My wife and I were born into privilege: the privilege of being U.S. citizens. Because of that, we were able to go to college without thinking twice about whether our education might be interrupted by civil war, and we could choose our career path from several options. Neither of us "came from money," so when we started a new company in 1999, we did it with high hopes, a handful of employees and a raft of credit cards we routinely pushed to the limits, another American privilege. By the end of last year, Big Ass Solutions' revenue had grown to a quarter of a billion dollars and our payroll to a thousand.

To millions of people around the world, our story represents what they might dream of, but never hope to attain.

We worked hard at building our business because we believed in our products and we believed in ourselves. But we couldn't have achieved that level of growth without the help of people who grew up far less privileged. Immigrants have been some of Big Ass Solutions' most dedicated employees, and the years spent growing the company would not have been nearly as rich and rewarding if the experience hadn't been shared with them. Most days, I've learned, it's the people you worked with that occupy your thoughts, not the pennies you made or lost. And the greatest benefit of being an employer is the ability to change lives -- to help the people who help you.

One of our applications engineers recently became a U.S. citizen after years in limbo, fighting to stay here. He left his home in the Ivory Coast in 2000 to study at the University of Kentucky on an F1 visa, but soon witnessed -- helpless and penniless -- from afar as war broke out in his country. Any contact with people there was impossible, and his family was forced to flee to a neighboring country after narrowly escaping execution at rebels' hands. Yet even though his funds were cut off, he kept attending his classes. And through a series of events that he can only attribute to some sort of divine intervention, he eventually was able to graduate with a combined degree in mechanical and electrical engineering after finally being granted political asylum. The years of fear, uncertainty, and eventual celebration culminated in his citizenship ceremony in December. We congratulated his achievement on Facebook, and the public's response was overwhelming. It was one of our most-liked posts ever. Meanwhile, for nearly two years now, we have benefited immeasurably from the knowledge and unique perspective he brings to the workplace every day.

Early on in the company's life, I was impressed by the work of a young man from the Muslim-majority country of Indonesia. He'd come to America to study at an engineering school outside Atlanta, and tested fans for us there one summer. I told him to call me after he graduated. He did, and I was able to be his sponsor, bringing him to Kentucky and obtaining an H1B work visa for him. In the nearly 14 years since, he's been in charge of IT, and as we've outgrown one building after another, he's fitted every one. I can only imagine that the years-long process of obtaining a green card has contributed to his patience and persistence when it comes to the convoluted world of Information Technology. Next week, after years of waiting and paperwork, he too will take his oath as an American citizen.

It's hard not to take the privileges of American citizenship for granted when born in this country. That's why we need to make sure we have people around who can remind us that what's here today can be quickly and brutally taken from us tomorrow, people who know the real meaning of hardship. Their experience and perspective benefit us all. The story of our company's growth is, for many, the apotheosis of the American Dream. But to millions, if not billions, of people, "living the dream" simply means not living in constant fear -- as one young man who recently joined our company did in his previous life in the Congo, or as our applications engineer did when facing deportment and almost certain death. It means having a chance at the kind of life described in 1931 by James Truslow Adams when he coined the term "American Dream": a life that's "better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."

Published on: Feb 3, 2017
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