Three Tech Entrepreneurs Among Those Honored with NJ Immigrant Awards

Photo: Jay Kulkarni, CEO and founder of Theorem. Photo Credit: Courtesy Jay Kulkarni
Jay Kulkarni, CEO and founder of Theorem. | Courtesy Jay Kulkarni

The United States still attracts ambitious immigrants, and ethnically diverse New Jersey is especially welcoming to entrepreneurs from other lands.

Several tech industry immigrant entrepreneurs were recognized for their success on Nov. 20, 2013, at the first annual New Jersey Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards ceremony on the Fairleigh Dickinson (Madison) campus.

The awards honor first-generation immigrants to the United States who have started successful businesses in New Jersey and contributed to their local communities.

The nominees competed in nine categories, including N.J. Immigrant Entrepreneur of the Year. There were awards named for some of New Jersey’s most famous immigrants, including German-born scientist and Princeton resident Albert Einstein; Belarusian radio and television pioneer David Sarnoff, who manufactured electronics in Camden; and pharmaceutical magnate George Merck, who was born in New York to German parents and grew up in West Orange.

Several business, immigrant, academic and tech groups worked together to create the awards, including the Rothman Institute of Entrepreneurship at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the NJ Main Street Alliance, the Morris County Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Monmouth County Chamber of Commerce, the MIDJersey Chamber of Commerce, the American Jewish Committee, the NJ Asian Indian Chamber of Commerce, the New Jersey Chinese-American Chamber of Commerce, the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Morris County Hispanic-American Chamber of Commerce, the United Hispanic Chambers of Commerce of New Jersey, the microlending Intersect Fund and central Jersey development initiative Einstein’s Alley. spoke with the three award winners from the tech industry about being an immigrant, coming to America and starting a business.

Winner: Jay Kulkarni

Born: India

Title: CEO and founder, Theorem (Chatham)

Award: 2013 N.J. Immigrant Entrepreneur of the Year

Why did you come to the United States and specifically New Jersey?

I came to the U.S. as a student to pursue my MBA. The journey began in Kentucky and then Queens [where I lived while attending] the New York Institute of Technology. When we decided to start a family, we [moved] to New Jersey.

What does this award mean to you as an immigrant and a tech entrepreneur?

The award means quite a bit. It is very humbling, and I feel honored to have been nominated along with the other nominees. It attests to New Jersey’s storied legacy of companies in telecom, pharma, etc., that have been founded by immigrant entrepreneurs. I was the first person in my family to start a company, and I share this award with them as well as our teams; it is a collaborative effort.

While this is a global economy, the most innovative commercial technologies of the past five decades were conceived and launched in the U.S., and a vast majority of these companies have an immigrant founder component.

What advice do you have for new-immigrant tech entrepreneurs?

To be an entrepreneur means trying and failing on a regular basis. This fits in well with the immigrant creed, which is to work twice as hard to get half as much.

Photo: Jon Lau, president, Appliedinfo Partners. Photo Credit: Courtesy Jon Lau
Jon Lau, president, Appliedinfo Partners. | Courtesy Jon Lau

Winner: John Lau

Born: China

Title: President, Appliedinfo Partners (Somerset)

Award:Albert Einstein Award for Innovation

Why did you come to the United States and specifically New Jersey?

I was born in Nanjing, China. When I was one year old, my parents escaped from Communist China to Hong Kong as refugees with me and my two younger siblings. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy sponsored an immigrant bill that allowed those with refugee status to come to the U.S. We came by boat in fourth class, with the male and female passengers in separate compartments.

After brief stops in Japan and Hawaii, we arrived in San Francisco, by the Golden Gate Bridge. My parents spent whatever money we had to allow us to have fun in the newly opened Disneyland before we took the train to New York City, where our sponsors lived. My first impression of the city was [of] the brownstone houses that [we saw through] the train windows before we arrived at Grand Central Station. Eventually I got married, and my wife got a job with AT&T, so we settled in New Jersey.

What does this award mean to you as an immigrant and a tech entrepreneur?

Being awarded the Albert Einstein Award for Innovation was especially meaningful for me because Einstein was my childhood idol. I will admit I was a poor student in Hong Kong. But when I came to the U.S., even though I was enrolled in English as a second language (ESL) classes, I was immediately excited by the reasoning approach of the education system rather than the memorization-focused Hong Kong system. I could actually ask my teachers questions.

My parents bought the “World Book Encyclopedia” with a monthly installment plan. And with my subscription to a science book club, I devoured “Relativity Simply Explained,” by Martin Gardner. I was tremendously fascinated by Einstein’s theories. I took advanced math and physics courses in high school and, just three short years after arriving in the U.S., I was chosen to participate in the summer programs of Columbia University and the New York Planetarium as a high school junior. I would never have been given those kinds of opportunities if I’d remained in Hong Kong.

I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in physics at Stony Brook University, studying under George Stroke, himself an immigrant. Dr. Stroke was the inventor of the white light hologram and coined the word holography. Around this time, I got really curious about the take-charge approach of the business world. Rather than working as a narrowly focused physicist, I decided to drop out of my Ph.D. program and apply my logically trained science mind to business. But I never lost my love for education and learning.

I believe I was recognized with the Einstein award because of our company’s recent contract with the U.S. Army. They chose our interactive educational development technology as the framework for all of the army schools, allowing for rapid e-learning course development.

My parents brought me to the U.S. to pursue an ideal and allow us to achieve our dreams — and that’s what I’m doing.

What advice do you have for new-immigrant tech entrepreneurs?

No matter what people say, this is still the land of opportunity. Just follow your passion and work hard and smart towards your objectives. Of course, the right training plus lots of research in your area of interest will help you to better succeed. Failure is part of the business process. Accept that and just take the lessons learned as your guide for future success. Having a board of diverse and experienced advisers will also help you to avoid pending pitfalls. And recognize that you have an advantage, coming from another country: it gives you a broader perspective of cultural and economic opportunities that one may not otherwise see.

Photo: Rita Gurevich, President and founder, SPHERE Technology Solutions. Photo Credit: Courtesy Rita Gurevich
Rita Gurevich, President and founder, SPHERE Technology Solutions. | Courtesy Rita Gurevich

Winner: Rita Gurevich
Born: Russia
Title: President and founder, SPHERE Technology Solutions (Hoboken)
Award:George Merck Award for Community Engagement

Why did you come to the United States and specifically New Jersey?

I came to the U.S. after emigrating from Russia to Italy. Then my family was sponsored by a synagogue in N.J., and that’s how we got into the U.S., so we moved to N.J.

What does this award mean to you as an immigrant and a tech entrepreneur?

First, to be recognized for the work SPHERE does in the community means so much to me because it’s truly a company award, not just personal recognition. There are numerous ways that I have been helped in the past, and the ability to help others is a source of pride for me. As a tech entrepreneur in a male-dominated field, I’m honored to be recognized for my achievements and what we’ve accomplished at SPHERE. Having built a company with a commitment to excellence — and having a team that shares my vision not only for the company but [for] how we impact our community — gives me great pleasure and satisfaction.

What advice do you have for new-immigrant tech entrepreneurs?

You have to have a passion for whatever you’re doing. You are going to live, eat, sleep and think about your business constantly, so you better have a passion for [it].

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