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Mary Mazzoni headshot

3p Weekend: 7 Companies Led By Refugees

By Mary Mazzoni

In January, U.S. President Donald Trump introduced a set of travel restrictions that quickly caught attention around the world. The executive order restricted travel from seven majority-Muslim countries and temporarily halted America's Syrian refugee program.

Business leaders quickly spoke out against the ban, which was later suspended by a federal judge in Seattle. The administration released its latest version of the ban earlier this month. And although some language was relaxed, a federal judge in Hawaii blocked enforcement of the new order.

The discussion surrounding Trump's travel ban was something akin to a twisted cost-benefit analysis. Some positioned immigrants and refugees as a drain on the American economy, and wondered why the U.S. should open its borders to those seeking asylum.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is not alone in these sentiments. The U.K.'s Brexit was partially motivated by a desire to close off British borders. And countries across Europe are growing wary of rising refugee and immigrant populations.

In reality, some of the world's most successful companies -- from Google to Tesla -- were founded by immigrants. And refugee-owned small businesses contribute millions to local economies across the United States.

From Fortune 500 companies to trendy startups, these seven corporate stories show what's possible when countries take a chance on people fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries.

1. Soros Fund Management

Billionaire businessman George Soros was born in Budapest in 1930. His family went into hiding when Germany occupied Hungary in the mid-1940s. They assumed false identities to conceal their backgrounds and helped others do the same. Soros ultimately left for London in 1947 as the Communists consolidated power in Hungary after the war.

Nearly three decades -- and a PhD -- later, he established Soros Fund Management in the U.S. and became its chairman. His Quantum Fund, created in 1973, has generated over $40 billion, making it the most successful hedge fund in history, reports Invest Blog.

Soros closed his fund to outside investment in 2011. But he remains one of the business community's most revered philanthropists, having given away over $12 billion to date. Last year, he partnered with MasterCard on a $500 million investment to assist migrants and refugees.

The 86-year-old businessman remains open about his refugee story and regularly calls on governments to open their borders to those fleeing war and persecution.

2. Comcast

Daniel Aaron arrived in the United States in 1937 as a 10-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany. The move and the horrors that preceded it proved too much for the family. His parents both committed suicide mere weeks apart when Aaron was only 13.

In 1944, though not yet a citizen, Aaron was old enough to be drafted. He entered the U.S. Army and returned to Germany, "in time to witness the liberation of slave laborers," reports the New York Times.

After the war, Aaron attended Temple University in Philadelphia and began his career as a business journalist. In 1963, he persuaded Ralph J. Roberts, a Philadelphia businessman, to buy a small cable television system in Tupelo, Mississippi. Aaron agreed to help run the upstart company as part of the deal. And over the next 30 years, the two built or acquired dozens of other cable systems across the country.

The firm eventually became known as Comcast, one of the largest cable and Internet providers in the United States. Aaron retired from the business in 1990 due to Parkinson's disease and later founded the Dan Aaron Parkinson's Rehabilitation Center to provide treatment to those who couldn't afford it.

Aaron passed away in 2003 at the age of 77, leaving behind a loving wife and five children, but not before turning his harrowing tale into his very own version of the American dream.

3. Thermo Fischer Scientific

Billionaire entrepreneur George N. Hatsopoulos grew up in Nazi-occupied Greece. As a child, he admired Thomas Edison and dreamed to one day emulate him as an inventor and entrepreneur. As a teenager, he built and sold radios and transmitters, which were outlawed by the Nazis, reports the Immigrant Learning Center.

As Greece struggled to rebuild after the war, Hatsopoulos made his way to America with a scholarship to study mechanical engineering at MIT. His dissertation focused on an engine that converted heat directly into electricity without any moving parts. He called his invention the “thermionic energy converter.”

He and his brother John founded the Thermo Electron Corp. in 1956 to commercialize the engine. The business started with $50,000 borrowed from a Greek ship owner. Sixty years and a merger later, and the company now known as Thermo Fischer Scientific has revenues north of $17 billion.

4. Westfield Group

Frank Lowy was born in Czechoslovakia and lived in Hungary during World War II. He lost his father in the Holocaust before making his way to Israel and fighting in the Arab-Israeli war in 1948.

Four years later, young Lowy arrived in Australia with his family. He and John Saunders, a fellow immigrant, founded a small delicatessen the following year. The pair soon began construction on their first shopping center.

The company, which later became known as the Westfield Group, built dozens of shopping centers in Australia, went public and then came to the U.S. to start building malls. After Saunders left the business, Lowy continued to expand -- moving his company into New Zealand in the 1990s and the U.K. in the 2000s, reports real estate mogul Craig Turnbull.

The 84-year-old is now one of Australia's richest men.

5. Weidenfeld & Nicolson

George Weidenfeld, co-founder of the U.K. publishing company Weidenfeld & Nicolson, fled the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938. He arrived in the U.K. and 10 years later co-founded the publishing house with fellow entrepreneur Nigel Nicolson.

Weidenfeld went on to serve as a member of the British parliament. He launched a fund to rescue up to 2,000 families fleeing Syria and Iraq before passing away last year at the age of 96.

6. Eat Offbeat

Subscription and delivery services are one of the hottest food trends of the 21st century. And although dozens of these services have sprung up across the country, many are more or less the same. But New York City delivery service Eat Offbeat does things differently.

Eat Offbeat's menu features authentic ethnic cuisine from around the world -- and it's all cooked by refugees, most of them women. Founded last year by a brother and sister team originally from Lebanon, Eat Offbeat was a fast hit in the already flooded NYC food scene.

The company's team of chefs -- who hail from Nepal, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and Guinea-Conakry -- treat discriminating city eaters to meals from their home countries. And thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this month, Eat Offbeat will soon release a cookbook filled with recipes from its refugee chefs.

“The whole idea about Eat Offbeat was to highlight all of the value that these refugees are bringing with them,” cofounder and CEO Manal Kahi told Fast Company. “We are focusing on recipes that we like to say are in their minds. They probably traveled light, but when they came here they had all these traditions and that knowledge that they brought with them.”

7. MigrantHire

Hussein Shaker arrived in Germany from Syria in 2015. He worked as an IT teacher in Aleppo before fleeing the violence. And although he was happy to be in Germany, he wanted to create change for others like him, reports the Equal Times.

After meeting Berlin-based Norwegian entrepreneur Remi Elias Mekki, the two devised the concept for MigrantHire, which aims to connect refugees with tech jobs in Germany.

Unlike other websites that simply list jobs or offer training courses, “MigrantHire accompanies job seekers throughout the whole process," Shaker told the Equal Times. On MigrantHire, refugee job-seekers can obtain software development skills, as well as help with paperwork and interview prep.

Based in Berlin's startup hub, the company is poised to make an impact -- and its reach is already significant: 150 employers and about 10,000 applicants now use the platform, Shaker told NPR in February.

Image credit: Flickr/Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni