Semyon Dukach is a refugee from the Soviet Union and formerly the Managing Director of Techstars in Boston. Prior to Techstars, Semyon was an angel investor in Boston and friend to the startup community. With Eveline Buchatskiy, an immigrant from Brazil, Dukach recently founded One Way Ventures specifically to back companies with immigrant founders. To hear more from Dukach, join us at Salesforce Growth Camp in Boston on October 10. Sign up here for free.
Yes. I was born and raised in Moscow, Russia, and came to the U.S. with my family as a 10-year-old kid. I’ve always had an interest in technology, so I studied computer science at Columbia University and co-authored work on virtual worlds at IBM Research. After taking a year to hitchhike through Southeast Asia, I went on to grad school at MIT, where I authored the Simple Network Payment Protocol, which was one of the earliest ways to transfer money on the Internet. Shortly after, I joined the MIT blackjack team and spent several years in casinos around the world. From there I went into software. After founding several companies, I transitioned to being a mentor and prioritized that over returns. Recently I ran the TechStars accelerator in Boston, and now I’m building One Way Ventures with my partner Eveline Buchatskiy.
I’ve been an angel investor for a long time and I also ran TechStars, so I know how to help entrepreneurs and mentor them, as well as how to pick people who are likely to succeed. Over the years I worked with many immigrant founders and really believe in them. They’re more prepared than other people for the challenges of building a company. They’ve already succeeded in a place where they don’t know the rules and how everything works. This resilience makes them more likely to succeed as entrepreneurs. The data supports this: immigrants have founded 51% of the billion-dollar startups in the U.S. In my portfolio I have more than 100 companies, and the top 8 are immigrant-founded.
As an immigrant, you never forget the moment that you bought your one-way ticket. There are a lot of similarities in founding a company. You give up your old life and you take a lot of risks. Hopefully it’s a one-way ticket to success.
Part of the reason is that immigrants are more likely to go against the grain. They’ve already abandoned their natural settings and cut their support networks. It’s the same when you leave a company — you usually aren’t cheered on. The people around you feel betrayed. But if you’ve made that choice once already, it’s easier. Immigrants also have experience in defining their own identities. As an immigrant, you decide that instead of being a member of a certain nation or ethnic group, you choose to join a new country. You define your own identity instead of taking the one society hands down to you. Entrepreneurs aren’t just staying in the same job, waiting to get promoted; they’re also defining their own identities.
As a general rule, immigrants are not spoiled — they’ve had to work a lot harder to succeed. Most of them have no way back. They bought that one-way ticket and now they have to make it. Plus, they want to prove to everyone they left behind that they can do it. They’ll put up with more hardship, and they have perseverance and grit. These same qualities make great entrepreneurs.
It’s harder for immigrant-founded businesses. They don’t always understand the common frameworks of our society or the rules of the game. In most cases they have smaller networks than native-born citizens. And often there are prejudices at work. Immigrants often have accents, so there will be people that don’t understand them or trust them. Sometimes immigrants encounter visa issues and have to figure out how to work here legally.
We’re trying to help immigrants on a variety of these fronts. In particular we’re trying to help them expand their identities beyond just that of the nations they were born in. So an immigrant isn’t just an immigrant from Russia, for example, but an immigrant to the U.S. Thinking about themselves as one group — no matter where they are from — will expand all of their networks. And if immigrants help each other, they’ll all be stronger.
I look for the same things in immigrant-founded companies as I look for in non-immigrant businesses. Most importantly I look for the right team. I want amazing, passionate founders who have a great idea and know their customers. They want to make the world a better place and can inspire others. But at the same time they can listen to others. They can be rational and make good decisions. We’re not going to invest in a company just because it’s founded by immigrants; it has to meet the same criteria we look for in any successful business.
A relationship between a VC and an entrepreneur is a long one, so the degree of empathy from the investor does matter. You want people who understand and care about you, and want to be aligned with you. Whenever possible, it’s good to take money from a mission-driven fund like the ones around global warming, equality, etc. All VCs will throw parties and create networking opportunities, but it’s more powerful with an affinity group. We add the unique value of helping immigrants join a network of peer CEOs. In the face of a common enemy — people that want to blame immigrants for their own problems — they can join a group that’s helping each other. And I sincerely want to help them succeed.
Hear more from Semyon Dukach at our Boston popup Growth Camp event on October 10 at the Exchange Conference Center. Get hands-on advice for growing your business, meet with experts from Salesforce, along with partners Sage, OpFocus and more for a powerful half-day growth extravaganza. You’ll get hands-on advice for running your business, working more efficiently, and building close connections with customers. And best of all, it’s FREE. Learn more and register here.
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