Diversity Venture

Boston’s Startup Community Vies For Immigrant Entrepreneurs

It’s been nearly three years since President Trump signed Executive Order 13769, a controversial immigration policy banning individuals from several countries, such as Iran, Libya, and Syria, from entering the United States for 90 days. It sparked uproar around the world, and it even led some entrepreneurs to leave the U.S.

Despite the hardship, tech entrepreneurs and VCs at Boston’s HUBweek event had a business pitch for their immigrant friends vying for a visa or citizenship: consider starting a company in Boston.

Right now, there are about 569 startups in and around Boston with at least one foreign-born founder, according to William Brah, the founder and director of the University of Massachusetts Boston Venture Development Center.

They come for a variety of reasons: the inviting atmosphere, the biotech scene, networking opportunities, or, in Min He’s case, the co-president of MIT Chief 2018, the allure of the world-class universities.

But is there enough venture capital to support more immigrant-owned startups in Boston?

Jody Rose, the president of the New England Venture Capital Association, which represents over 80 venture funds, had a quick answer for Boston’s HUBweek attendees: the capital is out there. The real issue, she said, is the rhetoric.

Rose explained that entrepreneurs who come from outside the U.S. are “looking at other options” due to hostility from the federal government, such as the creation of borders and unfriendly executive orders.

However, entrepreneurs hailing from Spain, Southern France, and China urged listeners to give the United States a chance.

“Here nobody judges you based on race and gender just on your capability,” said He, referring to Boston’s inclusivity.

Then there’s Clement Cazalot, the managing director of TechStars Boston. When he came to the United States in 2010 from Southern France, he noticed two things: it was freezing cold in Boston, and Boston’s community of entrepreneurs could be leveraged.

“Immigration is like medicine,” Cazalot said. “There is a unique case for every single individual, every single company.” He said that trying out a few lawyers who understood the nuances of immigration ultimately allowed him to stay in the country.

But don’t just take the word of a few lucky cases: John Barros, the chief of economic development for the City of Boston, spoke optimistically about attracting immigrants to the country, suggesting Boston as a role model for other cities.

He cited that immigrants living in Boston spend $4.3 billion each year, which has created almost 20,000 jobs in the city.

Barros pointed to other parts of the country, such as Minnesota, and said that it was Boston’s job to explain to them that immigrant entrepreneurs “equal real numbers” and “real economics and real jobs.”

“This is not about taking your jobs; this is about creating jobs,” he said.

Barros, whose parents came from West Africa, cited his own background as inspiration to be a public servant for this case.

“The US economy was built on the notion of growth, not on maintenance,” he said. “If we close our borders today, the economy would be stifled.”

However, Boston is part of the U.S., a nation that still contends with unfair distribution of venture capital and other forms of financing to its marginalized groups.

At HUBweek, one black man stood up during a question and answer session with the mic and told the crowd the net worth of a black person in Boston is $8.

“I’m from Boston, and I see what’s happening in Boston, and I know the net worth,” he said. “The only way you raise your net income is by ownership and by business and development.”

To bridge the disparity, he asked for a million dollars to set up a venture capital firm to invest back into Boston’s black community.

After the talk wrapped up, the moderator Brah and the panelists1 went to grab a beer at a nearby Irish Pub. While they sipped, the panelists talked about the note that their panel ended on—that last question, followed by an awkward pause, and some clapping.

Brah explained that the man’s observation and ask to raise money “goes to the heart of what we’re trying to do” in Boston. It’s about creating an engine of growth, he said, that includes and looks at everyone—not just other countries.

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias

  1. Jody Rose, the president of the New England Venture Capital Association, Bernat Ollie, the co-founder & CEO of Vedanta Biosciences, Min He, co-president, MIT Chief 2017, Ivan Fernandez de Casadevante, co-founder of Ori, Clement Cazalot, managing director of Techstars Boston and John Barros, chief of economic development for the City of Boston

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