Learn skills that are valuable and rare. There is a famous saying by Steve Martin, “Be so good they can’t ignore you” and it’s a quote I live by. If you hone in on a craft and learn to excel at it, people will want to employ you.
I had the pleasure of interviewing George Arison. George is the founder and Co-CEO of Shift, a San Francisco-based startup that is using user-centric design and mobile-first technology to make car buying and selling fun, fair, and accessible.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Thank you for interviewing me! I was born in the former Soviet Union, which is now the country of Georgia, and I grew up under a Communist regime. However, I was lucky to be exposed to American politics very early — through CSPAN — and always loved American history, values, and culture. Pretty dorky, but I taught myself English by watching a lot of congressman and senators on CSPAN — no joke!
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
When I was 12 years old, I met this incredible couple, Kathy and Jared Cadwell; they were founders of an NGO called Project Harmony (which still is going strong) that sent American kids to the Soviet Union and vice-versa for exchanges. Having done a few of these exchanges, Kathy and John wanted to live in the USSR and immerse themselves in the Soviet way of life, and they came to live in Georgia for a year. Before they went back to the States, they left me a book of schools applications. Remember, this was pre-internet, and communication with the US was still tricky — it was mostly done through telex machines and sometimes via Fax (which cost $10 per page to send). I was able to get my applications out of the Soviet Union, and with the help of another foreign visitor, I was accepted to a boarding school in Maine on an academic scholarship.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
It was overwhelming at first. I was 14 years old, in a foreign country and away from my family. But at the same time, I was thrilled because I knew it was an incredible opportunity. Stepping off the plane at JFK, I felt free for the first time in my life — both from my parents pushing me too hard and from a political system in which freedom was limited.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make a move more manageable? Can you share a story?
The Cadwell’s. They are the ones who left the list of schools and encouraged me to apply. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know where I’d be today. I just got back from visiting Georgia in August and was fortunate enough to speak to a large group of startup enthusiasts. There is no doubt that the country is moving forward, but there is still a lot of work to do. I’m very fortunate to be where I am, and I owe everything to them — they’re my second family.
So how are things going today?
Things are well. Shift is in a great place, and I am excited about the many cool things we have coming down the pipeline, especially on the technology side.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My best friend and Co-CEO says has a motto that he loves: “Learn, Earn, and Serve.” I don’t repeat that mantra often, but I do believe in it. If those of us who are fortunate enough to be successful don’t give back, we’ll end up being governed by our inferiors, and well, it’s easy to see where that lands us. Given my passion for politics, I will no doubt one day go back to it in a serious way.
I also am fortunate that with Shift, we were able to open an office in my home country of Georgia, with over 70 full-time jobs. This is a win-win for Shift and the team there, and it is exciting to see that happen.
You have first-hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
I have lots of thoughts on this! If I could wave a magic wand, I would transition fully to a merit-based immigration system similar to the one in Canada and the UK. This was part of the comprehensive immigration reform package in the past, which did not pass. In my point of view, we cannot fix our broken immigration system without this transition.
Immigration is good for the US — we need the talent, it helps our economy, and it ensures we maintain a large enough workforce to secure retirement benefits. Unfortunately, both sides are holding needed reforms hostage to the debate about illegal immigration, and that’s unfortunate. Short of transition to merit-based immigration, there are smaller reforms we can make, which include:
Give Top Talent Green Cards: Most foreigners who graduate from a prestigious US college or university should get a diploma and concurrently with it, a green card. It’s insane that we, as a society, subsidize education for all of these students, the vast majority of whom want to stay in the US (and if they did, would contribute a great deal), and then we ask them to leave for no reason.
Increase H-1Bs: The United States should increase the number of H-1B Visas while also limiting the use of H1B’s by outsourcing, such as non-US-based companies that are using foreign labor to undercut American workers. Every H1-B that goes to an outsource shop at the expense of an H1B for an engineer at Facebook or a startup employee is a travesty.
Focus on Entrepreneurs: Replace the bogus investor visa with a real entrepreneur visa that encourages people to start actual businesses.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Never give up. Starting a company is hard, and there are times you’ll want to quit. Don’t. Even when everything around me is falling apart, I focus on staying calm, finding a solution, and getting to work.
- Surround yourself with people who challenge you. My coworkers are incredibly talented people, and they have made my life easier in thousands of ways — big and small. I know lots of founders (and politicians for that matter) who surround themselves with yes men and women — this is a mistake. Having smart, talented, and hardworking colleagues willing to challenge you, keeps you on your toes and prevents group-think, which can be detrimental to companies.
- Learn skills that are valuable and rare. There is a famous saying by Steve Martin, “Be so good they can’t ignore you” and it’s a quote I live by. If you hone in on a craft and learn to excel at it, people will want to employ you.
- Embrace the Culture and Learn English. This may be controversial in some circles, but I always loved the Reagan view that when you come to America, you become American, and that means accepting and living by our country’s basic norms and way of life. Also, if you want to thrive in any country, it’s critical that you learn the language and understand the culture.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there three things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
- Our Government: America is not perfect, and perfecting our union will remain a continuous story of the country. However, when you think about the positive changes we’ve seen over the last 30 years, it’s incredible. America brought down the Soviet Union and liberated hundreds of millions of people from tyranny. Domestically, gay rights is just one example of how we continue to advance civil rights. It also makes me optimistic to see how our institutions are holding up when confronted with the populist lunatic that is Donald Trump.
- Silicon Valley: The most exciting technology is being built in my backyard. Whether it’s a company that delivers medicine via drones or an early-stage startup that is making fertility benefits more affordable, Silicon Valley is filled with people (many of them immigrants!) who are working hard to improve the world.
- Moderation. I know it’s a crazy thing to say when we live in an age of Trump and the left is dominated by politicians like Elizabeth Warren. However, I genuinely believe radicalism will give way to moderation. When this happens, we’ll have to hit reset and work hard to fix the damage Trump has caused. As awful as our president and the people around him are, I’m confident American will right course and return to moderation.
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.
If you’re asking who I admire, the first person that comes to mind is Elon Musk. Elon builds incredible technology, and I can’t even remember how many companies he runs — the man never sleeps! He also doesn’t give a sh*t what anyone else thinks, which is an important trait to have as a founder.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
My LinkedIn or Shift’s twitter handle @driveshift.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Originally published at medium.com