The Immigrant Way: Navigating U.S. Entrepreneurship as a Foreigner
If you’re an entrepreneur, then you are most likely working on an idea you’re really passionate about. Passionate enough to quit your job, accept little or no money, get into debt, and eat stress as a main course every day. All for something you believe in. Right?
But when you have found that which you truly believe in, another interesting thing happens. Slowly, you start creating and talking in a different language. Your friends and family don’t fully “get” you anymore—and neither do most people you passionately babble to.
Now imagine taking this layer of “foreignness” and slapping another one of top of it.
Being an immigrant entrepreneur is the equivalent of carrying the burden of two foreign languages on your shoulders, while gracefully treading the line between ecstasy and misery as you build a money-making machine out of your greatest passion. And as if this were not enough, think about all of the above plus the joy of simultaneously dealing with the USCIS (United States Immigration Services).
I could go on—I’ve been there, and it’s hard. But instead, let me offer to you some practical advice and a guide to dealing with the immigration policy of the great U.S. of A., the country that was lucky enough to get us.
The first thing you need to know about immigration policy in the U.S. is that it has nothing to do with logic. For example, if you are a top 1% Stanford graduate with a double degree and an ambition to start a company, you still might be screwed. I was. (At least until Michael Serotte, the fourth immigration lawyer I worked with, came into my life.)
Here’s a brief overview of how things work: If you are lucky enough to come from a treaty country (a.k.a. a country that fights alongside the U.S. in the Middle East), you can get the E2, which is the closest thing to a start-up visa out there. One requirement for this visa is to invest your own money in the company (the actual amount depends on the type of business—for IT, it runs about $50-60K). Most entrepreneurs stop at that because they are young and broke (much like myself). The E2 gives you the right to run your company and even to “import” your fellow country-people for managerial positions (which we have done at my company, Knotch).
Now, if your country hasn’t signed up for the war, then you’re stuck with the O1 or the H1B. The O1 is for “aliens of extraordinary abilities”—read: You’re too intelligent, famous, and successful for your own good. In general, it’s very difficult to get this visa. You’ll need a lawyer, a lot of attention in the press, plus letters of recommendation from “experts” in your field. If you’re in tech, this means prominent investors or serial entrepreneurs who are famous themselves. I wish you luck.
The H1B, or the “Work Visa,” is the common solution for most immigrant entrepreneurs—but it requires that you have a board that employs you. This is not ideal if you are the CEO. Moreover, this solution just made me uncomfortable—I was starting a company, and all of a sudden I had to become someone else’s employee just to run it?
I share all of the above less to give you the full details (you can read more on this process here) and more to help you understand that immigration law is not easy, simple, or even rational, especially when it comes to entrepreneurs.
So, what should you do when you are facing highly irrational criteria and your options are limited and imperfect? Well, think like an entrepreneur. Get creative, don’t give up, and find other entrepreneurial minds who will help pull you out of the mess.
The first three lawyers I worked with would more often tell me why I could not stay in the U.S. than the opposite. I was quitting my job, starting a company, and raising money, while at the same time panicking every day about being deported. I was fairly desperate.
But as with most other aspects of my life, I learned that there is always a solution to any problem and that the more limitations there are, the more creative entrepreneurial minds will become. So I didn’t give up, I asked for introductions to any and all immigration lawyers that my acquaintances knew, and that’s when I met Michael. In 30 minutes, Michael had already planned two options for me. Then, in the span of three months, he helped me get two visas (first an H1B and then an E2) and maintain my status throughout.
The main lesson here is one that you’ve probably heard before: Good things come not to those who wait, but to those who don’t give up and think outside of the box. Sure, I was lucky to find Michael, but more importantly, I was unwilling to give up until I found a solution to my problem. And in spite of the fact that three different lawyers told me there was no solution for my visa situation, I knew that they were just not thinking at my level.
And that’s why I am convinced that the extra foreignness, or shall I say “alien-ness,” gives immigrant entrepreneurs an unparalleled ability to think outside a box, any box—even the box. We are different from those in the world we left behind and different from those in the world we have arrived in. We live in both worlds and neither at the same time. And this is a challenge, but it also gives us the perspective to see and solve big problems. These two degrees of foreignness are not only at the core of our big headaches but also of what defines us.
So, my advice? Wear your foreignness with pride. If you know when and how to channel it, it’s one of the things that will make you successful.
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