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The naturalized American dream

February 04, 2007|Richard S. Tedlow | Richard S. Tedlow, a historian, is a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of "Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American," recently published by Penguin.

ANDY GROVE fled Hungary at the age of 20 in 1956, shortly after Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to put down any illusion that freedom could flourish behind the Iron Curtain. He made his way to the United States and enrolled at the City College of New York, graduating first in his engineering class in 1960. He then went to UC Berkeley for his PhD in chemical engineering.

Grove's enthusiastic attachment to the U.S. began before he left his native country. There was never any question of his remaining in Europe once he escaped from communism. If ever there were a destination shopper in this life, it was Grove, and he pre-purchased the United States. He became a citizen in 1962, and he managed to extricate his parents from Hungary and bring them here as well.

Like millions of other naturalized Americans starting anew in this meritocratic nation of immigrants, Grove made the most of the opportunity this nation afforded him. In addition to becoming a wealthy man, Grove repaid his adopted nation nearly $200 billion, the increase in Intel's market capitalization during his tenure as chief executive of the microprocessor giant from 1987 to 1998.

Grove is one of three people most responsible, along with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, for putting computers on our desks. Without Intel's chips, the computer revolution wouldn't have happened, and without Grove, Intel never would have managed the chip revolution as masterfully as it has. It was Grove who made Intel realize that "the PC is it," and it was his combination of managerial and technical expertise that put Intel inside so many PCs around the world.

Thankfully, no one questioned the depth of Grove's "Americanness" before he was entrusted with the responsibility of leading Intel. And no law prevented it.

The Constitution does not prohibit foreign-born individuals from leading a U.S.-based company. But what if it did? What if our Constitution had told Grove: "You can't change the world because you come from Hungary." Sound ridiculous? Of course it does. Imagine what else would have been lost if we faced such constraints in the business world.

What if the Constitution said:

* Pierre Omidyar, you can't found EBay here because you were born in France.

* Sergey Brin, you can't co-found Google here because you were born in Russia.

* Jerry Yang, you can't co-found Yahoo here because you were born in Taiwan.

And what would happen to that most American of industries, soft drinks? The chief executive of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, was born in India. The chief executive of Coca-Cola, E. Neville Isdell, was born in Ireland. He follows in the footsteps of Cuban-born Roberto Goizueta.

We are not just talking about entrepreneurs from recent years. Levi Strauss was born in Bavaria. Andrew Carnegie was born in Scotland. U.S. business has flourished in no small part because of the vitality and imagination of individuals among the "huddled masses" assimilated into this country.

It is odd that this freedom to harness the best and the brightest Americans, including immigrants, is a guiding principle at every address in our nation except for one: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Because he was born abroad, Grove is prohibited from serving as president, even though he has made significant and enduring contributions to U.S. business and society for decades. Although the Clintons and Bushes are the only dynasties threatening to control our government these days, we cling to an 18th century measure aimed at keeping European monarchs from scheming to control the then-young republic.

A noteworthy example of what the United States gained by its openness in business, but may have sacrificed because of this presidential prohibition, is the case of a man named James Couzens. Couzens was born the son of a grocery store clerk in Chatham, Canada. Some believe that he was the real brains behind the success of the early Ford Motor Co. a century ago. It was the United States' inclusiveness that allowed him to cross the border and play such a vital part in putting the nation on wheels.

Eventually, sick of Henry Ford's increasing megalomania, Couzens left the company for public service. He became mayor of Detroit in 1919 and represented Michigan in the U.S. Senate soon thereafter. After his death in 1936, Couzens was described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as "a leader whose convictions were a part of the best [to which] America aspires." But this "Americanness" notwithstanding, Couzens could never become president of the United States because he was born on the wrong side of the border. He knew it and didn't like it, even as a youth.

"I can never become king of England," he said sharply to his parents, "but if I had been born in the United States, I could be president."

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