Be resilient. In today’s world, one has to be prepared for the worst while hoping for the best. I’ve lived in situations where electricity wasn’t guaranteed. So, when a lack of power affects my business, I roll with the punches and find ways to keep things moving. There’s a term coined by the US Army called “VUCA,” which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that describes a situation of constant, unpredictable change that is now the norm in the world we live in. If you operate your life and business with this mindset, nothing will keep you down.
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 Peter Swaniker.
Peter is a software engineer and seasoned executive with strong technology management experience. He was the founder of Nimble Software Systems, a workforce scheduling and time tracking platform, which was acquired in 2019 by Paycor, an Apax Partners-backed company. In 2021, Peter launched a new startup, monitorQA, a mobile inspection software platform used for health and safety audits.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in Ghana, West Africa. My father was a magistrate and we moved around to different African countries for his work. I lived in Gambia and Botswana while growing up. Everything changed when I was a teenager and my father passed away. I am the oldest of three kids, so my siblings were still quite young. My mom had to raise us on her own. So, she started a business: a school. This way we could continue to provide for us. My mom is definitely my inspiration to be an entrepreneur.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
While I was in college, I fell in love with an American exchange student who was spending the year in Ghana. We dated throughout her time there, and I promised her that I would eventually follow her to the United States. After I graduated from college, I moved to California to be near her. Fast forward to today; she and I have been married for 25 years and have three beautiful children, and I’ve lived in California ever since.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
Being a graduate from an unknown Ghanaian university without any social network, I had to start at the bottom. My first job was working for a military contractor developing software in Visual Basic 6. It wasn’t glorious, but it taught me a lot of important lessons about the importance of purpose-driven software in industries that aren’t as exciting as the high-flying tech and SaaS you see today.
I eventually joined the team at Buy.com as a technical manager. I helped them with their deployments in Australia and Canada. But more importantly, this is where I discovered my love for the business side of things after we went through an IPO.
My love for everything startups led to me completing an MBA through night classes at the University of California Irvine. That was several intensive years of getting home at midnight, barely sleeping, and working all day. It’s hard to believe what we can do when we’re young.
I worked for several smaller companies as well. These included Kelly Blue Book, a semiconductor company, and a few others. All of these jobs taught me how business is done, and I learned great lessons from my colleagues at all these companies. Along the way, I made friends with Americans and other African immigrants and formed a group of friends that helped me adapt to America.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
My wife. She was my reason for coming to America, and she’s been my rock ever since. I remember after our first year of marriage I was really missing food from Ghana and there weren’t any Ghanaian restaurants near us. One day, I came home from work and she had a table full of Ghanaian food for us. She had driven up to Los Angeles, found a Ghanaian restaurant, and brought back a spread of my favorite dishes. That helped me get over my homesickness.
So how are things going today?
Things have gone so well, better than in my wildest dreams. A couple years ago, I sold my first company, Nimble Software, for eight figures. I never imagined that I would have this kind of financial success. But also personally, I’m so thankful that my two older daughters have attended great colleges, and my son is doing well in high school. I’m so grateful for my family.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have always enjoyed seeing other entrepreneurs do well. So I volunteer my time and resources to advise other entrepreneurs on how to avoid the pitfalls of a startup, how to scale up a business, and fundraising.
I’m also a big believer in the power of education to improve social mobility. I donate to educational charities in both Africa and in my local San Diego community. I believe it’s important to give back to the communities that supported me in my journey. For me, that extends from Africa all the way to California.
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?
- Grant visas to talented, educated people from all over the world. There is so much talent stuck in countries where there simply is not the opportunity that there is here. These people should be welcome to come to the United States to start their businesses, hire American workers, and contribute to the U.S. tax base.
- Use technology to streamline the immigration process. I’m not sure what the process is like today, but when I immigrated it was a bureaucratic nightmare. We had to constantly file papers that could take up to a year to get processed. I think it has gotten better since then, but I’m sure that technology could speed up processing, and improve enforcement.
- Educate Americans about the benefits of immigration. Economists are almost universally in agreement that educated immigrants have a positive impact on the host country economy. However, many Americans still see immigrants as a threat. The huge disconnect between the facts and public perception can only be bridged by education.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Maintain a can-do attitude. Attitude can beat aptitude any day of the week. Having the right mindset and looking at situations in a positive light can open you up to new opportunities that you may have otherwise missed.
- Have a willingness to learn. I always try and learn new things every day. After all, getting ahead in life these days often depends a lot on what you know. For example, some of the people that did well during the last financial crisis did so not because they had the resources, but because they had the knowledge and willingness to take advantage of the opportunity they saw.
- Delay your gratification. Many young entrepreneurs fall victim to lifestyle creep. When they first taste success, they do everything they can to live the lifestyle. But if you study the lives of wealthy people, you will realize that most of them live below their means. It’s important to not only save for a rainy day, but to accumulate enough resources over time so you can invest in your future.
- Be resilient. In today’s world, one has to be prepared for the worst while hoping for the best. I’ve lived in situations where electricity wasn’t guaranteed. So, when a lack of power affects my business, I roll with the punches and find ways to keep things moving. There’s a term coined by the US Army called “VUCA,” which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that describes a situation of constant, unpredictable change that is now the norm in the world we live in. If you operate your life and business with this mindset, nothing will keep you down.
- Boldness to invest in yourself. When I started my company, I cashed out my retirement savings and invested the funds in my business. That meant failure was not an option for me and I learned that the best investment you can make is in yourself.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
The United States is a wonderful country. While it has its problems, I can’t think of any other country where innovation can flourish so freely. Here are a few reasons why I am so optimistic about the future of the country.
- Economic resilience. While the U.S. suffered greatly during the 2008 recession, we were one of the first countries to snap back. This is due to our flexible labor policies and economic resilience that let’s capital get allocated efficiently through the economy. Similarly with COVID, while we tragically suffered some of the worst loss of life, we seem to be doing well with the vaccine rollout and the economic recovery.
- Creativity. While there will always be countries that copy what we do here in the U.S., the cutting-edge ideas and products seem to originate from here. You can’t copy creativity. With each new generation, I’m amazed by the new technologies that arise. I’m so excited by what’s happening with blockchain technology, biotech breakthroughs, and artificial intelligence. I can’t wait to see what comes next!
- Social progress. I always think about the quote from Martin Luther King about the arc of history bending towards justice. While I have been discouraged at times by the racism and divisions within American society, I have seen that eventually justice prevails. My optimism is fueled by a bit of historical perspective and I see how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time.
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’d love a meeting with the investor Chris Sacca (@sacca) because I’m currently raising a seed round for my latest venture. He seems to genuinely want founders to succeed, and I really respect his investment philosophy.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
I’m happy to connect with readers. Check out monitorQA.com to learn about my latest venture, a mobile inspection software platform. I’d love to hear any feedback your readers might have. I’m happy to connect on LinkedIn. Also, readers can message me via Twitter @monitor_qa_ or search for us on Facebook.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!