Why Being an Immigrant is the Ultimate Entrepreneurial Experience

Being an entrepreneur is scary, exciting, gratifying … so many emotions mixed into one. The same is true about being an immigrant.

Here are five ways my experience as an immigrant served as a foundation for launching a startup.

Jump Off the Cliff

It was 2003, I was 19 years old, and I had just arrived in the US from my native country Bulgaria ready for my freshman year at The College of Brockport in upstate New York. I was holding two suitcases containing the contents of my entire life. I only had my clothes and my memories — everything I would need to start fresh.

Nine years later, as a founder, I was again back to nothing and constantly reminded that 90 percent of startups fail. Layered on top of this stress, my Google safety net had vanished.

With the odds stacked against me, and terrified that the life I had built in America could evaporate in an instant, I knew I had to make my startup work.

Rely on Friends, Family & Fools

My scholarship covered tuition — but the rest was up to me. To attend university, I borrowed the complete savings of my parents, including their 401ks, and took gifts from extended family. I scraped together enough to cover room and board for my first year, roughly $5,000. Raising funding is a similar experience. 

You have to rely on friends, family and fools to get enough seed funding for your first product or service launch. It’s a skill set that may feel awkward, but is essential to survive.

Become an Efficiency Machine

Shortly after starting school, I landed a job as the “smoothie guy” in the school cafeteria. It was the graveyard shift, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., earning 50 cents per hour more than the day shift.

I worked 20 hours each week, the maximum allowed to work on campus as a full-time student, all while triple majoring in math, computer science and computational science. I had time only for working, studying, eating, and sleeping.

Between university and founding Leanplum (Seattle ’12), I worked at Google for five years. When I left, I knew I was giving up the security of a work visa and paycheck, both of which I’d come to heavily rely on.

In a way, it felt like I was 19 again, beginning from scratch with no resources. And when I started Leanplum, I was right back at it, coding, talking to customers, eating and sleeping.

Rely on Your Wit

As busy as I was at university, I was also the happiest I’d ever been. Why? I felt empowered to pursue my dreams with nothing but my vision — a belief I would need nearly a decade later as an entrepreneur.

The thing about entrepreneurs who are also immigrants is we’re relentlessly resourceful — the number one entrepreneurial characteristic.

In Bulgaria, there’s a folklore character named Hitar Petar, or Clever Peter, akin to Robin Hood. Clever Peter relies on his resourcefulness to succeed, and there are plenty of stories that showcase his wit.

His essence lives on in Bulgaria, a nation that may not be the most affluent, but one that is certainly resourceful. It’s this trait that has helped me flourish, both in school and in Silicon Valley.

Risk It All

Once you jump off that cliff, you can’t look back. As a student, I was thousands of miles from my family, and terrified of failure. At the end of my four years, I worked hard and graduated Summa Cum Laude. But standing there with my two suitcases that day, I didn’t know that’s how my time at university would play out.

A founder’s fears are the same. Five years after launching Leanplum, I’m proud to have built a company that is every bit as successful as I could have hoped.

We raised our Series C funding last October, continue to triple our revenue and employee growth each year, and work with the biggest brands in the world, like Tinder, Macy’s and Lyft.

It was my experience as an immigrant that made this all possible — an experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Techstars is a Worldwide Network that helps entrepreneurs succeed. Check out the impact of the Techstars’ network over the past 10 years.

A Message to the Techstars Worldwide Network

Techstars helps entrepreneurs succeed.

We are a worldwide organization with people in our ecosystem in nearly every country around the world. We are dedicated to inclusion and diversity. There is no bias in who we work with and where we work.

We are simply about helping entrepreneurs succeed and creating the best worldwide entrepreneurial network.

Techstars fully supports diverse peoples of all backgrounds, religions, and nationalities.

Yesterday, the United States made changes in immigration policies that could make many people feel insecure, unsure and concerned about their future in and around engaging with the United States. While we have no control over these policies, we want you to know that Techstars remains an open and inclusive global family. The best that we can do is make sure that we are of service to those in our network who need guidance and support.

If you are a founder, mentor, investor, community leader or partner within the Techstars ecosystem and have concerns that we can help address, please reach out to us at foreveryone@techstars.com and we will work directly with you on your concerns.

Editions Month Spotlight: San Francisco Immigration

Where’s your family from? This popular conversation question is one we know exactly how to answer – perhaps you’d say half Italian and half Swiss, or maybe half Colombian with some German and French. Most of the time, depending on where you’re currently living, we’re actually talking about generations before us, which makes up our genes and how we identify ourselves today.

immigrants-and-libertyBut what about how people got there? For most Americans, our ancestors arrived years ago and we haven’t thought twice about it since. The United States is a nation built on immigration: between 1892 and 1924, 22 million immigrants entered the US through Ellis Island and the Port of New York. The United States continues to be a popular destination by attracting about 20% of the world’s international migrants, even as it represents less than 5% of the global population. Today, immigrants make up 13% of the overall U.S. population.

Immigration is often thought of as a taboo topic that’s left for politicians to figure out, or a frustrating topic left for job seekers to deal with on their own. However, it is something that has affected all of us, whether it’s in your family history or your current story. This is the very reason we should seek to find better laws and actions around it.


Immigration reform has been in the works with plenty of news coverage lately and over the years, which is way too much to get into for this blog post. But action on a local and community level is where big ideas can start and that’s the type of work we love to see. We’re so excited for the first-ever Startup Weekend Immigration to take place in San Francisco during Editions Month!

Not only is this a brand new edition of Startup Weekend happening, but the team’s story behind the event won first place in our recent Editions Month Story Contest! Their organizing team is made up of 6 first-generation immigrants and 2 second-generation immigrants, coming together to rally various industry members to tackle this issue head on. You can read more from them and about their upcoming event below.

Organizing team members & origin countries
Peter Shin – Korea
Armando Guereca – Mexico
Pulkit Agrawal – UK, India
Jessica Yen – Taiwan
David Silva – Colombia
Ria Carmin – Russia
Kate Lacey – Canada
Kripa Nithya – India

What is the motivation behind organizing this event?

None of the organizers knew each other before this event, and we all come from very different immigrant backgrounds, but we’re united in working towards a common goal – To create a more even playing field for immigrants.

And that is the same experience we hope to provide to the participants. Whether you and/or your family immigrated recently or many generations ago, whether you came here for work/study/family/refuge/asylum/etc., whether you’re documented or undocumented, whether you work in tech or or not, we want to emphasize to everyone that despite our differences, we as immigrants and Americans are all united by a common dream, and that is to work hard and take big risks in order to achieve a better life than the one we were born into.

What are you most excited about for your upcoming event?

Bringing together and uniting the immigration+tech community together in a way that’s never been done before. Not only will we be bringing together 125+ participants from all different nationalities, but they’ll have the chance to meet notable immigrant founders, immigration startup founders, investors, journalists, attorneys, and policy experts who are all deeply passionate about this issue.

There will also be a major educational component, which is often lacking in the national discourse around immigration. We will be kicking off the event on Friday evening with a speaker panel discussing the history and context of immigration in the US, and how the laws and system became so broken over the years.

What makes this Edition and event unique?

  • It’s the first-ever Immigration-themed Startup Weekend in the world

  • This is not a one-off event. It will be the first in a series which will not stop until solutions for many/all of the ideas in this blog post have become a reality

  • Courtesy of one of our judges: immigrant founder angel fund Unshackled – the winning teams will get a chance to skip the initial screening stage and pitch directly to a panel of Unshackled’s impressive network of investors, for a chance at up to 185k in seed funding.


Read the Organizers’ story behind this event:

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The Chief Technology Officer of the United States Talks Immigration With UP Global.

Las Vegas – Megan Smith, United States Chief Technology Officer, knows the importance of staying connected with startups, and few places offer more opportunity for connections than the technological smörgåsbord that is CES.

The startup economy is spreading across the globe, influencing international policy in unprecedented new ways. Administration representatives like Smith are actively seeking feedback from startups on how to design policy that makes fostering competitive, innovative businesses possible.

“The US has long been a welcoming place for native and foreign born inventors and entrepreneurs to turn their vision into a reality,” said Megan Smith, US CTO. “In the United States, immigrants and their children have founded over 40 percent of companies in the Fortune 500, collectively employing more than 10 million people and generating annual revenue of $4.2 trillion. It’s important that we continue to make it possible for highly skilled innovators from around the world to come to the United States and help create, engineer, and develop the innovations, together with native born Americans, that will keep our Nation on the cutting edge and bring jobs.”

UP Global, CES, Startup WeekendFeatured: UP Global’s Senior Vice President of Development, Enrique Godreau III and Marketing Director, Mitchell Cuevas – with Megan Smith, USA CTO. 

Smith sat down with 11 UP Global community leaders and entrepreneurs during CES to collect information on how startups are affected by the current Immigration System. Participants highlighted their most pressing issues:

  • US startups having to settle on second or third rate talent because of visa or immigration issues

  • Talent being constrained by big companies promising a green card

  • The US Immigration reputation being complicated and drawn out

As a part of its effort to modernize and streamline the US immigration system, the Obama Administration is hoping to encourage a diverse global workforce of entrepreneurs by identify new actions that would:

  • Streamline and improve the legal immigration system — including visa processing — with a focus on reforms that reduce government costs, improve services for applicants, reduce burdens on employers, and combat waste, fraud, and abuse in the system.

  • Ensure that the government issues all of the immigrant visas that Congress provides for every year, consistent with demand.

  • Modernize the information technology infrastructure underlying the visa processing system with a goal of reducing redundant systems, improving the experience of applicants, and enabling better public and congressional oversight.

This news will be welcome by startups both inside and outside the United States.

The US Government is asking for feedback on these actions – from you! UP Global believes that startups are the key to an economically sustainable future. The legislative issue of immigration has existed in the US since the 1800s and finally, instead of denying access, the US government wants to grant it. Startups need access to good talent! The US government is asking entrepreneurs everywhere to weigh in and have their voices heard.

Please visit the full Request for Information to see the complete list of questions, along with instructions on how to submit your comments and recommendations by January 29, 2015. You may respond to any or all of the focused questions, or simply submit your general comments.