Immigrant entrepreneurs… is the grass greener for us back home?

by Maya Farah

Many of us – grad students – have been bit by the startup bug. We are working on business plans, building MVPs to test our ideas, and looking for opportunities to build our own companies, or join fast-growing ones as we graduate.

Speaking on behalf of the international students studying in the US, I can fairly say that one of the major questions that are our minds is: stay in the US, or go back home?

Yesterday, Oliver Samwer addressed this concern in his recruitment presentation at HBS. His answer in a nutshell: for all the reasons why people want to build businesses in the Valley, we should leave. People want to build businesses in the US because of easy access to capital, concentration of skilled/technical labor, etc. Oliver views this abundance as source of competition, and says our brainpower and education can be leveraged much more in an environment which is not as competitive. 

Last year, Naguib Sawiris (one of the most influential men in Egypt) addressed the Middle Eastern crowd with a similar opening message: Come back home and be leaders; don't stay in the US, where there are thousands of you.

While this logic has a lot of appeal, I would like to address the pros and cons of entrepreneurship in the US vs. emerging markets seen from our side.

There are multiple reasons to stay in the US in an entrepreneurial hub:

First, because it is a great way to learn by osmosis, spot trends, meet like-minded people and get mentorship and skills. 

Second, the culture here is one that understands and forgives failure, unlike many of the markets like the Middle East where you only get one shot at success. 

Third, the startup machine is well oiled – from funding to market liquidity, to availability of potential advisor/board members.

Finally, even for those of us who want to go back, a mature market experience and an exposure to the SF way of doing things is very valuable in terms of brand building, credibility, etc.

On the other side, there are many reasons why one would want to go back:

First, because of the competitive advantage one would have back home: pre-existent local network, understanding of the culture, lower number of qualified MBAs.

Second, because even if many vilify it, the international “copycat” model has its appeal in non-mature markets: you can almost go straight to scaling up after a much shorter product/market fit exercise, which creates a lot of efficiency in the startup process, and speeds it up.

Third, because the US immigration laws make it really difficult for expats to build businesses here, due to visa quotas, etc. (Read this for one of many examples).  This makes it both tougher to stay, and tougher to hire from your non-US network.

And the strongest argument of all, in my opinion, is an advice a friend once gave me: “Build a business where you want to live”. Many of us see startups as a 2-year commitment, followed by an exit and a new beginning. The reality seems to be different – many of the entrepreneurs we read about stayed with their companies for 5-10 year before making it big. This is something to keep in mind when choosing our next geographical step.

There does not seem to be an obvious answer to the question… the grass can be green on either side. I have oscillated a lot in my decision, but my most recent conviction is to work in a small/growth-stage company in the Valley now, and move on to building my own business later on in an emerging market where I would want to live. But these decisions evolve based on circumstances and opportunities, and I know that what I go for today might not be valid tomorrow.


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