Without Immigrants, We Wouldn't Have Google

 
 
What is the secret sauce of US commercial success? It’s the contributions of immigrants, like Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who have made huge contributions to the technological and economic success of the United States, argues Harvard Business School Professor Shane Greenstein.
 
 
by Shane Greenstein

In light of the tragedies in Paris and San Bernadino, a number of politicians, following in the footsteps of Donald Trump, have urged this country to respond by barring immigrants, refugees, and Muslims from our shores. Such a “solution” is perhaps emotionally cathartic for some at the moment, but out of keeping with the spirit of America and harmful in the long run.

"Outsiders keep our commercial markets vital by offering perspectives that differ from the prevailing view"

After all, what is the secret sauce of US commercial success? It’s the contributions of smart and hard-working immigrants who have made innumerable contributions to the technological and economic success of the United States. Outsiders keep our commercial markets vital by offering perspectives that differ from the prevailing view, introducing new business practices, and conceiving of new modes for specialization.

Consider one of the founders of Google, Sergey Brin. His experience defines what it means to transition from outsider to insider. He came to this country at age six because his parents were trying to escape the oppression of the former Soviet Union. Needless to say, his family brought no wealth with them. His parents’ primary assets were their talents, energies, and aspirations to have a better life for themselves and their children.

So how did Brin reach a position to cofound Google in 1998? The US educational system recognizes and promotes talent wherever it comes from. By the time Brin had graduated from the University of Maryland, he was such an academic star that the National Science Foundation helped fund his Ph.D. studies.

It turned out to be a good bet. Brin teamed with Larry Page while the two pursued their doctorates at Stanford’s computer science department. Starting in 1995, and continuing over the next few years, they launched a research project to simplify Internet search, a process that was then far from easy.

Outsiders do well in the US when venture capitalists and angel investors don’t discriminate. Tim Draper, cofounder of the venture capital firm Draper, Fisher, Jurvetson, can serve as an example. In 1995 he and his partners heard a proposal from two coworkers who aspired to be entrepreneurs, Sabeer Bhatia, a native of India, and Jack Smith. Though lacking any entrepreneurial experience, they had a great idea for a new business—web-based electronic mail. Their idea became Hotmail, the world’s first free web-based email service and the first electronic mail for tens of millions of users. While it was only a promise, the parties struck a deal less than 48 hours after they first met.

And what a deal. Hotmail eventually sold to Microsoft for hundreds of millions of dollars. It also helped create viral marketing, which lets users help suppliers sell the product. Potential for commercial success once again triumphed over social station.

Openness to outsiders also benefits major US corporations. In 1995, for instance, the then-CEO of IBM, Lou Gerstner gave Irving Wladawsky-Berger the assignment of his life – put together an Internet strategy for a company that had fallen on such hard times that it was being described by many as a dinosaur. As it turned out, he helped IBM emerge with a visionary strategy focusing on a lucrative line of internet-related services that helped one of the largest technology companies in the world make the turnaround of the century.

How did Wladawsky-Berger get there in the first place? In the late 1950s, at the age of 15, he emigrated with his family from Cuba to the US and worked his way up the US educational system, earning a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Once again, America proved itself to be the land of opportunity for those with talent and aspirations.

The genius of the US technology community is its focus on talent and its predilection to favor what works over ideologies that promote exclusion. This is in keeping with our long-standing social compact to live and let live, allow a variety of cultures to thrive, and refrain from interfering with freedom of expression—an admirable reflection of the American ideal. And when it comes to technology, it’s also very good business.

Let’s not take this attitude for granted. We should let it thrive with this generation’s outsiders, regardless of place of origin, ethnic background, religion, or gender. They can help bring a new set of perspectives and contributions that will renew technical opportunities for all.

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