6 Immigrant Stories That Will Make You Believe In The American Dream Again
Thomas Peterffy was born in the basement of a Budapest hospital on Sept. 30, 1944. His mother had been moved there because of a Soviet air raid. After the Soviets liberated Hungary from Nazi occupation, Hungary became a satellite state, laboring under a different kind of oppression: communism. Peterffy and his family, descended from nobles, lost everything. “We were basically prisoners there,” he says. As a young man Peterffy dreamed about being free from that prison–in America.
At the age of 20 he hatched an escape plan. At the time Hungarians were allowed short-term visas to visit family in West Germany, and he took advantage of this. When his visa expired, like millions who have immigrated to the U.S. illegally in recent years, he didn’t go back home. Instead he left for the U.S. Peterffy landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City in December 1965. He had no money and spoke no English. He had a single suitcase, which contained a change of clothes, a surveying handbook, a slide rule and a painting of an ancestor.
Peterffy went to Spanish Harlem, where other Hungarian immigrants had formed a small community, moving from one dingy apartment to another. He was happy, if not a bit afraid. “It was a big deal to leave home and my culture and my language,” he says. “But I believed that in America, I could truly reap what I sowed and that the measure of a man was his ability and determination to succeed. This was the land of boundless opportunity.”
Indeed it was. He got a job as a draftsman in a surveying firm. When his firm bought a computer, “nobody knew how to program it, so I volunteered to try,” he says. He caught on quickly and soon had a job as a programmer for a small Wall Street consulting firm, where he built trading models.
By the late 1970s Peterffy had saved $200,000 and founded a company that pioneered electronic stock trades, executing them before the exchanges were even digitized. In the 1990s he began to concentrate on the sell side of the business, founding Interactive Brokers Group, which has a market cap of $14 billion. Peterffy, 72, is now worth an estimated $12.6 billion.
Thomas Peterffy embodies the American Dream. So does Google founder Sergey Brin ($37.5 billion). And eBay founder Pierre Omidyar ($8.1 billion). And Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk ($11.6 billion). And Rupert Murdoch, George Soros, Jerry Yang, Micky Arison, Patrick Soon-Shiong, Jan Koum, Jeff Skoll, Jorge Perez, Peter Thiel. As well as a couple dozen others who also immigrated to this country, earned U.S. citizenship–and then a spot on The Forbes 400.
Precisely 42 slots on The Forbes 400 belong to naturalized citizens who immigrated to America. That’s 10.5% of the list, a huge overperformance considering that naturalized citizens make up only 6% of the U.S. population. (If you add noncitizens, about 13% of American residents are foreign born, but there is also a slew of noncitizen billionaires, such as Chobani Yogurt king Hamdi Ulukaya and WeWork founder Adam Neumann, who by dint of their passports don’t qualify for the 400 but still live, and create jobs, in the U.S.)
For all the political bombast about immigrants being an economic drain or a security threat, the pace of economic hypersuccess among immigrants is increasing. Go back ten years and the number of immigrants on The Forbes 400 was 35. Twenty years ago it was 26 and 30 years ago 20. Not only is the American Dream thriving, as measured by the yardstick of entrepreneurial success, The Forbes 400, but it’s also never been stronger. The combined net worth of those 42 immigrant fortunes is $248 billion.
None of this should be a surprise. Thanks to technology, it’s never been easier to start a business of significance. And America’s perpetual entrepreneur class, for nearly a quarter-millennium, has been made up of immigrants.
Robert Morris left Liverpool at the age of 13, helped finance the American Revolution and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Stephen Girard emigrated from France and started an American bank that underwrote most of the U.S. government’s war loan during the War of 1812, saving the country from financial disaster. John Jacob Astor, a young musical-instrument maker from Germany, built a fortune in fur trading and real estate in the U.S., and became one of the country’s first great philanthropists. Fellow German Friederich Weyerhaeuser became an American timber mogul. Scotland-born Andrew Carnegie built one of the great fortunes in the U.S. in the steel business and, like Astor, devoted his later life to giving it away. The founders of Procter & Gamble, Kraft and DuPont were all immigrants.
The very act of immigrating, exemplified by Peterffy, is entrepreneurial, a self-selected risk taken in an effort to better one’s circumstances. It’s a mind-set. “You leave everything you have and get on a plane,” says Forbes 400 member Shahid Khan. “You can handle change. You can handle risk. And you want to prove yourself.”
By and large the immigrants of The Forbes 400 fall into two baskets. Many, like Peterffy, came here to escape something. Sergey Brin’s family left Russia when he was 6 years old because of discrimination against his Jewish family. George Soros survived Nazi-occupied Hungary. Igor Olenicoff’s family was forced to leave the U.S.S.R. after World War II because of their tsarist connections.
Others had enough privilege to live anywhere but saw America as the place of greater opportunity. Musk attended private schools in South Africa. Murdoch’s father was a knighted Australian newspaper publisher. Omidyar’s father was a surgeon.
Rich or poor, America’s entrepreneurial mind-set links them all. Americans-by-choice appreciate the opportunity and understand the corollary: that you can’t count on anyone giving you a break but instead need to make it yourself.
Do Won Chang and his wife, Jin Sook, arrived at LAX on a Saturday in 1981 with not much more than a high school education the same year martial law was lifted in South Korea. He immediately scoured newspaper job listings, interviewed with a local coffee shop and by Monday was washing dishes and prepping meals on the morning shift. “I was making minimum wage. … It wasn’t enough to get by.” So he tacked on eight hours a day at a gas station and on top of that started a small office-cleaning business that kept him busy until midnight. Jin Sook worked as a hairdresser.
While pumping gas, Chang noticed that men in the garment business drove nice cars, inspiring him to take a job in a clothing store. Three years later, after he and Jin Sook saved $11,000, they opened a 900-square-foot apparel store called Fashion 21. First-year sales reached $700,000, and the couple began opening a new store every six months, eventually changing the chain’s name to Forever 21. They’re now worth $3 billion.
“I came here with almost nothing,” says Chang. “I’ll always have a grateful heart toward America for the opportunities that it’s provided me.”
For Shahid Khan, a Pakistani, the logical place to immigrate was the United Kingdom, “but the U.S. was always the promised land for me.” In January 1967 Khan landed at JFK, his generation’s Ellis Island. His connecting flight to Chicago was diverted by a snowstorm, so the 16-year-old flew to St. Louis instead and took a bus to Champaign, to the University of Illinois, where he was enrolled as an undergraduate. He had $500 in his pocket. Khan got a job working as a dishwasher at night after school for $1.20 an hour. “I was overjoyed. You just couldn’t get a job like that where I came from,” he says. “My immediate thought was, Wow, I can work. I can be my own man. I control my destiny.”
Khan eventually got a job as an engineering manager at Flex-N-Gate, an automotive manufacturer. A few years later, with $16,000 in savings and a Small Business Administration loan, he started his own company, which made bumpers for car manufacturers. He eventually bought out his old boss at Flex-N-Gate. His company now has $6.1 billion in revenues and employs around 12,000 people in the U.S.
He still immigrated to the U.K. in a small way: He bought the English Fulham soccer team. But lest anyone challenge his preference, he also owns that most American of billionaire assets: a National Football League franchise–the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The number of college-educated immigrants in the U.S. grew 78% from 2000 to 2014. Almost 30% of immigrants 25 or older now possess a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Migrant Policy Institute–a figure that almost exactly mirrors the percentage for native-born adults. And a disproportionate number of these immigrants study math, science and other STEM disciplines that fuel most modern fortunes. In 2011 three-quarters of the patents from the top ten patent-producing universities in the nation had an immigrant inventor.
Romesh Wadhwani falls into that tradition. He attended India’s legendary IIT Bombay technical college but in 1969 came to America to pursue a Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon. He never left, founding Aspect Development, a software company, and Symphony Technology Group, a tech-focused private equity firm, on his way to a $3 billion fortune.
“It would have been virtually impossible for me to have started my own company in India in those days. There was no support for entrepreneurs,” says Wadhwani. “There is a freedom in the U.S. to dream big dreams, the freedom to achieve based purely on merit rather than family background or previous wealth or social status.”
Chinese-born Andrew Cherng observed a similar meritocracy when he arrived in Baldwin, Kans. in 1966 to attend Baker University on a math scholarship. He’d gone to high school in Japan and found “it was hard for Chinese to blend in with the Japanese.” A year later he met an incoming freshman from Burma named Peggy, whom he would later marry. “I didn’t have any personal possessions when I came,” says Cherng. “My drive came from being poor.”
In 1973 Cherng opened a restaurant, the Panda Inn, in California with his father, a master chef who had emigrated to join him. Ten years later he and his wife, Peggy, opened the first Panda Express in a mall in Glendale, Calif. Having earned a doctorate in electrical engineering and worked as an aerospace-software-development engineer, she incorporated systems that have turned it into a 1,900-store, quick-serve food chain, one of the largest in the U.S., with $2.4 billion in revenues. The Cherngs employ 30,000 people and have raised more than $100 million for charity. “In America nothing will stop you but yourself,” says Cherng.
Douglas Leone is another Forbes 400 member for whom an American education was a turning point. He was in middle school when he left Italy in 1968. His parents envisioned a life for him that included “upward mobility, something that wasn’t possible in Europe.” He wound up at Cornell and then earned postgraduate degrees from Columbia and MIT. “The American Dream is realized if you take advantage of the opportunity,” he says. “I used my education as a vehicle to put me in a position to do something.”
Leone worked sales jobs for the likes of Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard before joining venture capital firm Sequoia Capital in 1988. He became managing partner in 1996. During his tenure Sequoia has invested in Google, YouTube, Zappos, LinkedIn and WhatsApp, and has played a role in the creation of countless jobs. “If I had to bet the over/under on one million jobs created by the companies we’ve been involved in, I’d bet the over,” he says.
Leone is now worth an estimated $2.7 billion. His immigrant experience, he says, has been invaluable. “Being an immigrant provides you with a drive, one that never goes away. I still feel it today,” he says. “Failure is not an option. I tell my kids that the only thing I can’t give them is desperation. And I apologize to them for that.” Spoken like someone who found quick success.
It should be noted, though, that in addition to the 42 immigrants, The Forbes 400 includes 57 people who are the children of immigrants, or 14% of the list (compared with 6% of U.S. citizens over 18), pretty much shattering the image of America’s billionaire class as a bunch of blue bloods. That entrepreneurial hunger seems to continue for at least one generation. Sam Zell’s Jewish parents escaped Poland before the German invasion in World War II and came to the U.S. “My father used to say that in the United States the streets were paved with gold, and he never lost his appreciation for how lucky he was that he and his family were allowed to come here and prosper,” says Zell, who’s made $4.7 billion in private equity and real estate investing. “They worked very hard and were very patriotic and certainly instilled that in us.”
This election cycle's immigrant-and refugee-bashing is a time-honored tradition here, with each wave of newcomers taking its turn in the crosshairs of those who see them as job-stealing criminals. The Germans gave way to the Irish, the Asians to the Arabs, the Catholics to the Jews. These days the targets are Hispanics and Muslims. “We’ve gone through these various cycles over the years,” says Peter Spiro, a professor at Temple University who specializes in immigration law. “What’s meaningful is that we’ve always come out of them.”
What’s also meaningful is that despite all the hot air America, a land of immigrants, remains decidedly pro-immigrant. A 2016 Pew Research poll indicated 59% of Americans believe that immigrants “strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents” (33% believe immigrants “are a burden on our country”). Our citizens naturally intuit that any slight downward wage pressure for unskilled workers is more than overcome by all the growth and job creation that immigrants excel in.
But that dynamic could be challenged. The U.S. has been toughening its visa requirements for skilled workers (the famous H-1B). The U.S. has had the same visa and quota cap for skilled immigrant workers since 2004, even though demand for the visas has exceeded the mandated allotment.
In fact, the government has filled its quota within five days of opening it each year since 2014–at a time when a global economy means that many newly minted college graduates see more opportunity (or at least a fighting chance) in returning home.
As a result we’re increasingly drawing the world’s best and brightest, giving them access to our best knowledge–and then kicking them out, against their wishes, to compete with us from their original homeland.
So, what to do? Ask The Forbes 400 immigrants, including Peterffy, Khan, Wadhwani and Cherng. Even with their varied backgrounds, you’ll find agreement on three broad principles.
First, educated and highly motivated immigrants should be encouraged, not discouraged, to come to the U.S. (President Obama has championed a proposal to admit immigrant entrepreneurs more easily–raise $100,000 from qualified investors and get a “startup” visa–but it’s been bottled up in congressional partisan gridlock. A workaround proposal, not subject to congressional approval, was recently announced by the Department of Homeland Security and would grant temporary status to immigrants with an ownership stake and an “active and central role” in an American startup.)
Second, American borders should be more secure when it comes to illegal immigrants. And third, there should be a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the U.S., which includes registering, paying taxes and following the law.
Perhaps this can help create some consensus, one that ensures that the American Dream stays exactly that. How fitting if it proved to be another billion-dollar innovation dreamed up by immigrants.