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The top-10 Soviet emigrés in Silicon Valley

0 5 March 2014

When he sold WhatsApp to Facebook Kiev-born Jan Koum confirmed his place in an elite group of Soviet emigres who found their fortune in Silicon Valley.

Russian news site Slon put together this list of the top-10 Silicon Valley tech-entrepreneurs born in the USSR. 

Sergey Brin

Estimated worth: $24.4 billion

Emigrated: 1979 

Google co-founder Sergey Brin is both the most famous and the ‘least Russian’ entrepreneur on the list. He was born in Moscow and his parents were graduates of the Mathematics and Mechanics Faculty at Moscow State University. Although they left when he was just five, his parents raised him to be a free, successful American with an education rooted in Soviet science. 

“Although I spend most of my time in America, I still speak with my parents in Russian and I sense that, though I only spent 5 years in Russia, those were very important years in my life.”


Yan Koum

Estimated worth: $6.8 billion

Emigrated: 1992

WhatsApp founder Jan Koum’s sensational deal with Facebook not only made him a billionaire, it also got him onto the board of directors of the world’s leading social network. Slon asked him to comment on the current situation in the land of his birth

“I’m trying to remain optimistic, but I’m very concerned about the transition period. Corruption, unfortunately, is too deeply rooted in Ukrainian life.”


Valentin Gapontsev

Estimated worth: $1.3 billion

Emigrated: 1995

75-year old Valentin Gapontsev is another Ukraine-born Silicon Valley billionaire. After graduating from Lvov Polytechnic Institute he established himself as an eminent physicist, and he used his knowledge to found US company IPG Photonics, which commands 80% of the global market for fibre lasers. His company has a significant presence in Silicon Valley - its Silicon Valley Technology Centre is based in Mountain View, as is IPG’s daughter company Mobius Photonics. 

“Russia doesn’t have a hi-tech market like the one in the US. Manufacturers of science equipment cannot just focus on the local market - they have to be international.”


Yuri Milner

Estimated worth: $1.1 billion

Emigrated: 1990

The most successful Russian-speaking Silicon Valley investor is undoubtedly Yuri Milner, who usually co-invests in US projects with Russia’s richest man Alisher Usmanov. Milner’s investment record proves his remarkable talent for spotting the internet companies of the future - he has funded Facebook, Zynga, Twitter, Spotify and Groupon. 

“In Russia there are a lot of mathematicians and engineers - this is really important. Russia is a country that produced an atomic bomb and put the first man in space. This aptitude hasn’t gone anywhere - it is passed down from generation to generation.”


Max Levchin

Estimated worth: $1 billion

Emigrated: 1991

Another US-Ukrainian to have found his fortune in the Valley is Max Levchin, one of the co-founders of PayPal, the world’s leading online payment provider. After selling the company to eBay in 2002, Levchin has worked on a number of other projects that have achieved mixed results. 

“Contemporary science-fiction films and books don’t do justice to our creative potential. My father and I were in a sci-fi circle in Kiev. It’s interesting that the genre had a ‘golden age’ in the 50s and 60s, but after that it darkened and took on an anti-utopian bent. It’s revealing that science-fiction was popular in the USSR - that tells you something.”


Sergey Beloussov

Estimated worth: $400-500 million

Citizenship: Singapore

Sergey Beloussov, the founder of Parallels and Acronis, is one of the few Russian entrepreneurs who, after spending time in the Valley, hasn’t lost hope that Russia might one day have its own tech hub. 

“We would like to only employ Russians, but unfortunately we can’t - there are very few specialists capable of making serious technological advances. Russian computer science, which is the most relevant field for our businesses, can’t meet our demand for top specialists.”


Grigori Shenkman and Alek Miloslavski

Estimated worth: $450,000 each

Emigrated: 1979

After selling their company Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories to Alcatel for $1.5 billion in 2000 Shenkman and Miloslavski founded Exigen services, an outsourcing company used by MasterCard, Visa, Universal and Warner Brothers. 


Stepan Pachikov

Estimated worth: $300-400 million

Emigrated: 1991

Pachikov, the founder of ParaGraph, was the first Soviet-born businessman to secure a contract for their firm with Apple, and opened an office in Cupertino. He then went on to create note-taking service Evernote, which is valued at around $2 billion and considered one of the most promising startups in the US. 

“My impression is that the most successful Russian companies are those that focus on the Russian market.”


David Yan

Estimated worth: $200 million

Lives in Moscow

The headquarters of ABBYY, which was founded by Moscow Physics and Technical Institute graduate David Yan, are in Moscow, but its US-branch is also very successful - Fine Reader and Lingo are known around the world, and Americans are at least as involved as Russians in the projects.

“In Russia the elements that combine to form the entrepreneurial ecosystem are unique. There are many talented individuals - thanks to the legacy of the Soviet science education system. I have spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley and I can say that investors and companies are convinced that Russian programmers have really great potential.”


Yuri Frayman

Estimated worth: $50 million

Emigrated: 1993

Companies founded in CIS countries aren’t often acquired by the top global companies, but Odessa-born Yuri Friman managed to sell Viewdle to Google for around $30 million. He is now developing his new company - Frayman Group, which specialises in automated business process management for law firms. 

“Although I spend most of my time in America, I still speak with my parents in Russian and I sense that, though I only spent 5 years in Russia, those were very important years in my life.”


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