin relied on American TV shows. He says he found a TV in a dumpster and fixed it to watch all the TV shows he wanted to.

"That's how I lost my accent and got a crash course on 1990s American pop culture," he told Silicon Valley Business Journal.

Just seven years after settling in Chicago, Levchin cofounded PayPal in 1998 alongside Peter Thiel and Elon Musk. It was acquired by eBay for roughly $1.5 billion in 2002.

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Vinod Dham, the "Father of Pentium," only had $8 in his pocket when he got to the US.

Vinod Dham, the "Father of Pentium," only had $8 in his pocket when he got to the US.
Vinod Dham. Pradeep Gaur/Mint/Getty Images

Vinod Dham is widely regarded as the "Father of Pentium," for his work at Intel, building the first flash memory chip.

But before all the fame, Dham was a poor college student just trying to make ends meet. According to Venturebeat, when Dham first came to the US in the 1970s, the Indian government gave $8 to foreign tourists.

But he was able to get off the ground, thanks to a loan from the University of Cincinnati's study abroad office. He also found a research assistant job that paid him $325. Upon graduation, Dham found a job at Intel and the rest is history.

He later served as the CEO of Silicon Spice, a company that sold for $1.2 billion in 2002. Currently, he's a venture capitalist.

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Sundar Pichai had little access to a phone, computer, or the internet growing up. Now, he's Google's CEO.

Sundar Pichai had little access to a phone, computer, or the internet growing up. Now, he's Google's CEO.
Sundar Pichai. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

According to an article by CNN, Google CEO Sundar Pichai grew up in a small, poor town in India before moving to the US to attend university.

Pichai recalled the time after his family got their first phone.

"It became a communal thing. People would come to call their kids," Pichai told CNN. "And so for me, it showed the power of what's possible with technology."

Pichai attended Stanford on a full scholarship and received his MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He later worked at Applied Materials and McKinsey before joining Google in 2004. In 2015, he became the company's CEO.

In recent years, Sundar Pichai clashed with President Trump over his immigration policies and "travel ban."

"It's really important that we don't make it a tech-versus-the-rest-of-the-country issue," Pichai said onstage in January 2018 during a Q&A event in San Francisco organized by MSNBC when asked about immigration by the hosts Kara Swisher and Ari Melber.

He got $281 million total compensation in 2019, making him one of the world's highest-paid executives, Business Insider previously reported.

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Elon Musk was born in South Africa and moved to Canada for college — he later moved to the United States and founded his first company.

Elon Musk was born in South Africa and moved to Canada for college — he later moved to the United States and founded his first company.
SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk gestures during a conversation with legendary game designer Todd Howard. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla, was born and raised in South Africa before obtaining Canadian citizenship in 1989. Musk speaks often about his upbringing in South Africa, detailing the struggles of growing up there.

After Musk moved to Canada to pursue his degree from Queen's University in Ontario, the now-mogul managed to survive on a mere $1 per day. He later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned two degrees. Musk founded his first company, Zip2 Corporation, in 1995.

After he became a US citizen in 2002, Musk earned his first billion when PayPal, another company Musk founded, was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in stock. He would later become the creative mind behind both Tesla and SpaceX. He has a current net worth of $70.5 billion.

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Sanjay Mehrotra's US visa application was rejected three times before he cofounded SanDisk.

Sanjay Mehrotra's US visa application was rejected three times before he cofounded SanDisk.
SanDisk cofounder and CEO Sanjay Mehrotra. SanDisk

For Sanjay Mehrotra, the cofounder of the company SanDisk, it was what he had to deal with before he even arrived in the US that set him back.

Born and raised in India, Mehrotra was accepted to UC Berkeley when he was barely 18 years old. But the US consulate in New Delhi rejected his visa application three times, before finally approving it after his father spoke to the counselor for 20 minutes.

Mehrotra eventually finished his master's in computer science and electrical engineering at Berkeley. Right out of school, he worked for Intel, where he met SanDisk cofounder Eli Harari.

In 1988, they founded SanDisk, which was acquired by Western Digital for $16 billion in 2016.

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Andy Grove escaped from Nazi rule and worked as a busboy before turning Intel into the most powerful semiconductor company in the world.

Andy Grove escaped from Nazi rule and worked as a busboy before turning Intel into the most powerful semiconductor company in the world.
Andy Grove and Bill Gates. AP

Andy Grove was born in Hungary and spent years hiding from the Nazis before arriving in the US in 1957.

With very little money and limited English language skills, Grove had difficulty settling into his new life in the US. He worked as a busboy during his college years in New York, while his girlfriend and future wife, Eva Kastan, worked as a waitress.

Eventually, Grove earned a PhD. in chemical engineering at UC Berkeley and found a job at Fairchild Semiconductor. That job led him to an executive role at Intel in its early years, where he ended up becoming the CEO for over a decade.

Intel became the world's largest semiconductor manufacturer, and one of the most powerful tech companies ever. Steve Jobs often called Grove for personal advice.

Andy Grove passed away on March 21, 2016, at the age of 79.

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Chamath Palihapitiya grew up on welfare before becoming a billionaire investor.

Chamath Palihapitiya grew up on welfare before becoming a billionaire investor.
Chamath Palihapitiya. Owen Thomas/Business Insider

Chamath Palihapitiya, born in Sri Lanka, moved to Canada at the age of 6. Early on, his father was unemployed and his family lived above a laundromat, relying on welfare.

But, being less privileged only motivated Palihapitiya to work harder. He'd obsess over the Forbes' Billionaires List, daydreaming of making it big.

Finally, he got an electrical engineering degree from the University of Waterloo and quickly became one of the most successful tech leaders at a very young age.

He was the youngest VP in AOL's history at the age of 26. He was also instrumental in Facebook's growth early on, becoming one of the longest-tenured senior executives there.

In 2011, he quit Facebook to launch his own venture capital firm called Social+Capital Partnership, which is now one of the fastest-growing VC firms in Silicon Valley.

In 2015, Chamath Palihapitiya's net worth was believed to be close to $1 billion.

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Tien Tzuo lived through the mean streets of Brooklyn in the '70s.

Tien Tzuo lived through the mean streets of Brooklyn in the '70s.
Tien Tzuo. Zuora

Tien Tzuo, Zuora founder and former Salesforce CMO, and his family moved from Taiwan to Brooklyn in the 1970s. Tzuo says he was mugged a few times growing up in the borough.

However, a turbulent home environment didn't deter him from excelling at school, and Tzuo ended up earning an electrical engineering degree from Cornell University.

He then found a job at Oracle, and later became Salesforce's 11th employee. He served in several executives roles at Salesforce, before moving on to launch his own company called Zuora in 2007.

In 2018, Zuora was valued at $2 billion, and Tien Tzuo's stake was valued at $200 million.

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Mike Krieger almost gave up on Instagram because of how long his visa took.

Mike Krieger almost gave up on Instagram because of how long his visa took.
Instagram cofounder Mike Krieger speaks at the 2015 Wired Conference. Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Mike Krieger seriously considered asking his Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom to replace him before launching the company, because he couldn't get a US work visa.

In 2010, Krieger, originally from Brazil, applied for an H1-B visa, the document needed for foreigners to legally work in the US. But even after three months of applying, he hadn't heard back and had to consider moving back to Brazil.

"It was approaching the point of hard conversations. I had moments where I was like, 'Maybe I should just tell Kevin to forget about it and find somebody who is easier to hire,'" Krieger told Bloomberg.

Eventually, Krieger obtained his H1-B visa and started working on Instagram, which he built in a matter of weeks.

Instagram ended up getting acquired by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012. It now has more than 1 billion active users worldwide.

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Christian Gheorghe was a limo driver in New York before founding a company that sold for $500 million.

Christian Gheorghe was a limo driver in New York before founding a company that sold for $500 million.
Tidemark CEO Christian Gheorghe. Stephen Lam/Reuters

Christian Gheorghe, CEO of business analytics software Tidemark, is a serial entrepreneur who sold his previous startup to SAP for $500 million.

Before his success, Gheorghe was a limo driver in New York City. It was during one of those rides that he met Andrew Saxe, his future business partner who helped him build a company that sold to Experian a few years later.

In Romania, where he grew up, Gheorghe sold music records and taught himself English by listening to American music. He also taught himself to code by hacking into video games on knock-off PCs.

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