Semyon Dukach, Founding Partner of One Way Venture – Interview Series

Semyon Dukach is Founding Partner of One Way Ventures, a VC firm funding exceptional immigrant founders. A Ukrainian-American, he came to the US as a child refugee in 1979. He is the former Managing Director of Techstars (Boston), and an angel investor in over 100 companies.

You’ve been an angel investor and/or VC investor for over 20 years, what initially attracted you to the investment space?

After launching my own startup, Fast Engines, I went to a nonprofit that mentored CEO groups – the Cambridge Business Development Center. It was my first time getting mentorship, but I found that the real value was startups helping startups through peer relationships. It was a community of people that really wanted to help each other out.

When I sold my company in 2000, the center immediately asked me to be a mentor. It went to my head – I was younger than most of the founders I was mentoring, and I really wanted to make a positive impact. 

That’s when I made my first angel investments. I was getting to know founders and began investing in them. I had some successes, made some mistakes, and tried different things. 

I realized that I’m good at evaluating probabilities, because of my background playing blackjack (while at MIT, I joined one of the notorious MIT blackjack teams that won millions from the casinos). My blackjack team was basically my first investment fund. We were modeling probability, taking risks, being quantitative, and achieving things that were supposed to be impossible. 

So when it came to supporting startups, I was good at moving quickly and taking risks, and I wasn’t worried about doing so because I already knew that things that look like risks are actually manageable.

In doing so, I also realized who my people were. I got far more out of the gratitude of the people I was helping, than the money I could make at casinos or other schemes. It was much nicer when a startup founder I liked and personally related to told me that I had helped them through a crisis. I love my founders, and I’m willing to lose money in an investment to help a founder.

I was also good at it, and over time I got better. Typically, I get bored of doing the same thing for a decade or more. But One Way Ventures is different. It’s a lifelong commitment because I get to meet diverse companies every day. I like being involved in the early stages. It plays to my strengths to have a small percentage stake in a company and help people who value what I can bring to the table – that’s where I shine.

Can you share what inspired you to launch a VC fund that focuses on immigrant founders?

It was the realization that I wanted to build a venture fund with a mission. My experience and life trajectory put me in a place to achieve that. Techstars had been a fantastic experience in ecosystem development, but this was what I really cared about. Immigrant entrepreneurs is my group. This is our world and we’re here to claim our rights. Some people might not like it, but we’re going to build companies, and we can build them better because we have drive, we’re relentless, we have chips on our shoulders, and we’re beasts at working hard.

I realized that this is the way I can change the world. If we invest in immigrants as a VC fund, we will make more returns than if we invest in anyone else. Immigrants might get lower valuations than other founders because of traditional markers, like the extent of their network, but the outcomes are way above average for native US Americans. 55% of all US unicorns were founded by immigrants. It’s surprising – immigrants are discriminated against, and they still do better.

That’s actually an argument for seeing the value of immigrants versus just their “cost” to the economy. Our mission will be successful by making more money and creating more jobs.

We also have an affinity group. We get strong advisors because they get the story. It’s consistent, motivating. LPs are more likely to say yes to our hypothesis if we can show that it works better than others. Pathfinders, our new collective of billion-dollar immigrant founders, is super successful because these superstar entrepreneurs believe in our joint immigrant story and are willing to help others like them.

Given that 65% of the top AI companies in the US were founded by immigrants, what unique perspectives or skills do immigrant founders bring to the AI industry?

I don’t think immigrants bring any unique perspectives or skills to AI – the truth is, in any sector, they are objectively better startup builders. I think US American entrepreneurs are getting weaker, not stronger. When a founder is highly comfortable, they’re more likely to fear risk. Immigrants, on the other hand, have already given a lot up and have less to lose.

Immigrants are essentially pre-selected for their strength of will and achieving success on their own.

Most founders will face rejection several times by VCs. But immigrants are less likely to give up at that point – they don’t assume that they’ll achieve the end goal, and they’ll work as hard as they can to try to get it. If they gave up easily they probably wouldn’t have embarked on the tough immigration journey in the first place. They’re the ones who will fight against all odds.

How are current and potential future visa policies affecting the ability of the US to attract and retain top talent in AI and other tech fields?

Any restrictions on people who want to come here to the United States and don’t present a direct and clear physical danger of criminal activity, will lessen the greater strength of the United States.

There shouldn’t be visas; what we should have is evidence that people aren’t going to commit crimes. There should be programs in place that do adequate security checks for any direct harm that a person could inflict. But if you consider that direct harm to be unemployment as a result of immigration, that’s not the American way. In capitalism, if immigrants are better at something, everyone else has to compete, and that will make everyone stronger.

I don’t think that the highest moral imperative for the government is increasing certain people’s incomes by limiting the entry of immigrants. There are so many issues in the way of that. People should get richer through their own efforts. The government’s job is to protect people from harm. Visas as a concept harms us. We can’t filter people for “value” – every immigrant that comes here eagerly is valuable.

We should welcome anyone in the world to the US, if they sign up to US values and work. If they do the job cheaper and better, we have to believe others will find something better for themselves and benefit from cheaper products and improved lives. We’ve got to have confidence that change is good. We can’t be MAGA conservative and fear it. Things change, jobs get disrupted. If we go against the current we’ll get swept away.

What are the biggest challenges immigrant founders face when starting AI companies in the US, and how does One Way Ventures help them overcome these challenges?

AI has its own challenges – the sector is overheated, and in many ways it’s too late to penetrate. One of the few ways to start an AI company now is to apply other people’s LLMs and grow within verticals that people don’t really understand yet. 

Immigrants are less likely to have deep knowledge of US industry, and are more likely to be deeply technical founders. Entering the field with clear and profound industry insight will give them a huge advantage.

Another problem for immigrant founders is that the government may consider the AI that they’re working on to be military technology – and if they’re not yet US citizens, that can hinder them from progressing.

How can venture capital firms better support immigrant founders in AI, particularly in navigating regulatory and cultural barriers?

Founders should scout out the investors that have the most to offer them where they are weakest. Firms like ours will offer scaling advice, a strong network, and support in building a resilient company from the early days. Other VC firms like Unshackled Ventures will support you directly if you need visa assistance.

With elections approaching, what policy changes would you advocate for to ensure the US remains a leader in AI innovation and continues to attract immigrant talent?

There’s no short term fix for our attitude towards immigration. But by succeeding, we can show the world that they’re wrong to underestimate the power of immigrants in business. We can make it clear that current policies are misguided.

Today, companies working on dual use technology are discouraged from hiring immigrants because they could steal intelligence. The irony is, there are many cases of founders who left their home countries, took their knowledge to the US, and have brought tech into this country. If we push immigrants away, we are also losing these minds and their technological capabilities.

Could you share some success stories of immigrant-founded AI companies that One Way Ventures has backed and how these companies are making a global impact?

We’ve backed so many great AI companies with immigrant founders over the years. There’s Helm.ai, which is developing AI autonomous driving and is backed by Honda. Or Greeneye, which is developing precision pesticide spraying with AI to minimize chemical usage while improving agricultural productivity. That tech can have broad benefits across the world by supporting more sustainable agriculture.

What advice would you give to aspiring immigrant founders looking to enter the AI space and secure venture capital funding?

If they’re going to pursue a venture that’s core AI, it has to be 5x better than OpenAI. More realistically, new companies would build on existing LLMs to transform more obscure verticals. If you’re using tools like OpenAI, you have to have deep domain knowledge.

But at the same time, at this point there’s no such thing as an “AI space.” It’s like saying “companies who use software.” Everyone has AI now, it’s a core technology. So my advice is the same as anything – build something that’s amazing, and find customers.

If you’re a newly arrived immigrant and your English sucks, talk in terrible English, but don’t wait around for a better time to act. The time is now.

What is your vision for the future of AI innovation in the US, and what role do you see immigrant founders playing in this vision?

AI’s broad applications will make the world infinitely better, or worse. It’s still early days, and eventually it’ll be better than humans in most tasks. Immigrant founders will continue to be competitive, strong founders. It’s especially important for the United States to be supporting their development within their borders today. If other organizations and countries develop destructive AI before the United States owns that knowledge, it will lead to severe consequences. That knowledge has to move across the world.

Thank you for the great interview, readers who wish to learn more should visit One Way Ventures.

The post Semyon Dukach, Founding Partner of One Way Venture – Interview Series appeared first on Unite.AI.

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