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Paul Maritz

7 South Africans behind some of the biggest startup successes in the US

Nope, we’re not talking about PayPal-Tesla-SpaceX founder Elon Musk, or Thawte and Ubuntu main man, Mark Shuttleworth. The people showcased here are behind some of biggest and most admired startups in the world, and yet they remain relatively unknown beyond the confines of Silicon Valley.

Earlier this year we took a look at some notable US-based startups founded by immigrants. Now, we’re putting the spotlight squarely on founders from South Africa.

An article like this serves as a motivator for aspiring entrepreneurs, but it also brings to mind inevitable questions about South Africa’s leaking talent pool. According to South Africa’s ambassador to the US, Ebrahim Rasool, there are were a mere 83 000 South Africans living in the US at the end of 2012 — and yet the successes accomplished by this group are great.

Earlier this year, an article in Forbes remarked how entrepreneurs in developed countries, like the United States and Western Europe, typically start with a brilliant idea. In sharp contrast, fledgling innovators in emerging markets like South Africa begin by first figuring out how to gain access to a computer and the internet.

Yes, entrepreneurs beyond the developed world face complex challenges and yet, the complexity of the problems breed high quality innovators that have no choice but to rise above the challenges. Perhaps it’s the reason why, given a conducive environment, entrepreneurs from emerging markets, and South Africa in particular, soar.

Let’s take a look at some of the notable startups, backed by South Africans, that have grown into tall trees on American soil.

Vinny Lingham

After founding Yola, the website builder and hosting company that attracted millions of dollars in funding, Lingham founded Gyft, a mobile gift card app that allows users to store, buy, send and redeem gift cards from a smartphone or mobile device.

Gyft also went on to receive funding from big name funds like Google Ventures, 500 Startups, Founder Collective and others.

More importantly, Gyft is endorsed by reality TV star and reporter, Juliana Rancic.

Willem van Biljon

As if playing a role in founding Amazon's wildly popular Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2) wasn't enough, van Biljon co-founded Nimbula, a successful cloud services company that was later acquired by the world's most successful enterprise database company, Oracle.

Roelof Botha

Botha is a regular on the Forbes Midas List of top tech investors. As a partner at uber-VC Sequoia Capital, Botha has used his talent for spotting a good idea to fund some of the biggest names in tech including YouTube and Instagram.

Botha sits on the boards of Jawbone, Eventbrite, Evernote, Mahalo, Natera, Nimbula, Square, Tokbox, Tumblr, Weebly, Unity and Xoom.

He previously sat on the board of directors of Meebo and YouTube before they were each acquired by Google.

Read Memeburn's interview with Botha.

Paul Maritz

Not technically South African, we still like to think of Maritz as one. Born in Zimbabwe, he received his tertiary education in KwaZulu-Natal when his family moved to South Africa.

Maritz was CEO of VMware between 2008 and 2012, and a past senior executive at Microsoft.

VMware recored US$ 4.61 billion in revenue in 2012.

Pieter de Villiers

De Villiers founded the world's largest online text messaging service. How large? Headquartered in Redwood California, Clickatell delivers SMS to mobile phone users on more than 800 networks in over 220 countries on behalf of more than 10 000 businesses.

David Sacks

David Oliver Sacks founded Yammer, the US-based enterprise social network that was later acquired by the giant from Redmond, Microsoft.

Sacks is now a corporate vice president in Microsoft’s Office Division.

Dr. Liam Pedersen

Dr Pedersen is project lead for NASA's Ames Intelligent Robotics Group (IRG). Pedersen's work includes the K9 and K10 rovers.

As part of the Haughton Mars Project, which simulates Mars on earth, Pedersen often sets up office in some of the most extreme places on earth -- Antarctica and the Andes, for example.

Author Bio

Martin Carstens: Senior reporter
Martin is obsessed with technology and the future. His work life includes positions at UK based Hotcourses.com, Discovery Invest and currently, Memeburn. More