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Insights From An Immigrant Entrepreneur

Airfox co-founder and CEO Victor Santos shares his experience founding multiple startups in the United States as a Brazilian Immigrant

Why did you or your family decide to immigrate?

My family emigrated from Belo Horizonte, Brazil when I was 12 years old. My father and mother owned a small granite and marble construction business in Brazil. In 2002, the housing market in the United States was booming, so my parents decided to sell everything we owned and relocate the family business to California with the hope of building a better life for our family.

What was the most difficult thing you faced when you arrived?

When we first arrived in the United States, I did not speak a word of English. The most difficult thing I faced upon arrival was the extreme culture shock and the constant uncertainty of my immigrant status.

What was your very first job?

In 2009, I worked as an intern and was quickly promoted to business development manager at iWorldServices, a telecommunications company that offered VoIP solutions for entrepreneurs in emerging markets. I managed 90% of the company’s revenue in Portuguese-speaking countries (Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Portugal) and helped launch the company’s Brazil operations. It was very exciting to work in tech and be exposed to a company that created value for local communities where telecommunications was extremely expensive.

Why did you choose to become an entrepreneur?

When I set out to start Airfox, I asked myself the same questions that spur countless tech start-ups: “What problem can I solve? What sort of impact do I want to make?” For me, the answers were intensely personal. I grew up in Brazil, where income disparity is both profound and highly visible.

I experienced first-hand the struggles people face when it comes to gaining access to capital. When I was little, my parents were starting their own businesses and money was tight. I distinctly remember three occasions when my mother took all of her jewelry, as well as a gold Cruzeiro team necklace she had gifted me, down to a local pawn shop so she could receive a loan. She always promised to give the necklace back the following year, and she let me down. I also remember my parents defaulting on cheque especial (a type of overdraft loan in Brazil) because of the incredibly high 300%+ APR. In fact, the pawn shop proved to have more accessible and better-quality loans than conventional banks, which is ultimately why my mom preferred it. This type of experience is not uncommon in Brazil, where the majority of people cannot surmount age-old obstacles to economic mobility.  

Also, despite being at a top-tier university and having an outstanding post-grad job offer from Google, as an immigrant student at UC Berkeley, I did not qualify for any federal or private loans. This further motivates me to create new dynamic credit models that include worthy individuals who don’t meet archaic credit models or are considered “thin-files.” I am inspired to not only provide value to my shareholders, but to unlock the value of technology for the 99% who deserve a chance at economic stability.

Who inspired you to become an entrepreneur?

My parents’ boldness, like that of many immigrants, is what inspired me to become an entrepreneur. However, part of my journey into entrepreneurship was also out of necessity. I had to work to put myself through college and to do so meant co-founding a startup as a student. More deeply, my upbringing catalyzed me to build companies that create social impact and double bottom-lines, instead of just pure profits.

What was the most difficult thing you faced when you first started your business?

Funding is always the most challenging source of starting a business. For minority entrepreneurs, less than 1% are funded, so this challenge becomes ever more intense. There are several factors that contribute to creating the massive barrier to diversity in entrepreneurship. One is that most minority entrepreneurs don’t have a safety net – they come from poor families and if they graduate college, it would be insane to give up working at Google, Goldman, Mckinsey, etc. to risk starting a company. Once they start climbing the corporate ladder, they often prioritize helping their families financially.

The other reason is that the “family and friends” funding round that often comes before pre-seed investment stages, is non-existent for low-income, minority entrepreneurs. Your family is struggling financially, and often, every family member needs to contribute to the financial income of the household. Not to mention, as low-income, minority entrepreneurs, we often lack a wide network of people who can help and provide guidance (i.e. average American – your dad is a Director at XYZ company vs. immigrant – your dad is a blue-collar worker).

Lastly, I believe that the lack of diversity in venture capitalists creates a cognitive bias towards people from certain backgrounds, colleges, and ethnicities. I believe this is slowly changing, but more needs to be done, and change needs to come from the top.

The managing partner at One Way Ventures, venture capitalist Semyon Dukach, is a fellow immigrant who is dedicated to investing in tech founders whose characters were deeply shaped by our shared experience. He saw and understood my passion to build Airfox early on, and his support was vital in helping my team overcome the barriers faced by immigrant entrepreneurs.

Why do you think you have been successful?

My immigrant grit motivates me to continue to strive to be the best leader that I can be, regardless of the limitations and disadvantages set in front of me. Similar to the perspective of many other immigrants, failure is not an option. I have to remind myself often that a successful journey is not linear or predictable. I have come to learn that it is not always the strongest that survive, but the most resilient.

What advice do you have for newly arrived immigrants that want to pursue the path of entrepreneurship?

During one of the hardest years of my life, my father shared a piece of wisdom that has stuck with me: “If there is no battle, there is no victory.” I have lived this wisdom by persisting towards a greater purpose, even in the face of fear and challenge. Ambiguities and struggles are inherent aspects of the immigrant life story as there is no safety net and nothing is guaranteed – but that is what makes us different, that is what gives us power and a deep meaning for the work that we do. Creating a start-up is hard, but there is nothing more meaningful if you truly believe in what you are doing. As a founder, remind yourself everyday about the immense responsibility that you have in your journey to fight for your family, community, customers, and employees. Never forget where you came from and even if you succeed to the greatest heights, don’t let hubris blind you. Stay humble.

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