Many of America’s Top Tech Minds are Immigrants

Trace the ancestry of an American back enough generations and you will find an immigrant. America has long been a land of opportunity for migrants, and Silicon Valley has been particularly successful at attracting some of the world’s best professionals.

Why particularly in tech?

America’s immigration policy has had a profound impact on the demographic distribution of imported talent in the country. Many developed countries have point-based immigration systems. In these systems the governments define whom to allow in. Not so in the US. America preferred that firms take the lead in importing talent. This was accomplished through H1B visas sponsored by American employers. US firms fine tuned the process of seeking, evaluating and attracting skilled talent. Many tech qualifications are proprietary and highly standardized. Microsoft and Cisco certifications are two cases in point. Professionals who acquire such qualifications are considered on par regardless of their geographic location. This made it possible for the tech industry to consistently spot promising talent. The wage gap between nations did the rest.

The result

44% of Silicon Valley startups and 24% of all US tech startups were founded or co-founded by an immigrant. Tech giants such as Qualcomm, Merck, GE and Cisco acknowledge that 60% of their patent filings are owed to the contribution of immigrant professionals. One Harvard Business School Professor published a study which said, “One out of every 11 patents developed in the United States today is either invented or co-invented by an individual of Chinese or Indian ethnicity living in the San Francisco Bay Area.” 76% of patents filed by top US universities had at least one immigrant participant. The Lion’s share of these patents were in technology, including semiconductors, digital communications, optics, and pharmaceuticals.

The average techie

A skilled IT professional can work anywhere in the world. The choice to come to the US is motivated primarily by economic factors. A large percentage of America’s tech employees come from developing countries in Asia. While they enrich Silicon Valley with their brilliance, their priority is to support their families. Immigrant tech workers regularly send money online back home by way of remittances.


The current presidency’s stance on immigration is causing leaders in the tech industry to speak out. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down from the president’s council and vocally clarified his opposition to anti-immigration proposals. Other tech CEOs who publicly voice their discontent with these policies were Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk of Tesla.

Famous (imported) US tech minds

Albert Einstein is easily among America’s best known icons. He came from Germany. Nikola Tesla, the creator of the alternating current system was raised in Austria. Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo! is Taiwanese. Google co-founder Sergey Brin was born in Soviet Russia. Google CEO Sundar Pichai is from India. Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg’s parents came from Europe. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX was born in South Africa. Apple founder Steve Jobs’s biological father was a Syrian refugee. Whatsapp co-founder and CEO Jan Koum is from Ukraine. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the son of a Cuban parent. eBay founder Pierre Omidyar was born in Paris to Iranian parents. Two out of three founders of YouTube were immigrants. Oracle, IBM, Qualcomm, PayPal, Cognizant, the list of immigrant-founded US tech firms is almost endless. 60% of the highest valued US tech firms were started by immigrants or their offspring. These companies are now worth trillions. There is abundant evidence all around us to prove that immigration is not just good, but essential for innovation.

Let me conclude with a quote from Apple CEO, Tim Cook, which summarizes the sentiments of the US tech industry about immigration:

“Apple would not exist without immigration, let alone thrive and innovate the way we do.”