What makes immigrants so much more likely to launch a high-tech startup, compared with their native born peers? Consider the rise of Christian Gheorghe, an entrepreneur who started life in Romania and now is thriving as a Silicon Valley CEO.
Gheorghe’s latest company, Tidemark Systems, is in the spotlight this month. The Redwood City, Calif., maker of business-analytics applications is featured in the May 21 issue of FORBES as a part of a new breed of software companies that are holding down costs and speeding up innovation by building their businesses in the Internet cloud. That’s news; so is Gheorghe’s path to the top.
Growing up in Romania, Gheorghe insistently charted his own path. His parents were solidly working-class: his father was a lathe operator, while his mother was an accountant. He pursued an engineering degree, becoming the first family member to graduate from college. But he also tinkered with computers and electronics, while buying and selling Pink Floyd albums on the black market. With Romania’s Communist government heading toward a chaotic collapse in the late 1980s, he decided it was time to leave and try his luck elsewhere.
Arriving in the United States in 1989, at age 23, Gheorghe had limited English and no obvious way to put his Romanian technical training to use. Instead of moping, he took one of the first paying jobs he could find: unskilled labor on construction sites in the metro New York area.
“I carried plywood from the first floor to the second floor, over and over,” Gheorghe told me. “They paid me $100 a week plus a free bologna sandwich at lunch time.” It was a bottom-rung way to get started, but at least he was in the workforce. Within a year, he had improved his English – and his prospects.
Next stop: writing computer code during the daytime for a small robotics company, and driving a limo on nights and weekends to make some extra cash. All told, Gheorghe by 1990 was earning $700 a week. To save money, he slept on a cousin’s futon in Connecticut.
Always on the lookout for opportunities, Gheorghe chatted up one of his limo passengers, Andrew Saxe, who turned out to be the head of a small company managing direct-mail marketing lists. Saxe needed programming help. Gheorghe was ready to oblige. They teamed up to build Saxe Marketing into a business that ultimately was sold to Experian for $30 million in 1997.
Saxe got most of the proceeds. Gheorghe got a big enough taste of entrepreneurship’s rewards that he set out to start more companies on his own. In 1998, he started Tian Software, which analyzed Web traffic for large companies. That company was sold in 2005 to OutlookSoft for an undisclosed sum.
When SAP bought OutlookSoft in 2007, for $400 million, Gheorghe stayed on for a little while as a senior vice president, but then left in 2009 to become an entrepreneur in residence at Greylock Partners, moving to Silicon Valley in the process. It didn’t take long for Gheorghe to figure out what his next company should be. Tidemark Systems took shape in 2010, targeting the business analytics software market.
AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Information, since the mid-1990s has been documenting the rise of immigrant entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and other high-tech hotspots. Technical training plays a big part, she finds. More than half of all people earning Ph.D.s in engineering at U.S. institutions in recent years have been immigrants.
But pluck may be even more important. Immigrants like Gheorghe don’t dawdle in their pursuit of better opportunities. They start at any available entry point in the job market, and then rapidly advance toward very ambitious personal goals. They keep pushing ahead, even if it means hauling plywood on a construction site or making small talk with whatever big shots they might be driving around in a borrowed limo.
- Is it better to be motivated by money or ego? (pandodaily.com)