Observe and Learn the Customs. Little things can brand you as an outsider. When I was being prepared to teach, I remember being taught that Americans look each other in the eye when they talk. That came in handy when I was in a job interview a while after because in eastern Europe it’s the exact opposite. We direct our gaze downward when speaking. If I hadn’t known that, the interviewer could have easily misinterpreted my body language. Ask questions when you don’t know, and be observant.
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 Dr. Oksana Malysheva, a venture capitalist, entrepreneur and business executive based in Austin, TX. She is the Managing Partner and CEO of Sputnik ATX, a VC fund and accelerator that funds and mentors early-stage startup founders. She is also the Managing Partner and President of Linden Venture Fund. Dr. Oksana Malysheva was born and raised in Soviet Union, Ukraine. On an academic scholarship, she moved to the United States with her husband and only 100 dollars to their name. She earned her PhD in physics from the University of Pennsylvania, and soon after, pivoted her focus to business and marketing. Dr. Malysheva previously held top strategic roles at McKinsey and Motorola. Trained as a PhD physicist, Dr. Malysheva brings scientific inquisitiveness, lateral thinking and mastery of insight through data to all of her business endeavors.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Growing up in Kiev, Ukraine in the former Soviet Union we had only three TV channels and most of them were absolute bores. Going to the theatre was easy and I spent most of my time reading. Strong opinions weren’t just common about those items but rather expected. Everyone was equal (but equally poor) where I grew up. You had to judge people by their drive, kindness, and thinking rather than their title.
We spent a lot of time discussing big topics in my family. Thanks to my parents’ teaching background, I learned to love science specifically. Most importantly I learned how to have fun with it. The education was spectacular if you were willing to fight and push for it. The biggest achievement of my young life was getting into my math school.
In a lot of the ways that matter, it wasn’t that different from the U.S. but, for example, we didn’t own a lot of clothing. My parents bought me my first pair of jeans for my 20th birthday. It cost 1 ½ times their combined salaries.
We love a good rags-to-riches story, but I think my history is a bit more complex than that; some of my life was rags and a lot of it was riches. You really can study theoretical physics on five tablespoons of oatmeal and a few apples a day. I always had that opportunity.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
I met the love of my life in the 90’s. Electricity was not running. At our given salaries, finding an apartment was impossible. The future I had built for myself at the most prestigious university in the former Soviet Union had evaporated. All the rules I grew up with no longer applied. My country was crumbling.
My husband and I had heard that in the U.S., if you’re lucky, as a student you could become a research assistant and make 1000 dollars a month. That was a whopping amount of cash to me because at the time our stipend was 4 dollars a month and my father earned 25 dollars a month.
I concocted the master plan of having us each become graduate students in the U.S. We would both earn 1000 dollars a month, so one of us could stash the money away. At the time apartments in Kiev cost 400 dollars. After we graduated, we could come back and buy an apartment.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
It all felt like one big happy adventure. We boarded the plane with just 100 dollars to our name and ended up starting at the University of Arizona in Tucson. After just a week, instead of having a cramped apartment with an occasionally functioning shower at the end of the hall on a completely different floor of our hostel, my husband and I had a one bedroom apartment with a kitchen and bathroom all of our own.
What struck me immediately was the generosity of Americans. Our landlord taught us how to drive, how to enjoy good Mexican food, and even invited us to eat dinner with his family.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
Our eighty-year-old landlord comes to mind. My husband met him while doing electrical work for him, and he ended up getting two days worth of work done in a couple of hours. Our landlord took us out and gave us our first experiences of American restaurants because we couldn’t afford it and his family ended up adopting us in a sense. Around 30 years later his name is a little fuzzy but we have never forgotten his kindness.
So how are things going today?
30 years after that initial plane ride, my husband and I are U.S. citizens. We have kids who are U.S. citizens, and we are very excited that we made that choice.
Would I have ever in my wildest dreams thought I’d end up running a Venture Capital firm in Texas? I’d be crazy if I said yes. My husband even started his own company which is very successful. The U.S. system does still work. Many years of sweat, blood, and very modest living made it possible. We were not given any special treatment. Instead we were committed to success and a good education. That’s how we got to where we are today.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am a staunch defender of capitalism but I am also a staunch defender of using that power for good. After living under socialism and capitalism, I’d choose capitalism any day. Today I’m dedicated to using my position and experience to help people with backgrounds that are often as non-traditional as my own. Your ability to work should define your success, not the circumstances in which you start your life.
At my company, Sputnik ATX, we fund startups and even provide expert advice to geniuses willing to learn. We fund the best of the best no matter who you are or where you’re from. We consistently have diverse cohorts of founders working hard in our portfolio not because we’re filling some quota, but simply because they work the hardest.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
Number one is that the rules should be more straightforward, which leads me into point number two. The U.S. already has a framework for a great system that worked in the past and now that we live in a world with technology we have the opportunity to simplify it even more. We need to issue more work visas. If you find a job in the U.S. and are willing to work, we want you here! Technology has made it easier than ever before. I love the message of Ratatouille “anyone can cook.” That applies here. Anyone can come live the American dream.
Number three is that as a country we need to quit it on the whole “are immigrants good” debate. The math is very clear here. Immigrants do not steal anyone’s job. In fact they tend to create more according to the NFAP. Their 2016 study concluded that 51% of the country’s startup companies that had gone “unicorn” in the U.S. were created by at least one immigrant founder. Each company employed an average of 760 people. In fact, 7.25% of immigrants are entrepreneurs, compared with about 4% of native-born individuals according to an independent study as reported by business insider. Not to mention that every job created in the U.S. creates at the very least 1.2 more to support it.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
1 . The sooner you realize that you belong and that you have as much a right to succeed as anyone else, the better off you will be.
So many of my friends in grad school spent hours reveling in the awe that in this country good things will happen to them. It did not matter that they didn’t have money or that they were not originally from here. If they worked hard, good things would happen. That hope was pivotal. Remember, in the U.S., promising futures are possible no matter where you’re from.
2. Observe and Learn the Customs
Little things can brand you as an outsider. When I was being prepared to teach, I remember being taught that Americans look each other in the eye when they talk. That came in handy when I was in a job interview a while after because in eastern Europe it’s the exact opposite. We direct our gaze downward when speaking. If I hadn’t known that, the interviewer could have easily misinterpreted my body language. Ask questions when you don’t know, and be observant.
3. Remember Where You Came From and What Your Values Are
Trust me. This will be a source of your strength and it will enrich the people around you. My husband and I were adamant about having our kids speak Russian at home. People asked us if we were afraid they wouldn’t master English if we did, but now, years later, they straddle both languages and cultures seamlessly. It’s made them stronger and more appreciative of both perspectives and allowed them to connect with their roots.
4. Get a U.S. Degree or Find Out How to Transfer Your Degree to the U.S.
One of the reasons my husband and I were so successful was because we had a U.S. graduate degree. The process of getting the degree allotted us time to acclimate. It also gave us an anchor as we navigated the unfamiliar.
5. Love the People Around You and Learn to Work with Them
You have so much to offer in a new culture and that culture has so much to offer you. Some of the saddest immigrant stories are when good people are completely bottled up in their community and never step out. The strange beauty of the American Dream is that Ukranian borsch and Indian curry are all shared in one potluck. Larger associations will make you more successful but you must be the one to take that first step to invite it into your life.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
I’ll give you one big one because it really inspires me. I am blown away by the strength of the ideas of the Founding Fathers. The courage of modern Americans in defending those principles is even more uplifting. The fact that there was a peaceful transition of power even after the January 6th coup is a serious testament to that. That’s something I’m willing and proud to defend too.
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’m very vocal about how much I love Oprah. She was raised in the most humble circumstances and rose up to be one of the most formidable businesswomen who has ever lived. I am in awe of her being so intentional about her life and about the people she surrounds herself with. Above all, her commitment to share her way of living is inspiring. Oprah, if you’re reading this, breakfast tacos are on me.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!