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Guest Commentary

Kansas welcomed my immigrant parents. Then I built Dropbox, an $8 billion company

I’m a successful tech entrepreneur. Dropbox, the company I co-founded in 2007, has over 600 million users, 2,300 employees and $1.7 billion in revenue. But my story has its roots in Kansas: I grew up in Overland Park, the son of Iranian immigrants whose community never once doubted our allegiance to or faith in America.

As the dust settles from this month’s election, stories like mine show why Kansans should come together and recommit to making our state welcoming to immigrants. The current administration’s anti-immigrant policies have held back our economy and threatened to erode the generous, tolerant spirit that defined our state and nation. It’s been like death by a thousand paper cuts: Little by little, people around the world have begun to wonder whether America is still a land of freedom and opportunity for everyone. And little by little, young Americans from immigrant families have started questioning whether they truly belong.

My parents came to America in the late 1970s in search of opportunity and education, and they found both in Kansas City. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, they decided to stay in the United States, eventually becoming proud American citizens. My dad built a mortgage company, where my parents worked long hours to put food on our table.

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My upbringing was deeply American. I was proud of my Iranian heritage, but also immersed in the values and culture of the United States. I grew up speaking Farsi at home, celebrating Persian holidays and eating Iranian food — but also rooting for the Chiefs, hanging out with friends at Wendy’s and playing Dance Dance Revolution at the mall. Nobody at Blue Valley Northwest High School cared that my parents were immigrants; my peers simply accepted me as one of their own.

Like many immigrants, my parents expected me to study hard. They also encouraged my interest in technology. When I was 9, they ordered parts and let me build a computer of my own. I got a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I met Drew Houston, who is now Dropbox’s CEO. Together, we turned our two-person project into a public company worth over $8 billion today.

I’ve been blessed with success, but my story isn’t unique. According to New American Economy, 44% of Fortune 500 companies — including iconic American brands such as Apple, Costco and General Electric — were founded by immigrants or their children. Collectively, those companies employ 13.7 million people and have revenues of $6.3 trillion — over twice the gross domestic product of the United Kingdom.

Iranian-Americans have been particularly successful. They co-founded Oracle and eBay, and have run firms including Uber, YouTube and Expedia. One of the first people to take Dropbox seriously was Pejman Nozad, a Persian rug dealer-turned-Silicon Valley investor, who met me at a pitch meeting and began speaking to me in Farsi. Thanks to his help, we were soon working with Sequoia Capital to finalize our Series A funding.

Under President Donald Trump, such success has grown harder to achieve. Even now, the outgoing Trump administration is seeking to dismantle the visa system for international students, and making it far harder to hire skilled workers. That robs us of the talented young people we need to grow our economy and shuts down crucial opportunities for innovation.

The president’s 2017 Muslim travel ban was similarly counterproductive: Middle Eastern and North African immigrants pay more than $17 billion in taxes each year, and start more businesses than virtually any other immigrant group. Many of them, like my parents, settle in the American heartland and start mom-and-pop businesses that fuel our economy. Today, Kansas is home to 6,859 immigrant entrepreneurs who employ 31,102 people and bring our state $132.9 million in revenue.

Some of those businesses blossom into major American brands. Seaboard, the Kansas agribusiness, was founded by the son of Polish immigrants and now employs more than 13,000 people. In Missouri, O’Reilly Automotive was founded by an Irish-American, while Emerson Electric was founded by Scottish orphans. Jointly, they employ more than 155,000 people. These companies exist only because we welcomed in immigrants.

I am incredibly fortunate that Kansas welcomed my family. Feeling fully American — and feeling that others saw me as American — gave me the courage to pursue my dreams and the confidence I needed to start Dropbox and create thousands of jobs.

Some of us voted for President-elect Joe Biden; some of us didn’t. But right now, regardless of our personal politics, we have a chance to come together, reject racism and reaffirm our commitment to build a brighter and more tolerant future. Kansas welcomed my family and gave me the confidence to succeed in ways my parents could never have dreamed of. I want future generations of immigrant families to get the same opportunity — so that they can build bright futures here and lift us all up along the way.

Arash Ferdowsi is the co-founder of Dropbox.

 
 
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