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Yesterday I was with yet another non-US entrepreneur who is struggling to get the right visa to stay in the US and build his company here. This entrepreneur happens to be from England and his business partner (and best friend since they were kids) is also English, but managed to get into the US because he fell in love with and married and America a while ago. The business partner lives in Denver so they started the company in Denver a year or so ago.
They are a small company right now with a pretty interesting product and vision. One founder lives in the UK, the other lives in Denver. The UK founder travels to the US when he can get a travel visa, but he’s been careful not to get offsides since he’s been in the visa application process for a while. They’ve spent a bunch of money on legal fees, continue to chew up money on travel from the UK to the US, and have to deal with the uncertainty (both timing and functional) around the visa process.
Along with some others, I’ve been trying to get something called The Startup Visa Act passed in Congress and turned into law. The biggest thing to come out of it for me personally has been a deep understanding of how the process of an idea to bill to law works.
After two years of advocating for this, there is extremely broad support throughout Congress for this concept and it has been written into many of the job creation / startup type bills that are out there. But – nothing has been passed. The White House made some policy changes over the summer which have been somewhat helpful, but are still making their way through the USCIS bureaucracy, which means many of these policy changes are not yet being implemented, or people in the field at USCIS have no idea how to implement them.
In hindsight, I realized I’d made a giant mistake. Rather than call it the “Startup Visa Movement”, we should have called it the “Stealing Jobs From Foreign Countries Act.” I haven’t yet come up with the right acronym for it (SJFFCA doesn’t quite work, but I’m sure some of you out there could acronymize this.) Instead of positioning this as a “Startup Thing” or a “Visa Thing”, we should have just taken the same cynical approach to titling the activity that many in Washington do. I mean, c’mon, how could any red blooded America object to stealing jobs from foreign countries?
Every week I am in contact with at least one foreign entrepreneur who is struggling to stay in the US and build their company here. Over the past year, it’s probably been several hundred which represent thousands of jobs and who knows how much innovative, amazing stuff. Hopefully the new USCIS Entrepreneur in Residence program will help figure out how to make the Startup Visa a reality. Or maybe Congress will finally take some action and get a bill passed. Either way, I know that as every day passes, we are missing a huge opportunity in this country by making it hard for non-US citizens to stay here and build their high growth entrepreneurial companies.
As many of you know, I’ve been involved in advocating for the Startup Visa since the idea was first conceived in the fall of 2009. While it’s frustrating to me that some leaders in Congress are much more interested in trying to jam through bills, such as SOPA and PIPA, that fundamentally censor and undermine the structure of the Internet, rather than support entrepreneurs and the corresponding jobs that get created by creating a Startup Visa, I’m optimistic and hopeful that logic ultimately prevails. Other than that, my mentors who know how DC works much better than I do encourage me to stay patient and unemotional and to keep trying.
While Congress has been completely stalled on the Startup Visa, the White House hasn’t. Several months ago I wrote a post about the policy changes that have a material, positive impact immigrant entrepreneurs who apply for a visa. I’ve been on several email threads with Alejandro Mayorkas, Director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and have been impressed with his rapid response and willingness to take real action along the lines of the new White House guidelines.
Last week I was briefed on a USCIS “Entrepreneurs in Residence” Initiative. It’s an awesome idea and another example of the White House trying to move the ball forward on the Startup Visa within the current law. Here’s the crux of the announcement
“Most recently, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced an innovative new Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIR) initiative, with the immediate goal of recruiting a small “tactical team” of business experts to work with USCIS staff to help streamline operations and enhance pathways within existing immigration law to help immigrant entrepreneurs start and grow businesses in the United States This intensive 90-day project is a major priority for USCIS, the Department of Homeland Security, and the White House Startup America initiative.”
While this is an unpaid three month EIR (with the possible extension of another three months), I think it’s a perfect role for an entrepreneur in between gigs who is passionate about helping create a Startup Visa. Take a look at the job description and if this is you, e-mail a resume to firstname.lastname@example.org before 11:59 p.m. ET on December 31, 2011.
Yesterday there was solid progress on the Startup Visa Movement – specifically making it easier for foreign entrepreneurs to start their companies in the US. The WSJ had a good summary article titled U.S. to Assist Immigrant Job Creators that discusses two formal communications from the Obama administration.
- Press release from the Department of Homeland Security titled Secretary Napolitano Announces Initiatives to Promote Startup Enterprises and Spur Job Creation
- Post on the White House blog titled Making It Easier for Immigrants to Start Companies in the United States by the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
There are additional guidelines listed in detail at the following links.
- New guidelines on how entrepreneurs can qualify for an EB-2 green card with National Interest Waiver
- New guidelines on how entrepreneurs can satisfy the employer-employee relationship requirement for an H-1B visa (see the second-to-last question about sole owners)
- Implementation of enhancements to EB-5 immigrant investor program, including premium processing
- Public engagement between entrepreneur community and USCIS to inform new training of USCIS adjudicators
I’ve been working on this issue since I wrote the post The Founders Visa Movement on 9/10/09 (all my posts can be seen in the category summary Startup Visa on my blog). A number of colleagues throughout the entrepreneurial community (entrepreneurs, angels, VCs) joined in on the effort as it became a formal grass-roots movement, resulting in several bills being drafted in Congress in 2010 and then 2011.
While I’ve learned a lot about politics, Congress, and how Washington works in the past two years, one thing that became painfully apparent to me was that Congress was completely stalled on anything related to immigration issues. While I’ve continued to view the Startup Visa as a jobs issue (we need more entrepreneurs in the US – anyone should be able to start a company here if they want to, and that creates jobs, which is good for our economy) that’s not how people in Washington see it (“visa” – that means “immigration”).
In parallel, a number of us have been talking to key people in the White House, including the amazing Aneesh Chopra, the White House CTO. Aneesh totally gets this issue as do a number of his colleagues in the White House and the Office of Science and Technology Policy and they’ve been working on non-legislative solutions that can be implemented with policy changes in USCIS. While the changes made yesterday don’t cover every case, they make a solid step in the right direction.
In the past six months, I’ve personally been involved in about ten cases of foreign entrepreneurs trying to get valid US visas so they could either start their company here or join a US-based company that they helped co-found. After being stymied for a variety of reasons, including extremely aggressive, negative, and inconsistent behavior at the border from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, most of the folks I’ve been talking to and/or helping have been able to get visas. In all cases, they were willing to share their stories, in detail, with people on the White House staff, who I think have been extremely thoughtful and diligent about understanding what was going on, worked hard to figure out appropriate and legal solutions, and provided a constructive and empathetic ear to the very frustrated entrepreneurs.
I don’t feel comfortable naming names as most people are very concerned about confidentiality around immigration issues, but I’m proud of the efforts by many of these entrepreneurs. They didn’t give up, didn’t get angry even when they had plenty of reason to, and were willing to be very open with White House officials in trying to help figure out a more effective approach. I’m also very impressed with the folks at the White House and OSTP who I’ve been working with on this issue. The contrast between their efforts, thoroughness, and their “let’s solve the problem” vs. a “let’s be political” attitude is commendable.
There are plenty of additional things in the Startup Visa Movement that need to be addressed but I feel like we made some progress today. Thanks to everyone who has been involved – you are a force for good in the world.
Today Senators Kerry (D-MA), Lugar (R-IN) and Udall (D-CO) unveiled the Startup Visa Act of 2011. This is an updated version of the Startup Visa bill from last year that is aimed at making it much easier for foreign entrepreneurs who want to start a company in the US to get a visa. Today, this process is incredibly difficult and has been stifling the creation of new companies and the corresponding job creation that these companies provide.
The Startup Visa Act of 2011 has several significant improvements over last years bill.
- Lowered, More Realistic Thresholds: The minimum investment has be lowered to $100,000. This is more in line with a larger number of startup companies.
- Broadened Qualifications to Include H-1B or Students with Advanced Degrees: Entrepreneurs already in the US on an unexpired H-1B or those who have completed a graduate level degree in science, technology, engineering, math, computer science are eligible to apply as long as they have either an annual income of $30,000 or assets of at least $60,000 and a qualified US investor has agreed to invest at least $20,000. This opens up the Startup Visa to students after they graduate, which is a huge thing.
- Entrepreneurs Who Want to Relocate: Entrepreneurs who’s companies are based outside the US can now relocate as long as their businesses have generated at least $100,000 in sales in the US.
I’m particularly excited about the broadened qualifications. I think every student that graduates with an advanced STEM or computer science degree should have a green card stapled to his or her diploma. It makes no sense to me that we’d make it difficult for the best and the brightest to stay in the US if they want. While this doesn’t go that far, at least it’s now easy for them to stay in the US and start a company if they want.