Successful Entrepreneurs Who Started as International Students

career planning
computer science
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By Oshitha Narangoda
Last updated on August 9, 2023

What do Chobani, Instagram, and SanDisk have in common? They were all founded by international students! Get inspired and discover how your entrepreneurship journey can start with a US university degree.

An international CEO, seen from behind, stands in front of a laptop while giving a presentation to a crowd

Becoming an entrepreneur is a challenging journey, requiring hard work and perseverance. At the same time, it is an opportunity to bring ideas to life and make a positive impact around the world. If you are an international student who is passionate about starting your own business, studying in the US can set you up for success.

Did you know that 21 out of 91 US billion-dollar startup companies had a founder who first came to the US as an international student? By attending university in the US, you may be able to turn your business idea into the next international student entrepreneur success story! Read on to get inspired by these successful companies and their founders — and dare to dream big. 

Meet Successful Company Founders Who Started as International Students in the US

Hamdi Ulukaya — Turkey

Ulukaya arrived in the United States in 1994 to study English at Adelphi University in New York, ranked among the best colleges in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, 2021. He was not happy with the quality of American yogurt available at the time and wanted to create Greek-style yogurt. Despite majoring in English, he decided to take a risk and start Chobani (Turkish for “shepherd”), specializing in Greek yogurt production. Today, Chobani is Dairy Foods’ 2020 Processor of the Year, a major accomplishment for a relatively young organization within the dairy processing space.

Sanjay Mehrotra — India

Among Indian entrepreneurs, Mehrota is incredibly successful. He immigrated to America in 1976 and completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley, currently ranked the fourth-best university in the world (U.S. News & World Report, 2021). He then graduated from the Stanford Executive Program at the Stanford School of Business and worked for Intel for two years. 

In 1988, he co-founded SunDisk with Eli Harari and Jack Yuan (who were also immigrants who studied in the US). They focused on developing flash-memory storage for the growing digital camera market and introduced all kinds of storage devices, both built-in and portable, for cameras and personal computers.

The company today is known as SanDisk. In 2016, Western Digital purchased the company for $19 billion.

Mike Kreiger — Brazil

Kreiger traveled to the US in 2004 to attend Stanford University, currently ranked the third-best university in the world (U.S. News & World Report, 2021). He completed Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Symbolic Systems (Human-Computer Interaction, Psychology, Philosophy, and Computer Science). While studying, he also interned at Microsoft.

During his studies, he met his future business partner, Kevin Systrom. Kreiger and Systrom were interested in Polaroid photos and wanted to design a network for smartphones where people around the world could share photos with ease. To pursue this goal, they came up with Instagram.

The app quickly became very popular across the world, and in 2012, Facebook bought Instagram for one billion dollars. In 2019, Instagram had more than 500 million daily active users. 

After leaving Facebook, founders of Instagram Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger teamed up again in 2020 to launch a new product, — an up-to-date COVID spread tracker!

David Hindawi — Israeli Immigrant

Hindawi arrived in the US in 1970 to pursue a PhD in Operations Research at the University of California, Berkeley. After completing his degree, he began his entrepreneurial journey by starting Software Ventures in 1984. He sold the company and founded BigFix Inc., in 1997, a US company that managed networked desktop, mobile, and server computers. (HCL Technologies acquired BigFix from IBM in 2019.) 

In 2007, Hindawi founded Tanium, an endpoint security and system management company handling digital security and data management, in partnership with his son. By 2018, Tanium was valued at more than $6.5 billion. 

Jason Gui — China

Gui traveled to the US in 2009, where he completed a Bachelor of Science in Economics, Marketing, and Operations Management at the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School,  currently ranked the 14th-best university in the world by U.S. News & World Report, 2021. Developing an interest in engineering, he also completed a Bachelor of Science in Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at the same university.

Gui was concerned about the safety of delivery drivers who were on the road late at night. As a part of his senior year project, he developed Vigo, a smart headset that tracks drowsiness. Based on this project, he co-founded Vigo Technologies with his business partner, Tiantian Zhang, in 2013. Today, at just 26 years old, Gui is the Chief Technology Officer of Vigo Technologies.

Elon Musk — South Africa

Musk immigrated to America in 1992 to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Physics and then Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. His first business venture began when he co-founded, an online bank (later integrated into PayPal).

Continuing his journey as an entrepreneur, he co-founded Tesla with the dream of creating a society with homes and transportation entirely powered by sustainable energy. In support of this vision, Tesla manufactures electric-powered cars and offers solar power solutions for homes. 

He also co-founded SpaceX, which focuses on designing, manufacturing, and launching advanced rockets and spacecraft. He continued to set up innovative new ventures such as Neuralink, a project aiming to enable humans to control machines with their thoughts, and The Boring Company, a company constructing a variety of transportation tunnel networks. 

Today, Musk remains CEO of these companies, with investors valuing Tesla at approximately $650 billion and SpaceX estimated to be worth more than $100 billion. He is often included on the lists of the richest people in the world, and briefly held the top spot in 2021!

Programs You Should Consider as an Aspiring Entrepreneur

It is important for aspiring entrepreneurs to have a strong business idea, to know how that idea can solve a particular problem, and a potential market for your business’s product or service. With a strong idea, you can pursue a degree that can help you gain entrepreneurial skills, develop strong connections, and kickstart your business. 

For example, if you wanted to start a digital security business, consider studying for a bachelor’s in computer science with a minor in business. For an advertising company, a bachelor’s in marketing may be appropriate. 

Some universities offer specially designed programs, such as entrepreneurship and student incubators, to help you launch your start-up idea. Here are a few examples:

  • University of Massachusetts Boston—The Venture Development Center at UMass Boston offers mentorship, scholarships, and sponsors a Cap-Exempt H-1B visa anytime during the year for international students to launch their own business.

  • Louisiana State University—The Louisiana State University (LSU) Student Incubator helps students launch their businesses by teaching valuable skills such as conducting market research, analyzing customer needs and behaviors, and providing resources. More than 200 students have developed their startup ideas through LSU’s innovative program.

  • University of Utah—If you want to gain practical experience to become an entrepreneur, the Lassonde Center at the University of Utah provides a full program to develop your own business concept and launch it! Students have access to tools and programs to help them connect to other creators, build prototypes, and test their ideas. Students can also apply for grants and win cash prizes to fund their business.

As an international student, you should carefully research each program to ensure you will select the best option to achieve your goals as an entrepreneur.

How Does the US Support Start-up Companies and Entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurship has an exciting history in the US, with America long considered one of the most “business friendly” countries for new entrepreneurs. In recent years, the US has sponsored initiatives to help start-up companies and entrepreneurs such as Startup America and Entrepreneurship Promotion. Despite all the challenges in 2020, US entrepreneurs were starting new businesses at the fastest rate in the last 10 years.

Many US states have low corporate income tax rates (with a few states having zero corporate income tax) to encourage the setup of small businesses. These reductions in tax rates can help you reduce your company’s expenses in its beginning stages. Additionally, the diverse intellectual property protection laws in the US protect the original ideas, products, and services of companies and entrepreneurs, which helps small businesses operating in niche markets to compete with larger organizations.

The new presidential administration in 2021 is also planning to implement policies to help entrepreneurs over the next few years, such as providing funding through grants to small businesses and financial relief for organizations with fewer than 50 employees. With these positive predictions for US business policy development, it is the perfect time to start planning your entrepreneurial journey. 

Studying in the US is a great opportunity to gain exposure to a strong business-focused environment and take advantage of the many opportunities available to student entrepreneurs. 

Equip yourself with the knowledge and skills you need to make your entrepreneurial vision a reality and become the next great success story of the business world! 

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