Be optimistic and grateful. It’s easy to be down on yourself when things are not going as planned, however keep a positive attitude, and keep marching forward. It helps to put things in perspective and appreciate that starting any kind of business in the U.S. is already a privilege. You have access to a huge market that speaks the same language for the most part, pays you in U.S. Dollars, and there is a healthy and safe legal and business environment.
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 Rany Burstein, CEO and Co-Founder of Diggz, a roommate finder and rental search platform based out of New York City. Born and raised in Israel, and educated at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he studied business and graduated Summa cum laude. After over a decade working at big bank on Wall Street, he turned to entrepreneurship, specifically in tech. His first passion; he was building websites when the Internet was just getting started while he was still in high school. Most notably, he developed and owned the website for Israel’s biggest soccer club, Maccabi Tel Aviv, which he sold back to the team during his military service. Rany has also been an active volunteer with Junior Achievement of New York for over ten years, where he teaches at NYC public schools financial literacy. Rany resides in New York City for the last 15 years.
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 Tel Aviv, Israel, and while being a native of a small country I always had big dreams. My family moved to South Africa for two years when I was seven years old. This opened my eyes to new cultures and new languages. I believe that that experience already forged me into thinking global rather than just thinking about a future in my own country. I also took inspiration from my parents growing up, as my dad was a successful civil engineer and business man and my mom was literally superwoman, taking care of me and my brothers, the house and held different jobs as a journalist and later an insurance agent. They instilled in me the value of education and hard work.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
I was building websites since I was in High School in the early days of the internet and had a successful portfolio of sites, including a small exit selling one that I had owned for a soccer club. Towards the end of my Military Service in Israel’s Defense Force, I had a plan to continue to work in the tech space, but then the dot.com bust and the 9–11 attacks occurred and the world changed. And so did my plans. I decided that tech wasn’t the right space to start a career at that time.
I was drawn towards business and I kept entertaining the thought of going to college in the U.S. I had imagined earning a more unique degree so I can return to Israel to work for a Multi-National Company. But college in the U.S. seemed elusive and non-economical, so I applied and got accepted to a University in Israel.
During that time, there was a wave of unrest in Israel, where there were many terrorist attacks. The difference was that many of the attacks happened in places I frequented in, like cafés, nightclubs and markets. Luckily I wasn’t present in any of these attacks or know anyone that got hurt, but I was always there a day before, or had plans to go the day after. I felt like I got lucky time after time, but always worried that maybe next time my luck will run out.
All this just led me to a realization that I should pursue my dream of college in the U.S. I applied to five different schools that were still accepting college applications and backed my bags. I ended up getting accepted to all five, and picked the University of North Carolina.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
As I mentioned, I arrived for college and being in a college in the south is very much the epitome of the American College experience. Luckily the transition from Israel to the U.S. was somewhat easy as I was already fluent in English. But as many other college students, it was the first time being on my own. However, I think the army experience prepared me well. I enjoyed meeting and making many new friends, foreign and American alike and learning about the different cultures of all of them.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
I was fortunate to have my mom’s side of the family only three and a half hours away in South Carolina. So whenever I felt home sick, I had a home. I think that made my experience that much easier, because there were definitely times when I felt home sick. So I am very grateful for my grandmother and grandfather that took me in when I wanted. Also, my late uncle, Isaac, who helped me with anything I needed, invited me to his family trips during the holidays and was always available for advice. And finally, of course my mother and father who didn’t stand in the way of my dream and helped finance my own American Dream.
So how are things going today?
I am a full glass type of guy, so I will always see the best of any situation. We are still in the midst of a recession and a global pandemic, but I still appreciate all that I have accomplished and have today. I had a successful finance career and worked with some of the smartest people in the world to solve problems that impact many. This career also supported me and helped me get my Green Card, which by now has transitioned into full citizenship. After experiencing a rewarding career at corporate America, I decided to try and live up to the American dream and start my own venture, Diggz. It’s been a steep road, but we’ve been making steady small steps ahead, I am certain it will end up being a great success. It’s been growing like crazy and the pandemic actually helped since more people are moving around now or deciding to live on their own, leaving a roommate in need behind. It may sound corny, but every day I think about how fortunate I am to be living the American dream.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve always been raised on the notion of giving back, whether from my parents, school or the army. I’ve been a long time volunteer with Junior Achievement where I taught New York City public school students lessons in financial literacy. I’ve also founded my startup to solve a problem I believed many New Yorkers had, which was to find a reliable roommate to live with. I think helping folks find someone to not only help share the financial load, but perhaps to become a friend, a friendly welcome wagon, or just a someone that exposes you to another culture or way of life is good karma in my books. I sleep well at night knowing that my hard work and investment has a real impact on people’s life.
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?
There are a lot of great things about the U.S. immigration system and the opportunities it gives individuals and families, but there are a lot of gaps and kinks that need to be worked out. Whether it relates to national security, work force or demographics.
The first suggestion would be to go through some immigration reform or smaller reforms. I don’t have all the answers but seems that currently it’s not working as well as it should. It’s a very polarizing issue, so it might be best for the government to tackle it in piecemeal instead of trying to agree and execute all of it at once. For example, look at work visas separately, and maybe even carve it out by industry. And then tackle illegal immigration, deportation, etc. separately.
The second suggestion, would impact international students as well as hiring firms. There is a lottery in place that caps how many H1-B visas are given in a single year, sending some international students back home upon graduation. I think many companies have stopped considering international students for the fear that in the end they won’t get the visa approval through the lottery. I saw many colleagues that started working and had to relocate elsewhere, or worse, have their contract cancelled after not getting the visa through the lottery. Other than expanding it, I suggest to change the timing of the lottery or create a pre-approval process for international students. This way, they can know ahead of time if to pursue a job in the U.S. Also, firms will know which candidates are going to be approved to work in the U.S. ahead of the recruiting process.
Lastly, and one that kind of annoyed me before I received my citizenship, is the requirement to update status or renew visas outside the U.S. When I switched from a tourist visa to a student visa, I had to go back to Israel, visit the U.S. embassy there and then fly back. The same when I switched from a student visa to work visa, or when I extended the work visa. Sometime it works out with a home visit, but it is costly and time consuming. Especially if you live in a country where your home city is very far from the U.S. embassy, like in China. I think there should be an option to do this while still in the U.S.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
For me the American dream is about opportunity and hard work, rather then enjoying the riches of it. In America, hustle, drive and vision can trump all of the ‘where you are from’, ‘where you went to school’ and ‘how you grew up’ factors. There is no ceiling to where you can go in my opinion. These are my 5 Keys for success in America:
- Hard work pays off. While there are many ‘overnight success’ stories showcased on TV and social media, behind them there are years of hard work. Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.
- Don’t be afraid to take chances. The U.S. was built by risk takers, if you came to live in the U.S. you’ve already taken a risk. If you have a dream, take the chance to make it happen. Start by doing, step by step. Whether it’s investing your initial money in a prototype or working on your new business nights and weekend.
- Have perseverance. Every venture will face challenges, the key is to expect that they will happen as part of the process and not get discouraged when they happen. Learn from them, and prepare better for future challenges. There are many successful people that had to reinvent themselves or their businesses many times over.
- Embrace diversity. It’s easy for foreigners to label all Americans as a stereotypical American, but the U.S. is so diverse with many ethnic groups and sub cultures that vary state by state, city to city. As well as, different religions, sexual orientation, gender definition and more. Be open minded and inclusive, whether it’s with your clients, colleagues, employees or even friends.
- Be optimistic and grateful. It’s easy to be down on yourself when things are not going as planned, however keep a positive attitude, and keep marching forward. It helps to put things in perspective and appreciate that starting any kind of business in the U.S. is already a privilege. You have access to a huge market that speaks the same language for the most part, pays you in U.S. Dollars, and there is a healthy and safe legal and business environment.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
First, The U.S. and its citizens are resilient and have a proven track record to bounce back from adversity. I am excited to see how the U.S. will bounce back from the pandemic. I am sure it won’t take long. Second, The U.S. is still where everyone wants to come live, work and do business in. It has a huge economy and attracts the best talent in the world in any field. And last, the American dream is not dead. There are so many new ventures and even industries that are coming together. I think U.S. companies will become leaders in these fields like clean energy, A.I., biotech and more. It’s going to be an exiting time to live and work in the U.S.
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. 🙂
Elon Musk, Ben Horowitz, founder of the VC Andreessen Horowitz, and as a former Tar Heel, Michael Jordan.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!