When 11-year-old Mohamad Ali emigrated from Guyana to live in the United States, he had never seen an escalator before. He went on to become a U.S. citizen, earn engineering degrees from Stanford, and work for Hewlett-Packard and IBM. Eventually, he became the CEO of the data protection company Carbonite. Ali believes that the U.S. draws its global competitive advantage from its openness to new people and new ideas. A recent study of billion-dollar startups found more than half were founded by immigrants. He argues that the country risks impeding growth in high tech and life sciences by making it harder for top talent to arrive and compete for jobs. If immigration and travel become more restrictive, Ali says, his own company will be forced to expand its European and Canadian offices, much like Microsoft and other tech companies have done. He believes his own immigration story shows the American Dream is still alive. It is core to innovation and competitiveness, Ali says, but it must be protected.
John F. Kennedy Airport, 1981. I was 11 years old, and my mom and I had just arrived from Guyana. Together, we had $34. We approached a big machine that we had never seen before and stood at bottom puzzling over the best way to get on and off it.
Later we learned that the machine was called an escalator. At that moment, looking up from the bottom of the escalator, the idea that I would one day run a technology company seemed unfathomable. In time, I would become a U.S. citizen, earn engineering degrees from Stanford, and work at IBM and Hewlett-Packard. Today I am the CEO of Carbonite, a publicly-traded data protection company.
This is possible because this is the United States of America. I believe the U.S. draws its global competitive advantage from its openness to new people and new ideas. It’s an ability the country devalues at its peril. We risk impeding growth in sectors such as high tech and life sciences if we make it harder for top talent to arrive and compete for jobs. From my personal experience, including in the corner office, I firmly believe that curtailing immigration will make it harder to sustain America’s vibrant, creative mix.
Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Intel founder Andy Grove was a refugee from communist Hungary. Apple cofounder Steve Jobs is the son of Abdulfattah Jandali, an immigrant from Syria. Today, the trend continues. A recent study of billion-dollar startups found more than half were founded by immigrants. Our next generation of great companies, too, will depend on immigrants — as will the American economy as a whole.
Consider the country where I grew up. In 1970, the year I was born, Guyana’s dictator declared the country a cooperative republic and deepened relations with Cuba, North Korea, and the Soviet Union. Imports were banned, including flour. The president started nationalizing businesses. By 1979, the private sector was reduced to only 10% of the economy. There was a widespread shortage of food, fuel, water, and electricity.
My mother was a teacher. My father was a police officer. We were better off than most. We had a home made from wood, instead of mud. We had a small amount of money, but there was not much to buy. The government told us to grow vegetables. Without running water, we walked long distances to fetch water.
In 1980, my parents decided this was no life for their three young children, then three, five, and 10 years old. My father found his way to America; my mother and I came a year later; and three years later, my younger brother and sister arrived. After four years, we were reunited, living in near-poverty in New York, but we were together and hopeful. In 1991, we became U.S. citizens.
Millions of people like us have fought tooth and nail for a better life in America. Assembled under a set of consistent rules called the Constitution, we compete fiercely and win on a global scale. This is the kind of diverse team that CEOs covet and that builds great businesses.
I’ve seen this dynamic in practice at two iconic companies, IBM and HP. When I joined, each had approximately $100 billion in revenues and more than 250,000 direct employees. Each had become proud, complacent, and insular. New ideas and new blood were unwelcome.
In 1993, IBM was within months of bankruptcy. For the first time in the company’s history, the board hired a CEO from outside the company – an immigrant of sorts to the IBM nation. Louis Gerstner created an environment that gave new employees like me a chance to innovate and compete. We eventually shed the hard drive and the iconic IBM PC businesses – much to the chagrin of the old guard. Instead, we invested in software and analytics.
Similarly, in 2011, HP was declining at a precipitous rate. A new CEO, Meg Whitman, came in to fix a company mired in complacency and isolationist thinking. She began infusing the company with new talent, including me. We eventually split the company into smaller ones that could move faster with new ideas and compete better.
Both IBM and HP had suffered from stagnation: too many employees set in their ways, too few new ideas. One key to reviving them was bringing in new people. A healthy mix of old and new is critical to the vitality of a company – and the nation.
Earlier this year, when the U.S. administration proposed and enacted changes to travel and immigration policies, my company set up a teleconference for U.S.-based employees. More than 10% dialed in, most of whom were born in unaffected countries such as China and Mexico. Employees asked whether we have a contingency plan if they were unable to reenter the U.S. after traveling abroad. Certainly, I would rather keep the talent who come to our universities and join our company within the United States. To retain those employees, however, if immigration and travel become more restrictive, we may be forced to expand Carbonite’s European and Canadian offices, much like Microsoft and other tech companies have done.
Worries and logistical distractions hurting overall productivity is one thing. The imminent threat to innovation and progress is another. The technology sector already suffers from a significant talent shortage. Meaningful K-12 investment, internships, apprenticeships, and retraining of American workers are needed, along with immigration. The country also cannot afford to curtail the new companies and jobs that immigrants create.
In recent months, I’ve thought back many times to my own path to U.S. citizenship. Three decades after I looked up from the bottom of that escalator, I am contributing to the economy and creating jobs in a meaningful way. The American Dream is still alive, and it is core to innovation and competitiveness. But we must protect it.
Earlier this year I was invited to welcome 200 immigrants taking the oath of American citizenship at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. I told them that despite the many challenges they face, they have the grit and optimism the United States needs right now. I told them they could become a hard-working mechanic whom the community respects, like my father. I told them they could become the CEO of a corporation, like me. I told them their descendent could become the president of the United States, like JFK, the great-grandson of immigrants.
I challenged them to prove their worth. I challenged them to work hard, study hard, start businesses, create jobs, and build the American economy. I have no doubt they will. They know what life is like in many other places, and they chose the United States. Citizenship is their badge of honor and our common hope.
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