Wasn’t Christopher Columbus technically an illegal immigrant? What about scores of Europeans who followed him in boats without visas to found and build America?
Immigrants are the foundation of this country and provide us with brainpower. We don’t bring immigrants to add diversity, it’s to increase innovation, fill jobs, and to lift the economy.
My path to getting where I am now is a classic example of an immigrant’s journey to America. I arrived in the United States in 1991 from a village in Punjab, India at age 21, bringing with me two main things: passion and obsession.
After working for IBM in San Jose, Calif. in 1992, I decided to forge a more independent path by creating a startup. As a Sikh, I strove to be a turbaned version of the many successful Silicon Valley veteran entrepreneurs who came before me and have long created amazing companies, jobs, and huge gains in shareholder value.
We all have a common goal to provide a better life for our children and to make an impact in a country that values hard work and innovation. Sure, I look different from many Americans. I stand out in a crowd, but isn’t that also an amazing thing about America? I can be who I am, and it has never affected my ability to succeed.
My journey as an immigrant has allowed me to accomplish things I could never have even imagined had I stayed in India. I worked very hard and became co-founder and president of a cybersecurity startup.
Recently, my company received its first big venture capital funding from a consortium of Silicon Valley veteran investors. Relatively few tech entrepreneurs are able to land such an investment.
For me, there was no easy success. I have seen more failures than success along the way amid the boom and bust cycle of the technology industry over the past 25 years. Somehow, I was able to continue and make it through to today. I consider myself more of a survivor than a winner.
Despite the current political climate, in which President Donald Trump demonizes certain immigrants, I believe that immigrants contribute positively to America. As an immigrant and Sikh, I feel compelled to mention this. I wish to defend the powerless and empower them to achieve their dreams. I wish everyone in government would too including the president, who should trade in his divisive tone and belligerence to emphasize unity and international diplomacy.
In response to the current political climate, former President George W. Bush shared some powerful words earlier this month in New York City. “We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America,” he said. Bush’s comments remind us of the values that have made America great again—and again.
The debate about immigration is being propagated by insults and stereotypes, not facts. Many people associate the turban worn by many Sikhs with radicalism, even though that’s blatantly false.
I actually voted for Trump because I didn’t want another professional politician as president, but instead someone with business skills. I didn’t take seriously his campaign rally tag line: “Build a wall.” But I’ve since become disillusioned.
Sikh immigrants, the immigrant group I know best, have contributed in a big way to the United States. There are 700,000 Sikhs in the United States, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants. Sikhs were the first South Asians to migrate to North America in large numbers starting in the early 1900s. Many of them struggled against discrimination and hate, but eventually persevered.
In 1912, the First American Sikh Temple was built in Stockton, Calif. During World War I, a Sikh soldier became the first U.S. military member to be granted the right to wear a turban while on active duty. And in 1956, the first Sikh was elected to Congress.
Sikh are pervasive in our society as diplomats, administrators, army generals, chief executives, doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, farmers, solders, cab drivers, pilots, truckers, owners of large transportation companies, hoteliers, gas station owners, and tech workers.
Among the high-profile American Sikhs are MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga, Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany, one of the fathers of fiber optics; and U.S. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who was raised as a Sikh but later converted to Christianity.
And it’s not just in the United States—Jagmeet Singh was recently elected the head of the New Democratic Party in Canada, making him the first non-white leader of a major political party in that country. Meanwhile, Harjit Singh Sajjan is defense minister—one of four turbaned cabinet ministers in Canada.
Sikhs in India have earned a reputation as warriors. The turban that many Sikh men wear is a symbol of readiness and equality—and our duty to protect anyone who comes to us for help. It’s a crown that reminds us of our responsibility, accountability, and commitment to social justice. And it reminds us to retain our identity and uniqueness.
That’s why I want to speak out for immigrants—not just for Sikhs like me, but for immigrants from all countries and religions.
Creating the United States in 1776 was the best startup idea ever. America, now a 241-year old enterprise is a shining example to the world.
What makes America great is being different. And being different is cool, right? Immigrants prove that everyday in bringing their values, discipline, drive, and culture from where ever they come from. I’m proud of immigrants and I hope you are too.
Harry (Harjinder) Singh is co-founder and president of ShieldX Networks, a cybersecurity company in San Jose, Calif. The views he expressed in this article are his, and not those of his company.