What immigrant entrepreneurs can do without a startup visa

A reminder of the resourcefulness of immigrants (but really, just simpler to immigrate to Canada):

When Nitin Pachisia wanted to start a company, he found himself in a bind. He was gainfully employed by a startup that had sponsored his H-1B visa, a temporary visa awarded to highly skilled foreign workers. But he was itching to build something of his own. “Obviously a lot of attorneys said you can’t and shouldn’t leave your job because your [own] company can’t hire you,” he said.

While working through his options, Pachisia says he inadvertently became a bona-fide expert on the immigration system. “The bigger personal discovery was that I ended up spending a lot of time learning immigration law myself, which is among the worst uses of an entrepreneur’s time. I could be spending that time building my business.”

If he lived in Canada, Pachisia would have had the option of applying for a startup visa, which allows foreign entrepreneurs to immigrate to the country if they have the backing of a designated organization. The tech industry has long lobbied for a startup visa in the U.S., and before President Obama left office, his administration introduced a rule that offered similar benefits (which also didn’t require approval by Congress).

The International Entrepreneur Rule was intended to give entrepreneurs the ability to build their companies in the U.S. for 30 months, assuming they had enough interest from investors. The rule was supposed to go into effect in July 2017 but has instead been in limbo for more than two years, kneecapped by President Trump and his administration. (Trump has also cracked down on work authorization for H-4 spouses.)

“A ton of work went into [the International Entrepreneur Rule], and it’s very straightforward,” says Todd Schulte, the president of immigrant advocacy group FWD.us, which helped conceive of the Rule alongside entrepreneurs, investors, academics, and government figures. “The economy would be growing faster. We would be creating more companies, creating more jobs, and pushing up wages faster if the Trump administration turned around tomorrow and said ‘Actually, we are now in support of this program.’” Schulte also points out that this isn’t a partisan issue. “There are tons of people on both sides of the aisle who support a startup visa and want to make it easier for entrepreneurs to come here,” he says.

The Department of Homeland Security had originally projected that almost 3,000 people a year would qualify to come to the U.S. under the International Entrepreneur Rule. But as of last year—after the Trump administration delayed implementing the rule with the eventual goal of rescinding it—there were reportedly no more than 10 entrepreneurs who had applied.

“I know people who just couldn’t figure out how to stay in the U.S., and they had to leave,” says Schulte. If President Trump is no longer in the White House come 2021, the rule might be revived—but Schulte believes that for some entrepreneurs, it could be too late. “They may have had a great idea that was ready to go in 2015, or 2016, or 2017,” he says. “And by 2020 and 2021, maybe it’s just not right.”

Without a functional startup visa, many foreign-born entrepreneurs feel like they have little recourse. Take Mike Galarza, founder and CEO of fintech startup Entryless. Galarza was working at a tech company that sponsored his work visa. But when Galarza started a company, he couldn’t automatically transfer his sponsorship. Instead, he had to build his business after hours, until he was eligible to apply for a green card. There should have been an easier way to get a new visa, Galarza says, especially as an immigrant who was already screened for a work visa. “People that come through work visas to big companies see a lot of problems and are very creative people,” he says. “There’s a natural selection when you’re coming from outside and are motivated to leave your friends and family.”

Fiona Lee, the founder of Pod Foods, a food tech startup, says she was lucky because her cofounder was a U.S. citizen. While Lee was back in Singapore figuring out her visa situation, her cofounder was able to incorporate their company. “I honestly think I couldn’t have done what I’m doing today without her,” Lee says. “The initial paperwork of setting up anything involved a Social Security number and credit score. Even when I was away, she was able to handle all of that.”

Even securing a work visa through her company—the H-1B1, an offshoot of the H-1B allocated to workers from Singapore—was easier, Lee says, because she had far less competition than someone in the regular pool of H-1B applicants. (This variant of the H-1B visa is the result of a free-trade agreement with Singapore signed into law in 2003.) “The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did the routine scrutiny, but it was different than for someone from India or China,” she says.

Several founders Lee knows had wanted to come to the U.S. but opted to take their talents elsewhere in the face of an exacting immigration system. “On a global level, America has always been at the forefront of innovation and talent,” she says. “But because of the restrictions, we’re starting to see a lot of talent from other parts of the world go to other countries, whether it’s China or Israel, or [countries in] Europe.”

The workaround for a number of immigrant entrepreneurs has been an extraordinary ability visa like the O-1, which is defined as “for the individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.” The visa wasn’t designed for entrepreneurs, but Pachisia says the pool of recipients has shifted over the years. “Historically, the O-1 was used a lot by entertainers, athletes, models, and artists,” he says. “It’s now increasingly being used by scientists and developers.”

The dearth of a pathway for immigrant entrepreneurs is exactly what Pachisia wanted to solve by creating Unshackled Ventures, an early-stage firm that invests in immigrant-led startups like Pod Foods. “We’re essentially the privatized version of a startup visa,” says Pachisia’s cofounder, Manan Mehta.

With its investment, Unshackled Ventures helps startups land a visa and build their businesses. “Sixty percent of our commitments were made before the company was even incorporated, largely because these are founders who are working other daytime jobs who are on visas. They can’t leave their jobs until they have sponsorship.” The firm has now helped founders apply for 11 different types of visas, including the O-1, and does not charge founders for legal fees.

When Unshackled makes an investment in a founder, they’re relieved of the burden of splitting their time between their own business and, say, a full-time job that has secured their work visa. “That’s the promise here,” Mehta says. “We’re a research and development lab, so we can deploy our investment capital by hiring the founders and allowing them to dedicate every waking hour [to their business] . . . we can meet all the legal requirements while also keeping that innovation in the country.”

Since the fund started in March 2015, Unshackled has made 38 investments, with more than 100 immigration filings for 39 portfolio companies and upwards of $8 million invested in its founders. (Unshackled’s first fund was $4.5 million; earlier this year, the firm secured a second fund worth $20 million.)

Half the battle, Pachisia says, is empowering entrepreneurs with the right information. Unshackled wants to help immigrant entrepreneurs make the system work for them, and the firm works individually with each entrepreneur to come up with an approach that makes sense for them. “The goal is to let the entrepreneurs do what they want to do without being limited by time or limited by what they think is not permitted,” Pachisia says. “So we’ve taken all that myth around immigration and made it very crystal clear.”

As someone eligible for the H-4 visa, he benefited from being able to stay in the U.S. without a work visa of his own—but he argues that some lawyers make blanket statements about immigration that might mislead aspiring entrepreneurs. “There’s a lot of misinformation,” he says. “Even lawyers make broad statements like, ‘You’re on an H-1B and can’t start a company,’ which, as I’ve found out, is wrong.” There are, of course, criteria specific to the H-1B, as there are with any visa—that you can’t be your own employer and have to work within the same speciality, for example—but those restrictions need not disqualify you from being a founder.

Pachisia himself was eventually able to secure an O-1 visa. The extraordinary ability visas are unlike other visas, he says, in that they’re subjective. The criteria for how the visa is awarded isn’t clear, so the key is to craft the right narrative. “My O-1 story is around financial innovation,” he says, “and figuring out innovative ways of structuring finance for startups.” He pointed to his early work finagling creative deals at Deloitte, when he first came to the U.S. on an H-1B, as well as his approach at Unshackled. “We’re applying an innovative way of financing companies, which also encloses immigration,” he says. “That was the story I could tell.”

But while the O-1 is a viable option for many immigrant entrepreneurs, Schulte adds that it’s not necessarily a long-term solution or replacement for a government-sponsored startup visa. Your immigration journey might start with the F-1 visa, when you come to the U.S. for school. From there, you may try to get an H-1B visa; if that doesn’t work, you’re still eligible for a year of temporary employment through your student visa. Eventually, you could apply for an O-1, and if that doesn’t work, try to naturalize when you’re eligible. “High-skilled immigration is kind of like a bridge,” Schulte says. “If you think of it as a bridge—if you take out parts of the bridge, or make it much more narrow, it puts extra strain on everything else.”

Still, Mehta believes Unshackled can grow to effectively take the place of a startup visa sanctioned by the government, or at least significantly mitigate the lack thereof. “I think we can scale this,” he says. “We’ve always done it with every consideration for the law in mind. What we’re showing is the private sector can innovate in any environment.”

Of course, it’s no small feat to get the O-1. Last year, just over 30,000 visas were granted in the O class (which includes the O-2 and O-3 visas extended to immediate family members). Since 2014, the number of O-1 visas issued has increased by nearly 8,000. “It is a high bar, but so is the bar for raising money in Silicon Valley,” Pachisia argues. “If an entrepreneur is able to secure cofounders and hire great talent—which means you’ve been able to sell your vision and raised money—chances are you are an exceptional individual.”

In other words, applying for an O-1 is a test of the very skill an entrepreneur most needs to hone: how to successfully pitch their vision to investors and consumers alike. Since the criteria is inherently subjective, the way you might meet it differs from person to person. Pachisia knows someone who became one of the most popular bloggers in the early days of blogging and got an O-1 visa because of it. “What you’re really striving to do is show that you have a certain capability, which is unusual,” he says. “You did or can do something that most others cannot.

Source: What immigrant entrepreneurs can do without a startup visa

Trump’s battle against H-4 visa holders

Spousal employment, another Canadian immigration advantage compared to the USA:

When Molika Gupta immigrated to the U.S. in 2013, after marrying her husband who was already working in the states, she had no idea she would be unable to work. In India, she had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and worked in patent licensing—but once she came to the U.S., she found she could not work on the H-4 visa, which is given to immediate family members of an H-1B worker. (The H-1B is a temporary visa awarded to highly skilled foreign workers, to fill specialized jobs for which there aren’t enough qualified American workers. An H-4 visa allows immediate family members to legally accompany H-1B holders to the U.S. and study here, but it does not authorize them to work.) She decided to get a second master’s degree, which put her on a student visa, but two years later, she was forced to switch back to the H-4 after striking out with the H-1B lottery. (There’s a cap of 85,000 H-1B visas per year—a lottery system is now used to determine which petitions will be approved.)

“That’s when the darkness and depression and loneliness started,” she says. “I was not expecting something like this would happen to me.” When her H-4 work authorization was finally granted in 2017, employers were wary of hiring someone with a gap in their employment history. “Hiring managers couldn’t understand what happened because they’re not really aware of the immigration process,” she says. Now, she works as a freelancer—and advocates for other H-1B spouses in her situation.


Gupta is one of about 100,000 women who could lose the ability to work if the Trump administration follows through on yet another anti-immigration measure, which would revoke work permits for H-1B spouses—more formally known as the employment authorization document (EAD). Since 2015, when President Obama introduced EAD, H-4 visa holders have had the ability to work without a green card. At the moment, the green card wait time for highly skilled Indian immigrants—who account for more than 75% of H-1B holders—is decades long, which means that without being granted work authorization, their spouses could be barred from working for the foreseeable future.

An overwhelming majority of those spouses are women, for whom the ability to work secures their economic independence—and helps bolster the U.S. economy. In a survey of 2,411 H-4 holders, the advocacy group Gupta works with (which started as a Facebook page, “Save H4EAD“) found that 94% of respondents were women. Nearly 60% of the people surveyed have postgraduate or professional degrees, and about 57% have lived in the U.S. for more than five years and have U.S.-born children. The women who could be affected don’t just work in the tech industry; they are teachers and nurses and architects.

“These are people who are on a path to becoming permanent citizens,” says Todd Schulte, the president of immigration advocacy group FWD.us. “It’s just fundamentally wrong.”

The Trump administration already cracked down on the H-1B visa last year, when he issued an executive order that led to a more stringent review of H-1B petitions as well as increased scrutiny of compensation and why the job in question requires a foreign worker. Immigration lawyers have reported a higher rate of denials and delays issuing visas. But the decision on H-4 work authorization—which was first proposed over a year ago—has been delayed for months, leaving H-4 holders in a state of fearful anticipation. The EAD work authorization was initially introduced through an executive order by Obama, and Trump could similarly revoke it by executive order, although it could potentially be challenged in court.

According to Schulte, the White House has not made a move to revoke H-4 work permits in part because they don’t have a good reason to do so. “Take a step back and think about how unprecedented this move is,” he says. “This is a successful program. There is nobody saying this is somehow bad for the economy and country who can back it up with economic stats. They don’t actually have economic justification for it.”


For tech companies, which have historically employed tens of thousands of H-1B workers, a decision to revoke work permits for spouses could compromise their ability to attract talent from countries like India and China. (Microsoft president Brad Smith has cautioned that the decision could force them to move jobs out of the U.S.) In Congress, there is bipartisan support for H-4 work authorization: Earlier this year, Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Mia Love (R-UT) penned a letter with the support of 130 bipartisan members of Congress, imploring Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to preserve the current regulation. Jayapal also has legislation drafted that can be introduced in the event of a decision.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to welcome one person to contribute their considerable skills to our economy, but tell their spouse that they have to stay home,” she says. “Everyone—regardless of gender—deserves to be able to use and enhance their skills, be financially self-sufficient, thrive mentally and physically, and pursue their dreams. Moreover, it hurts our ability to attract and retain workers. Many of our peers, like Canada and Australia, provide work authorization for accompanying spouses. It’s simply the right thing to do.”

Congressman Ro Khanna, whose district falls within Silicon Valley, says that while people in his town halls sometimes express concerns over the H-1B visa, nobody ever speaks out against the H-4 work permit. “I’ve never had a single constituent in my two years of Congress say that the spouses of H-1B visa holders should not be able to work,” he says. “I think people view that as inhumane or cruel.” That economic independence is particularly important, he says, given there is higher incidence of domestic abuse or violence when a spouse can’t work. And in places with a high cost of living—such as the Bay Area—Khanna says the loss of a second income could significantly impact the livelihood of many families.

The one upside of Trump’s rhetoric is that it has raised awareness and shed light on the plight of H-1B spouses, many of whom only realize they can’t work without the EAD aftercoming to the U.S. And some people have a “distorted” image of the women who carry the H-4 visa, according to Gupta. “It’s not like I was waiting for someone to appear as a knight in shining armor and take me to the U.S.,” Gupta says. “That’s not the case for many women out there.”

Gupta and other advocates—the Save H4-EAD group is led by a group of about 20 people—have drawn more attention to their cause by meeting with lawmakers to share their stories. Raising awareness in the U.S. has also enlightened many women in India who may have to move to the U.S. (Though Gupta adds, “Nobody should be forced to choose between their freedom to work and marriage.”) The group is also preparing for a commenting period if and when the Trump administration makes a decision on work permits.

But Gupta says there is little she can do to brace herself for what could be her new reality. “Nobody can prepare for a situation that they don’t deserve to be in,” Gupta says. “Fighting for your work rights in a country that is the most developed in the world is ironic. I don’t know what should be my next action.”

Source: Trump’s battle against H-4 visa holders

Editorial: Trump’s cruel rule to strip H-1B spouses of the right to work

The Trump administration is moving forward with its much-criticized plan to strip working rights from about 100,000 foreign citizens in the U.S., many of whom live in the Bay Area.The Department of Homeland Security has announced that its new rule to ban the spouses of H-1B visa holders from working will be issued next month.

“Some U.S. workers would benefit from this proposed rule by having a better chance at obtaining jobs that some of the population of the H-4 workers currently hold,” the department said in the notice, as way of explanation for its actions.

In other words, this move is part of President Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, which was signed in 2017.

The Trump administration has already slowed the flow of H-1B visas,which are a linchpin of the Bay Area’s technology industry.

Trump himself has made it clear that he wants to make major changes to the controversial visa program. But it’s particularly cruel for his administration to launch a broadside against H-1B visa holders by banning their spouses from working.

Researchers at the University of Tennessee have estimated that 93 percent of H-4 visa holders are women from India.

Many of these women are highly educated; most are in their prime working years. By stripping H-4 visa holders of their right to work, the Trump administration is effectively denying a discrete group of women the opportunity to have economic independence and to provide for their families.

The rule change will also have an outsize impact on the Bay Area.

Many Bay Area residents who hold H-4 visas have told news organizations that, should the Trump administration go forward with this rule change, they and their families will probably have to leave the area or even the U.S.

That’s a brain drain this dynamic region can ill afford.

The Trump administration must leave the H-4 visa program alone.

Source: Editorial: Trump’s cruel rule to strip H-1B spouses of the…