I recently wrote the Foreword for Unshackled, a new book co-authored by Soundarya Basubramani, a writer from India, and Sameer Khedekar, a veteran immigration lawyer. Unshackled breaks down how legal immigration works in America in a way that is friendly, accessible, and human. It’s filled with raw stories of high-skilled immigrants who walked unconventional paths and actionable guidance to navigate those paths.
Last August, Rajesh Setty sent me an email request from Soundarya when the book was just an idea. Soundarya shared her vision for the book and why she wanted to write it. Unsurprisingly, the motivation stemmed from personal frustrations with the immigration system in the U.S.
Legal immigration, especially for high-skilled immigrants, has been important to me for over a decade. I was deeply involved with the Startup Visa movement back in 2010. When that ultimately failed, I began supporting several grassroots movements like the GEiR program, invested in companies founded by immigrants, am an investor and board member of Boundless, an early LP in Unshackled Ventures (unrelated to this book), and even became the executive producer of a movie called For Here Or To Go. Unshackled seemed another step in the right direction.
I met with Soundarya and Sameer on a video call in late August. Their pitch had promise, and I encouraged them t set up a crowdfunding campaign. They did this, and I was one of 612 people who supported the campaign, which raised $48,340. Soon after the campaign ended, Soundarya received a $50,000 grant from Emergent Ventures for the project.
Soundarya kept me updated, and I got the unpublished manuscript for Unshacked five months later. I read it over one weekend, and I loved it. The book didn’t feel like a legal guide. Soundarya and Sameer managed to break down how legal immigration worked in simple and engaging language while capturing the raw emotions in the firsthand stories of immigrants. Having seen the book come to life from a mere idea just nine months ago, I agreed to write the foreword.
Less than a year from its inception, Soundarya and Sameer are hosting a grand event to launch their book on July 22nd, 2023, in Sunnyvale, CA. While I cannot attend the event, I hope you can make it and support a worthy project. Doug Rand, who currently serves as an advisor to the Director of USCIS, is set to be there for a fireside chat on the past and future of immigration policy.
Soundarya and Sameer – congratulations on publishing this important book. And, Rajesh, thanks for connecting us.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’ve been involved in and advocating for legal immigration since 2010, when, with a half dozen other VCs and entrepreneurs, I co-created the Startup Visa initiative. Since then, I’ve been involved in many immigration-related activities, including the Global EIR program, a docu-drama called For Here or To Go, and direct involvement in helping many immigrants to the US get their visas and green cards.
When PSL started ideating on Boundless, I was lucky to be at the PSL office and participate in one of the extended sessions. I introduced them to Doug Rand, who I’d worked with during the Obama administration on several things, including Startup America and the USCIS EIR program. Shortly after, I met Xiao Wang, the entrepreneur PSL recruited to be the founding CEO of Boundless.
Working with Xiao and the team he’s built has been incredibly rewarding. In early 2017, the US government posture toward immigration took a strong negative turn, and from that point forward, Boundless faced massive headwinds at every turn. Rather than complain or fold up shop like several of their early competitors did, Boundless focused on a long-term vision of being the best possible resource for legal immigration into the US. As a result, their business grew with extremely high customer satisfaction while navigating the endless changes and stresses coming from the US government around immigration.
Last summer, Boundless acquired RapidVisa and significantly expanded its business and types of visas that it could support. Whenever a company acquires a similar-sized business, tough choices ensue as the two companies are integrated. The teams at Boundless and RapidVisa made these choices deliberately and thoughtfully, setting Boundless up for growth from a more meaningful base.
With the new Biden administration, the US government’s posture on immigration has shifted again. As a result, Xiao now finds himself as the CEO of the largest company in its category, with huge tailwinds after navigating and surviving four years of headwinds. I’m excited to be part of the next phase of Boundless’s journey.
I continue to be a strong supporter of legal immigration to the United States. A fundamental belief of mine is that entrepreneurs should be able to start their companies anywhere they want. A corollary to that is some of the historical success of the US as an entrepreneurial ecosystem has been being the place that entrepreneurs want to start a company.
Today, it’s hard to get a visa to start a company in the US. Our legal immigration system is complex and expensive to navigate, and there are few choices for entrepreneurs, especially aspiring entrepreneurs, who haven’t already managed to get a visa.
For the past five years, I’m been involved in an effort called the Global EIR program. It’s a national effort, led by Craig Montuori, that is modeled after an extremely successful program in Massachusetts, led by William Brah at the University of Massachusetts. The roadmap for starting a company on a visa is now well defined.
The results in Massachusetts have been extraordinary. Over the past five years, As of today, 66 Initial H-1B visas have been approved with 100% visa success rate. The companies founded by these entrepreneurs employ 940 people and have raised over $500 million in venture capital.
Imagine if we had this level of activity in all 50 states?
I’ve been working on the Startup Visa since I first wrote about it 2009 in my post The Founders Visa Movement. After a decade, it’s clear that our federal government has broadly failed us on this front.
In 2015, I announced the Global EIR initiative to try something different. Today, I’m happy to welcome the University of Michigan to the Global EIR network. Applications are now open to become a Global Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Economic Growth Institution (EGI). Interested applicants can learn more about the program, fill out an application form, and reach out to Millie Chu at Global Detroit.
For founders, this announcement means access to a startup visa, with a long runway, and a path to a green card. Global EIR founders will use their experience as founders to support EGI’s mission of helping other Michigan-based companies develop and execute growth strategies while simultaneously building their startups without worrying about their visa status.
From a broader perspective, the Global EIR program attracts international founders to Michigan. The goal of the Michigan coalition, led by Global Detroit and joined by the William Davidson Foundation, EGI, and Global EIR, is to contribute to the Detroit renaissance and demonstrate how startups are a critical part of economic growth in the 21st century. Thank you in particular to the William Davidson Foundation for their generous support to launch Global EIR in Michigan.
If you’re interested in learning more, I encourage you to look at the detailed information on Global Detroit’s site and apply. They are looking for high-growth international founders primarily in the STEM sector who have a need for an H1B visa and would like to establish their business in southeastern Michigan. Once approved by Global Detroit and EGI, the founder is offered a stipend for working part-time (10-20 hours a week) at the university, along with receiving entrepreneurial guidance and resources to help grow their business.
As of today, Global EIR has helped over 80 founders solve their visa issues. Their companies have raised $450 million and employ nearly 900 people. I’m excited by the progress being made despite frustrating inaction from Washington DC after a decade of conversation about creating a startup visa. Local action by leaders like Global Detroit, EGI, and the William Davidson Foundation is where solutions arise.
Amy and I are proud to be supporting the Global EIR program and the Global EIR Coalition. If you are interested in getting involved and bringing the Global EIR to your state, send me an email and I’ll connect you with the right person.
Life often involves tough tradeoffs. I love running marathons but I’m less happy about the body soreness and longer recovery cycles as I age. I’m excited about every investment Foundry Group makes, but I know not all of them are going to pan out. Entrepreneurs talk about “changing the world”, but the companies that emerge often ring hollow against this backdrop. And, when confronted with a for-profit company that has a strong social mission, many founders and investors struggle with the profit motive.
Sometimes, life gives you an easy decision. Investing in Boundless Immigration was one of those. We originally invested a small amount in Boundless’ seed round in 2017 and just led a $7.8 million Series A financing. This is a case where there isn’t a tradeoff between making a profit and making an impact.
Boundless Immigration aspires to be the leading brand around legal immigration in the United States. They take an incredibly time-consuming and expensive process – immigrating to the U.S. and securing a marriage green card or naturalization – and make it easy and available for anyone who wants to legally immigrate. Boundless’ CEO and founder, Xiao Wang, immigrated to the U.S. as a child, and vividly remember his parents paying five months of rent to afford immigration attorneys and filing fees.
Boundless saves applicants time and money by automating a process that used to involve immigration attorneys filling out endlessly redundant forms. Everybody I talk to who has gone through the immigration process is stunned when they hear Boundless provides an end-to-end service for 20% of what most people currently pay for immigration services.
Every year 2.5 million families apply for immigration services in the U.S and there are about nine million people eligible to apply for naturalization. Boundless has put together a talented and diverse team (a majority has an immigrant background) resulting in a company with unique perspectives and empathy for anyone who wants to immigrate to the U.S.
Current dynamics around technology companies, especially around privacy, has people discussing the challenge that making a profit may require moral compromise. In this case, the opposite is happening, as I think it’s a moral imperative to help improve legal immigration. In the U.S., legal immigration is a foundational activity that keeps America fresh and helps our country maintain its edge on a global stage. As an American, I want anyone who wants to build a life for themselves, contribute to U.S. society, and make this a stronger country to be able to become a U.S. citizen.
This an emotional issue for me. One set of my Jewish grandparents were first-generation Americans. If America hadn’t been there for them, they might have perished in concentration camps during WWII. Another Jewish grandparent fled Russia in the 1910s. If America hadn’t been here for him, he would have also likely been annihilated.
If there were no America, there would be no me. If America made immigrating as difficult then as it does now, I might not exist. My grandparents fleeing a shtetl didn’t have vast sums of money lying around to spend on lawyers and fees, but were welcomed into this country. They, their children, and their grandchildren have all worked hard their entire lives to be productive and contributing members of American society. I like to think America is better for us having called this country our home.
I’m not shy about my opinions on immigration. And I’m not the only partner at Foundry Group who feels this way, as my partner Jason Mendelson testified in front of the House of Representatives in 2013 when he was on the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) board about the importance of legal immigration to the U.S. innovation economy.
Life is full of difficult decisions. The last two years haven’t been easy for those of us who believe immigrants help make America great. It’s nice to have an easy decision like investing in Boundless – to make a profit, but also to remind everyone that we’re a nation of immigrants, and proud of that fact.
I’ve been consistently public, for almost a decade, about my belief that we should significantly change our approach to immigration in the US, especially for entrepreneurs. As one of the original advocates of the Startup Visa, I continue to be bummed out that our government can’t seem to figure out why this is important or doing anything productive around it.
But, I’ve been appalled the past few days, as Amy and I spend time in Germany, to watch the Trump immigration enforcement that separates children from their parents and detain the children in separate locations. While we had a joyful anniversary yesterday, I felt a bitter emotional undercurrent that upset me.
I’m lucky that I was born an American citizen. Over the years, I’ve invested in many immigrant entrepreneurs. Amy and I have supported a number of organizations that help immigrants and refugees. But when I saw Ayah Bdeir’s blog post titled Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance on the littleBits blog, it brought tears to my eyes.
We’ve been investors in littleBits since 2013. I’ve gotten to know and deeply respect Ayah as a leader and an entrepreneur. But I especially appreciate her as a human being. Her story is an amazing one, and she continues to be brave about her experience and the values that have come from it.
In her words:
“I know firsthand the strife of being a refugee. In 1982, my family fled my home country of Lebanon because they feared for our lives during the Lebanese-Israel war; we were welcomed in Canada with open arms. In 1989, a civil war broke out and my parents fled violence again to Canada, where we were again welcomed and allowed to live with dignity and respect. In 2006, a war broke out between Israel and Lebanon; my sister and I separated from my mom and other sisters to flee to Jordan, then the United Kingdom, then the United States.
I was 24-years-old, I was fully aware of what was going on, I spoke fluent English, and I had means to buy flights and hire a lawyer. Yet it was still a massively traumatizing experience. I cried for weeks afterwards and I remember every second vividly. The kids we are talking about today do not have any of the resources I had, and they will be scarred for life.”
The post is powerful and an example of the kind of intellectual leadership that makes me proud to know someone. She states clearly her view:
“History will judge us if we sit still and allow this to happen. Our kids will not forgive us if we don’t stand up for them. Our conscience will not rest if we allow something so basically human to appear partisan. We must speak out.”
Please read her entire post. In our current world of tweets and soundbites, I think it is even more important to read slowly and thoughtfully, especially from people who have direct experience with different situations that we are confronted with as a society.
And – if you want to help, here is a list of activist groups supporting families at the border that need your help right now.
Ayah – I’m honored to know you and get to work with you. Thank you for your very public leadership.
This article, Engineers Are Leaving Trump’s America for the Canadian Dream, stimulated a simple thought for me.
Canada has a huge, near-term competitive opportunity over to the US.
I have a deeply held belief that US entrepreneurship has benefited extraordinarily over since World War II due to the desire of people from around the world to come to make their lives in the US. While this immigration philosophy started with the drafting of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (and arguably before that with the European colonization of America), it transformed entrepreneurship, the US economy, and the US’s place in the world dramatically from the 1950s on.
While there are lots of issues around immigration, I believe the US’s relative permissiveness around, and openness to, people from other countries had a remarkably positive impact on the US. I wouldn’t be here other than the immigration of my great-grandparents (and my maternal grandfather) in the early 1900’s from Europe and Russia. While I feel deeply (and proudly) American, I know that my family has only been here for a few generations.
I’ve been aware of and engaged in issues around immigration for the last decade. When I saw this article yesterday, titled U.S. startup visa draws only 10 applicants as Trump throttles program, I thought to myself “duh.” I then read the article, which had a good punch line in the second paragraph.
“A big reason for the shortfall is that the year-old program has been constantly under assault since the election of President Donald Trump, whose agenda revolves around tightening immigration rules and dismantling Obama-era policies. The Homeland Security Department has twice delayed implementation of the program but agreed to leave the application process open after venture capitalists won a court challenge in December. No one has been granted a visa, and Homeland Security said last year that it’s working on a plan to kill the rule entirely.”
Yeah, well, I wouldn’t apply for one of those things either. After advocating for and working on the Startup Visa for almost a decade, it was powerful to end up with something at the end of 2016 (the International Entrepreneur Rule, which was the closest we’ve been to this) but disheartening to see the endless and continuous attack and attempt to undermine this by the current administration.
This is a gift to Canada around entrepreneurship, and I’ve already seen the impact of it in many places. The Toronto/Waterloo startup community is on fire. Many companies I’m involved in are exploring offices in Canada, especially Vancouver (for the Seattle folks) and Toronto (for the east coast folks) since it’s so difficult to get work visas in the US for employees. Other entrepreneurs from around the world are simply opting to start the company in Canada rather than the US because of all the uncertainty around visa status.
I’ve always liked Canada. There is a window in time where Canada has a massive strategic geographic advantage over the US. It’ll be interesting to look back in twenty years and see if the country capitalized on it.
Amy and I have been big supporters of a movie about immigration called For Here or To Go?
With our friends at Boundless, we are sponsoring a week of screenings in Seattle. We are supplying a bunch of free tickets and – when they are used up – will still have a set of paid tickets available.
It’s playing at the Landmark Theaters Crest Cinema Center from Friday 9/22 to Wednesday 9/27. If the topic of immigration is important to you, this is a great, powerful, thought-provoking movie.
If you want to bring a big group or spend some time with Rishi, the creator of the movie, just email me.
Yesterday, the White House announced it was delaying and likely eliminating the International Entrepreneur Rule. This rule is the closest we’ve come to a Startup Visa, something I’ve been working on with numerous other people since 2009. Several failed bills in Congress, a failed bipartisan Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill, and an Executive Order later, and we still have nothing.
I’m disappointed but not surprised. Steve Case says it really well in his article America Will Fall Behind Without Immigrant Entrepreneurs. I won’t repeat his words here because I agree 100% with them. I encourage you to go read his post if this is a topic you care about.
If you just want Steve’s punch line, it follows:
“The data is clear: immigrant entrepreneurs are job makers, not job takers. And today, we just pushed them to create jobs somewhere else.”
Jeff Farrah of The National Venture Capital Association wrote a thoughtful post titled An Unforced Error for Job Creation. It explains what the International Entrepreneurship Rule is and why delaying and rescinding it is at fundamental odds with a number of goals of the Trump Administration. Jeff’s article ends with a clear message.
“Finally, rescinding the rule is at odds with the administration’s goal of advancing emerging technology. Last month, top VCs joined President Trump at the White House to discuss how to bring to life next-generation technology. What was one of the key recommendations from venture leaders? Retain the International Entrepreneur Rule so the best technology is created and developed here rather than overseas. Today’s action is 180 degrees from the recommendation of successful startup leaders.
The administration’s move is certainly a setback, but it’s far from the end of the road. NVCA will continue to be the leading voice in Washington for immigrant entrepreneurship. We’ll continue to advocate that the Trump Administration reverse course and allow the International Entrepreneur Rule to take effect. Only then will the United States realize the full benefit of immigrant entrepreneurs to our nation.”
While I agree that it’s a setback, in the eight years since a group of us started advocating for a startup visa, entrepreneurship has taken off around the world. A number of other countries now have startup visas modeled after the original US startup visa idea. As entrepreneurship is democratizing the world, the US has exported a great idea for attracting entrepreneurs to one’s country, while denying the US’s ability to do this for itself.
That’s unfortunate and disappointing for the US, but great for the rest of the world.