The Road Less Traveled: How a Temporary Expulsion from the U.S. Proved to be Beneficial for the Founders of Chipper Cash
This is part 5 of 5 in “The Immigrant Founder Series: Using Adversity as a Launching Pad for Leadership,’’ a series created in partnership…
This is part 5 of 5 in “The Immigrant Founder Series: Using Adversity as a Launching Pad for Leadership,’’ a series created in partnership with growth marketing agency Ideometry. We spoke with some extraordinary immigrant founders who shared how their journey to the U.S. influenced their journies as entrepreneurs. Check out the previous interviews on our Medium page.
Ham and Maijid met at Grinnell College in Iowa, where they learned that they not only shared similar passions and interests, but also similar backgrounds (Ham is from Uganda and Maijid is from Ghana). The duo knew they wanted to collaborate and create something impactful at scale that leveraged their shared African heritage. Together, they founded Chipper Cash, which allows for instant cross-border mobile money transfers. However, before the duo could go all-in on their new company, they had to overcome some very unique challenges.
Tell us a bit about Chipper Cash?
Ham: At its core, Chipper is the first platform to support cross-border mobile payment in Africa. The reason why we set out to build this company was because Maijid and I knew quite intimately the challenges people were facing around moving money in Africa. We were both born and bred in Africa. I’m from Uganda and Maijid is from Ghana, so we’ve grown up knowing how difficult it is to send and receive money within Africa and saw an opportunity to try and solve that problem.
Maijid and I met during college at Grinnell College in Iowa, and that’s where our paths first crossed. We worked really well together on a number of projects and always wanted to do something together that leveraged the fact that we’re both born and bred in Africa. We’ve also had the fortune of being educated and trained in the U.S., so we knew that if we could find a way to marry those two subsets of skills, we could build something impactful at scale.
The initial brainstorming process, where we considered what types of projects we could build and what it would look like, led to us building Chipper. We’re a young company that launched in Uganda just over a year ago. We’re now operating in six countries–Uganda, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Nigeria.
Our headquarters is located in San Francisco, and we have a small office in New York as well as an office in Nairobi. A good portion of our team is based in Nairobi covering all of the functions, and we’re actively growing our employee base in Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Ghana. I’d say we have close to 40 employees right now.
What is the company’s origin story?
Maijid: Ham and I knew we wanted to do something together, and we had previously worked on a voice messaging app which was essentially a predecessor of Snapchat. That was a successful project, but we realized it was just another plaything that didn’t really impact the world.
Ham eventually went on to work at Facebook, and I was working at Imgur, and we were exploring what was next for us. Around this time in 2016, cryptocurrency really began taking off. We were playing around with Bitcoin, and both thought that moving money should be free and easy. Even though Chipper isn’t really a cryptocurrency platform, there’s a lot of crypto concepts out there that apply to it.
Almost every country has a free payment system, but Africa as a whole didn’t until we came along. In the long run, even if it’s not Chipper that fills this need for Africa, someone is going to do it. The turning point for our career paths was deciding that we’d rather do something meaningful and more long term. We want to leave a legacy behind.
Ham: What Maijid just said is really spot on. In a lot of ways, Maijid was a mentor of mine at Grinnell and showed me the ropes. One of the things we were both naturally aligned on was that we always wanted to start our own company. Having that shared mindset made us identify very well with each other. Like Maijid said, we worked on different projects together, and to me it was clear early on that this was someone who I’d be willing to take a bold step with.
What are some challenges you’ve encountered as an immigrant founder building a company in the U.S.?
Ham: When we decided that we were going to start our own company, I wasn’t thinking “We’re two African guys about to start a company in America”. What I was thinking was there’s a problem that exists and we might be able to fix it. Maybe when we look back we’ll say, “Wow, as a couple of international students we were able to build a company in the U.S.” But when you’re going through it like we are now, we’re really just trying to solve the problem and take it one day at a time. Maybe I’m missing the weight of the moment by looking at it from this perspective, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that Ugandans are particularly drawn to starting businesses more than anyone else.
However, you’re 100% correct in saying that there are challenges we had to overcome due to the fact that we weren’t born here. Starting a business isn’t an easy thing to do, and it’s even harder to do when you’re a non-American. So in that sense, being from Africa has been somewhat of an obstacle, but the larger obstacle is just constantly chasing the north star so to speak, and hoping our business continues to grow and thrive.
Maijid: One experience I can think of is applying for the H-1B visa. There’s roughly a 23% chance of getting an H-1B, and if you don’t get it, you have no choice but to leave the country. I had friends that had to go to the United Kingdom because they weren’t able to get it. Both at Yahoo and Imgur, I tried to get a visa but was unsuccessful. On a personal level, that uncertainty definitely drains you.
But I was lucky that I applied to this program called Remote Year, which allowed me to travel the world for twelve months while working remotely for a company. At the time, I had a Ghanaian passport, which makes it hard to travel the world, so I had to apply for a visa basically in every country I visited. Sometimes the visa interviews were in Spanish, and there was a ton of uncertainty regarding whether or not I’d be able to complete the program.
When I look back on my path, it’s hard to think of it from a more general perspective. I was always thinking about what’s next and taking things one step at a time. Being in a constant state of thinking about the larger picture and making sure I was on top of the visa process was a little overwhelming at times.
Ham: In terms of the immigration process, I can’t emphasize how important and difficult that was for us to navigate. I actually had to leave the country because of my visa. I had to work at Facebook in Dublin because I couldn’t work at Facebook in the U.S. due to visa-related issues.
When Maijid and I were starting the company, neither of us had U.S. visas. In that moment, we could’ve said, “Man, how are we supposed to get our U.S. visas and also figure out how to raise money and grow our company?”. We could have easily given up and tried to figure something else out, but I’m incredibly glad that we didn’t.
Did either of you ever encounter any uncertainty or self-doubt that made you more resilient?
Ham: The biggest disappointment I encountered professionally was the fact that I had to leave America after graduating. That was incredibly hard for me because I worked very hard to get a job at Facebook and had put everything on the line to get that job, but I couldn’t take it because of my visa. Even though my plan was always to break off and start something of my own, it was important for me to first have some really strong years of experience in a fast-growing company with great opportunities. To lose out on that opportunity because of my visa was really tough.
Luckily, I ended up getting a different role at Facebook in Ireland, but in my mind, it was always a reminder that I couldn’t have the one that I wanted in the U.S. It was almost like a deviation from my path of where I wanted to go. I wanted to be a successful entrepreneur, and a lot of that hinged on access to capital, talent, and other things that were available in the U.S. I didn’t see that path being possible in Dublin.
There was a moment for me when I had to come to terms with reality and accept that my plans might not pan out like I thought they would. However, I was quite determined to make sure those hopes and dreams I had didn’t get lost in this new reality. That’s probably the closest thing I can point to in terms of grappling with some self-doubt.
Maijid: I also had to deal with leaving the U.S. I had worked for two years in the U.S., and didn’t get the visa that I had fought so hard to earn. I remember I was on a plane from San Francisco to Lisbon, and I felt like I had worked so hard the past few years, only to be sent away because my name wasn’t randomly picked by a computer. It just felt unfair, and I cried all week leading up to Lisbon.
I was able to apply for a green card while traveling through my Remote Year program, but even that process was very uncertain and was going to take anywhere from two to four years. To not know which direction I was going in, and to feel like my hard work had gone unrewarded, it just made me really worried about what would happen next.
During my remote year, we were building Chipper on the side. This is where I still saw the value of working remotely because even though I was not in Silicon Valley, I was still connected to so many people working there. It’s like when you leave home, you end up feeling more connected to it because you look at it through a different lense. After a while, my confidence in the company began to grow, and I ended up getting my green card after about 19 months. I started working at Imgur part-time, which is also about the time when Ham quit his job and came to San Francisco.
Just being able to come back to the country where we both wanted to be for so long was amazing. We both went through experiences that had so much uncertainty, but here we are. We were always doing Chipper on the side, but now we’re in a place where Ham and I are all in.
Ham: In hindsight, the parallels between the two paths are so obvious, but at the time it didn’t seem that way.
One of the things that I wanted to emphasize was the sadness that we felt when leaving the U.S. Having moved from Africa to Iowa and spending most of our time in the U.S., we already invested so much in making America our new home. The connections we built, the people that we loved, there was just a lot to be optimistic about here in the states. Coming to the realization that we had to leave and go through the immigration process again was really scary.
What’s also interesting is that we actually left at the same time in June of 2016. I was going to Dublin and Maijid was going to Lisbon to start his remote year, and then we came back at the same time, which was around February of 2018. So in hindsight, the parallels between our journeys are uncanny.
Looking back, we’re both so much better off because of the hardships we had to endure to get here. I’m better off because of the time I spent in Europe and what I learned there, and I think Maijid is better off because of the time he spent traveling around the world. It made us much more complete people, and has definitely benefited us in the journey we’ve taken with Chipper.
What advice do you have for immigrant founders building companies outside of their native countries?
Ham: People will often say, “ignorance is bliss”, and I think this applies to people looking to start their own companies. Sometimes, it’s good to not know everything you’re trying to accomplish, because those things can become distractions and turn into fears. If Maijid and I focused on the fact that we’re two kids from Africa trying to start a company in America, it would distract us from what we’re actually trying to accomplish.
For anyone trying to start a business outside of their native country, I would say to focus on what your primary goals on. Everything else is a distraction. Don’t think about the reasons why one goal may be unrealistic or constantly get caught up in doubting yourself. Other people can do that for you. Just focus on what you’re trying to do and everything else will take care of itself. At the end of the day, overthinking things doesn’t make what you’re trying to do more or less important, it only wastes your energy.
Maijid: I couldn’t have said it any better. I think if there’s one thing that I’d add, it’s that there’s a lot of distractions out there, and even the concept of someone giving you advice can be a distraction.
If you ask the world for advice, you’ll end up getting very different opinions that can be hard to grapple with. Sometimes, the advice you receive can be extremely confusing. The advice you seek should depend on what you hope to accomplish. Of course, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask people for advice, but at some point, you have to do what feels right for you.
Prioritizing your gut instincts makes it easier to power through when you hit a wall because you’re not blaming someone else who gave you bad advice. For me, it’s important to always look internally and really consider what I believe is the best course of action.
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This is our final interview as part of The Immigrant Founder Series: Using Adversity as a Launching Pad for Leadership. We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about these inspiring immigrant founders, and will share their stories with friends, family, and colleagues alike!
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