Superman was an Immigrant


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As the national debate on immigration rages, firmly at odds with New York’s core values of diversity and entrepreneurial spirit, can you still make it in ‘Metropolis’ if you are from a different planet?

By Kajal, @kajalnyclon

“The Daily Planet” at East 42nd Street New York, Photo Credit: A

While not necessarily from Superman’s home planet Krypton, in 2010, 31.2% of all business owners in New York State were foreign-born and responsible for $229 billion in annual economic output. Diversity is not a cliché in New York — it is a clear and outsized competitive advantage. This is as true for smaller business as it is for venture backed businesses. According to a recent NFAP policy paper:

Immigrant founders in the US have started 51% of companies valued at over $1billion and created 760 jobs each on average across a diverse range of industries

The research also goes on to suggest that entering the US as an international student is a key avenue to starting a successful US company. They estimated that one quarter of the 87 US billion dollare start ups had one immigrant founder who came to the US as an International student.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my own frustration with the entrepreneurial visa options and those of my colleagues when we graduated from Columbia University. There are now 40% more international students studying in the US than a decade ago, in New York alone, nearly 50,000 non US students were enrolled from 2012–13.

Some tell me that a tough immigration process is a good filter, only the best stay. But the catch is that the best; the superheroes, now have more far more options. For the last 6 months I travelled across Europe and talked to over 50 international founders, a frictionless immigration process for themselves and their teams was a key factor on where to start and grow their companies.

“I can set up my marketing and sales in New York, but what happens when I need my best engineers here? I have to think ahead” said one founder. Cities from Toronto to Dublin and Berlin are taking note; they have all introduced fast track entrepreneurial visas to attract the best international talent. New York, meanwhile, is not sleeping.

Jeremy Robbins leads New American Economy, a bi-partisan advocacy group working towards comprehensive immigration reform and highlights key data on economic contributions of immigrants. He also told me about a recent program for International Innovators. The initiative run by the New York Economic Development Corporation (NYEDC) helps International entrepreneurs to start in New York and supports their visa process.

Comprehensive immigration reform however is still a long way off. Given the current political context, nurturing the entrepreneurial talents of those already in the country is increasingly important. Brooklyn based CAMBA hosts several programmes for immigrant entrepreneurs. Education and distribution of low cost technologies are core components of its integration strategy.

“Most of the immigrants were selling something in their home countries, they have the raw skills but there is a discomfort around technology” said Isaac Rolden director of CAMBA’s Small Business Services. To help bridge this gap they teach a 3 part mobile technology programme and also provide small business loans to Brooklyn entrepreneurs. How much of an impact can such programes make? The answer can be found in a pot of Chobani yoghurt.

Chobani’s founder Hamdi Ulakaya, a Turkish immigrant, bought his first manufacturing plant with a loan from the New York’s Small Business Administration. The company today employees over 2000 people and invested over $450million in Idaho.

New York certainly won’t give up on its fight to attract the future Hamdi’s of the world. Last year I visited New York Historical Society’s superhero exhibit and learnt that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman during the Great Depression. Both were sons of Jewish immigrants. It seemed that a certain alienation they felt fueled their creation of Superman — a Kyrptonian that became one of most influential immigrants of our time.


I’d like to thank Isaac Rolden at CAMBA, Jeremy Robbins at New American Economy, Romish Badani at Bridge US and Stuart Anderson at NFAP for their insights on immigrant entrepreneurship.

Sources and Recommended Reading

  1. Immigrants and billion dollar start ups, NFAP Brief, Stuart Anderson
  2. How Chobani founder Hamdi Ulakaya is winning America’s Culture War — Fast Company
  3. Superman — Wikipedia, Origins of Superman as an immigrant
  4. Kryptonomics — The New Yorker
  5. H1-B caps reached..? Blame Your Smartphone — Forbes, Stuart Anderson

About the Transatlantic Post

Written and edited monthly by Kajal Sanghrajka, founder of Growth Hub and a 2017–18 Churchill Fellow, the Post provides an insider look at entrepreneurial ecosystems in cities across Europe/North America as well as innovative models that effectively integrate immigrant entrepreneurs. I report live from a different city each month.

I interview pioneers at the front lines of each city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to help raise visibility of European companies, provide practical advice for US business expansion and support both sides of the Atlantic recruit much needed talent. I’m grateful to our vibrant network of entrepreneurs and changemakers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Join our Transatlantic network here

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