Indian-born engineer Jay Kulkarni was one of the first employees of DoubleClick, an online ad-tech giant later acquired by Google for $3.1 billion, and he led the team that developed the firm’s flagship ad management platform in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Now, after striking out on his own in 2002, Kulkarni is the CEO of Theorem Inc., a multinational digital marketing firm with headquarters in New Jersey. He’s also the happy father of two Indian-American teenagers. “I feel very welcome and blessed to be here,” he says. “We always had the choice of going back, but we’re thriving — for us, America is home.”
Kulkarni earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Karnatak University, in Southern India, and came to the United States to complete an MBA at the New York Institute of Technology. He was then hired by DoubleClick, which sponsored him for a U.S. employment visa. He excelled at the company, but in 2002, at the peak of the dot-com recession, Kulkarni gained his green card and promptly left to start a business of his own, operating out of a spare bedroom. “It was a leap of faith, but the green card gave me the ability to take the risk, recognizing that if I failed I could go and get a job,” he says.
Even though I now do business on four continents, if I had to do it all again, I’d make the same bet on America.
It’s this appetite for risk-taking that makes immigrants natural entrepreneurs, Kulkarni says. “It’s part of the emotional profile — you go to a foreign country, with so many unknowns, and risk is almost something you take for granted,” he says. “I definitely see that in myself, and in my other immigrant-entrepreneur friends.” America is rightly a magnet for people with the ideas and vision to start their own companies because it values self-starters more than anywhere else in the world, Kulkarni says. “America is unique from an entrepreneurial standpoint — you can fail in America but still go on to be successful. Even though I now do business on four continents, if I had to do it all again, I’d make the same bet on America.”
The data supports Kulkarni’s assertions. In 2014, immigrants made up 20.6 percent of all entrepreneurs in the the United States, despite representing just 13.2 percent of the U.S. population overall, according to the New American Economy (NAE), which analyzed federal survey data. The United States is currently home to more than 2.9 million foreign-born entrepreneurs, a group whose companies generated $65.5 billion in business income in 2014 alone. NAE found that in 2007, the most recent year available, businesses owned by immigrants employed more than 5.9 million workers.
Still, there’s plenty more that America could do to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of its immigrant population, Kulkarni says. “It would be great for the American economy to create a visa fast-track program to help STEM graduates to stay here,” he says. “It’s becoming very difficult for graduates to get visas, and that leads to a loss of talent. They go back to India, or China, or Eastern Europe, and then businesses end up having to outsource projects to them because they can’t find the talent here, and those are the skills U.S. companies need.”
America could also do more to support immigrants and help unlock their entrepreneurial potential, Kulkarni says. While Kulkarni had a fairly straightforward path to citizenship, he still had to wait until he had a green card to start his own business. And he knows many foreign-born entrepreneurs face far greater challenges. “I see how hard skilled immigrants have to work to get their papers,” he says. Developing a more streamlined immigration system would make it easier for new arrivals to start their own businesses, create jobs and help boost the economy.