Politics Won’t Fix It: Empowering Immigrant Entrepreneurs and Solving the Startup Visa Problem

Can we solve the Startup Visa problem with rocket science? Not likely.

But a former Caltech rocket engineer just might be able to. Craig Montuori is the brains and leadership behind Global EIR,  a nonprofit in Boulder, CO that is removing the barriers talented immigrant entrepreneurs face when wanting to start or run a business in the U.S.

To understand the problem they’re solving it helps to start at the top. What exactly is “the Startup Visa problem”?

In short, foreign entrepreneurs who want to start a company in the United States have very limited visa options that enable them to do so. The handful of visas that are available to them, including the EB-1 and EB-5, are not necessarily designed for entrepreneurs and have limited application to their use case.

To combat this issue, in 2009 entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham drafted a piece of legislation called the Startup Visa. It was a proposed amendment to the U.S. immigration law that would grant immigrant entrepreneurs a visa after meeting some specific criteria focused around fundraising and job creation. The bill bounced around in legislative hell for three years.

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The Obama Administration provided some hope in January 2017 in the form of the International Entrepreneurs Rule, which was supposed to go into effect July 17th, 2017.

This rule was intended to be an alternative to the Startup Visa, allowing foreigners building fast-growing businesses to apply for “parole status”, a status typically designated for humanitarian work but being repurposed for entrepreneurs.

This International Entrepreneurs Rule, much like the Startup Visa, hit a seemingly insurmountable roadblock in mid-July when the Trump Administration put a halt to it before it went into effect. The administration alluded to the fact that it will likely be killed altogether.

And so here we are, in 2017, seven years after the Startup Visa was initially crafted, with little progress to show on the policy front for immigrant entrepreneurs.

“What else can we do that doesn’t require politicians?”

This question, posed by venture capitalist and entrepreneur Brad Feld in 2013, is one of the many things that encouraged rocket scientist turned immigrant advocate Craig Montuori to continue leaning into the problem. At the time, Craig was an advocate of the Startup Visa and spent his free time helping immigrant founders with visa problems. His background as a Caltech rocket engineer, combined with political experience as an intern on Capitol Hill, gave him a unique skillset to solve complex policy problems. At the encouragement of one of his mentors, Craig took on the immigrant entrepreneur visa problem. In a world where most people were looking to legislation to solve the problem, Craig and Brad took that question to heart – what can we do that doesn’t require politicians?

Fast forward to today, and what began as a passion project has evolved into Global EIR, a nonprofit that Craig co-founded and serves as the Executive Director. While most of the tech and entrepreneurship community continues to focus on fixing the problem at the policy level, Craig and his team at Global EIR have established a way to operate within the existing immigration laws, strategically navigating around many of the barriers that traditionally exist.

To date they have helped 45 founders across the country receive visas, and those founders have created over 125 new jobs and collectively raised over $40,000,000. So how do they do it?

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The Global EIR team will help immigrant entrepreneurs acquire an H-1B visa by pairing the founders with part-time work at a Global EIR partner university. H-1B visas “allow U.S. employers to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations.” The founders work for the partner universities in a number of roles, while simultaneously building their company to the point of attracting funding.

Global EIR currently operates these university programs in Alaska, Boston, Boulder, Cleveland, St. Louis, and San Jose. They like to work with hungry communities – the ones that want change in their local ecosystems, and recognize immigrant entrepreneurship as a viable path for stimulating the local economy.

40% of today’s Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants, including AT&T, IBM, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, McDonald’s, Goldman Sachs, eBay, Kohls, Comcast, Pfizer, and Yahoo!. Global EIR wants to operate in cities that see those stats as an opportunity within their own communities. For example, Anchorage hasn’t had a venture backed exit (company acquisition or IPO) in five years. They rank 49th out of 50 states in basic venture capital metrics. To a community like Anchorage, Global EIR is a major tool to attract and retain talented people to build companies.

Brad Feld continues to help shape Global EIR, most recently by injecting $100,000 of funding into the organization, which will help them scale the university program to more cities and entrepreneurs. Global EIR was also the first nonprofit to ever complete the Techstars program, which Brad co-founded. Traditionally a tech startup accelerator, Techstars and Global EIR wanted to see if the same methodologies could be applied to early stage nonprofits. According to Craig, the Techstars experience was one word – amazing. Being surrounded by ambitious founders with high expectations helped Craig level up his vision and execution for the organization.

While the future of immigration law in the U.S. looks uncertain, the future of creating innovative solutions outside of policy seems to be bright. The story of the Startup Visa, and in turn Global EIR, is a long and complicated one. But an organization that is seven years in the making is starting to find its stride. They’ve crafted a simple solution to a complex problem, and thanks to new energy and funding, Global EIR’s future is truly just beginning. If the politicians won’t fix the immigrant entrepreneur problem, thankfully for all of us, Craig and his talented team of rocket scientists, politicians, and programmers turned immigrant advocates will.

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