How immigration has shaped the experiences of these 8 Colorado tech founders

Jess Ryan

It could go without saying, but the topic of immigration is hotter than usual these days. At Built In, we believe immigrants and their families make the United States a stronger, more innovative place, so we decided to chat with some local startup founders who are either immigrants or first-generation Americans:

 

Photo by Edward DeCroce

Tokken is a cannabis-related fintech startup that launched in 2016. Right now, the Denver company has 13 employees, with plans to grow this year. Lamine Zarrad is Tokken’s founder and CEO.

Please tell us about your background.

I was born in the former USSR, in the country now known as Azerbaijan, to an Azeri mother and Tunisian father. Despite what is taught in the West, my childhood had comfort and stability under communist rule as my maternal family was rather affluent.

When the USSR collapsed, everything in our lives was upended. As a result, my family had to flee our home to escape the Baku pogrom of 1990. We ended up living in a lithium factory that had been converted to small refugee apartments in Moscow, where we lived for about five years.

My mother met and married an American missionary, and that’s when I came to the United States at the age of 16 on a green card for asylees. Our family lived in Augusta, Georgia, where I completed high school and joined the Marine Corps, and I eventually earned my American citizenship through my service in combat with the USMC.

How has your perspective as an immigrant shaped the way you approach founding and leading a startup?

I’ve developed a strong appreciation for cross-cultural experiences, not simply in the narrow sense of “racial diversity,” but in terms of the global array of philosophies, pedagogies, intersectionality, and openness to connect with the “other.” This provides individuals with unique insight that I seek in who I hire. In founding a startup, the culture demands tolerance for the unknown and extreme flexibility for the continuously shifting landscape. In this way, the immigrant experience is similar to startup experience: one must identify opportunities and capitalize on them in order to survive.

 

Boulder’s Section.io provides content delivery solutions that go beyond the typical content delivery network. The company, which went through Techstars Boulder last year, has 13 employees. Stewart McGrath (pictured on the right) is Section.io’s CEO and co-founder.

Please tell us about your background.

I grew up in the North Western suburbs of Sydney, Australia and was fortunate enough to be accepted into Australia’s top public school, which was culturally more diverse and certainly more inclusive than most schooling environments in our region at that time.

How has your perspective as an immigrant shaped the way you approach founding and leading a startup?

I am fortunate to be in the United States. Not every country has an immigration agreement with the U.S. (as does Australia) which would allow someone like me to enter and build a business. So I do feel a sense of gratitude and obligation to make the most of the opportunity. On the other hand, I am also proud of my heritage and believe that the differences in my background and experiences provide a “culture add” rather than a culture fit within our organization. I love the fact that as a group, we can explore, understand, tolerate, appreciate and laugh at our differences. What’s more, I’ll bet there are not many offices in Colorado with Vegemite in the kitchen and Tim Tams in the cupboard.

 

Krista Morgan is CEO and founder of P2Binvestor, a fintech company that lends to small businesses and has 30 employees.

Please tell us about your background.

I was born in 1981 in Stuttgart, Germany to Canadian parents who were there working for a subsidiary of Burroughs. I spent my first six years living in Germany in various cities until we moved to Menlo Park, CA in 1987.

In 1989, we moved back to Canada, to a 500-person town north of Montreal. I am fourth-generation Canadian on my Dad’s side of the family—his family originally came from Scotland and Ireland— and a first-generation Canadian on my mom’s side. My mother and grandmother escaped from Hungary in 1956 and ended up in a refugee camp in London. They took a flight out to Vancouver, after accepting to immigrate to Canada to start a new life, eventually making their way to Montreal. 

I grew up in Montreal and went to McGill University for undergrad. As a consequence, I do speak French (poorly), love stinky cheese and red wine more than most people and have eaten my fair share of poutine at 3 a.m. after the bars close. Over the next twenty years, myself and all of my siblings followed my father to Colorado, where he had moved after securing a green card, and we all feel at home here. While I will never give up my love of hockey (Go Habs!) or real Canadian maple syrup (no it’s not the same from Vermont), I don’t miss the extremely cold winters and constant criticism of my terrible French accent.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

I am incredibly proud of the success we have achieved at P2Bi. But I’m even more proud of the fact that we are a financial technology company that has 50 percent women in our 30-person organization, 50 percent women in our leadership team and 50 percent women in our board meetings. The women in our organization can see an equal path to leadership; they can see that leadership isn’t about having all the right answers, it’s about having the wherewithal to find the answers by surrounding yourself with a team of smart, capable, resourceful and diverse people who challenge you to be better.

How has your perspective as an immigrant shaped the way you approach founding and leading a startup?

Living in different places makes you keenly aware of the fact that your way of doing something or thinking about something is not necessarily shared by everyone else you interact with. I think I make fewer assumptions about how people are going to respond to a given situation. That awareness breeds sensitivity to other points of view, it forces me to listen before acting and it makes me more open to challenging my own world view — which I believe leads to better decision making.

 

Mimi's online platform makes it easier for families to find assisted living facilities when their loved ones are in need of professional care. Launched in 2016, mimi’s three-person team recently graduated from the Boomtown accelerator. Asim Malik co-founded mimi.

Please tell us about your background.

As I queued outside the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan for my student visa, I could only imagine the adventures that awaited me in the United States. After six hours in 105 degree heat, the embassy interviewer smiled at me and said, “Good luck, son, and dress warm for Wisconsin.” A few weeks later, with two suitcases in hand, I hugged my parents goodbye and boarded the plane to O’Hare Airport. I was only 17 years old.

What’s happened since you got to the U.S.?

That was over 20 years ago. Since then, my time in the U.S. has opened myriad opportunities. After college, I earned my MBA, worked as a management consultant, traveled and lived across the world, moved to Denver, learned how to snowboard and started a tech company. Immigrant or not, there have been no free rides or handouts. It took me 15 years to earn my U.S. citizenship, and I am so proud to call this amazing country my home.

What makes your team unique?

Mimi is a refreshing mix of international backgrounds. William hails from a Hispanic grandmother, Benoit is a Catholic from Belgium and I am a Muslim from Pakistan. We approach problems differently and find unthinkable solutions. It is this very diversity that enables our company to innovate quickly and will continue to help us succeed and become great.  

For all that, I am thankful to our diverse America.

 

Woot Math’s platforms help educators connect with students and get them more engaged with math. Sean Kelly is the company’s co-founder and vice president of engineering. Woot Math currently has 12 employees.

Please tell us about your background.

I was born in Scotland in 1970 and lived there until 1982. My dad designed integrated circuits and was recruited by GTE to setup a IC design effort in the United States. The result was the the wholesale immigration of our family including my parents and four siblings.

What's your proudest accomplishment, either as a startup founder or elsewhere in your career?

My proudest accomplishment to date is being an integral part of Woot Math. Technology has the potential to transform education in this country. Woot Math is already reaching thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of students. Knowing that we are making this kind of difference is as inspiring as it is motivating — and this is just the beginning.

How has your perspective as an immigrant shaped the way you approach founding and leading a startup?

My family of immigrants includes successful executives and entrepreneurs, a teacher and a research biologist. As a whole, this country has given us a great deal of opportunity, and I believe we, as a family, have given back. As a successful immigrant from a family of successful immigrants, I am imbued with a sense of gratitude for the opportunities that have been afforded, a sense of pride in a country that affords such opportunity and a sense of obligation to serve the greater good and to protect this country's legacy of diversity, tolerance and opportunity for all people — immigrants or otherwise. As a founder, this perspective informs the products we build, the people we hire and, for me personally, the commitment I have to mentoring less senior engineers.

 

Vikas Reddy is co-founder of Occipital, a spatial computing and mixed-reality company that got its start in 2008. Reddy and the 35-person Occipital team shared some thoughts on immigration in a recent blog post.

Please tell us about your background.

My parents emigrated from India in the 1980s. There was a shortage of doctors, and my aunt was able to bring a few of her siblings and families when coming to the U.S. to help address the shortage. I was born in Detroit, Michigan and I'm a proud Michigander. I'll fight you if you disparage my state — only we Michiganders get to do that! My dad was a PhD student at Wayne State and he dropped out once I was born and got a job in technology to support our family.

What's your proudest accomplishment, either as a startup founder or elsewhere in your career?

Jeff Powers (my co-founder) and I keeping Occipital alive through the "Great Recession" of 2008 after failing to raise money post-Techstars. We stuck with it through a lot of hard things, and I'm glad we did.

How has your perspective as a first generation American shaped the way you approach founding and leading a startup?

When I was young I remember going to India with my family and seeing kids the same age as me begging on the streets or working in tough conditions. I think it made me appreciate what I had a lot more. My parents worked hard to give me a great upbringing and education. I feel like I need to take advantage of the great opportunity I was lucky enough to have and work hard to achieve something great.

 

Andreas Deptolla is co-founder and CFO of Wishlist and ThrivePass (which have 25 employees between them). Wishlist’s e-commerce platform allows people to purchase experiences, instead of things. ThrivePass works with employers to offer health and wellness incentives to employees.

Please tell us about your background.

My family is from Germany, and I spent my whole childhood there. I got my first glimpse of the U.S. during internships in Chicago and DC during university. I met one of my co-founders, Charles Shen, while working Los Angeles in 2007. The other founder, Wade Rosen, I met while earning our MBAs in Madrid in 2010. That year I also married my American wife, whom I met in a very cheesy Irish bar in Dublin years earlier. A few years ago, I moved to Boulder to launch Wishlist and ThrivePass with Charles and Wade. Both my personal and professional lives are focused on the U.S., but I try to get back to Germany as often as I can. This is important for me as well as my two children (both American!). Being able to move between the two cultures has been very enriching for me and my family.

What's your proudest accomplishment, either as a startup founder or elsewhere in your career?

Having the guts to quit a secure job in strategy consulting to pursue being an entrepreneur and getting two successful companies off the ground.

How has your perspective as an immigrant shaped the way you approach founding and leading a startup?

I strongly believe that a diversity of backgrounds leads to the best ideas in debates. Coming from another country and having fresh eyes can help solve the unique problems and challenges of running a startup. The U.S. is the best place in the world to start a business. People here are willing to take risks and value what entrepreneurs contribute to society.

 

Thierry Schellenbach (pictured on the left) is co-founder of Stream, an API for building scalable feeds. The company has 10 employees and was part of Techstars NYC’s 2015 cohort.

Please tell us about your background.

I'm Dutch and my co-founder Tommaso is Italian. In 2014 we started Stream back in Amsterdam. Soon after our initial launch, we were accepted into Techstars NYC. Being a part of Techstars gave us access to a wide range of mentors and investors. After the program, Stream raised $1.75M and moved its headquarters to Boulder. My wife and I moved to Boulder about a year and a half ago. It's been a great experience and we found the ecosystem to be very welcoming to foreigners. Our team has a very diverse background. Stream's chief technical architect is French, our designer is American, our developer evangelist is Canadian and our data scientist is Mexican.

What's your proudest accomplishment, either as a startup founder or elsewhere in your career?

Growing Stream from just an idea and two guys to a company that powers the feed technology for over 50 million end users.

How has your perspective as an immigrant shaped the way you approach founding and leading a startup?

Raising money is substantially harder as an immigrant. Many venture capitalists perceive your international background to be an extra risk factor. We were fortunate to find a group of investors that believed in us regardless of this complication.

 

Photos via featured companies. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

How has immigration impacted your company? Email us or tell us on Twitter: @builtincolorado.

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