Why Venmo and Queenly Co-Founders Owe Their Success to Immigrant Roots
There are things inherent to the immigrant experience that equips people with the mindset and skillsets necessary to create impactful businesses.
According to Forbes, studies show “that 55%, or 50 of 91, of the country’s $1 billion startup companies had at least one immigrant founder.”
Iqram Magdon-Ismail was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in Africa. At age 13, he and his family moved to the United States, settling in Mclean, Virginia. Today, Iqram is well known for his work in co-founding the mobile payment service Venmo.
“I’m an immigrant to the T,” he said. Growing up moving around Africa, and eventually having to adjust to a completely new life in the States. “A lot of grit and street smarts came with my upbringing that eventually really helped in the early days of my startup… because in the early days, you have to do everything. And that’s what immigrants do best, they do everything,” Iqram said.
“Immigrants are generally the types of people who work extra hard,” he said, adding “the lives you have to lead to come here, and not only to become a part of the culture but also to learn a new language and do all kinds of things that people who grow up here didn’t have to do.”
After Venmo was twice-acquired by Braintree and then PayPal, he made it his mission to “help immigrants feel welcome wherever they go.” In doing so, he started his band, Iqram & the Immigrant Groove. He has always been passionate about music, and when the new administration took over and began to attack immigrants, he felt called to do something. He created his band as a means to connect immigrants to one another through immigrant music.
Iqram has also founded Ense, an online social platform for sharing your voice. Ense was originally inspired by his band, created as a platform for musicians to collaborate online. However, as the platform grew, he realized that it also increases the accessibility that immigrants or people who speak different languages have to online communication.
As technology advances, he realized that there are certain nuances in our voices that are lost through just texting or social media. Whether it be our accents, the rhythm of our voice — all of these beautiful sounds are lost in the abyss. Ense, while future-facing, allows people to preserve their unique voices, adding the human element back into online connection.
Iqram continues to pay it forward by mentoring other immigrant founders. Currently, he is an advisor for Queenly, a mobile dress resale platform designed with affordability in mind. Kathy Zhou and Trisha Bantigue, best friends and co-founders of Queenly, bonded over their similar backgrounds of growing up in poor, immigrant households. Facing similar hardships growing up made them both strong and independent early on.
Kathy Zhou moved to the US from China as a child. Her parents got a divorce when she was young, and she and her mom struggled financially. Growing up, there were periods of her not having health insurance. She would be told to be careful and “be more vigilant with your health.”As a result, she became really good at managing finances.
There was always an emphasis placed on hard work as an opportunity to uplift. “To be honest, there’s definitely this level of stress and pressure that comes with being that first-generation immigrant. There’s this survival instinct to push yourself, sometimes, too much, when it comes to working hard or studying,” she said. It was this level of hard work that got her into the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania for Computer Science, and eventually landed her a software engineering job at Pinterest.
Through all of her hardships growing up, she also learned that you can’t take things for granted.“It helps you appreciate things you do have more, coming from a background of not having a lot,” she said. Having humble backgrounds also taught her to ask for help. She learned to lean into her community, whether it be for learning how to code, for brutally honest feedback, or anything else.
Zhou, like many immigrants, was comfortable with being uncomfortable. “You’re used to being ‘the new person’, and starting in a place you’re not familiar with.” New things are less scary as an immigrant because chances are they faced more difficult things in the past.
There is also this combination of immigrant values and American values that played into her favor. “You’re exposed to both this culture of hard work and wanting to be super pragmatic and resilient when you’re an Asian immigrant and also this culture of being in America and seeing people be really creative and start businesses and pursue their dreams,” Zhou said.
It was this combination of immigrant values and American values that taught Zhou how to take calculated risks such as leaving a substantial paycheck at her Software Engineering job to found Queenly with Bantigue.
Trisha Bantigue grew up with her grandparents in a small province in the Philippines. She never saw her parents until age 10, when her mom and stepdad petitioned her to move to the United States. She lived in Las Vegas with her mom who eventually developed a gambling addiction. This led to her moving around all the time as a kid due to them being evicted. At one point, Bantigue was homeless.
At age 16, she started working to help pay bills, she emancipated at age 17 and cut off all connection to her mother. Eventually, she worked her way into UC Berkeley, having to take two years off of school in the middle of her university career in order to work and be able to afford to finish off her degree.
“My whole life has been unstable,” she said, adding “I am used to things being chaotic, so I am comfortable with the idea of risking everything to start my own thing, and not having stability and not having a stable career path whatsoever,” she said.
Similar to Zhou, growing up in such unstable conditions, Bantigue developed a very strong mindset from a young age. Since they are used to chaos and instability, when it came to making the decisions to throwing away all the stability they had in their lives with their 9-5 jobs, put everything on the line to found Queenly, they both gratefully took the leap.
“For us, having dealt with harder things, having sacrificed much more than maybe someone who was born with a silver spoon, or someone handed things throughout his or her lifetime, it made us less susceptible to giving up,” she added.
Today, their mission with Queenly is simple: It is to “help girls”. They know what it is like to not be able to afford things so they specifically designed Queenly in a way that promotes accessibility and affordability. Today, the two of them are bonded not only through their shared backgrounds, but also through their mission with the business.
For these founders, their immigrant roots are their strength. What once made life more difficult for them gave them the skill sets and mindsets necessary to become successful entrepreneurs today. Being an immigrant teaches you to be resourceful, to work hard, to lean into the community, and to be grateful.
Many people want to have their own business, but not everyone has what it takes. Many immigrants, especially if they are in an older generation, had no choice but to start their own business. It is difficult to find a job with a livable wage if you don’t speak the language. For them, everything is already on the line, as creating a successful business is the difference between poverty and living comfortably.
For the younger immigrant generations, it is that magic formula between the immigrant values placed on hard work and resiliency paired with the American values of following your dreams, which leads to the creation of world-changing businesses.
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