Studies show that 40 percent of America’s Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. In other words, by people like Jordan Gonen, son of an Israeli immigrant and a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis.
This week, Gonen and his friend Henry Kaufman, of Colorado, launched the site CelebrateImmigrants.us, an ever-growing list of immigrants who founded innovative American businesses, ranging from Irish immigrant James Gamble of Procter & Gamble to South African-born Elon Musk of Tesla. The site is Gonen’s response to debate over recent changes to U.S immigration policy and has attracted visitors from 100 nations.
Here, Gonen, who is studying finance at Olin Business School and computer science in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, shares why he created the site, how viewers have responded and what other projects are on his plate.
What was the genesis of the site?
It was 11 o’clock at night on Saturday and I had just seen the movie “Founder,” which is about the founder of McDonald’s. I was thinking about the drive and determination it takes to start a business — qualities immigrants frequently possess. I was talking to Henry and we decided we should do this. We worked until 3 a.m. and launched. I don’t consider myself a politically involved person, but I don’t think of immigration as a political issue. This is more of a life debate.
You are the son of an immigrant. How has the experience shaped your views?
My dad came to the United States with $2,000 stuffed in his socks and worked hard to succeed. What I’ve learned through my dad’s culture and also from the tech world is that doing matters more than talking, whether that means launching a small side project like CelebrateImmigrants.us or starting a new company. It’s about going for it and testing your ideas. A lot of immigrants really embrace that concept. Many start with little to no resources in their new country. And they still manage to make things happen.
How did the list come together?
We built this site solely on the premise of bringing more recognition to founders that we looked up to. We compiled the list manually and we know we left some people out. We added a “suggest a founder” button that should help with that. Everyone knows about Elon Musk, but there are so many amazing stories out there, from Ukrainian immigrant Igor Sikorsky, who founded Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation and built the first helicopter, to Iranian-American Arash Ferdowsi, founder of DropBox.
You also are very entrepreneurial and innovative. What projects have you launched?
In October, a friend and I launched Disrupt Cards, a Silicon Valley version of “Cards Against Humanity” (sample cards: Angel investing in toddlers, the Satanic chanting of Jeff Bezos, Clippy). We were on CNN and got a lot of other cool press. It’s kind of offensive but also funny. Henry and I also launched another project last week called WritingClub, which provides a writing prompt every day (Sample prompts: “The biggest mountain you have to climb this year,” “The most important piece of technology.”)
And right now I’m working on a new company called Scaphold, which helps people build apps faster used GraphQL. I have a few more projects that will launch soon. One is called Book Club, which allows users to create and share lists of books. A lot of people wait until they have the perfect idea, but for me, it’s about just doing it.