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I’m an immigrant startup founder who came for the American Dream. Here’s why it’s in danger

An immigrant entrepreneur who’s navigated bringing a startup to the U.S. to grow explains how reforms to our current systems can help the American economy flourish.

I’m an immigrant startup founder who came for the American Dream. Here’s why it’s in danger
[Photo: Aaron Burson/Unsplash]
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Silicon Valley has attracted smart, imaginative, enterprising, and talented people from all over the world for decades. Its name has become a shorthand for centers of innovation and startups. But while other regions might have a reputation for being a hub of innovation, the real magic of the Bay Area is that it is by far the best place on Earth to accelerate and scale a technology-based business.

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That potential drew me to Silicon Valley precisely 10 years ago. My cofounders and I had bootstrapped our business in India until Sequoia Capital invested in the company. That investment compelled me to move to the U.S. to help prepare our business for the next stage of growth.

Over the past decade, the Bay Area has provided all the ingredients for success: culture, money, universities, infrastructure, and people with the skills to aggressively grow a business. Today, the company now directly employs more than 800 and is valued at over $1 billion with more than $100 million in annual recurring revenue.

Yet, as new restrictions on H-1B visas make it harder for highly skilled workers to get access, is America still the place top foreign technologists want to be?

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A vastly different world

The U.S. has taken a decidedly more nationalistic stance over the past few years. This past June, the Trump administration signed an executive order suspending the processing of new visas for skilled foreign workers looking for employment within the country. Then right before the election, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor sought to impose even tighter restrictions.

While the incoming administration brings new hope and is expected to take a more open stance, the policies and tone of the past four years have chipped away at the country’s reputation, and now there are other factors at play as well.

The global pandemic has severely restricted worldwide travel and America’s continued challenges to contain COVID-19 make the country less hospitable to foreign talent—at least for now. That has had the effect of driving skilled workers to tech hubs outside the U.S. to Toronto, Canada, for instance, which was identified as the number one “brain gain” market in CBRE’s 2019 scoring tech talent report.

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Additionally, cloud computing has surged to support a remote workforce. According to a recent Gartner report, 69% of boards of directors have accelerated their digital business initiatives due to COVID-19. That has caused cloud stocks to soar. The BVP Nasdaq Emerging Cloud Index was up around 70% at the end of October compared to January of this year.

With everything moving to the cloud, businesses are realizing that many jobs can be done from anywhere with an adequate internet connection and, in turn, are offering more flexible work options. Microsoft, for example, announced plans for a hybrid workplace model once the pandemic is over. Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg has extended its remote work policy until July 2021 and expects many of the company’s 48,000-person workforce to work remotely permanently.

That begs the question: why bother coming to Silicon Valley at all if teams can work from anywhere?

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The H-1B blind spot

As an immigrant who has directly benefited from the H-1B visa program and dealt firsthand with its shortcomings, I consider the visa program’s high standards to be one of its strengths. That may run counter to the prevailing view in the tech industry, but keeping salary requirements high, for example, helps reduce abuse of the program to replace specialized high-wage positions with lower-cost labor. At the same time, it makes it possible for companies to obtain sought-after skills that are in short supply. Cutting off that supply hampers business growth and, in turn, economic growth.

However, our immigration policies have a major blindspot: entrepreneurs.

When I tried to come to the U.S. in 2010 to build Druva, I was initially denied a visa. I had just raised millions from one of the world’s most respected venture capital firms, and yet my visa was denied because I didn’t have an employer in the traditional sense to sponsor me.

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I overcame that hurdle, and I genuinely believe the current U.S. immigration system is still the best for attracting great foreign talent. But, entrepreneurs are a major economic engine (in the United States and around the world), and getting them visas is incredibly important to ensure continued growth in today’s global and ultra-competitive economy.

Immigration policy innovation

According to New American Economy research, Santa Clara County, which is in the heart of Silicon Valley, is home to just shy of 40,000 immigrant entrepreneurs, while San Francisco and Alameda counties have roughly 20,000 immigrant entrepreneurs each. These sorts of hotspots are and should absolutely be a source of pride for America, as they also provide additional firepower to the millions of U.S.-born entrepreneurs which found businesses every year.

The advantages of a healthy immigration policy for highly skilled workers is well documented. For example, a policy brief issued by the University of California Davis Global Migration Center cites several studies on the benefits, including one highlighting the job multiplier effect of each highly skilled worker that comes to the U.S.

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Contrary to what you might think, America has seen an overall increase in new business starts since the coronavirus hit, driven by a surge in unemployment combined with government stimulus funds. It’s a resounding example of the entrepreneurial spirit this country uniquely embodies. As The Economist reported, this spike in startups bodes well for future U.S. job growth.

However, it may only be a temporary blip. The U.S. and the incoming administration must do everything in their power to ensure a strong, sustained entrepreneurial engine. That can take many forms, including resuming and reforming the H-1B program.

Adding an entrepreneurship visa should be at the top of the list of reforms. Such a program would grant business creators a three-year entrepreneur visa to set up shop and grow their business here in the U.S., under certain stipulations. For example, they should meet a certain threshold of investment capital, have at least one U.S.-based investor, and meet a minimum percent of U.S. employees. Additional provisions would allow the entrepreneurship visa-holder to extend the visa if certain growth, revenue, and hiring requirements are met.

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Such a visa would carry additional administrative costs, but those costs would be partially offset with application and renewal or extension fees; over time, successful businesses would drive job growth and incremental tax revenue. The broader economic benefits would far outweigh any additional costs.

These days, with Zoom, Slack, and other cloud-based tools, it’s possible to find and benefit from talent anywhere on the planet. Those skilled foreign workers don’t necessarily need to be in Silicon Valley or in the U.S. On the other hand, it is not nearly as easy to start or grow a business in other countries, and harder still for foreign-born companies to break into the critical U.S. market.

Adding an entrepreneurship visa would not only solidify America’s position as the most powerful advanced economy in the world, but it would also spur the creation of new businesses and jobs that will undoubtedly define our future for decades to come.

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Jaspreet Singh is the founder and CEO of Druva, a cloud data protection and management provider.