Ahead of 2020 Elections, What Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Saying About Immigration

Immigrant entrepreneurs spin out profitable, large businesses and bring thousands of jobs to the United States economy. Take Eric S. Yuan, for example.

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Yuan, born in China, was refused a U.S. visa eight times before getting approved. But when it finally did happen, that nod gave him the chance to create Zoom, a video conferencing company turned unicorn that is profitable (yup) and recently went public.

The nuance: Yuan, now a billionaire, faced his spur of rejections over three decades ago. Now in the time of the Trump administration, founders say that securing a visa is supposedly even harder for those looking to come to this country from abroad. And ahead of the 2020 elections, we believe this topic will become even more relevant.

Creative minds, as they do, are working on the problem. Playing off our previous coverage in the immigration and tech space, we’ve looked at two bits of news that illustrate how entrepreneurs are talking about coming to this country.

First, we’ll introduce a company that is optimistic about moving its headquarters from Singapore to Boston. Then, we’ll broaden the conversation around immigration to a program that’s been tackling such complexities since around 2014 and is finally seeing some momentum.

Let’s start with some good news for those from Singapore or Chile looking to move to the United States.

From Singapore, With Hope

One biotech company fresh off a funding round, Biofourmis, is moving its headquarters from Singapore to Boston. Its founder, Kuldeep Singh Rajput, has faith in the visa process.

A pause for those who don’t know much about H-1B visas: Each year, the United States grants 65,000 H-1B visas, a type of visa which allows non-citizens of the United States to work in the country. For context, Boston had over 62,000 international students in 2017. So, for the whole country, that’s not a lot of visas.

Factor in President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration and that’s significant. My previous colleague Trisha Thadani, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about the ‘golden ticket’ of a visa losing its appeal in the age of Trump (which is worth a read).

For his part, Rajput is pursuing H-1B1 visas for his team: an H-1B1 visa is an allocation of the 65,000 visas set aside for the capped H-1B visa, only applicable to those coming from Singapore (which gets 5,400 visas) and Chile (which gets 1,400 visas) due to trade agreements with those nations.

“The quota for an H-1B1 is [never] reached,” Rajput said. “So from the comfort level of getting H-1B1 for getting these people, it should be much more easier than traditional H-1B visas for other citizens.” He’s moving five people with him.

The company’s CEO also said the move to Boston will help amplify the company’s goal to pass a $1 billion valuation in 2023 and go public. He also wanted to be closer to US investors. The company’s recent $35 million Series B was led by Sequoia India, part of Sequoia Capital.

He plans on having the company, which will now be split between Singapore and Boston, grow to 100 people by year-end. While the company is open to hiring international students from Boston and New York City, he said H-1B concerns might slow down their hopes to rapidly scale.

So, at least with this company, the odds of getting hired lessen a little when sponsorship is required. With that in mind, let’s look at a program that helps better the hiring odds.

Stepping In

Global EIR (GEIR) provides an alternative for those interested in staying in the country, but worried they won’t get a visa.

The program, which we’ve written about before, takes advantage of universities’ ability to cap-exempt H-1B visas to foreign entrepreneurs, as long as they are an employee of the school (more on how that works, here).

For immigrant entrepreneurs, this avenue provides a creative (legal) alternative. The program operates at six different universities, and Scott Andes, part of the National League of Cities and supporter of GEIR, told me that over half a dozen more are in the works. Hartford and Pittsburgh are next.

After the program ends, Global EIR makes it possible for participants to stay up to two years  longer in the country.

About four to five visas have been secured by entrepreneurs that have graduated, and the founders expect more as programs mature in other universities. Whether that’s high or low is debatable, but one anecdote provides a little color on the difficulty of the process.

Hailing from Yerevan, Armenia, Nigel Sharp joined Global EIR’s University of Colorado Boulder program in 2015 to work on his company which was struggling to raise additional venture capital from U.S. investors. Sharp said the move from Armenia was partially to be close to VCs.

While they planned to take two to three months to set up the GEIR visa, it ended up taking seven and a half. The longer-than-expected timeline was due to a complex bureaucratic process on the U.S. side, Sharp told me. Applicants need visas, documentation and various credentials for GEIR to work. Additionally, working with universities who are stereotypically “risk averse” also slows down the process.

“In that time [it took to secure my visa], my business ended up closing their doors, after raising millions of dollars,” he said. “So I arrived in Colorado with my startup failed, with a bit of a loss at what to do.”

He eventually got involved with activities on campus, worked on a university spinoff startup, and had a baby. Then, his time with GEIR ended and he needed to figure out a way to stay in the country. When he came to the U.S. under the Obama administration, the ‘startup visa’ was still in the works. He said a pivotal moment for him was when the Trump administration took office and scrapped the progress on the startup visa.  He felt a notable shift in hope among his fellow immigrant entrepreneurs.

“It felt like the country went back a decade,” he said.

Sharp seriously considered leaving but his wife is from Armenia, he’s from the U.K., and his daughter, born in the states, is an American citizen.

“For the most part, in any of our home countries we would have to go through some pain at some point,” he said. It was as simple as not being able to buy a “season pass” at an amusement park for his family, because he wasn’t sure when he would have to uproot.

It felt like the country went back a decade

Finally, his family secured a Lawful Permanent Resident Card aka a green card. He went from a graduate of GEIR to the head of the program’s Alaska branch.

Still, the complexity of process makes Sharp turn more people away from GEIR than to GEIR.

“You might have a waiting time of 10 to 12 years before you get a green card,” he said. “In that case, two years won’t help. I tell grad students this, to be careful that [GEIR is your only option].”

Approaching Elections

As the 2020 elections approach, immigration will likely be at the forefront of debates and party platforms. Staying informed as to how immigrants will be affected remains critical for us as we sit at the intersection of venture capital and tech.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias.

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