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I Invest in Immigrant Founders. It’s Not Political, It’s Just Good Business

Pedro Sorrentino is a Brazilian-born, Silicon-Valley-based entrepreneur and the co-founder of ONEVC, a seed-stage venture capital firm that invests in first- and second-generation immigrant founders. As an immigrant himself, Sorrentino frequently identifies with the experiences of the founders he collaborates with, but beyond the personal resonance of his company’s business, Sorrentino says the focus of his firm is simply good business. That is, by the numbers, immigrant-founded startups outperform the pack.

I’m half Brazilian, half Italian with citizenship in both countries. I was born, though, in São Paulo. I love São Paulo because it’s a city that never sleeps. It has that global, always-on feeling that you only get in cities like New York and London.

I got my professional start as a music journalist as a student, covering heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden, which I’ve been a huge fan of since I was 11. But in journalism school, I realized I didn’t see myself as a journalist in the long-term and began working for three different startups. One grew rapidly but fell flat; one sold for $275 million; and one went public.

After that experience, I decided to sell everything and move to Colorado to go to grad school at the University of Colorado Boulder. I started my first company while I was in grad school there, and 18 months later, we were able to sell it to a Brazilian e-commerce conglomerate.

Following that acquisition, I had the choice to either move back to Brazil and work for the company that acquired us or to stay in the U.S. and join an early-stage startup called SendGrid. It was a hard decision, but I decided to stay in America — a decision that’s forever changed my life.

The U.S. became my permanent residence, and I went through all the steps required to gain my right to live and work here. It was a long process. In nine years, I’ve had three different visas, two waivers and 18 letters of recommendation. I’ve had my visa denied once — for no apparent reason — and had to leave the country after furnishing my entire apartment. During that ordeal, my lawyer basically said, “Look, I think you should give up,” which is crazy to hear from your lawyer. He told me my chances of successfully appealing were “close to none,” but I still tried and I’m glad I did.

Eventually, I was successful in securing my visa. Today, I’m on the path toward becoming a citizen — if I choose to do so.

At SendGrid, I was employee number 11. Over the four years I was there, we became a very successful company, earning more than $100 million in revenue. Then, last February, I decided to start ONEVC with a few other partners. We invest in first- and second-generation immigrant founders in the U.S. and also selectively make investments in Brazilian startups.

For me, there’s absolutely no political angle to what I do. That’s a very important statement to make clear. However, it’s a business view that obviously correlates with our personal story as partners of this firm. More largely, though, the numbers just make sense: At least 51 percent of all unicorn startups — startups that have more than a billion dollars in valuation — were created by at least one immigrant founder. And almost half of all Fortune 500 companies in 2017 were founded or co-founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant.

Personally at least, I find that working with immigrants typically means working with resilient, disciplined people with a big desire to win. Something special usually happens when people force themselves into a new situation in order to make their dreams come true.

If nothing else, immigrants have a warrior mentality. We’ve developed ways of surviving even when we have a lot going against us. This is very helpful in business because business is the most competitive sport around. And when you insert yourself in that “all-in” way familiar to immigrants, it can be a path to massive financial outcomes that also add real value to the world. The other choice, of course, is to go back home without accomplishing your plan, but no one wants to do that. Life is too short not to do meaningful work and develop meaningful relationships.

For these reasons, the inspiration for ONEVC and collaborating with immigrant founders predates any one political moment or presidency. I wanted to create something like ONEVC long before I knew Donald Trump would even be a presidential candidate. Plus, living in Silicon Valley, I don’t face much xenophobia. Last week, for example, I was at a barbecue talking to an Israeli, a Russian, an Argentinian, a Belgian and an Italian all in the same conversation.

In general, I try to be a part of the conversation when it comes to advocating for the entry of highly-skilled immigrants and entrepreneurs to the U.S. Particularly, I believe in a clear, meritocratic process that allows people to build their companies here rather than in China or elsewhere. In fact, I went to D.C. last year with the National Venture Capital Association to present these ideas to various senators.

It’s concerning that the U.S. is losing talent to people that come here for an education and then have to go back to their home country. Over time, this decreases the country’s ability to compete at a global level. That’s why I support the notion of creating a Startup Visa. That said, the government hasn’t enacted it yet. The agenda in D.C. is an onion, comprised of layers of power and control.

It isn’t simple to make change, but progress is being made.

—As told to Tierney Finster