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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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The Joy Of Being Detained By U.S. Customs and Border Protection

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I’ve had a shitty morning.

After a really fun day yesterday in Waterloo at Communitech, which is really impressive, I woke up at 4:30am to make my 6:30am flight from Toronto to Chicago on my way to Little Rock, Arkansas where I’m speaking at the launch of Startup Arkansas. I was going to run the Little Rock Marathon on Sunday but I’m undertrained and – while I could get it done – decided I wasn’t ready to deal with the physical and emotional recovery cycle given all the work I’ve got going on. So I bailed on the marathon, but since they’d organized the Startup Arkansas event around my schedule and managed to procure me a number for the sold out marathon, I decided to go ahead and fulfill my commitment to that.

At 5:30am after checking in and getting my boarding pass, I slammed into the wall of US CBP. I’ve been through the Toronto checkpoint a few times and it’s always a long line that moves slowly. I got to the front by 5:45am so I felt like I had plenty of time to make my 6:30am flight.

As I waited for my turn, I noticed the CBP agent whose line I was in was moving slowly. The guy two people in front of me took about three minutes to clear – he had to take off his hat, then his glasses, and had to do some fingerprint thing on the scanner that I can’t remember ever having seen used before. I didn’t really think much of it, but I noticed it.

When it was my turn, I said a polite hello to the CBP agent, gave him my passport and customs form, and waited patiently. He handed me back my customs form and said “Put your correct address on this.” I looked down and noticed I had written my P.O. Box in Eldorado Springs as my address, since that’s my address. I responded “That’s my correct legal address.” He responded, “Do you live inside a P.O. Box?” I said, as politely as I could, “No.” He then said “Is your house inside your P.O. Box?” I said, “No, I have a house a mile away, but the P.O. Box is my address – at least that’s what the US Postal Service says.” By this point I realized he wanted a street address and not a P.O. Box, so I said “I’m sorry, I’ll write down the house address I have” which I proceeded to do.

I stood there quietly for about a minute as he typed stuff into his computer. He then handed my passport and my customs form to me after scribbling something illegible on it, handed me a yellow card, pointed at a room, and said, “Go into that room.” I asked whether there was a problem and he said more forcefully, “Go into that room.”

I did. It was a bigger room with about 10 CBP people. There were about 5 non-CBP people. No one acknowledged me as I walked into the room. I went up to one of the CBP people and said, “I was told to go to this room – can you tell me what I need to do?” He responded, “Give me your documents and go sit down over there until called.” This time I asked “Can you explain what’s going on?” The response was “Go sit over there until you are called.”

At this point I got anxious. I went and sat down. I sent Amy and my assistant Kelly an email telling them where I was. I tweeted that I had been detained by CBP. I started looking up flight information on my iPhone and a different CBP agent barked at me, “Sir, you must turn off your cell phone in this room.” So I did.

I looked at the clock. It was now 6:00am. I resigned myself that I was going to miss my 6:30am flight. At 6:15am I heard someone from the other end of the room call “Feld.” I got up, took my bags, and went to where that person was. He told me to put my bags down and stand in front of him. He proceeded to empty out my bags and go through them carefully. After he packed them back up, he typed a few things into the computer, asked me a few routine questions, including where I lived, which I answered more precisely this time with a house address, explained that the postal service wouldn’t come to deliver to my house, so I had a P.O. Box as the US Post Office that I used as my address. He stamped my forms, handed them back to me, and pointed at a door and said, “Go through there.”

I had no idea whether things were about to get better or worse. I asked him politely, “Can you explain why you are detaining me.” He responded with “Because you are traveling to the US.” I said, “I was asking why you’ve detained me for 30 minutes.  Specifically, what was the reason?” The CBP officer said, “Because you are traveling to the US – we don’t have to give you a reason.”

I quietly picked up my stuff and went through the door he had pointed at. It led me back to the security area, in front of the long line to go through the xray machine, but behind the CBP checkpoint. So apparently I had now cleared customs, but still had to go through security.

It was 6:25am at this point. No way I was going to make my flight. I took a deep breath, realized my heart rate was high (probably over 100), and I was extremely anxious. I went into mellow shut down mode as quickly as I could, just soldered through security, and got to my gate. At the point the normal absurdity of air travel took over and even though I was on a United / Air Canada codeshare, the gate agent for the flight I missed (Air Canada) wouldn’t help me, the United Global Services people couldn’t figure out how to change my ticket, and ultimately I wandered over the gate that I figured out with the United Global Services person was my replacement flight, where the gate agent there was very helpful and soothing for the first time this morning.

I’m now in Chicago waiting for my flight to Little Rock. Given the flight times, I’ve got a lovely three hour wait, which I’m filling up with a long blog post to empty my head, all the phone calls that Kelly scrambled to reschedule, and some email time.

I’ve been awake for 7 hours. I’ve managed to get from Toronto to Chicago. My heart rate is back to normal. I feel fine but the 45 minutes of CBP stress, which was minor compared to what I know a lot of people face, sits with me in a very bitter way. CNN is in the background with the talking heads blathering on about sequestration and all the problems it, and our government, are creating. And I remember that getting into Canada on Wednesday took me literally five minutes, was pleasant, and welcoming.

What a shitty morning.

Startup Visa Act 2013 Introduced By Udall (D-Colo) and Flake (R-Ariz)

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Today appears to be government day on Feld Thoughts. This morning I wrote about the Colorado PUC trying to shut down Uber in Colorado (bad). Now I get to write about Senators Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) re-introducing the Startup Visa Act of 2013 (good).

Mark – thank you – you’ve been an awesome supporter of this and leader of the effort since the first day we discussed it in 2009. Senator Flake – thank you for showing leadership on this issue.

Yesterday, as part of his Comprehensive Immigration Report plan, President Obama explicitly listed the Startup Visa as one of the initiatives.

Obama: “Create a “startup visa” for job-creating entrepreneurs.  The proposal allows foreign entrepreneurs who attract financing from U.S. investors or revenue from U.S. customers to start and grow their businesses in the United States, and to remain permanently if their companies grow further, create jobs for American workers, and strengthen our economy.”

He also supported stapling green cards to diplomas, something I’ve been advocating since my OpEd with Paul Kedrosky in the Wall Street Journal on 12/2/09 titled Start-up Visas Can Jump-Start the Economy.

Feld/Kedrosky: We also think science and engineering graduates should get visas stapled to their diplomas. You complete your higher education here, you get to stay so that you can get out and create jobs, innovate, and grow the economy. Uncle Sam wants you, if you’re a prospective entrepreneur.

Obama: “Staple” green cards to advanced STEM diplomas.  The proposal encourages foreign graduate students educated in the United States to stay here and contribute to our economy by “stapling” a green card to the diplomas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) PhD and Master’s Degree graduates from qualified U.S. universities who have found employment in the United States.  It also requires employers to pay a fee that will support education and training to grow the next generation of American workers in STEM careers.

Fred Wilson, who has also been a vocal leader for these initiatives, expressed his appreciation that these issues are now part of the national immigration reform discussion in his post The Startup Visa.

Wilson: The President announced yesterday that he was in favor of a Startup Visa. Hallelujah. … It’s a shame that it takes almost four years before a good idea gets the President’s support. And its a greater shame that there are many in Congress who will still vote against this idea.

Fred and I are both paranoid optimists – we both hope this gets done this time around. Our country deserves it. Senators Udall and Flake – thank you for the leadership here.

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Canada’s Start-Up Visa Program

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I read the announcement today that Canada has just launched a Start-Up Visa Program. By doing so, they are saying to the world “welcome immigrant entrepreneurs – please come start your business in Canada.” It’s brilliant, well executed, and modeled after the Startup Visa movement that a number of us have been trying to get started in the US since 2009.

I continue to be really discouraged by the US government activity around the Startup Visa movement, and more specifically around immigration reform as it applies to entrepreneurs. After trying for the past three years to get something passed, nothing has happened beyond administrative changes to the existing laws. While in some cases this has improved the interpretation of the rules, we are still totally missing the boat here in the US. CBP and USCIS continue to implement the rules inconsistently, resulting in regular outrageous situations including tossing entrepreneurs with existing valid visas in jail when they enter the US and banning other entrepreneurs from coming into the country as a result of misinterpretation by CBP of how things should work. I hear at least one horrifying story a week, try to help when I can, but mostly am just embarrassed and ashamed of our US policies around this.

While Canada is plowing forward making it easy for immigrant entrepreneurs to move to Canada and start companies, the US efforts are now entirely focused on “comprehensive immigration reform.” The first bills for this are supposed to start appearing in a few months and I expect we’ll see similar dynamics that we saw around Obamacare. Endless political machinations, an ever expanding set of bills that cover all kinds of things in addition to immigration reform, and a complex set of tradeoffs that have unintended consequences that no one can understand.

On top of this, I’ve heard from a number of political insider friends that “the vote math doesn’t work.” I’ve learned that this means it is an incredible uphill battle to get anything passed, and the compromise that is going to happen to get certain people in Congress to support the bills means that the “tradeoffs and compromises” (which the more cynical among us – including me – means “the political bribes they need to agree to vote a certain way”)are going to be extensive.

In the mean time, Canada is shouting from the rooftops about the benefits of the Start-Up Visa program.

  • The Start-up Visa Program will enable immigrant entrepreneurs to launch innovative companies that will create jobs in Canada, and eventually, compete globally.
  • The Program will provide entrepreneurs with valuable assistance in navigating the Canadian business environment which can sometimes prove challenging for newcomers.
  • The Program will provide private sector firms with access to a broader range of entrepreneurs, including the best and the brightest minds from around the world.

Since I believe entrepreneurs should be able to start their companies anywhere in the world they’d like, I applaud the Canadian government for taking action here. And I encourage any immigrant entrepreneur considering moving to the US to also consider moving to Canada given this new program.

Dear Mr. Friends In Washington: Pay attention. We continue to be less competitive because of our intransigence around immigration, especially with regard to being entrepreneurs. Canada is showing real leadership. Why not just emulate them?

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US Immigration Fails Entrepreneurs Again

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I’m so sick of how – as a country – our authorities treat people as though they are criminals. A month ago a successful Boston entrepreneur who has been incredibly engaged in the Boston startup community was thrown in jail for three days after a CPB agent decided she didn’t have a valid visa (she did have a valid visa, and she was from that extremely dangerous country of Canada.)

A few days ago, Laurie Voss, a co-founder of a company we are investors in was detained for three hours at the board because he stated his job was “software developer” instead of “web developer”. He had recently gotten his green card and went on to describe the harrowing experience he endured, along with the unceremonious release a few hours later.

While I’m happy that USCIS continues to try to education its workforce as well as entrepreneurs via programs like A New Front Door for Immigrant Entrepreneurs, the words at the top and the actions in the field are completely disconnected. I hear a story about it almost daily and I’m now having someone I’m directly connected to or involved with impacted at least a month. It seems to be getting worse, not better, which just sucks.

If you care about this issue, I once again refer you to to Vivek Wadhwa’s excellent book called The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent. Tom Friedman has also written a number of really clear OpEds on this topic in the past year or so. With all the talk about innovation, entrepreneurship, and the need for job creators in the US, our immigration policies are directly at odds with the concepts our politicians are telling us are critical for our economy to grow.

The conversation in Washington DC has shifted back to “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” I’ve now had several people I know in the White House tell me this is the new immigration priority as in “let’s fix the whole problem with comprehensive immigration reform” over the next four years. In the last week, I’ve heard from several that “there’s no way we are going to be able to get anything done on immigration reform anytime soon because of all the fiscal crisis issues and partisanship in Congress.”

Awesome. We continue to be functioning in a delusional context. The Democrats think they have magic political power because of the results of the election and the Republicans are focused more than ever on not letting the Democrats “win.” And President George W. Bush, who I disagree with on so many things, recently asserted that immigration reform  is needed to boost the economy and specifically said, “”Not only do immigrants help build our economy, they help invigorate our soul.”

While the entire situation is ridiculous, I’m continually upset by the way entrepreneurs like Laurie Voss are treated by CBP and USCIS. I’ve asked for apologies before and I’ll ask for them again. CBP / USCIS, or someone in the White House – please call Laurie and apologize to him. Then figure out the real root cause of the behavioral problem. And start respecting immigrants, not treating every one like a bad guy until you confirm they aren’t.

Startup Visa – One Step Forward, One Step Back

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On that same day the White House announced A New Front Door for Immigrant Entrepreneurs President Obama said that he was not supportive of the STEM Jobs Act of 2012. Infuriating.

I’ve been working on making it easy for foreign entrepreneurs to get a visa to start a company in the US since September 2009 when I wrote the post The Founders Visa Movement. This morphed into the Startup Visa Movement and I’ve written extensively about it over the past three years on my blog in the Startup Visa category. While some progress has been made through administrative changes at the USCIS and better education of USCIS and CBP about what an entrepreneur is, we are still falling extraordinarily short of where we could – and should be.

With every success (I got an email from an entrepreneur yesterday who I helped who had just gotten a green card) there is a nightmare, such as the well-known and well-loved Boston entrepreneur who was actually stopped at the border at Logan Airport a few weeks ago, told by CBP that she was lying about her visa, and tossed in jail for several days. A mad scramble among some of the Boston startup community leaders, led by Katie Rae at TechStars, resulted in this entrepreneur “only” being jailed for a few days. Jailed! President Obama should call her personally and apologize and give her a green card on the spot.

Vivek Wadhwa wrote a great summary of the recent decision of President Obama not to support the STEM Jobs Act of 2012 in his Forbes article Why Immigration Reform is Destined to be Another Obamacare. It’s more of the “all or nothing” strategy around immigration I’ve been hearing from the White House since 2009. Obama is a strong proponent of immigration reform, but he wants comprehensive immigration reform, rather than incrementally improving things. There are so many easy fixes that are non-partisan, such as the STEM Jobs Act, and it’s crazy that there isn’t a leadership focus on fixing the straightforward ones now, especially those that impact job creation, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

I’m extremely bummed out by President Obama’s position on this. Several months ago I had a conversation with one of my friends in the White House who implored me to support the STEM Jobs Act and was enthusiastic about the idea of little wins on this front. Clearly his perspective diverged from the broader White House strategy, which I fear will result in nothing done on this front.

In addition to Vivek Wadhwa’s recent article, he’s written an excellent book called The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent. I’ll be writing a longer post about it shortly but if this is a topic that you care about his book is a critical one to read.

For all the foreign entrepreneurs who can’t get appropriate visas to start their companies in the US, and to all of the amazing foreign entrepreneurs who put up with our idiocy and nonsense as they continue to struggle through the US immigration process, deal with visa hell, and get accused of lying by CBP, I humbly apologize to you. It’s embarrassing, and stupid, that as a country, especially one built on the the premise of “liberty and justice for all”, can’t get our act together on this front.

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