UN WELCOMING SHORES
FROM GOOGLE TO TESLA, IMMIGRANTS HAVE BUILT SOME OF AMERICA’S BIGGEST AND MOST VALUABLE COMPANIES. SO WHY DO WE MAKE IT SO DIFFICULT FOR FOREIGN-BORN ENTREPRENEURS TO START BUSINESSES HERE?
He wanted to be close to his U.S. customers like Yahoo, Reddit and Headspace, have access to Silicon Valley venture capital, hire American engineers and expand his company here. He easily obtained an L-1 nonimmigrant visa for foreign executives, given that he’d first started the business in South Korea, but by 2019, he had only one extension left. He applied for a green card to get legal permanent residency—and received a letter that he’d likely be denied. “Notice of intent to deny is, ‘We’re going to kick you out; change our mind,’ ” he says. “We had raised $100 million–plus in financing, we had real revenue in the tens of millions of dollars, we were creating jobs. It was a slap in the face, for sure.”
As it turned out, Kim—whose company is now worth more than $1 billion and counts SoftBank and Tiger Global among its investors—was lucky. Two months later, after discussing contigency plans with his CFO and human-resources chief and filing piles of additional documentation, including translations of South Korean military service rules, he got his green card. He still feels traumatized by the experience. “You want to build a company and you don’t want to get kicked out,” says Kim, who is 40 and lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children. “It’s like the grim reaper that hangs over you when you’re not a citizen.”
Long a hotbed of entrepreneurialism and a beacon of hope for immigrants, America is now known for a convoluted, highly politicized immigration policy that puts roadblocks in the way of foreign-born founders. The result for years has been that immigrants who want to start businesses here contort themselves into one of the visa categories, such as E-2 (for investors from countries that have treaties with the U.S.) or O-1 (for individuals of extraordinary ability), or try to cobble together something out of a halfdozen other categories—none of which is really designed for them. Former President Donald Trump’s overt hostility toward immigrants isn’t echoed by the present administration, but neither President Joe Biden nor the new Congress has taken the necessary steps to make the U.S. a more welcoming place for highly skilled newcomers.
The basic problem is that America has no startup visa specifically for founders, despite more than a decade of efforts to get one established. For years, the U.S. attracted the best and brightest. But now entrepreneurs around the globe have more—and easier—choices. Roughly 25 countries, including Singapore and the U.K., are wooing entrepreneurs with startup visas set up in the past decade. “It’s not like they came up with the idea. It’s an American idea that we failed to act on,” says Jeff Farrah, general counsel of the National Venture Capital Association.
“There’s a global battle for talent,” says Steve Case, the billionaire cofounder of AOL and investment firm Revolution, who has been outspoken on the importance of a startup visa. “We want the best people with the best ideas who want to come to the United States and stay in the United States and start and build their companies in the United States. Otherwise, we risk losing our lead as the most innovative, entrepreneurial nation in the world.” Not only do immigrant founders create jobs at their own companies, he says, but there’s a ripple effect that leads to additional jobs in the larger community.
JOHN S. KIM, COFOUNDER OF SENDBIRD, WHICH OFFERS REAL-TIME CHAT AND MESSAGING FOR MOBILE APPS AND WEBSITES, RELOCATED FROM HIS NATIVE SOUTH KOREA TO SAN FRANCISCO FIVE YEARS AGO.