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4 immigrant CEOs on their biggest challenges as entrepreneurs

For some, starting a company while navigating the U.S. immigration system can be a minefield.

4 immigrant CEOs on their biggest challenges as entrepreneurs
[Photo: Grant Faint/Getty Images]

In 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that barred immigration from seven countries. Last year, the government denied more than 37,000 visa applications in keeping with the parameters of the ban—many multiples higher than the rejections before the ban went into effect in 2017, which totaled less than 1,000. As promised, President Trump has also cracked down on H-1B visas—a temporary visa awarded to highly skilled foreign workers—on the whole, denying one in four requests last year and nearly a third of petitions in the first quarter of 2019.

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This is in spite of the fact that the foreign-born population in the U.S. is 44 million strong. Immigrants bolster the tech industry, serve restaurant patrons, and keep American homes in order. Many are responsible for companies big and small: Nearly 30% of new companies in 2016 were started by immigrants, while more than half of companies worth upward of $1 billion are reportedly founded by immigrants.

The process of immigrating to the U.S. is a lengthy, convoluted one. Unlike other countries, the U.S. doesn’t have a startup visa—President Trump put the brakes on a program introduced by President Obama—which means an aspiring immigrant entrepreneur who lacks a green card may have to jump through hoops to start a company (if they can get a visa at all). Against the backdrop of anti-immigration sentiment and policies, the hurdles facing immigrants of all stripes, especially would-be entrepreneurs, are only growing. Four immigrant CEOs shared the challenges they’ve faced—and continue to face—as they build their companies and navigate through the immigration system.

Seeing the path to entrepreneurship

Viridiana Carrizales, the CEO of education nonprofit ImmSchools, came to the U.S. when she was 11 but remained undocumented through college. Her immigration status only changed when she got married seven years ago, and then in 2016, she finally became a U.S. citizen.

For a few years after college—until she got married and could change her immigration status—Carrizales had a degree but was unable to use it. During that time, it didn’t even occur to her that she could be her own employer. (Her cofounder, for example, was undocumented when they started ImmSchools.) “As a young, undocumented, educated person, I wish I knew the opportunities for me to start my own business,” she says. “It was never something that I even contemplated or knew about. Because at that point, I hadn’t really met other people who had started their own businesses; I thought you needed to be a U.S. citizen. I also come from a low-income family, and I just didn’t have the financial means and never really saw myself as [an entrepreneur].”

After marriage, she joined Teach for America, where she worked until last year. “Working for educators and teachers for that time—along with my own experience of having a difficult time navigating both K-12 and higher education as an undocumented student—I just realized that I needed to do something more,” she says. “And that’s when I explored the possibility of quitting my job and starting my own nonprofit organization.”

Even then, Carrizales thought entrepreneurship required know-how that she didn’t have. “It was something I was very afraid to do because I had all these misconceptions about what it means to be an entrepreneur,” she says. “I thought you needed to have capital to do it, or needed to know everything before you stepped into it.” Now that she’s on the other side, Carrizales wants to show undocumented students or others from underrepresented backgrounds that entrepreneurship is a path open to them, even if it means working around legal hurdles—say, opening a bank account as an undocumented business owner.

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Of course, Carrizales has since realized that many of the people she knew were, in fact, entrepreneurs in their own right—small business owners who carved out a life for themselves. Carrizales points to her mother, who is a seamstress, or relatives who sold food out of their homes. “Especially for undocumented immigrants, one of the beautiful things is they’re entrepreneurs at heart,” she says. “It’s in our blood. When you have a need, you become creative and innovative.”

Working around immigration status

Sergio Rodriguez, CEO of online marketplace ToDoolie, moved to the U.S. as a child, but as a dependent of his father, who worked at the NIH. Rodriguez was granted the H-4 visa, which is issued to immediate family of H-1B holders, but that didn’t authorize him to work in the U.S. “Growing up, going into my teens, I quickly realized I didn’t have a social security number,” he says. “I started knocking on doors in my neighborhood, asking people for work. I started doing anything, from raking leaves and pulling leaves to working parties and taking people to the airport—menial odd jobs. What was interesting about this work was I could do it whenever I wanted to. And I was making double what my friends were making.”

Those gigs allowed him to pay his way through college, in part because of the flexible hours. “Even though I did some internships and a little bit of research, I continued to do odd jobs on the side to pay for school,” he says. “I actually ended up graduating debt-free and paid for tuition entirely out of pocket.”

The experience sparked the idea for Rodriguez’s startup, which connects homeowners with students looking for work. Since going to college, Rodriguez has managed to remain on a student visa; at the moment, he is getting an MBA. Due to his immigration status, Rodriguez couldn’t start a company in the U.S. without bringing on a cofounder who was a citizen. (He actually brought on two cofounders.) “I’m technically what you would call a passive investor in the company,” he says. “I own a percentage of the company, but I don’t work for it. As an immigrant, you can’t be self-employed. You can work for a business that hires you, or you can own a business, but you can’t do both. You can’t own a business that hires you.” That means that while Rodriguez is the owner and CEO, he has to keep a lower profile. “There are certain things that I can’t do,” he says. “Whenever something is very public or a big decision needs to be made, I usually have one of my business partners do it.”

In terms of how to proceed after his student visa is up, his options are limited. Rodriguez would either have to remain a student, get sponsored by another company, or apply for the O-1 visa, which is reserved for nonresidents that can demonstrably show “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.” (In 2018, 16,904 O-1 visas were issued.) It’s a high bar, but Rodriguez will be applying for the O-1 in a year. “There’s no real pipeline for someone in my position,” he says. “The only exception is the O-1 visa. In order for me to get that visa, I have to somehow prove—without working for my company—that I’m a talented enough person to bring the company to over $500,000 in revenue, that I can hire maybe 10 U.S. citizens, and that the business looks like it will be very, very big.”

One of the biggest challenges for Mike Galarza, the CEO of fintech startup Entryless, was that he couldn’t leave his full-time job for his startup without giving up his existing visa. “If you are a legal immigrant and you want to start a business, it is impossible to jump from the job that is sponsoring the visa into a new business,” he says. “If you got a new job or if you want to start a new business, you would need to leave the U.S. and go to your country of origin to apply for a new visa.”

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Eventually, Galarza switched to a visa for citizens of NAFTA countries, which meant he had a social security number and could incorporate his company. But to switch his visa sponsorship, he still had to prove the legitimacy of his business. For a year after incorporating, Galarza had to hold down his full-time job and work on his company after hours, whether that meant talking to developers and designers or pitching potential partners. “I had to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on my day job sponsoring the visa,” he says, “and then focus on my newly created business from 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. to 8 a.m.”

In 2016, Galarza was able to apply for and obtain a green card. But as Rodriguez points out, while he and entrepreneurs like Galarza maneuver the complexities of the immigration system to remain in the U.S., they’re creating American jobs and feeding the economy. “We’ve already employed hundreds of students,” he says. “The most ironic thing of all is you have this immigrant who, to a lot of people, is perceived as somebody who’s here to take their jobs. But actually, on the contrary, I’m creating jobs.”

Hiring other immigrants

Hadi Partovi, CEO of education nonprofit Code.org, immigrated to the U.S. from Iran at the age of 11. By the time he started his first company, Partovi was a citizen, so he didn’t face some of the same issues as entrepreneurs who immigrated later in life. (He was also well-positioned as a Microsoft alum who worked on Internet Explorer; Code.org boasts funding from his former employer, along with Google and Facebook.) But since Trump enacted the travel ban, it has been virtually impossible for Iranians to follow Partovi’s lead.

“It’s really damaging to the tech industry,” Partovi says of the ban, which has blocked most immigration from Iran. “Because [Iran] is a country that has a lot of tech talent, oddly a lot of female tech talent. There’s pretty much a gender balance in the computing field. Any company that wants to fix its gender balance could do so by hiring women from Iran—except the government bans them from entering this country.”

As an immigrant founder, Partovi says he receives countless queries from immigrants. But as someone running a startup, it’s a struggle for him to hire immigrants who need to be sponsored. “A lot of other immigrants kind of assume that a startup that has an immigrant running it is going to be more interested in hiring other immigrants,” he says. “But when you’re in a startup, one of the challenges of the current immigration system is hiring other immigrants. Hiring immigrants is always hard in this country, but it’s especially hard for startups. The more hurdles there are and legal hoops to jump through, the harder it is for a small company.”

The irony, Partovi says, is that the risky proposition of immigration is the best training for an entrepreneur. “I believe quite strongly that the experience of being an immigrant prepares you for entrepreneurship,” he says. “There’s a burn-the-ships approach of committing to an all-new life and a vision of the future that is very similar to the job an entrepreneur does. An entrepreneur effectively quits their career and job and starts their company from nothing; they’re basically exploring an undiscovered country. How you feel about it is very similar. I think this is why so many founders in America are immigrants or children of immigrants—because of that shared experience.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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