Lagniappe: 5 Immigrant & Refugee Entrepreneurs Doing Really Cool Things


Lagniappe* is a series on the Camelback Blog through which team members share curated lists of thought-provoking content related to our mission.

Tenacious, risk tolerant, visionary, flexible, self confident...these are the most common traits of entrepreneurs. It shouldn’t be surprising then that US immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses as native born Americans; the journey to get here both filters for and galvanizes these attributes. With the recent focus on policy, I feel it's important to take a moment to admire a few incredible entrepreneurs with this background. One of the world’s foremost entrepreneurial celebrities was a refugee: Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, emigrated from Russia at age 6 to escape anti-Semitism. Google shapes our world everyday, as does Apple (just saying: Steve Jobs's biological father was a Syrian immigrant). While I love studying the work of tech giants, I also love the stories of everyday superheroes, entrepreneurs who may not have the same name recognition as Sergey and Steve, but who are doing really cool stuff (and the world is better for it).

Tina as a child with her refugee number; photo used with permission.

1. Tina Tran Neville

Founder, Transcend Academy ‎
Director of Economic Development and International Relations, State of Washington

Camelback Fellow, 2015
Vietnamese refugee

Tina’s father fought alongside American troops in the Vietnam War. Because of his political beliefs, he was later forced into a “reeducation” labor camp for three years. When Tina was born, her mother became committed to leaving Vietnam. Thus began her parents’ trek via foot, train, bicycle, and whatever else they could find through Cambodia - during a time when the Khmer Rouge guerilla troops were still active in the countryside. They eventually made it safely to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the Thai border, with 2-month-old Tina in tow. After more than a year and a half in refugee camps, Tina’s family was sponsored by a church in Oklahoma. From a very young age, Tina recognized the privilege of having opportunities in America, which instilled in her the desire to give back and pay forward.

After college, Tina joined the foreign service and worked at U.S. Embassies in Vietnam, Pakistan, Iraq, and Washington D.C., working on large-scale, high-impact programs. While this was fulfilling in many ways, she felt the pull to serve individual people and direct impact. This led her to teach in the classroom, and later, found Transcend Academy which offers comprehensive college admissions advising to a range of students, families, schools, and non-profits. Tina described, “I was teaching at a private school, and this was my way to work with more people. I wanted to support and work with public school students with a diverse range of socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Read: about Tina's work with Transcend Academy, which has led to the creation of approximately 120 jobs and anticipates serving a record number of 7,000 Washington D.C. students in 2017 alone

2. Mirta Desir

Founder, Smart Coos
Camelback Fellow, 2015
Haitian immigrant

At age 6, Mirta’s parents brought her to the U.S. Mirta was terrified when she first arrived, and struggled to learn an unfamiliar culture. Many families had similar challenges and fears, especially with language - there was often a disconnect between native languages spoken at home and English at school, leaving children to reconcile the difference.  

This was one of the inspirations for Mirta to start Smart Coos which provides personal live language teachers and an interactive web platform for children. She aims to not only close the native language word gap that underserved youth face, but also scale the opportunity for learning a second language during this prime age window. Mirta says, “I just hope that I can go back to my parents and put a smile on their face knowing they made the right choice [to immigrate to the United States].”   

Read: This profile of Mirta in Essence and more about Mirta's work with Smart Coos, which has led to the creation of 8 jobs and has impacted 800 students in the U.S. and the Caribbean (including in Haiti, Mirta's home!)

3. Zainab Salbi

Founder and former CEO, Women for Women International
Iraqi immigrant

Okay, so Zainab Salbi is a super superhero among us. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve only recently heard of her and she’s been on Oprah ten times. And Oprah was on HER SHOW, The Nida’a Show, when it launched in 2015. She is an author, women's rights activist, humanitarian, social entrepreneur, media commentator, and current editor at large at Women in the World in association with The New York Times (she seems to keep pretty busy). Zainab immigrated to the United States from Iraq at age 19. Just four years after arriving in the U.S., Zainab founded Women for Women International, a grassroots and humanitarian development organization. Moral of the story: Zainab is a badass, so is her organization.

Read: "Reaching the Furthest Behind First" in The Huffington Post about Women for Women International which has served more than 447,000 women in 8 conflict areas.   

4. Rafael Alvarez

Founder, Genesys Works
Mexican immigrant

Rafael Alvarez first moved to the United States from Mexico to attend college in Texas, where he got his degree in Mechanical Engineering and later, a Masters in Engineering Management. This led him to a high-tech corporate career, but his volunteer work serving on the board of a charter school for underserved students deeply impacted him. He recognized large companies’ needs for IT talent, and saw a gap between this and the availability of IT training. His objective was twofold: increase access to opportunity for these underserved students, and to build a diverse pipeline of talent for corporate America. (Spoiler alert: he crushed these objectives.)

Read: Microsoft just donated $1.17 M in software to Genesys Works, which since its inception has grown to become a national organization serving nearly 3,000 students annually in five metropolitan areas: Houston, Twin Cities, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the National Capital Region

5. Arad Malhotra

Founder, Skyless Games
Indian immigrant

We love the hustle here at Camelback, and Arad Malhotra has it in spades. Arad grew up in India and the United Arab Emirates before being drawn to Drexel University’s Computer Science, and specifically video game, program. While there, he pondered the possibility of a game studio rooted in philanthropy and awareness of worldwide issues. He became the technical co-founder of Skyless, producing games like Follow Follow the Money (anti-corruption training for law enforcers), Assemble it (a game for children with autism), City Hall (teaches transparency in governance), and Life Leap (a healthcare awareness game with proceeds going toward vaccinations and health supplies in India). (How cool is that?!) Even as a successful startup founder, Arad faced challenges with his immigration status, forcing him to go head-to-head with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which eventually led to him being awarded an O-1A work visa, reserved for "Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement."

Read: "Here’s what happened when gaming entrepreneur Arad Malhotra challenged US immigration" in and more about Skyless Games

Elizabeth is Camelback's Director of Venture Excellence.

*“Lagniappe” has come to mean “a little something extra after a transaction,” and is a word historically derived from the language melting pot of 1800s New Orleans. Mark Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi (1883), “We picked up one excellent word, a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word-'lagniappe'.... It is Spanish-so they said."

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