For this CEO, activism makes good business sense

For Mohamad Ali, the CEO of Carbonite, his opposition to putting new limits on immigration to the U.S. isn’t just driven by an interest in hiring the smartest engineers from around the world. It’s also deeply personal.

The head of the 12-year-old, $650 million global data protection company immigrated with his mother from Guyana, a small South American country, at age 10. Before arriving in New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, he had never seen an escalator, let alone a computer. Still, he worked his way from living in near-poverty with his family in Queens, N.Y., to the upper ranks of the tech world.

Now, he says, moves to decrease immigration to the U.S. are a growing threat to an industry that lives and dies on the strength of its talent pool. “This is why you see businesses galvanized like they’ve never been before,” says Ali. “This is not a topic where businesses are shying away. They’re sort of rushing to it.”

An engineer by training, Ali ticks off numbers to support his case with a calm cheeriness during a conversation in his downtown Boston office: More than half of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s engineering graduates are foreign-born; the U.S. immigrant population has five times the PhDs as the nonimmigrant population; 40 percent of U.S.-based Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.

Immigrants are shaping other sectors, too, Ali pointed out. One-third of the nation’s doctors were born outside the U.S. — more than 8,000 of them in Iran and Syria. “So, we send them home?” he asks. “The core of the economic system we have would actually fall apart.”

In general, companies and their leaders have become more vocal on political and social issues in recent years, and they’ve grown even louder in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election. The technology community has joined together in favor of causes like transgender rights and in support of employee benefits such as paid family leave. In other sectors, companies and their leaders have waded into polarizing issues — from the debate over trade to National Football League owners deciding not to change rules to require players to stand for the national anthem.

For Ali and many other corporate leaders, taking a position is often better for business than saying nothing. In the case of both the tech industry and the NFL, they are taking positions that are best for maintaining a highly specialized workforce: If NFL owners agree to suspend or fire players who take a knee, they could lose a top-flight wide receiver; if tech companies stay silent on immigration, they could miss out on a whole swath of talented software engineers.

‘Best of humanity’

Ali is no stranger to social and political causes. He sits on the boards of the global antipoverty nonprofit Oxfam International and the Massachusetts tech lobby group MassTLC. He’s been active on other issues, such as supporting net neutrality and strengthening patent laws. But he’s been the most visible on the immigration issue. In January, he called the ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries “morally and ethically beneath our American values” and stood with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy as she announced a lawsuit challenging the ban. Carbonite joined with other Massachusetts tech firms to put together an amicus brief used in rulings by federal judges in Hawaii this past January and March to halt early versions of the ban.

In March, Ali made a speech to about 200 immigrants at their naturalization ceremony in Boston, calling them the “best of humanity” and, while not mentioning Trump directly, speaking pointedly about the challenges of today’s political climate. When the White House announced the first version of its travel ban, in January, Carbonite made its immigration attorney available to employees who had questions about their status. About 10 percent of Carbonite’s approximately 1,000 employees were born outside the U.S. and even though most aren’t from countries affected by the travel ban, they felt on edge about the anti-immigrant sentiment reinforced by the ban.

“When I came to the United States I didn’t feel like there was a widespread xenophobic kind of culture,” says Ali. On the contrary, he felt welcomed and encouraged by mentors early on. A middle school math teacher let him use a computer — a Commodore PET — for the first time (“a big deal” in 1980s, he says) and encouraged him to take the test for admission into New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. From there, he earned degrees in computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford University and held executive posts at IBM and HP, where he served as CEO Meg Whitman’s chief strategy officer, before taking over at Carbonite in 2014.

“Now people who come to the United States get the sense that we don’t want them,” he says. “And that [should be] the furthest thing from the truth.”

Tech’s H1-B dilemma

In addition to computer science, Ali majored in history as an undergraduate at Stanford; he has a keen historical interest in the economic forces that shaped America over time. He keeps a copy of John F. Kennedy’s book A Nation of Immigrants (which chronicles the ways in which outsiders propelled American progress dating back to the Colonial era) in his meticulous, glass-walled office. Like the rest of the Carbonite suite, Ali’s office is peppered with Star Wars paraphernalia –– Carbonite is the metallic substance Han Solo was trapped in for a time during the original movies.

Other items on Ali’s desk seem curated with a mind for posterity: There’s a thick copy of the amicus brief used in the travel ban hearings, as well as a handwritten thank you note from an MBA-educated Chinese employee who Ali says is sitting at home waiting to hear if her H-1B visa, which allows her to work at Carbonite, will be renewed or not.

The H-1B issue is one of the more problematic immigration-related threats to the tech workforce. Ali says about 30 Carbonite employees are on H-1Bs and the tech industry accounts for nearly two-thirds of workers in the program, which is set to grant about 85,000 visas this year. It’s intended to bring highly skilled workers from other countries to fill in-demand positions, but the tech industry and others have been accused of exploiting the program to replace U.S.-born employees with cheaper, foreign ones. Trump campaigned on eliminating H-1Bs and signed an executive order in April to crack down on companies that abuse the program, and there is bipartisan support for at least reforming it.

Already, the H-1B renewal process has become more complicated. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is requesting additional paperwork on H-1B applications 44 percent more often compared to a year ago — and applications that seemed straightforward previously are getting tougher looks. For Carbonite, that means a good employee is sitting at home and not contributing to the company or the economy.

A New Deal for a new era

Casting contentious issues like the H-1B matter in practical terms makes them more palatable to a staff that may have different viewpoints, says Carbonite Senior Marketing Vice President Norman Guadagno. “Not every employee [or shareholder] is going to agree with the political stand, so we have to shift it to being a business issue,” he says. “That would be harder if [Ali] were more of a firebrand, but he’s very pragmatic and soft-spoken. He calms people down.”

Guadagno says Ali’s steady temperament has been welcome during a period of uncertainty and rapid change, operationally as well as politically. Carbonite’s data protection services used to be sold primarily as a consumer product; now, the company is shifting its focus to business buyers. The shift hasn’t always been smooth despite strong growth for the company in recent years, and some analysts have expressed doubts about Carbonite’s long-term profitability. Carbonite and other companies also face questions about their talent pipelines, which could be negatively affected by anti-immigration policies and a dearth of workers with the right skills for available jobs.

To tackle the latter issue, Carbonite recently launched a partnership with Boston-area community colleges to groom potential candidates without college degrees for tech positions. That’s part of an industrywide push for legislation to create what Ali describes as a “New Deal-scale” nationwide apprenticeship program.

Tapping into that talent pool of workers with no college education (who make up half of the workers in Massachusetts and a majority share nationwide) has political implications as well, Ali says. If business leaders can’t grow and innovate in a way that includes that group, those workers “are going to become marginalized, and they’re going to be more and more upset. But if we do, it creates more fuel for a growing economy. So, it’s a win-win.”