A record number of immigrants have become billionaires in the US

These 92 immigrants hail from 35 countries but made it rich in America.

When Zoom founder and CEO Eric Yuan set his sights on the U.S. as a recent college graduate in the 1990s, he was denied a visa eight times in 18 months. Determined to join idols like Bill Gates making it big in tech, the son of mining engineers in China’s eastern Shandong Province refused to take no for an answer.

“I told myself, okay, great. I’ll do all I can until you tell me that I can never come here anymore,” Yuan told Forbes in 2019. “Otherwise, I’m not going to stop.”

Yuan’s persistence paid off. He finally got a visa and headed to California in the summer of 1997 to join WebEx as an early employee. Two decades later, the rival video communications company he ended up founding and running has fundamentally changed the way we connect with each other in the midst of a global pandemic.

Yuan (who was worth an estimated $5.2 billion as of March 11– the date Forbes used to measure net worths for the latest billionaires list), is just one of 92 foreign-born American citizens on Forbes’ annual World’s Billionaires list for 2022 who currently live in the United States. You heard that right – 13% of the list’s 735 American citizens are immigrants.

With a combined net worth of $711 billion, these foreign-born U.S. citizens account for 15% of all American billionaire wealth. And they’ve built their fortunes on their own– 92% are self-made, compared to 71% for the 628 American billionaires who were born in the U.S.

These immigrants hail from 35 different countries and every continent but Antarctica. The world’s richest person, Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX ($219 billion), is one of three from South Africa. Another five hail from elsewhere in Africa, including Tope Awotona ($1.4 billion), the founder and CEO of scheduling software company Calendly. As a 12-year-old in Lagos, Nigeria, Awotona witnessed his father get shot and killed in a carjacking. Three years later he and his family moved to Atlanta, Georgia.

“When you come from a different country, and you have to assimilate into a different country, you learn to get along with people from all different backgrounds, and you have empathy for people of all different backgrounds,” Awotona says.

Other newcomers to the billionaire ranks include mobile gaming billionaire Adam Foroughi of AppLovin ($1.3 billion), who was was born in Iran a year after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and Jordanian-born private equity mogul Ramzi Musallam ($4 billion), whose formative years were spent in emerging markets such as Saudi Arabia and Tanzania, where his father, a Palestinian Christian born in Jerusalem, worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But it’s Israel that has produced the most immigrant billionaires on this year’s list, with ten–including brothers Tom and Alec Gores ($6 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively), who stocked shelves at their father’s grocery store in Flint, Michigan before making it big in private equity, and Oracle CEO Safra Catz ($1.5 billion), one of 10 female immigrants with three-comma fortunes.

Eren Ozmen ($2.6 billion), who owns and runs private aerospace and defense company Sierra Nevada Corporation with her husband Fatih Ozmen ($2.5 billion), is one of those women. The Ozmens are Turkish immigrants who came to the U.S. for graduate school in the early 1980s, drawn to the land of opportunity they’d imagined growing up.

"When we were children, on the other side of the world, we watched the moon landing on a black-and-white TV. It gave us goosebumps. It was so inspirational," Fatih Ozmen told Forbes in 2018. "Look at the United States and what women can do here, compared to the rest of the world,” his wife Eren added.

Eight American billionaires were born in Canada, including real estate icon Mortimer Zuckerman ($3 billion), the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who settled in Montreal and sold tobacco and candy, and Alberta natives Robyn and Mark Jones ($1.8 billion), founders of Goosehead Insurance in Texas.

Seven immigrant billionaires were born in China. Weili Dai ($1.4 billion) played semi-professional basketball in Shanghai as a teen before cofounding semiconductor company Marvell Technology with her husband Sehat Sutardja (an Indonesian-born U.S. citizen worth an estimated $1.3 billion). Andrew Cherng, who shares a $3.2 billion fortune with his wife and Panda Express cofounder, Peggy Cherng (an immigrant from Myanmar), was also born in the Middle Kingdom.

India rounds out the top four as the birthplace of seven American billionaires, five of whom made their fortunes in technology, including venture capitalists Vinod Khosla ($6.9 billion) and Ram Shriram ($2.6 billion), the founder of cybersecurity firm Zscaler, Jay Chaudhry ($11.4 billion) and founder of AI firm Amelia, Chetan Dube ($2.4 billion).

The 92 figure doesn’t count another 36 non-citizen billionaires living and working in the U.S., including brothers John and Patrick Collison (worth an estimated $9.5 billion each), the Irish cofounders of digital payments giant Stripe, and pop star Rihanna ($1.7 billion), who lives in Los Angeles and whose stakes in the Fenty Beauty cosmetics line and the Savage X Fenty lingerie business helped make her Barbados’ first citizen billionaire.

Altogether nearly half (41) of the foreign-born members of America’s billionaires club derived their wealth from technology. The finance and investments industry ranks a distant second, with 16 immigrant billionaires. In fact, Silicon Valley has become so dependent on immigrant entrepreneurs that prominent locals have started looking for a less political term for immigration.

“It really is a framing issue. We should not call high-skilled labor coming here immigration,” said venture capitalist and early Uber investor Jason Calacanis on a recent episode of the “All-In” podcast. “We should be flipping that to talent acquisition. We should be looking at it as, ‘America is trying to get more talent here so that we can win the industries that matter.’”

There’s always the risk that students from economic rivals like China will take their technical skills home with them – six billionaires who earned U.S. citizenship while studying in the U.S. have gone on to found or run Chinese companies, including Li Ge ($8.8 billion) who received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Columbia before cofounding WuXi AppTec, which provides R&D and manufacturing services to the global pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device industries. (Forbes didn’t count Li or 14 other foreign-born U.S. citizens living outside the country as immigrants).

But many other China natives have stayed in the U.S. after graduating from American colleges, including DoorDash cofounder and CEO Tony Xu ($1.3 billion), whose mom gave up her medical career in China to work at a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. while her husband earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. She eventually opened her own acupuncture and medical clinic, which she continues to operate in the San Francisco Bay Area more than 20 years later.

“DoorDash exists today to empower those like my Mom who came here with a dream to make it on their own,” Xu wrote in the company’s 2020 IPO prospectus. “Fighting for the underdog is part of who I am and what we stand for as a company.”

SOURCE: Forbes


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