How Being An Immigrant Helped Me Become A Better CEO

Momchil Kyurkchiev
Momchil Kyurkchiev

America is known as a land of not just opportunity, but also as a center of entrepreneurial innovation and a magnet for talent from all over the world. Personally, my experience as an immigrant set me up for entrepreneurial success.

My backstory: I immigrated to America from my native Bulgaria as a young college student. After graduating, I worked for five years as an engineer at Google before founding a successful venture-backed technology company, Leanplum. There are five life skills I learned from immigrating to the US that shaped me into a better CEO. Whether or not you share this experience, these skills may help you found and grow your company as well.

1. Take Risks

Immigrating is the ultimate risk. Most people can’t imagine a scarier move than leaving their home country to live in foreign land with a different language, where traditional social networks and safety nets are absent.

I moved to America in 2003 to attend college in New York. I was 19. My entire worldly belongings fit into two suitcases, and I had borrowed thousands of dollars from my family to help pay for college. But even though this was a massive risk for me and my family, it was worth it because it enabled me to pursue opportunities that I never could have achieved in my home country.

In a way, being an immigrant prepared me for the risks and stresses of running a startup. Compared to the emotional commitment of asking your friends and family to help fund your education, pitching VC investors is easy!

2. Be Resourceful

Immigrating to the US forced me to become more resourceful. Out of necessity, I constantly had to adapt, solve problems, figure things out, and generally learn how to survive and thrive in a new country.

In the same way, entrepreneurs learn every day by putting out fires, finding new solutions, and pivoting away from failure. Being an entrepreneur requires continuously adapting and taking on a mindset of 24x7 learning. At the same time, you must find new ways to solve problems and serve in every role imaginable, from CTO to CFO to customer service rep.

The best entrepreneurs, like immigrants, are relentlessly self-reliant — they proactively shape circumstances to suit their goals.

3. Believe in Your Vision

When I first arrived in the US, I learned the radical lesson of mental de-cluttering. While in college, I worked 20 hours per week in the cafeteria during the graveyard shift, the maximum time allowed to work on campus as a full-time student, all while triple majoring in math, computer science, and computational science. I only had time for working, studying, eating, and sleeping. I didn’t overthink my situation — just did what I had to do to succeed.

This is the same mentality as entrepreneurship.

When I started Leanplum, I was in the same mentality as when I was 19 — non-stop coding, talking to customers, eating, and sleeping. Starting and scaling Leanplum has been one of the happiest and most thrilling adventures of my life, because it has given me the chance to pursue a specific vision for what I wanted to achieve, with focus, determination, and a great team.

4. Move Between Cultures

I’ve been privileged to understand and appreciate multiple cultures, finding ways to operate effectively across cultural boundaries. Being an immigrant has made me a better person, as well as a better entrepreneur.

Even if you never move to a new country, learning another language, working with a diverse team, and respecting unique cultural differences can help improve your sense of empathy, enhance your tolerance of ambiguity, and help you understand other people’s intentions. Being an immigrant has helped me relate to people better and given me greater confidence in working with individuals from all walks of life.

5. See Things Differently

Perhaps the greatest life skill I’ve learned from immigrating is a sense of perspective.

There seems to be something about the experience of being an immigrant that makes people have a broader perspective and embrace innovative ideas. Many of America’s most innovative entrepreneurs have this “immigrant” mindset. Steve Jobs was the son of an immigrant. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, and Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, are also immigrants. Immigrants have started more than half of America’s billion-dollar startup companies.

America must not lose this incredibly valuable competitive advantage. We must continue to be a welcoming place for immigrants, especially for the entrepreneurial immigrants who invest so much to start new businesses, create new jobs, launch whole new industries, and transform our sense of possibility of what life can be like.