This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
My dad’s first job when my family moved to the United States was as an electrical engineer earning around $24,000 a year. I thought of him back in February, when thousands of people–many of them working even tougher jobs–took to the streets of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and other cities in the “Day Without Immigrants,” a demonstration meant to illustrate immigrants’ impact on the American economy and workforce.
But as an immigrant myself, the son of immigrants, and an employer of immigrants, I know firsthand that our impact is even bigger than that–and our potential is bigger still. Some talk about immigrants’ contributions to the technology industry by pointing to the demand for hard skills, and they’re not wrong to. After all, the U.S. ranks a lowly 30th in math and 19th in science among the 35 member countries of the OECD. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The future of American innovation depends on immigrants. And no matter how much more controversial immigration issues become in the months and years ahead, I’ve never been more certain of that. Here’s why.
We Have More To Lose
For years after emigrating, my father worked for a horrendous boss who routinely clocked in at 5 a.m. and downed two pots of coffee before 6. My dad would get to work by 4 a.m. to make his boss’s coffee because he was so terrified of making a mistake and the possible repercussions. Like many immigrants, he did things others wouldn’t do because he was scared about losing it all. And it paid off. When his company announced mass layoffs in his department, he was the only one they kept on board.
Immigrant employees should never be motivated to work out of fear, and workplaces that exploit those anxieties are unconscionable. But the fact remains that people who’ve moved overseas and crossed borders for a shot at a better life are naturally driven to succeed—the stakes are just that high.
As a startup founder, I’ve learned that the people you hire can make or break your company’s future success. And I’ve experienced the work ethic that immigrants bring to our jobs, not to mention the diversity of thought we can contribute as employees.
We Can Adjust To Change Quickly
I was 8 years old when my parents uprooted our family from inner-city London and moved us to Florida. Our journey to the U.S. was far from straightforward, though: We spent a few months in Canada before landing in Florida, where we stayed for a few years, then moved to Arizona, followed by a short stint in Los Angeles and then finally settled in Illinois, where I went to high school.
I was a kid with an accent whose world revolved around chess and cricket–the NBA and tetherball were foreign concepts to me. I went from a Catholic convent school where we prayed twice a day to an Orlando public school. Like so many immigrants before and after me, I endured an extended cultural adjustment, but looking back, it proved to be a crucial exercise in character-building.
For successful entrepreneurs and workers alike, being quick to adapt is a crucial skill to sharpen. And immigrants, by the nature of our experience, are forced to do this from the moment we leave home. Dealing with the ups and downs of the journey is great training for the roller-coaster ride of the modern workplace in its many forms.
We Pay It Forward
Witnessing my dad’s unwavering commitment to hard work, and seeing the opportunities that created for me, has left me with a sense of responsibility to pay that good fortune forward—and I’m willing to bet that most other immigrants feel similarly. In some ways, that duty is what attracted me to startups in the first place.
It’s why when I started HighGround, I intentionally hired a diverse team. Today we have team members from India, China, Egypt, France, Greece, Russia, Mexico, Vietnam, Ukraine, and the Philippines. More often than not, immigrants come to the U.S. for a shot at something better than what they had before. Those who are lucky enough to make it here don’t take that for granted–and are usually some of the first to share the wealth and opportunities they create for themselves.
For the tech industry to stay on its upward trajectory, we need people who are hungry, humble, and driven to help others. Continuing to welcome immigrants into our community is one of the simplest ways to ensure we all succeed. In fact, research shows that diverse teams are more creative, innovative, and profitable than those that aren’t. Immigration may be politically controversial, but from a business point of view, it really shouldn’t be.
Vip Sandhir is the CEO and founder of HighGround, an employee engagement and performance management platform.