Carbonite’s CEO didn’t even know what an escalator was when he arrived at JFK Airport in 1981 from Guyana. Now, he takes an elevator to the corner office of the company’s Boston headquarters almost every day.
On Wednesday, Mohammad Ali addressed a naturalization ceremony in Boston, telling a room full of immigrants that tough backgrounds can give people an edge in business and other pursuits.
“You will work hard, study hard, create businesses, create jobs and build our American economy, because you know what life is like elsewhere and you chose America,” Ali said.
His speech provides a reminder to lawmakers of the economic contribution and potential leadership qualities of immigrants, as the White House grapples with security risks posed by militant religious extremists. On Monday, Donald Trump signed a revised executive order that would still ban citizens from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., though the updated ban, still subject to court challenges, permits permanent residents, dual citizens and other valid visa-holders to enter the country.
Ali was born in 1970, just as the Guyanese dictator Forbes Burnham was getting involved with communist regimes in North Korea and the Soviet Union, nationalizing most industries and barring imports—creating a widespread shortage of food and fuel. The water supply stopped working at Ali’s home and the electricity was often out.
Because there was so little to buy, Ali’s parents—subsistence farmers who became a police officer and teacher—were forced to grow their own vegetables. By 1980, the family of five decided to try and make it to America. Ali’s father came first, followed by Ali and his mother in 1982 and his two siblings three years later.
“After clearing customs, we approached a big and scary machine. We had never seen such a thing before and did not know how to use it. Later we learned that the machine was called an escalator,” Ali said.
“At that moment, looking up from the bottom of the escalator, the idea that I would one day be CEO of a company, and be selected to speak at this event, was unfathomable.”
After hovering around the poverty line in New York, the family became U.S. citizens in 1991. Ali went on to get an engineering degree at Stanford and held senior executive positions at IBM and Hewlett Packard before becoming CEO of Carbonite in December, 2014. The company provides an online backup service for documents, emails, music and photos.
Immigrants familiar with the type of hardship experienced by Ali’s family, or perhaps even worse, know what a ‘gem’ America is,” he said on Wednesday. “I know that you will vigilantly defend our new freedoms, your new country and our joint values—despite the challenges that those freedoms and values face today in America,” he said.
“It is from the best of humanity, immigrants to this land, that America is built. You have been our nation’s strength and you will continue to be. Your citizenship is our badge of honor and our hope.”
Other notable immigrant CEOs include Google’s Sundar Pichai, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi, who were all born in India. Google co-founder Sergey Brin immigrated from Russia in 1979, while Kevork Hovanin, the founder of home builder Hovanian Enterprises, fled Iraq with his family in 1958.
A full transcript of Ali’s address can be seen here.