5 American Success Stories From the Melting Pot

Feb 10, 2014

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket takes off in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photographer: Chris Thompson/ SpaceX via Bloomberg

America is a nation founded by the newly arrived. Lured by the promise of opportunity, immigrants have given their energy and entrepreneurial acumen, becoming part of the fabric of the American economy.

There are some real marquee names out there, as well as some lesser-known but inspiring success stories. Most know the fabled tale of Russian-born Sergey Brin's role at Google, but immigrants' contributions to the country run deep. In fact, nearly a fifth of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants, according to a recent report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, even though immigrants have averaged just over 10% of the population since 1850.

Here's a sampling of immigrants and the companies they have helped found, many of which now dominate their market segments:

PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors

Elon Musk's entrepreneurial contributions are stratospheric.

Musk knew he wanted to come to America from his native South Africa at an early age because of the opportunities. And after completing his business degree at Wharton, he wasted no time in applying his drive and talent to the 1999 creation of his second company, X.com, in association with other early Internet pioneers. That company evolved into PayPal, which in 2002 was snapped up by eBay — a firm founded by yet another recent immigrant, Pierre Omdyar — for $1.5 billion in stock.

But Musk wasn't finished. He quickly turned his sights to two completely different industries, autos and space, creating SpaceX in 2002 and co-founding Tesla Motors the following year. After a rapid development phase for the industry, SpaceX is now contracted to deliver vital supplies to the International Space Station at a cost less than 10% of what NASA was able to do with the Space Shuttle. Around that time, Musk launched Tesla, which produces electric vehicles, including a sports car that is equal to a Ferrari, and which features the highest-ever safety rating from the U.S. government.

Zoosk

Shayan Zadeh and Alex Mehr met as undergraduate students in their native Iran, and later were roommates at the University of Maryland. That’s where they originally hatched the idea for the social network-turned-dating site Zoosk, which they launched in 2007 while Mehr completed his MBA at the University of California, Berkeley. Zoosk quickly expanded and now boasts more than 25 million members, has the top-grossing dating app in the Apple app store, and is available in 85 countries and 25 languages.

YouTube           

Jawed Karim emigrated from Germany as a high school student along with his family. While still an undergraduate University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he joined the Internet gold rush as an early employee of PayPal and contributed to some of the company's vital underlying technologies. After turning his sights to creating his own company, he co-founded the now ubiquitous YouTube in early 2005, before launching the company on its way with the posting of its first video in April the same year. In 2006, Google snapped up the video-sharing site for a cool $1.65 billion in stock.

Karim is sharing his success with other prospective entrepreneurs. He recently launched Y Ventures, a fund that assists university students realize their startup dreams.

Huy Fong Foods

In 1980, David Tran arrived in the United States from his native Vietnam with little capital. But, like thousands of successful immigrants before him, he didn't let that stop him. Even though he couldn't secure a bank loan, Tran had launched Huy Fong Foods within several months of arriving, selling product from the trunk of his car around Los Angeles. At first, the company's signature product, the popular “rooster” brand Sriracha hot sauce, could only be found in specialty food stores, but through hard work and unendingly positive word of mouth, his 100% made-in-the-USA take on the classic Asian chili sauce is now a favorite across the country — with some 20 million bottles sold a year.

WellCare Health Plans           

Kiran Patel, who was born in Zambia, came to the United States in the mid-70s after studying medicine in India. He developed a dynamic cardiology practice in Florida during the early 80s, but that didn't satisfy his entrepreneurial drive. He soon expanded his business to create a large physician-owned health plan, WellCare, which would later become the country’s fifth-largest HMO, with more than $1 billion in annual revenue. After selling his majority stake in the company, Patel and his wife Pallavi founded the Center for Global Solutions in 2005 to help support sustainable urban communities.

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