Successful U.S. companies started by immigrants

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April 3, 2019
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Successful U.S. companies started by immigrants

The mountain of contributions made by America's immigrants to the country and to the world is nowhere more evident than it is in the sphere of business. According to Brookings, nearly half of the top Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or first-generation children who lived out the dreams their parents could have only imagined when they made the journey to America in search of a better life, as so many others had done before.

Over the centuries, each wave of immigrants faced hostility, suspicion, discrimination, or worse based on their religion, race, customs, country of origin, or perceived values. As a new debate about a new generation of immigrants rages on, it's impossible not to wonder how the world would have suffered if America hadn't welcomed the following entrepreneurs, innovators, movers, shakers, and game changers to its shores.

Read on to learn which successful U.S. companies were started by immigrants.

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Panda Restaurant Group

Andrew and Peggy Cherng immigrated from China in the 1960s. It must have been hard for them to imagine that the little restaurant they opened would go on to become what Business Insider refers to as "a company that essentially owns the Chinese-food sector of the quick-serve market." The parent company of Panda Express is now worth $2.8 billion and provides a living to 27,000 employees.


Hamdi Ulukaya came to America from his native Turkey in 1994. Less than 15 years later, he's America's yogurt king—his Chobani brand is the country's #1 Greek yogurt. The son of Kurdish sheep dairy farmers, Ulukaya took out a Small Business Administration loan in 2005 to make a product based on recipes from his homeland. Now worth $1.79 billion, Ulukaya courted intense controversy when he recently hired refugees, many of them from Muslim countries, who had resettled in America. His logic, according to an interview with "60 Minutes," was that "the minute they get a job, that’s the minute they stop being a refugee."


At the dawn of the internet age, few names rang out louder than Yahoo!, a company that was worth $130 billion at its zenith. Its founder is Jerry Yang, a Taiwanese immigrant who came to America in 1978 not knowing who the faces on U.S. paper money belonged to and only understanding the word “shoe.” He learned fluent English in just three years and earned both a bachelor's and master's degree in electrical engineering from Stanford in a combined four years. He is now worth $2.8 billion, thanks largely to his revelation that web pages should be categorized in a hierarchy instead of in lists.

Kraft Foods

From Maxwell House and Kool-Aid to Grey Poupon and Cheez Whiz, the Kraft Foods product line is baked into the DNA of the American kitchen. The $8.8 billion juggernaut began with $65: that’s how much Canadian-born James L. Kraft spent on the horse and wagon he used in 1903 to shepherd his budding food distribution company to global prominence. In 1909, Kraft began working on a virtually non-perishable, "processed" cheese that didn't dry out or get moldy. When World War I broke out, the U.S. government ordered 6 million pounds of Kraft cheese to feed its hungry soldiers overseas—and the rest is history.

Zumba Fitness

Alberto "Beto" Perez always enjoyed dancing during his childhood in Colombia, and by the time he was a teenager, he was using his skills to earn money as an aerobics instructor. He improvised by using music to help his pupils dance their way to fitness. After immigrating to the United States, he launched Zumba in 2001. Today, 15 million people sweat through Zumba sessions in 180 countries every week, and Perez's apparel line sells 3.5 million units a year.


The $51.1 billion Tesla corporation is bringing electric cars to the mainstream. Founded in 2003, Tesla employs 27,000 people, and the entire operation is the brainchild of Elon Musk, one of the boldest innovators in history. Born and raised in South Africa, Musk immigrated first to Canada before landing in America as a transfer student. Now worth $20.8 billion, Musk first revolutionized not the way people drive, but the way people buy and sell when he co-founded PayPal.


Elon Musk is not just changing the way people travel on Earth—he's also preparing them to ride off into the cosmos. In his spare time, Musk runs an almost cartoonishly ambitious company called SpaceX, which builds rockets that NASA uses to ferry things like satellites and telescopes into space. The company's real goal, however, is private space tourism—in a not-too-distant future.


In the history of American telecommunications, there's AT&T and there's everyone else. Originally called Bell Systems, the company was named after Alexander Graham Bell, who, alongside Thomas Watson, invented the telephone. The man who in 1876 provided human beings with the means to communicate from a distance was born in Scotland in 1847.


Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which globally distributes vaccines and other biological medicines, is one of the 15 biggest companies in America—but the man who co-founded the empire wasn't born in the U.S. Born in Germany, cousins Charles Pfizer and Charles Erhart launched the company with a $2,500 loan from Pfizer's father. Pfizer is now worth $207.7 billion.


Born in France to Iranian parents, Pierre Omidyar came to America when he was 6 years old. What the country gained when he arrived was the future mastermind of one of the most important names in the history of online commerce—eBay. Formed in 1995, the online auction house and marketplace is now worth $38 billion. Omidyar, who still sits on the board, is worth $11.1 billion himself.


Few companies touch our daily lives more frequently than Google, which is a jumping-off point for much of the world's daily online activity. Now worth $132.1 billion, Google is the second most valuable brand in the world. Along with fellow Stanford grad student Lawrence Page, Google was co-founded by Sergey Brin, whose family fled anti-Semitism in his native Russia when he was only 6 years old. An outspoken critic of President Donald Trump's immigration policies, Brin has a net worth of $51.5 billion, which gives him the distinction of being America's wealthiest immigrant.


Born in 1901, Max Kohl immigrated to America from his native Poland, worked in a factory, and used his modest savings to open a small corner grocery. He opened his first department store in 1962. That store evolved into Kohl's, a chain that is now worth $10.1 billion and employs 137,000 people.

Intel Corporation

Intel's semiconductors and circuits are so ubiquitous that every computer user has likely transmitted information through them at one point or another. The driving force behind the brand's early success was the company's president, CEO, and chairman Andrew S. Grove. Grove was born András István Gróf in Budapest, Hungary in 1936. The son of middle-class Jewish parents, Grove survived communist rule and the Nazi regime before finally fleeing in the wake of a brutal Soviet occupation. Intel is now worth $254.8 billion.

Walt Disney Company

Few brands are more tightly woven into the fabric of American culture than Disney, whose founder Walt Disney was born to a Canadian father of Irish ancestry. One of the most important and lasting brands in the history of American entertainment, the Disney umbrella covers everything from a global network of theme parks to the "Star Wars" franchise and Pixar. Disney is now worth $152.1 billion.


The founding of semiconductor giant Qualcomm required the meeting of seven brilliant minds, one of whom was Dr. Andrew Viterbi, the son of Italian-Jewish immigrants. The recipient of one of the first doctorates every issued by the University of Southern California, his Viterbi algorithm made cellular communication possible. Qualcomm is now worth $81.9 billion.

Goldman Sachs

In 1848, Bavaria lost one of its finest teachers when Marcus Goldman immigrated to America and became a shopkeeper. The shrewd networker later began pairing businesses in need of capital with banks and financiers willing to give loans—and shaving a slice of profit off for himself in the process. His side hustle as a broker evolved into Goldman Sachs, a global investment bank that’s often loathed for its role in the 2008 economic collapse, but undeniably successful—to the tune of a $91.8 billion market cap.

News Corporation

In 1985, Australian-born publishing mogul Rupert Murdoch became a naturalized American citizen and gave up his Australian citizenship—which gave him the greenlight to buy majority stakes in television networks, including Fox Film Corp. He went on to found News Corp, which launched Fox News in 1996. News Corp is now worth $8.8 billion.

Merck & Company

Pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. traces its roots to Angel Pharmacy, which was founded in Germany in 1654. Its modern American incarnation, however, began in 1891, when George Merck immigrated to America and established Merck & Co. Today, the company employs 69,000 people and is worth $160.6 billion.


When the catastrophic war in Syria spawned legions of refugees, the world took renewed interest in the fact that one of history’s greatest business minds was himself the biological son of a Syrian refugee. Abdul Fattah Jandali fled the ancient city of Homs, which now lays in ruins thanks to the Syrian civil war, for the United States. His son, Steve Jobs, would go on to give the world the personal computer, the iPhone, and the production studios behind movies like "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo." Today, Apple is creeping toward $1 trillion in market capitalization and is the most profitable company in the world.


Ray Kroc was already in his 50s when he founded the first McDonald's franchise. Although the son of Czech immigrants didn't even have a high school diploma, he recognized the limitless potential of a tiny local burger shop and its trademark golden arches. His dream became McDonald's, the undisputed global leader in fast food and the largest restaurant chain in the world—which is now worth $129.9 billion.


Ruth and Elliot Handler founded what would become Mattel in 1945. Both were the children of Eastern European immigrants who fled anti-Semitism, Ruth’s parents from Poland and Elliot’s parents from modern-day Ukraine. Ruth was inspired by her teenage children, Barbara and Ken, to create a fashion doll that was more developed than the baby dolls that dominated the 1940s toy market. Her idea would go on to become the most famous power couple in the history of American toys: Barbie and Ken.

The Home Depot

DIY enthusiasts Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus in 1978 dreamed of a home renovation superstore that sold contractor-grade building materials to regular people who, like themselves, preferred to tackle big projects on their own. Their dream became The Home Depot, a $219.4 billion corporation that is one of the most instantly recognizable brands in the world. For Marcus, that dream began with his Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, whose American journey started in a fourth-floor walkup tenement in New Jersey.

The Kroger Company

Bernard Heinrich "Barney" Kroger was the son of German immigrants whose name is now synonymous with one of the world’s biggest grocery store chains. Today, the $21 billion Kroger Company employs nearly half a million people. Kroger made several early key innovations that would separate him from his competitors, like becoming the first store to bake its own bread in house, which improved freshness and allowed Kroger to slash prices while still making money.


Stiff immigration laws almost kept Sanjay Mehrotra from leaving his native India to study in the United States. His perseverance paid off—a blessing to anyone who's every turned to a memory card for their storage needs. Mehrotra was one of three people who launched SanDisk as a small startup that eventually grew into a $15.2 billion global powerhouse. Both of the company's other two founders were immigrants as well.


Although his Jewish father was briefly imprisoned by the Nazis, Daniel Aaron and his family escaped the Holocaust when they immigrated from Germany to America in 1938. One year after arriving in Queens, N.Y., however, tragedy struck again when both his parents committed suicide, leaving Aaron and his brother at the mercy of the foster care system. Aaron, however, overcame it all and went on to co-found media, entertainment, and communications giant Comcast, which is now a $146.8 billion company.

Sara Lee

There was a time when Sara Lee was just one of the 47 brands housed under the umbrella of Consolidated Foods. That nearly 50-brand-strong conglomerate started as a single coffee and tea wholesaler in Baltimore, owned by Nathan Cummings, a son of Lithuanian immigrants. After establishing Consolidated Foods, it grew into Sara Lee, an enterprise that earned a place among the top 50 Fortune 500 companies at the time of his death in 1985.


From virtual reality to 3D technology, Evernote founder and Russian immigrant Stepan Pachikov has developed several pioneering technologies that helped shape Silicon Valley. His biggest contribution to the digital age, however is Evernote, the wildly popular communication, organization and workflow app that more than 200 million users have used to create 5 billion notes.


Sean Rad is a serial entrepreneur who founded two companies before he struck gold with Tinder, a dating app that has its users swiping left or right as they search for potential mates. Rad’s parents are Iranian immigrants who fled their homeland shortly before Ayatollah Khomeini seized power. In 2017, Tinder achieved a $3 billion valuation.


In 2004, a young man named Mike Krieger came to America from his native Sao Paulo, Brazil to study at Stanford. He, along with fellow Stanford grad Kevin Systrom, went on to create what would become one of the world's foremost social media networks—Instagram. The platform now boasts more than 800 million monthly users, 80% of whom are located outside the U.S. 

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