America truly is the land of opportunity: it is the one place on Earth, where you can come with nothing but talent, dreams, and – most importantly – the drive to work hard and then turn those dreams and ideas into real-life success. The United States is the world’s leader in terms of numbers of billionaires (492 in 2014), and over 10 percent of American billionaires are foreign-born. Coming from 23 different countries, many came to get their bachelor’s or graduate degrees. Others came as children with their parents. Some came with money and business ideas. Others came with very little money. They all share two common attributes: a strong work ethic and the determination to succeed. Besides the very well-known Hungarian-American hedge-fund manager George Soros and Russian-American Google founder Sergey Brin, there are many extraordinary success stories, some of which we share below.
Take, for example, Shahid Khan, who came to the United States from Pakistan at the age of sixteen with only $500 to his name. He came to study engineering at the University of Illinois, and arrived in the middle of a blizzard with no place to stay and no friends or family to help him. That first night, he stayed at a YMCA, and the next day, he washed dishes in its kitchen for $1.20 an hour to make back some of the money he owed on the room. Another person would have crumbled, but Khan looked at everything from a different perspective. Sure, $1.20 an hour was very little money – but he was still making more than 99% of Pakistanis! He studied diligently, joined a fraternity, and met his future wife while studying for his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. After graduation, he worked as an engineering manager at a local auto parts company. After improving the company’s processes, Khan used his life savings and a small business loan to start up his own company, manufacturing a new type of bumper. Within a few years, he bought the company at which he worked and became a top supplier for GM and then, eventually, Toyota. Now Khan is worth $3.8 billion and, in addition to his auto parts empire, is also the owner of an NFL football team, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“There is no question that there’s a connection between one’s drive and search for opportunities and having a foreign beginning,” California real estate magnate Igor Olenicoff told Forbes in 2009. “This is particularly true if your early years were spent in a poor country with a strong class system.” Olenicoff was born in Russia during World War II, and his family fled Communist Russia for Allied-occupied Iran, where he attended an English language school run by missionaries. When Olenicoff was fifteen, his family moved to New York, arriving with only four suitcases and $800, of which they were promptly relieved by muggers. With no money, his family moved west in search of better opportunities and ended up settling in California. Olenicoff studied hard and received degrees in finance and mathematics as well as an MBA from the University of Southern California. After several years of consulting, he launched his own real estate development business. Today, his company owns 6.4 million square feet of office space and 12,000 residential units across California, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida. His net worth is valued at $2.9 billion.
Indian-born Manoj Bhargava took a more circuitous route to wealth. A math prodigy, he moved to Pennsylvania with his family as a teenager, where he finished high school and attended Princeton University. After one year at Princeton, he dropped out and went back to India to live for twelve years as a monk. When he came back to the United States, he held various jobs: construction cleaning contractor, accounting clerk, printing press operator, and even taxi driver. Then, he started a plastics company, which he grew to over $20 million in sales and later sold to a private equity firm. With the earnings, he founded a consumer products company and created the energy drink “5-Hour Energy” which now accounts for over 90% of the energy shot market. Bhargava is now worth $1.5 billion. With a strong desire to give back to his community, Bhargava set up a charity which receives 45% of his company’s profits and has funded medical research in the United States, as well as over 400 different charities in India, the most notable being hospitals for the underprivileged and education for women in rural areas.
Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang moved from Taiwan to California with his mother at the age of ten, knowing only one word of English: “shoe.” Within three years, he was fluent and placed in advanced classes. He studied diligently and went on to earn both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford University. He created the web search engine as a project with his classmate, David Filo. Quickly realizing its potential, the two postponed their doctoral programs and founded a company. Today, Yang is worth $1.7 billion.
Andrew Cherng was born in China and grew up in Taiwan. When he was fifteen, his family moved to Japan, where his father took a job as a chef. Not seeing great prospects for himself there, Andrew went to the US knowing absolutely no English. He chose a university that did not require him to take the SATs (administered in English) and majored in math, so that language would not be a problem. As a sophomore, he met his future wife, Peggy Tsiang, also a math major recently off the plane from Hong Kong. They both went to graduate school at the University of Missouri-Columbia. After graduating, Andrew first managed his cousin’s restaurant in Hollywood, then took his life savings, borrowed some money from family and friends, and opened his own restaurant in Pasadena, California with his father as chef. The first couple years were tough, with family working various positions, often for free. But then came success. They opened a spinoff of their restaurant as a quick-service Chinese food option in a mall; the restaurant was called Panda Express. Within a few years, they had opened several other locations. Then, Peggy joined the family business, bringing her knowledge of computers and systems expertise. In 1990, she became CEO and, soon after, the company co-chair. Peggy and Andrew continued to innovate and maintain strict quality control of their restaurant chains. “We have an all-in mentality,” Peggy told Fortune in 2013. “Because we’re immigrants, we have a can-do attitude.” Today, Peggy and Andrew operate more than 1,600 restaurants and have a net worth of $2.7 billion. How did they get there? According to Peggy’s interview with Fortune, “Andrew is the visionary who pushes for growth. I like my system process, so I work on how to enable the growth. Being married does not always make working together easy. We had to learn how to resolve business disagreements. It’s not ‘Your way is best’ or ‘My way is best,’ but the alternative way – which incorporates everybody’s ideas – is best.”
Without question, the extra challenges that come with being foreign-born shaped these billionaires’ entrepreneurial spirits and their drive to learn helped them succeed. Besides accounting for over 10% of American billionaires, foreign-born Americans account for one sixth of all small business owners in the United States and naturalized and first-generation Americans make up over one third of all American millionaires. So what’s the secret to actually taking advantage of this land of opportunity? According to these billionaires, you should take chances, work hard, and dream big. Written by Katherine Magalif.