Thanks to this year's brutal presidential primaries, Americans have had lots of opportunities to be reminded of the possible threats refugees might pose. But in the midst of all this back and forth about admitting more of those fleeing war and persecution, perhaps it's all a good idea to remind ourselves of the opportunity these most desperate of newcomers also represent.
It's a well known statistical fact that immigrants in general are over-represented among entrepreneurs, and nearly every American can reel off the names of some of this country's most successful founders born abroad, from Sergey Brin to Elon Musk. And as many have noted in light of the recent anti-refugee rhetoric, Steve Jobs' father was a Syrian immigrant. But perhaps less known are the stories of a specific subset of immigrants, refugees from war-torn lands, who leveraged their grit and determination and managed to found successful start-ups. Here are five of them:
1. Sieng Van Tran of ilearn.to
"Tran fled his home country Vietnam by boat in 1979 and after spending two years in a Singapore refugee camp arrived in Harlesden, London, in 1981. Whilst studying at Middlesex University Tran came up with ilearn.to, an e-learning site which allowed users to study at their own pace and convenience. This became the UK's first ever profitable e-learning site in 1999," reports UK site Real Business. "He is now the CEO and founder of e-commerce site AuctionAssist, which he sold to ArgentVive for £2.5m."
2. Tri Tran or Munchery.com
Another Vietnamese refugee to make an impact is Tri Tran, founder of food delivery start-up Munchery.com. Separated from his parents as a child, he traveled by boat to Indonesia with his grandmother and brother, eventually making it to the United States as a refugee. "Now that I look back, I am like, 'Whoa, how did I deal with that!?' Looking at it that way makes startups look a lot more manageable," he told Inc.com's Christine Lagorio-Chafkin for a recent profile. "The primary thing is I don't give up. The perseverance will always be there for me--and with that, an ability to be adaptable to changing conditions, changing environments."
3. Nik Myftari of Spotted
While the debate in the US over admitting Syrian refugees might be heated, Europe is facing a far more immediate influx of people fleeing war torn regions. There too, previous waves of refugees are already making their mark as entrepreneurs. Take Nik Myftari as one example. "In 1999 a band of human traffickers brought the then-14-year-old out of war-ravaged Kosovo into Germany with his parents and two brothers. Today, the trained political economist is the co-founder of a location-based dating app, Spotted, that boasts over 1 million users. 'Life doesn't have any 'dead ends',' Myftari says. 'There is always a way forward, somehow,'" he told local paper Der Spiegel (translated by Pangea Today).
4. Chamath Palihapitiya of Social Capital
Palihapitiya in the founder and CEO of Social Capital and part-owner of the Golden State Warriors. He was also once a refugee. VP of user growth in Facebook's early days, Palihapitiya was "born in Sri Lanka, he moved to Canada with his family at the age of five as his father was posted to Ottawa for the Sri Lankan High Commission. Due to political turmoil in their native country, his family applied for refugee status to remain in Canada, finding Sri Lanka too unsafe for them to return. After graduating from the University of Waterloo in 1999, he moved to the United States and joined AOL, before moving to Facebook. In 2011, he founded the Social+Capital Partnership, as one of the earliest and more successful venture capital funds focused on impact investment," explains Instavest. Palihapitiya is also involved in advocating for immigration reform.
5. Jan Koum of WhatsApp
"A teenage Koum emigrated from Ukraine to the U.S. with his mother in the early 1990s. They struggled at first in their adopted country, and relied on food stamps to survive. Fast forward to 2009, and the college dropout transformed the text messaging market with WhatsApp," reports CNN Money. "Facebook bought the messaging platform for $19 billion in 2014."