Unicorn Companies: Contributions of Immigrants to the U.S. Economy

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

First popularized by the venture investor Aileen Lee in her 2013 TechCrunch article, the term “unicorn companies” is now widely used when referring to startups valued at $1 billion dollars or more by investors. The unicorn is a legendary creature similar to a white horse, the only difference being a slender, pointed, and usually spiraling horn growing out of its forehead—thus, the unicorn is a rare and prized version of the horse. Similarly, unicorn companies are rare and prized—they reach a valuation of $1 billion or more while privately held.


Image credit: Tomais Ashdene, CC BY 2.0

Now, a study released about 10 days ago (March 17, 2016) points out one of the ways immigrants participate in the U.S. economy. The study, by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP)—a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to public policy research on trade, immigration, education, and other issues of national importance—reveals that immigrants play a key role in creating new, fast-growing companies: immigrants have started more than half of America’s unicorn companies, and are key members of management or product development teams in over 70 percent of these companies. The most common positions held by immigrants in such companies are chief technology officer (CFO), chief executive officer (CEO), and vice president of engineering.

For the study (Immigrants and Billion Dollar Startups), researchers conducted interviews and gathered information on the 87 U.S. startup companies valued at over $1 billion (as of January 1, 2016) that have yet to become publicly traded on the U.S. stock market and are tracked by The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones VentureSource (Billion Dollar Startup Club.)

The study results show that 44 out of 87 of the U.S. unicorn companies had at least one immigrant founder, thus pointing out the increasing influence of immigrants at major startup companies. Indeed, a 2006 study conducted with the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) identified an immigrant founder in 25 percent of venture- backed companies that became publicly traded between 1990 and 2005, while a 2013 NVCA study found immigrants started 33 percent of venture-backed companies that became publicly traded between 2006 and 2012.

Outstanding immigrant entrepreneurs profiled in the research include, among others:
  • Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturer and space transport services company;
  • Garrett Camp, co-founder of Uber, a multinational online transportation network company;
  • Noubar Afeyan, co-founder of Moderna Therapeutics and 37 other companies, primarily through Flagship Ventures, the firm he heads;
  • Jyoti Bansal, founder of AppDynamics, which employs 900 people and provides the equivalent of a 24/7 MRI for company websites;
  • Amr Awadallah, co-founder of Cloudera, which allows organizations in various fields to profit from their data;
  • Michelle Zatlyn, co-founder of CloudFlare, which uses the power of its global network to help websites with traffic and security.

Stuart Anderson, author of the study and NFAP executive director said in a press release: “Immigrants play a key role in creating new, fast-growing companies, as evidenced by the prevalence of foreign-born founders and key personnel in the nation’s leading privately-held companies. The findings help illustrate the increasing importance and contributions of immigrants to the U.S. economy.”

Collectively, the 44 companies with at least one immigrant founder are valued at $168 billion and, notably, excel at job creation—they create an average of about 760 jobs per company in the U.S.

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.


  1. I enjoyed reading this story because I love seeing how immigrants do contribute to the US economy in Unicorn companies, especially in times like this where immigrants are seen as anything but helpful. A lot of people today think that immigrants are stealing jobs away from Americans, but in reality, immigrants help build jobs. As I read the article The author gave me a list of large enterprises that were created by immigrants; For example, Garrett Camp one of the co founder’s of Uber. Garrett Camp, a Canadian Native, has created so many jobs for people in the US, that everyone in the US either knows what Uber is or has ridden in one.
    In my personal experience, I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My dad came from Uruguay, with only $100 in his pocket and not knowing anything about The United States. Today he has built a company in Georgia that is worth more than a million dollars. He has given lots of jobs to people in Georgia, and help the US economy every day. My mom has also started her own business; she owns a jewelry shop, it is not as big as my Dads company, but it’s headed in that direction soon.
    Immigrants are what make up the United States, seeing success stories of them creating and building ideas for a better USA is what makes me feel proud of coming from a family of immigrants.

  2. Sallay I understand what you mean about the two types of immigrants because I’m also a first generation and I’ve seen both types in my own family. My grandparents and parents, when they came here they did the the 9-5 job and people couldn’t understand them because of their strong Jamaican accent. However, me and my cousins have taken the second route of making an effort to understand the system. We all want to do more than just find some job that pays the bill, but to do something that we feel will make a difference. It’s why I’m so dedicated to be the first veterinarian in my family, and I know it will be difficult because the profession doesn’t contain a large percentage of immigrants. There has been an increase over the years and I know immigrants will be a good addition to the profession.

  3. So happy to see all of the previous in depth responses! Glad to know I was in a group of intellectual women who care more about just being pretty.
    Nonetheless, I found this topic to be very interesting due to the fact that I am a first generation Sierra Leonean. From my experience, there are two types of immigrants: The first type is the person who decides to keep a low profile so they just get a 9- 5 job making enough to take care of there family, no more no less. The second type is the one that makes an effort to understand the system and govenment here in the US so that they can make a name for themselves and those that follow. I use to think I wanted to be the first type, but as I close my undergraduate chapter I think that the second type is the path for me. It is my goal to use the resources here in the US to create a business back home in Sierra Leone so that I can support both economies. I believe that many immigrants are hungry for opportunities and financial stability. That is what any sane person needs to survive in this world. That is why many immigrants who do not receive it from their home country come to the US and make it a priority to achieve these goals. So the fact that this article highlighted that immigrants are playing a key role in “unicorn companies” is no surprise!

  4. After reading this article and the two comments before mine, I find that it is extremely hard to surpass the great accomplishments and contributions that immigrants have provided to the United States. I am still confused as to why Americans still feel animosity toward immigrants working in our country. I understand that we are all fighting for jobs, but without immigrants and with a growing population fighting for a position is inevitable. And like this article mentions, our jobs wouldn’t exist without the presence of immigrants.

    After reading, I went and found a list of contributions that immigrants bring to our economy. I think that Americans would appreciate that not only do immigrants take jobs but they MAKE jobs. They are successful entrepreneurs and they train and hire Americans. They are innovative in science and engineering, ultimately making our country a better place. They even boost the earnings for Americans and increase our nation’s GDP. Immigrants deserve so much more appreciation.

    I am considered a black immigrant and in the field of medicine I sometimes think that might description might be a disadvantage. The field of medicine is ruled by the majority, and as we all know the percentage of physicians is lower for immigrants. However, I think as our nation increases its appreciation for immigrants, we will continuously see these percentages change. We have to realize how important immigrants really are to the success of our nation. There has already been so much progress. We will get there.

  5. Of course immigrants are a vital part of our economy. More importantly, if it were not for immigrants none of us would be in the United States. Every one of us has family that originated in a different country at some point. As Benazir mentioned in her comment, most immigrants come to America to have more opportunities. My great grandparents were immigrants from Italy. They ventured to America in order to have more opportunities. Upon their arrival, they changed their last name. We are now the “Pace” family because they wished to have a name that sounded more American. It is extremely sad that my great grandparents felt the need to change their last name to fit in more easily. Unfortunately, I believe our society still makes many immigrants feel unwelcome.
    Immigrants bring new perspectives and ideas from their home countries, making a lastly impact on our economy. If it were not for immigrants we would not have some of the companies we have in America. In my opinion, without the influence of immigrants, our society would be boring and bland. I believe in America we should make an effort to make our society more welcoming to immigrants. We should be thankful for the immigrants that have come into our country and have made huge impacts. Instead, too many Americans are concerned with the growing influence of immigrants. I for one am thankful for the influx of immigrants into the United States. I have been blessed with friends that have come to the United States from other counties and have allowed me to learn about their cultures.

    • The strength of new perspectives is widely underestimated. Immigrants bring unique views about ideas and practices that others would not think about. The collective mind requires influences from all different sources, and there is no way to grow intellectually if one is stifled by their close-mindedness. As well, opening the mind to different perspectives allows for liberalism of ideas and opinions. A nation that wants to exceed and excel requires various viewpoints and a welcoming spirit.

    • Emily, I am so sorry to hear that your great-grandparents had to change their last name to become more American, but that has also happened to me. My grandfather changed his surname to “Oliver” to sound more American, but at some point, someone did not understand his handwriting correctly, so they wrote it as “Olivar” on his Identification Card. It’s is difficult to see that still in the 21-century immigrants still feel the same in the United States. That is why articles like this make me feel better because they show you what amazing things they can accomplish.

  6. As an immigrant to the United States, I agree that immigrants are pivotal in America’s growing economy. Most immigrants come from a poor country where options are limited so when they come to America, it gives them an opportunity to make a difference in the world. Being from the country of Bangladesh, I did not think that there were many famous Bengali immigrants in the US who made revolutionizing innovations but as I did more research, I found that there were many who did. Muhammad Yunus is one such person of Bangla origin who went on the creating the micro-lending movement providing thousands of people in impoverished nations to start their own small businesses. This endeavor even allowed him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

    Immigrants can provide a new perspectives to the business model. Most companies are catered towards middle class white consumers but as more and more immigrants come to the United States, businesses are not as polarizing. For example, the large Asian population in Georgia have contributed to many small business chains in the area like Suno, I Love Pho, and the rise of korean barbeque restaurants. These businesses have grown so much in popularity that people from all cultures can enjoy delicious Asian cuisine.

    • I also immigrated to United States and understand very well the barriers the immigrants experience. However I was raised believing that immigrants were only limited to physical labor for jobs due to language barrier and not meeting education needs. My mom proved me wrong; despite being a woman and an immigrant, she created her own business. I was ashamed of judging so many capable women leaders simply because they did not speak fluent English; I realized that I limited my own mom’s capabilities as well. United States is one of the countries with most diverse races, and the different immigrant backgrounds, I believe, will contribute to new and innovative ideas for U.S. to continue to develop. One of the biggest differences between Eastern and Western cultures is that while East tend to focus on small details, West focuses on the big picture. If the two ideas overlap, surely U.S. will not only focus on the big picture but also focus on the small details.

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