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MS. STEAD SELLERS: Welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Frances Stead Sellers, a senior writer here at The Washington Post.
Having grown up in Britain and spent my adult life in the United States, I often get questions from friends and family members asking me why things happen the way they do here. What’s with the sheer number of guns? Why are there prescription drug ads on TV? What’s a corn dog, and why do politicians eat them?
Here today to help me take a step towards explaining America is Max Levchin. He’s the Affirm CEO and PayPal co‑founder, and he’s going to discuss his own pursuit of the American dream and the importance of immigration to the American story.
Max, a very warm welcome back to Washington Post Live.
MR. LEVCHIN: Thank you. A corn dog is a mystery to me too.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: I’m going to ask you if you’ve ever had one.
But first, to our audience, you can ask questions of Max on Twitter and questions beyond the corn dog question. Send them to @PostLive. That’s the Twitter handle, @PostLive. Please join our conversation.
And, Max, tell me how you got here. You came here from the former Soviet Union as a 16‑year‑old seeking political asylum.
MR. LEVCHIN: That’s right. That’s a great summary. It has an increasing backstory. My grandparents were both fairly prominent scientists in the Soviet establishment and in spite of a fairly anti‑Semitic regime and a variety of challenges managed to rise to the very top of the sort of scientific establishment, only to find themselves trying to get out as early, apparently, as mid‑’80s and denied exit opportunities and essentially told to stay put and die in a Soviet state. And when my grandfather finally passed away in ’86, my grandmother mounted this unbelievable effort to get out by any means necessary, and we sort of snuck out the very last days of the Soviet Union, as a matter of fact, the summer of ’91, just a couple of weeks before the state ultimately collapsed. And so it was a bit of a‑‑and all of this was almost entirely invisible to me until the year before we finally left it. The family kept it under wraps on the assumption that the kids would blabber, and we would eventually get arrested or something else.
So I kind of got this “Oh, by the way, we’re leaving for America. Start packing,” notification, which was quite interesting.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: So you said it, “we’re leaving for America,” but why America?
MR. LEVCHIN: I think there are two parts to that announcement. One part was we’re leaving. The country is collapsing. I was due to register for the mandatory draft. There’s all sorts of reasons to get out, and then my family was quite worldly. They sort of understood what economic opportunity meant, and they saw there was none of it where we lived. And they sort of presaged the American dream. They wanted the grandkids and the kids to live up to their fullest potential, not serve in the Soviet army that was just about to get routed in Afghanistan.
So, ultimately, the political asylum was probably as much that as it was an economic one. We went to the U.S. so that I could study in a school that would allow me to build on my actual advantages and whatever may come. Obviously, I was extraordinarily fortunate from that point on, but that was the seminal point of what happened to me.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Do you remember sort of legal and logistical problems at that stage, or did it go very smoothly?
MR. LEVCHIN: I think the Soviet side of it was quite lumpy. We had to do all sorts of contortionist things, including‑‑I think there was a moment in time when my grandmother had to obtain a birth certificate, and the city where she was born flatly denied her because they figured out why she needed it. And there was sort of a long and protracted bureaucratic battle, but at the time, at least, the U.S. was still very much motivated by what was called “Operation Exodus,” which was a political and economic attempt to save the Soviet Jewry and allow people like my family and me to come to the U.S.
And once we were able to apply for political asylum in the U.S., the process was actually fairly smooth at the time. I think it was seen as a politically supported effort. From the outside looking in, obviously, I don’t really know, but what I remember when we moved to Chicago in ’91, I saw lots of signage all around Chicago, particularly Chicago synagogues saying Operation Exodus helped Soviet Jews escape. And we were the beneficiaries.
And the real, kind of the only moment I remember my family of having an elevated heartbeat was would we be able to get a full refugee status or something less than‑‑I certainly couldn’t pretend to remember or know really what that meant, but I remember them being extraordinarily stressed out about would they be allowed to work in the U.S., would they be able to get jobs, or would they have to ultimately go to some other country where they would be allowed to work and contribute to society.
And so we were very lucky, of course. We got the full sort of a welcome, and within 10 days of arrival, both my parents were working extremely menial jobs, but they were happy to be able to start making sort of an economic movement forward.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: And I think they were a mechanical engineer and a poet, as I remember it, but tell me. Just, you know, 16 is such a formative age to arrive. Teenager, you arrive in Chicago. What were your feelings right then? Were you excited, or was it incredibly daunting or both, I guess?
MR. LEVCHIN: You know, I was unbelievably excited, actually. I would love to tell you some sort of a heart‑wrenching story of little Max missing the homeland, but I was‑‑I was smiling ear to ear every day.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: [Laughs]
MR. LEVCHIN: One of the really funny but sort of memories that stuck with me, we’re flying in the very last Pan Am flights. Pan Am declared bankruptcy before we left Moscow, and by the time we landed in the U.S., there were sort of just a few flights left. But, of course, we’re sitting in the very, very back of the plane, flying from Moscow to New York City, sort of en route to Chicago, and I snuck into first class and snatched a copy of Computer Shopper, which was this ancient‑now magazine, sort of a 10,000‑pages, kind of upscale catalog of computers you could buy, and in full seriousness went to my mom and said, “Hey, we have something like 300‑something dollars among five of us. Do you think I could have 250? Because I found some extraordinarily inexpensive computer we could buy”‑‑
MR. LEVCHIN: ‑‑so I could continue to be doing what I love doing so much, and she said, “Absolutely not. You know, our rent will be consumed by the total amount of money we have between us, but I’m sure‑‑it’s the land of opportunity. You’ll find your way to a computer.”
And I happened to have a relative in Chicago already. One of the earlier‑‑my grandmother’s son, my uncle got there a little bit before us, and he had already found a job, a software engineer, and so his welcome gift to me was a trip to CompUSA, which I think is now sadly defunct, where he bought me the absolute least expensive computer money could buy. And from that point on, I was in heaven.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Just to sort of finish these formative years, you went from there to the University of Illinois in Champaign‑Urbana, and I’m aware that many of the PayPal founders came from‑‑they’re all Stanford. So I’m sort of thinking if this is a transition to these bigger ideas that you embraced as you move ahead. You clearly had this entrepreneurial spirit, but what did the university do for you? And I have to say also, it’s probably the corn dog capital of the United States right there in the middle of the cornfields.
MR. LEVCHIN: That’s why I feel so embarrassed. I’ve seen many a corn dog in my trips to county fairs, but I have to honestly admit that I don’t believe I’ve ever had one. The idea of deep‑frying mystery meats was already suspect to me then.
So what was really amazing about U of I‑‑so I went to U of I a little bit on the‑‑it’s not exactly a lark, but I literally asked a friend sort of where do smart kids from this high school‑‑I was in a regular inner‑city high school and was still trying to orient myself on the U.S., sort of asked one of my best friends, where do you go for school if you want to study computers and can’t afford anything. So there’s exactly one school. It’s go to University of Illinois in Champaign‑Urbana. It’s a great computer science school, and you can probably get some scholarships. And so that’s sort of how I navigated my path to Illinois.
And I owe a huge, huge amount of what I am and what I’ve been able to accomplish to those four years where, one, I was extraordinarily lucky. Mosaic, the first graphical browser, was invented on my campus the year I matriculated, and so I sort of got a front‑row seat to what the future would look like. And my plans to become a PhD just like my grandmother and my grandfather evaporated because I saw all these really smart kids go from “Wow, this is really neat” to “Wow, you can build amazing companies and ideas and businesses out of them.” So I was bitten by an entrepreneurial bug, obviously.
But the probably more, kind of a subtle impact I got from school is you go from a world of extract ideas for, you know, a family of scientists to this very pragmatic universe of big ideas can be commercialized, and especially for a Soviet kid, this notion of commercialization was somewhere between a dirty word and kind of an abstract construct that I didn’t really understand. And being thrust into that as an opportunity was just amazing. I saw all these‑‑you know, Netscape was formed basically on my campus, and Marc Andreessen and five others left Champaign to build what soon became a publicly traded company. And so all these lessons are kind of flashing in front of me, even as I was sort of still gorging myself on computer science lessons. This idea that you can take a science you love and turn it into a force for commercial and ultimately societal impact was really, really transformative in my head.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, Max, you’ve written that immigrants, in particular, make successful entrepreneurs. Can you elaborate on that? What is it about immigrants that allows them to pursue these pursuits?
MR. LEVCHIN: I think it’s a combination of two things. You have absolutely nothing to lose. It was not an exaggeration. We literally had a couple hundred dollars between five of us when we came to the U.S., and it was very clear that you have to learn how to swim very, very quickly, otherwise you’re going to drown. And as a result, you have this willingness to do anything and everything to survive and get ahead, but you also are going from zero to one, which means that you very quickly learn this lesson that if you just try as hard as you can, there’s probably good things that will happen. And so you’re empowered by that idea, go as hard as you can, as far as you can, and there aren’t really any limits because we came from nothing, and there’s no fear of dropping back. And so I think it was a combination of those things.
I think I’ve seen that movie over and over again, both as a co‑founder with other people that came from other parts of the world and certainly as an investor these days, just over and over, the story of a plucky immigrant who comes in with nothing to lose and everything to gain and plays out to these amazing companies.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: So let me dig a little deeper on that, because is there something quintessentially American about that process? Why is‑‑why does it‑‑or why did it work here? Because maybe things have changed a bit. Why was America such a great place to do these things?
MR. LEVCHIN: I think America in itself is a macro version of what Silicon Valley perhaps used to be known for. Failure is not a permanent state. You are expected to fall on your face every once in a while, and no one permanently casts you aside and declares you useless, even if your first attempt doesn’t work.
My mom worked for over a decade as basically a babysitter and other forms of menial labor with a master’s degree in physics and a decade‑long career in software engineering before we moved to the U.S. and never really thought to complain or declare herself a failure. She just always knew that eventually she’ll get enough English under her belt and enough communication and societal navigation skills, if you will, and ultimately became a software engineer and add another 30 years of successful software engineering, 25 years of software engineering in the U.S.
And so this idea of just kind of you don’t give up because this country has lots of shots on goal embedded into its structure. No one will cast you aside because your résumé doesn’t have sort of perfect buildup, which is very much true in the majority of the world still.
I think this is especially concentrated in Silicon Valley where you’re expected to fail as an entrepreneur over and over again as you earn your stripes, and then you’re to get funding. I think the U.S. is kind of a somewhat milder version of the same idea.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: And you’ve actually stolen my next question out of my mouth because I was thinking, you know, how does your immigrant experience sort of sit behind the founding ideas of PayPal? And you’re saying the sort of willingness to fail and start again and try again and pick up and go on.
MR. LEVCHIN: Yeah, exactly. I think a lot of us actually get the ideas and the constructs that we pursue as entrepreneurs directly from personal or professional failures. PayPal was pivot after pivot after pivot. The company itself kind of failed internally to gain traction in our original idea and the original idea modified and on and on and eventually kind of figured itself out, and obviously, PayPal is now a giant, very successful company.
My current project, Affirm, sort of throwing it back to University of Illinois, one of the earliest fundraising ideas I had as a still student at U of I was to get a credit card, which, of course, did not exist as a thing where I grew up in Soviet Union, and use that as a vehicle for funding my first two companies. That probably wrecked my credit‑‑
MS. STEAD SELLERS: [Laughs]
MR. LEVCHIN: ‑‑and even though by the time I, you know, was an independently wealthy young man after PayPal’s IPO, I still needed cosigners to get a cell phone plan and to buy my first real car. And so that sort of stuck with me, this idea that some systems in the American society are woefully behind others. All these discontinuities present amazing opportunities for somebody who wants to fix the system. Affirm is fundamentally about reinventing credit and giving it where it’s due, and people like me, sort of immigrants, students that had missteps in their youth but then ultimately end up in a really good place, they all deserve access to credit that’s significantly more up to date than the ancient system that was invented sort of between ’60s and ’70s, which is what we still have in a lot of places in this country now. So I think you inevitably go back to these personal experiences and leverage failures to build something interesting and new, and a lot of times, it doesn’t work, but when it does, it’s extremely rewarding.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Do you make a specific effort in any way to employ immigrants at Affirm? Is there an ongoing sense that you can embrace this sort of energy and willingness to fail and learn again?
MR. LEVCHIN: You know, I think‑‑Affirm is now 2,500‑ish‑person company, and we are still very actively hiring. Therefore, being so picky as to say only immigrants should apply is certainly not our strategy, but I do find it that on average, the drive and the motivation that I find not just in immigrants but generally speaking‑‑you don’t have to be born outside of the U.S. to experience being under‑expected from‑‑under‑estimated is probably a good example.
When you come to the U.S. and you have an accent and you barely fit in and you don’t know how to dress, you will absolutely or can actually encounter people dismissing you, and I think that’s true for a lot of groups that are born in the U.S. that just don’t have the privilege embedded.
And it does turn out that a large percentage of those people, especially the ones that are trying to break into tech or break into entrepreneurship are unbelievably hardworking. They just have this unstoppable motivation to get out there and prove that they can, and so I love hiring those people. And we are fortunate enough to have quite a large representation of both underrepresented groups and, in particular, quite a lot of immigrants as well.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: But, gosh, from a business point of view, is it easier for a business to hire highly skilled immigrants from elsewhere than to reinvest in the U.S. educational system and try to make more people have that sort of sense of drive, willingness to fail, and then move on in confidence that they’ll get somewhere if they move on?
MR. LEVCHIN: That’s certainly‑‑that’s certainly my politics, if you will. I’m long in the record saying that the limit‑‑I’m not sure how viable it is, but when we graduate‑‑I was lucky. By the time I graduated college, I was basically eligible for a green card, and, you know, five years later, I was eligible for U.S. citizenship. So my path was assured to at least the degree that it can be. There are plenty of brilliant immigrants that come on student visas or some sort of restricted visa or H‑1s or the limited‑work visa, and I think we’re, frankly, as a nation making a terrible mistake when we are telling them, especially after college, “Hey, thanks for the four years you invested in learning what we have to offer in America. Now please go back to your own country.” That is a pretty silly policy.
And I understand that immigration politics are unbelievably complicated, and there’s quite a lot about skilled labor and unskilled labor and the juxtaposition of the border crisis, and so none of it is to be dismissed. But just the pure economic self‑interest, we manufacture‑‑or rather, we take on brilliant unformed talent. We form it with undergraduate and graduate schooling, and from my point of view, fail to take advantage of the fact that we just created these brilliant people by sending them back to their country.
And I’m glad perhaps that they’re going to their home nations to build economies there, but selfishly, I wish they would stay here and start companies or join companies like mine.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: So I couldn’t agree with you more that immigration reform is a very, very difficult issue, but many large immigrant‑receiving countries like Canada, like New Zealand have had point systems so that they can bring in the people they need to fill certain entrepreneurial and business needs. Is that the kind of thing you think would make sense in this country?
MR. LEVCHIN: You know, I remember actually‑‑it was interesting, but I remember chatting with my mom right before we left for the U.S. where she had said that one of her coworkers, a software engineer with an illustrious education, background, in Soviet Union was able to get into Australia, and on the one hand, she was quite stressed out about how what if America adopts a point system. What if we can’t qualify? What if we don’t qualify? On the other hand, the certainty that this particular person had, he had a perfect GPA from some‑‑from Moscow State University or some sort of MIT‑equivalent in the Soviet Union, obviously a brilliant physicist and engineer and was very much in demand, and it took him a trivial amount of time to get to Australia as soon as he was able to get in touch with the Australian embassy.
So some form of‑‑and the point system, I feel like it has an opportunity to both be gamed and potentially exclude people that shouldn’t be excluded, but some way of measuring what this person has to contribute to the economy, I think, probably has merit, and we should consider it.
Again, I’m infinitely more comfortable talking about software engineering and entrepreneurship than I am about political reforms. I consider myself fairly apolitical. I do think that there are brilliant people that would be better off for all of us within America than outside, and I know that this space is ultimately not infinite. So there are some people that will be overlooked or excluded, but we would all be better off if more immigrants could start more companies or join amazing companies that contribute.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: So among the immigrant co‑founders of PayPal and notably Peter Thiel, some have taken a far more hardline approach than you. Do you see that as shortsighted, or why is this happening right now when they gain so much from coming here?
MR. LEVCHIN: You know, I’m certainly not qualified to speak for anyone else, but myself‑‑
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Mm‑hmm.
MR. LEVCHIN: ‑‑I do think that the overall approach to immigration as a more must come or fewer must be allowed in is a reflection of a zero‑sum versus pie‑is‑getting‑larger mentality, and as an entrepreneur, I certainly deeply believe that‑‑you know, I would be‑‑I would be insane not to believe in America. I think I’m a died‑in‑the‑wool patriot because I owe everything I have to this country, and my gratitude is infinite.
And I do think that the pie is getting larger. I’m a big believer in what Warren Buffet has to say. You know, he’s been observing U.S. economy for a very long time, and every time I see him speak, every time I’ve sort of been privileged to speak to him, his attitude has never been different. You know, the best years are ahead of us. We can build more. It is not a zero‑sum game. The pie is getting larger. We should just continue expanding what we’ve built here. This experiment is working, and I believe that wholeheartedly.
And so, as a result, I think the idea of what if too many people come in is a silly, frankly, attitude. I think we want more people building the economy up. I think the, you know, close the door behind you, there’s already too many of us in here, it is just very shortsighted and suggests some kind of a zero‑sum fear, which I don’t subscribe to.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: So I have to ask you. When you say that about the number of people pouring out of Ukraine right now, your former homeland, and how you see and what you think about, refugees coming in large numbers and what the country can do to help them.
MR. LEVCHIN: I think as an exceedingly terribly and complicated situation, I do think that‑‑I mean, I think the one thing I’m sure I cannot predict is the future of warfare and what’s really happening there, other than the tragedy and great need of humanitarian aid, which, you know, I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute a little bit there.
It’s hard to tell. I do think that Ukraine will need its brilliant people back there once this tragedy is over, and so, in some ways, I think it’s maybe controversial, but I would love to‑‑and we have some folks in Ukraine that work for Affirm, and as I am worried about them, I’m also, frankly, happy that they’re still there as opposed to leaving Ukraine, because I think the country needs all the brilliant people it can have to defend itself and to deal with the tragedy that’s there and the rebuilding period that can’t come a moment too soon.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: You spoke about yourself just so very movingly as an undying patriot, and I’d love it if you could describe just briefly what America has given you beyond extraordinary wealth, what other gifts you got from emigrating to this country.
MR. LEVCHIN: You know, it’s almost too difficult to count. I remember two things. I’ll give you two visuals which are‑‑I mean, this is a question that can only be answered in episodes and anecdotes as opposed to a real sort of countdown.
But I remember a week after we came to the U.S. I was sitting on the bleachers at a random baseball diamond, which, of course, probably was my first time at a baseball diamond, right next to the Chicago Jewish community center, and I looked up. And there was this giant American flag flying above my head, and I was like, “Oh, that is my new flag.” I sort of realized that I’ve seen these bright red Soviet flags my entire life, and I looked up and I saw an American flag. And I thought that’s amazing, and it was very moving. And I couldn’t really relate to what happened. I was like that’s a moment to remember. I should sort of store this in my head as a 16‑year‑old because who knows what this will mean to me.
And very, very recently, I was in London and saw the American embassy there, and I remember thinking like that is such a direct connection. Like, I’m outside of the U.S. Of course, the UK is an extraordinarily friendly country, as you know. There’s, you know, sort of no real fear here for anything there but I knew that that same flag would be the place I would go to wherever I would travel, whatever trouble I might be in, you know, whatever might befall me, the sense of like that country cares about you and will protect you was really profound. And I sort of felt this emotional moment of overwhelming, like, wow, I don’t think many people worldwide enjoy that sense of security and safety that comes with being a part of a large nation like this.
And I think a variance of that idea are just‑‑you know, frankly, as an immigrant, you can’t take this for granted, especially an immigrant from an oppressive regime, and I think that’s probably the most important. Now that I have kids of my own, I sort of‑‑you know, if we get lost in some godforsaken place, just find an American flag, and you’ll be okay. And I think that’s a fairly, fairly amazing thing to think about.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: What a great note to leave you on. Find an American flag and you’ll be okay.
Max Levchin, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about immigration and your own pursuit of the American dream.
MR. LEVCHIN: Thank you for having me.
MS. STEAD SELLERS: Thank you, everybody, for joining us today. If you want to see more programming from Washington Post Live, it’s at WashingtonPostLive.com. You can sign up and register for future programs.
I’m Frances Stead Sellers. Thank you.
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