Atlys is celebrating immigrants who've changed the world.
We're commissioning street artists around the world to spread these stories in places that are in the midst of anti-immigration movements.View our Immigrants
Laila Abudahi, Founder of Manara
Nominated by Amjad Masad
With broken English and $500 in a wallet my mother sewed to my jeans, I managed to escape the world's largest open-air prison amidst the 2014 war on Gaza, one of the deadliest wars I've ever witnessed since I was born - and I've seen a few. I couldn't have imagined then that I'd end up in Silicon Valley founding Manara, a social-impact startup backed by some of the world's most impactful investors like Reid Hoffman, Paul Graham, Stripe, and more.
I was born in a refugee camp in Palestine. I lived in Gaza my entire life until I moved to Seattle for grad school 7 years ago. I managed to secure a full-ride Fulbright scholarship to pursue a master's degree in electrical engineering.
Life in Gaza, while extremely limiting, was never dull. You're always on your toes, thinking of creative ways to make it work. I like to believe that it made me the resourceful and resilient person I am today.
My biggest challenge was finding a summer internship and a job afterward during grad school. My untraditional background, unheard-of undergrad school, and limited network in a new country made it almost impossible to get an interview. Applying to jobs felt like sending my resume into a black hole.
After an uphill battle, I managed to kick start my career in Seattle, then moved to the Valley and eventually landed my latest job before Manara as a senior software engineer working on autonomous vehicles at Nvidia. Despite how difficult it was, it only took me a couple of years to go from struggling to land a single internship interview to working at the heart of Silicon Valley on some of the most cutting-edge technology in the world!
The traditional process didn't work out for me. I had to go out of my way to land my first job offer (i.e., attending tens of local startup events, excessive intentional networking, and a year-long spamming of software engineers on Linkedin asking for referrals and practice interviews which some were kind enough to provide!). It just didn't make any sense to me how hard landing a job in tech was, all while the tech industry was starving for talent. This experience inspired what later became Manara, a YC W21 startup I co-founded with Iliana Montauk that aims to make it easier for talented software engineers from untraditional backgrounds to connect to job opportunities worldwide.
Throughout my career in the Valley, I realized how hard it is for global tech companies to find high-quality tech talent. However, I also knew how talented my friends and colleagues back home were, and I wished there was a solution to connect the two. So I incorporated Manara, joined YCombinator, and received our first investment from Paul Graham in less than 6 months.
Manara today graduates about 100 engineers a year (and we're planning to double this number in the next quarter while maintaining a 50:50 women-to-men ratio). In addition, 80% of Manara's graduates are successfully placed in tech companies worldwide, including companies like Google, Meta, and Amazon.
While talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not. Manara wouldn't have been possible if I wasn't granted that visa to come to the US in 2014. I can't help but hope for a world where talent can move as freely as capital and where more immigrants with nothing but broken English and a hustling heart not only can kick-start a great career in record time but also manage to build companies like Manara that are literally changing people's lives, redistributing global wealth, redefining quality standards of software engineering in MENA and revolutionizing access to tech talent worldwide. What a great world it would be to live in!
Founder of South Park Commons
I was raised in Pune, India and, in the fall of 2000, travelled to Pittsburgh to study Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. I chose CMU because it was one of the premier institutions in the world for Computer Engineering and Computer Science. After graduating from college, I got a job doing math modeling for a derivatives trading group at a bank in NYC. But when I arrived in NYC, I panicked when I realized I didn’t want to work on Wall Street like many of my other college friends. Living in the U.S. on a visa meant I had to search for and secure another opportunity before I could leave the job in New York – a process already stressful enough for any new graduate.
I ended up in Silicon Valley, and after a few months a friend of mine told me about a recently launched startup called Facebook. Out of curiosity, I went to check out their offices and, near the entrance, they had a chalkboard with three words: “Looking for Engineers.” I was blown away by the energy and intensity of the people working there. On a whim, I decided to apply and got the job – but as I was one of the first Facebook employees on a visa, it took us a few months to understand how to transfer the H1-B over from my previous employer.
Much like me, there were talented individuals educated at top US universities who clearly would have been able to contribute significantly in our workplace but for the fact that the uncertainty, risk and time required to secure a visa meant that they shied away from startups. The H1-B visa application and transfer process is a black box to many talented immigrants and startup companies – however bright and talented, very few workers on an H1-B are willing to risk joining a startup and even fewer startups are willing to invest the time and energy interviewing applicants on a visa.
After a few years at Facebook, I realized I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I really wanted to start my own company but couldn’t do it on my H1-B status. I had to wait for my green card. All I wanted was permission to follow my passions, to follow the American Dream, but yet again I faced roadblocks because of a broken immigration system.
In early 2011, I finally started my own company and experienced the frustration of this system from the employer side. Often, instead of spending time building the product and the company, I was trying to check off the list of requirements to secure H1-Bs for engineers who wanted to join my company instead of Google, Apple, or Facebook. We eventually sold the company to Dropbox, where I became the VP of Operations and rediscovered that even companies with major resources still struggle with visas.
In 2015, after leaving Dropbox, a small group of friends and I founded South Park Commons, a community for technologists to explore what they want to dedicate their life to next. Since then, we have had over 450 of the most talented founders, builders, and domain-experts come through the community. So many of these brilliant, passionate, ambitious people have faced the same byzantine immigration process. My tale is not a sad one, nor is it unique; it’s one of hard work, hope and the opportunities that America offers. I have been able to achieve all that I have despite the US immigration system, not because of it.
There are so many more people like me who want to create value and give back to a new community. The very idea of leaving your home for a new land to pursue a better life is inherently risky and entrepreneurial. A person with this risk-taking mindset is already predisposed to take great chances and do great things. We would all benefit by making it easier for the world’s talent to follow opportunity.
Founder of Repl.it
I was raised in Jordan and moved to the United States when I was 24.
Since I was a child, I’ve been enamored by computers. And if you like computers, you’ll often find yourself coming across references to Silicon Valley. So I always knew this was going to be the place.
Before coming here, I was a software engineer in Amman, Jordan. My father worked in the government, and I didn’t come from a particularly wealthy family, nor do engineers in Jordan command high salaries as they do in Silicon Valley. So I left everything and came to the United States with nothing but credit card debt. Like every immigrant, I struggled, but today, I want to write about why I believe the American dream lives on.
Let’s start with my first job in the United States: as an engineer at Codeacademy in New York. They didn’t care that I didn’t go to college here - in fact, most of the team didn’t. Very few cultures reward talent the way America does.
After Codeacademy, I landed a job at Facebook, building React. During this time, I was impressed with the work culture - everyone gives it their best and is forgiving - no one makes fun of your accent or treats you differently because you’re different. America celebrates weirdness. The culture here values authenticity, and if you're authentic and open about your failures, you'll get a second and a third chance.
In 2016, I founded Repl.it. There are many countries where you can go and build startups, but there’s only perhaps one country where immigrants go and build startups - the United States of America. That’s not because they have particularly favorable visa policies or that capital is accessible - it’s the culture of optimism. People believe that tomorrow will be better than today. They don't know where progress will come from, but that's why they're open to differences. So when we started up, even unbelievers encouraged us. And because people are optimists, they take a much longer-term view. This thinking allows companies such as Repl.it to form and execute towards audacious missions.
If you take a step back and look at my story: I immigrated to the United States, got a job, then worked at one of the most defining companies of our decade, and then started a unicorn. All of this in under 10 years.
Since the pandemic, there’s been a lot of talk on why America is falling behind. To my fellow immigrants - don’t give up on America yet.
I am an immigrant, and I believe in the American dream.