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Lamine Zarrad of ZenBusiness: “Another thing that keeps me optimistic is that America still has a very strong brand”

Another thing that keeps me optimistic is that America still has a very strong brand. This is not an easy place to live and survive, but it has such a strong story, and that story is perpetuated by our entertainment complex. The story is amazing, it’s exciting, and it’s a story of opportunity. It’s a […]

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Another thing that keeps me optimistic is that America still has a very strong brand. This is not an easy place to live and survive, but it has such a strong story, and that story is perpetuated by our entertainment complex. The story is amazing, it’s exciting, and it’s a story of opportunity. It’s a story of self-reinvention and it’s a story of incredible growth and expanding any potential that America has. In fact, the more we acknowledge our faults in this country, the more authentic the story becomes. I think we can be very honest with ourselves and still prop up the story. Our brand is what attracts a lot of folks and that’s really exciting to me because smart people are still coming to this country. Maybe not in as high numbers as before, but they are still coming and we can regain the momentum there.


Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.

As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lamine Zarrad is SVP and Head of Product at ZenBusiness PBC. He began his entrepreneurial journey shortly after immigrating to the United States then going on to serve in the U.S. Marines. He then built an expertise around banking regulations and financial services through work at Merrill Lynch and the U.S. Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Lamine co-founded fintech Joust in 2017, which was acquired by ZenBusiness in 2020. Lamine combines his passion for financial inclusion and product innovation skills to build the ZenBusiness platform.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in a somewhat privileged household in the former USSR, where my parents were professionals and my grandparents were part of the scientific community. My father was also a foreigner (from Tunisia), so I had the additional privilege and the ability to travel in and out of the USSR to Europe and North Africa which was one of the biggest issues for most Soviet citizens. As a result, I had the best of two worlds: a really unique experience in a communist country but living far enough away from Moscow where communism was more of a formality.

Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?

When the USSR fell apart, my home (now known as Azerbaijan) was involved in an ethnic war, and because of my mother’s Armenian ethnicity, we were a part of the targeted group. Thankfully, we escaped genocide and became refugees in Moscow, where we spent six years. Eventually, we were lucky enough to be able to escape and immigrate to the United States.

Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?

It’s never easy. The process of immigration is very complex and complicated no matter where you come from. For one, the process that the US Embassy set up was very intrusive. It involved physical exams to ensure that everyone was healthy, background checks, a lot of paperwork, and waiting for constant updates to the paperwork. It’s very bureaucratic. Then the transition from when we lived in Russia to the United States was rather difficult because the United States gave us a green light to come over, but did not provide the resources to be able to leave Russia and travel to the US. Then we were not citizens of any country because the country that we were citizens of, the USSR, had ceased to exist, and Russia would not grant us citizenship to the US. We had to get really creative about getting passports and we ended up using a tourist visa to get to Germany and then over several borders in Europe with fake passports, into the Netherlands. Finally, we caught a flight to the United States. So that entire journey was grueling. It was very bureaucratic on one end and then logistically incredibly difficult to execute on the other. But in the end, we did it. It’s important to keep in mind that there’s no right or wrong way of fleeing your country and every immigrant family has a unique and an admirable story.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?

We did have a lot of folks who helped us along the way. For instance, my stepfather, who was an American missionary, was able to financially sponsor my family and help us acquire passports to be able to immigrate. At the height of the anarchy in Russia, it was nearly impossible to go through this process as everything cost a lot of money. So we were able to rely on his support from both a monetary and emotional perspective. There were also a number of other organizations that my stepfather’s church was affiliated with that were nonprofits focused on humanitarian aid distribution which also helped us eventually make it to the US.

So how are things going today?

I’m very fortunate to be where I am today, both personally and professionally. I am surrounded by the people I love and we have access to all of the amenities that I could only dream of as a child. I have a supportive spouse who played an incredibly important role in my professional accession and has been the best partner I’ve ever had. Professionally, I am in a position to build a lot of value for many entrepreneurs. I’ve been an entrepreneur for many years, but also have been an “intrapreneur,” someone inside organizations helping build things and create new ideas. The nimble immigrant experience is very much an entrepreneurial experience as you are presented with an unsolvable problem and you have to figure out to solve it, and then succeed. When it comes to entrepreneurship, I feel that I am positioned in a way that I’ve always imagined and dreamed of. In other words, I have enough authority and enough impact to create something for others who need it. That’s something that I don’t think everyone in the world has the privilege to do and I’m excited about that and about expanding those capabilities and continuing to create more value for people.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

For me, goodness is about solving problems and creating stability for people. Stability is something that my family lacked for many years, and missing that in your life can be so distracting that it holds people back from being successful. And it’s not just immigrants. It’s a phenomenon that plagues a lot of marginalized communities. Even in a country like the United States, where if you’re living dollar to dollar, paycheck to paycheck, it’s very difficult to think strategically about your options in life, and you have to think tactically. You’re in survival mode and you miss a lot of opportunities. The American Dream that exists just isn’t for you, because the American Dream requires planning, it requires campaigning, it requires a strategic mindset, it requires resources. It requires a lot of things that you know a person who lives paycheck to paycheck simply doesn’t have the luxury to take advantage of. I would say the concept of goodness is stability for folks who need it. The way I see it, with every single success in my personal career, I am creating another tool, product, or solution to help solve that problem.

You have firsthand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?

First of all, I think the process itself is complex and convoluted. The United States has a lottery system around the globe for immigration which is somewhat arbitrary. On the other hand, we are constantly inserting ourselves and placing barriers for certain groups, sometimes for political reasons and sometimes for financial or trade reasons, but none of those reasons are optimized for acquiring the best people into this country. So if I was to put my economics and business hat on, I would say we need to be attracting the absolute best folks around the globe without any regard for geography or demographics. We need the most talented, the most driven, and the most ambitious people. They need to be here solving big problems and utilizing the wealth of resources that the US has. In order to do that, we need to be a little more objective about the immigration process. I would change the selection criteria and I would definitely remove politics out of the process so it’s not constantly being rearranged with every administration and create some stability and predictability.

Another big thing I would change is the visa system in this country. I think it’s too stringent. We have neighboring countries with lots of talented folks and we have this work visa concept that is inefficient. A lot of people get it, and then they don’t want to go through the process again, so they stay here or leave and suffer the consequences. I think we need to open the borders and invest in vetting people coming to the US so talented people don’t have to go through a lengthy process of getting accepted. In my opinion, it should be a short and compact process that relies on modern tools and connecting to databases around the world. Rather than a lengthy process, it is a quick checkmark and then more frequent check-ins with these folks to make sure that they’re doing what they said that they were going to do.

I would also say that the green card system itself needs a major overhaul. Currently, the green card holder is essentially a citizen with no voting rights and it makes absolutely no sense to me. I think that if you’re a resident of this country and you’re paying in taxes, you are contributing. You shouldn’t have to wait for some arbitrary period of time before you can fully participate in our democracy. We need to come up with something a lot more comprehensive because it takes a long time to get that green card in the first place. I think we should eliminate the waiting period and give immigrants all the rights that a citizen has so they can vote and have some ownership in the US.

Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.

The first one is security. The American Dream is an ambiguous thing that we associate emotionally with something good. But, the American Dream means different things to different people. I think for immigrants, the reason many of them come to the United States is to escape a lack of security or lack of opportunity in their home country. So security is a fundamental component to the American Dream. If we want to maintain the American Dream, we need to make sure that this country continues to abide by laws and has a strong social contract in place where we can rely on our election processes and we don’t have to fear for our lives.

Second and really closely tied to stability is wanting a sense of predictability. Predictability is absolutely critical to have in a developed country because predictability provides an opportunity to plan and not live day to day, paycheck to paycheck. I know that if I put in a certain number of hours for two years working really, really hard, that there will be an outcome, and I can start planning for that outcome. This is another thing that’s not always present in the US and it is a travesty in my opinion. We should think about predictability and how it feeds into opportunity.

Opportunity means many different things. It means a robust economy where there are jobs. It also means taking a long and hard look at our policies and our history, and the way we’ve discriminated against certain groups and saying, “look, this particular group has been disenfranchised for systemic reasons, and therefore they’re inherently at a disadvantage. Let’s level the playing field.” I know this is one of the tenants of the American dream, but if you look at data from Scandinavian countries, labor mobility and socio-economic mobility are a lot more advanced than they are in the US. Opportunity is the ability to recognize where you are socioeconomically and then be able to plan and move somewhere else.

Next is continuity. Continuity is a business term and every business strives to have what’s called “business continuity,” meaning that you want that business to exist tomorrow and the day after and the day after that. You want to make sure that it’s not just secure and stable and that you have all the opportunities, but you can also have the tools and resources to ensure that there’s mobility.

Last is replicability, meaning whatever you’ve attained as a person, or as a family unit, you want to be able to pass down to future generations. We have a lot of laws that are not effective or progressive in a way that they favor those who have amassed a lot of capital over generations and are designed to slow down those who haven’t. I think we need to make sure that the laws are structured in a way that doesn’t favor one group over the other and that everyone can pass their wealth down and pass it down efficiently. If there’s a group at a disadvantage, then the law should be structured in a way to provide them with an additional advantage so the playing field is leveled.

We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?

One thing that’s that makes me feel warm and fuzzy, despite all of the interesting developments in politics in 2020, is that our system is resilient. To me, it is great knowing that the way we structured our government many, many years ago, and the way we continue to work to improve it is a good thing.

Another thing that keeps me optimistic is that America still has a very strong brand. This is not an easy place to live and survive, but it has such a strong story, and that story is perpetuated by our entertainment complex. The story is amazing, it’s exciting, and it’s a story of opportunity. It’s a story of self-reinvention and it’s a story of incredible growth and expanding any potential that America has. In fact, the more we acknowledge our faults in this country, the more authentic the story becomes. I think we can be very honest with ourselves and still prop up the story. Our brand is what attracts a lot of folks and that’s really exciting to me because smart people are still coming to this country. Maybe not in as high numbers as before, but they are still coming and we can regain the momentum there.

The third thing that keeps me optimistic about this country is its economic engine. This is probably one of the most debated subjects today. People think, “we’re no longer making stuff, manufacturing is dead,” and therefore we don’t have anything, we’re just a house of cards. But the reality of the matter is if you look at the way our system is structured, we are still the most powerful country in the world and the most reputable country when it comes to assets. Think of us as a bank for the world. We are truly driving foreign investments because there is no better alternative, and quite frankly, that’s very exciting news for us. The more money we get from sovereign wealth funds or other treasuries around the globe that investing in our securities, the more wealth we can create for our citizens, and that’s what keeps me optimistic.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have a meal with Elon Musk. I know he’s not the most popular person and I don’t think he’s the best person to solve all the world’s problems, but I think he is an incredible risk-taker and he is completely unfazed by the convention. He challenges that convention on a regular basis, in sometimes a grotesque way, but in other times it’s just in the most direct way. I think it’s fascinating. He’s more fascinating to me than any other wealthy entrepreneur because he creates his own reality in a way that no one else has. We live in a world of social construct and I think it is unbelievably important for successful people to create the future. Not just set out there to do good things, but to create good things.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


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