What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “startup”? For many, it’s “Silicon Valley.” And for good reason. California’s tech startups received over $14 billion of the nearly $50 billion America invested in technology startups in 2014.
We’ve seen the likes of Google, Facebook, Uber, Tesla and countless other tech giants rise from American soil, helping to position the United States as one of the most opportune locations to launch a technology company.
However, dig a bit deeper and you'll find that not all of these innovative companies were started by American-born founders. In fact, nearly half of Silicon Valley’s startup founders and employees are immigrants. That said, the current state of H-1B visa access makes bringing international talent to the United States extremely difficult. We must find new ways to go about acquiring foreign entrepreneurs.
Each year, we turn away tens of thousands of highly skilled potential entrepreneurs and increase the likelihood that the next Google will be started elsewhere. Why would America want to prevent foreigners from starting tech companies here considering the enormous role immigrants have played in the success of Silicon Valley startups and others across the country?
Opponents of immigrant visa reform argue that the hiring of foreign workers thwarts U.S. unemployment efforts and is a means to acquire cheap labor. However, these claims don’t hold much weight if we dig into the facts, such as the fact that STEM education in the United States has not cracked the top 20 international rankings in years.
Startups can’t afford to recruit average talent when they are trying to revolutionize industries or compete with the “unicorns” of the tech world. We wouldn’t expect the Yankees to recruit players only from New York just because there are a lot of unemployed athletes living in that city. Those expectations should apply to tech startups as well.
Hiring foreign employees is actually more expensive than hiring American citizens.
Not only does the government ensure that highly skilled H-1B visa citizens meet strict wage requirements, but a company must generally pay for interview travel, immigration fees (which total roughly $8,000 per person) and relocation expenses in order to bring on a foreign employee.
Hiring foreign employees isn’t about cheap labor but, rather, acquiring skilled talent.
That said, the current H1-B lottery system doesn’t give aspiring foreign entrepreneurs much hope for starting their companies in America, or U.S.-based startups much confidence in their ability to hire international talent. The good news is, there are several relatively unknown visas that startups can leverage when trying to reel in the next Tim Berners-Lee (British) or Geoffrey Hinton (British Canadian),
Three other visas you may not have heard of
- TN: This is the most common visa after the H-1B, as it allows Canadians and Mexicans with an undergraduate degree to work in the United States. If you can’t find the right people on American soil, then this visa ensures you don’t have to look much further. With Mexico showing a recent commitment to startups and Canada producing entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, both of these countries are prime for talent picking. (Full disclosure: I immigrated from Russia, to Israel, to Canada and then to the Unite States.)
- H-1B1: Created as a result of the US-Chile Free Trade Agreement, the H-1B1 visa allows nonimmigrant workers from Chile and Singapore to apply for one-year employment opportunities. Extensions may be obtained twice, in one-year increments. Some 1,400 visas are available to Chileans, and 5,400 are set aside for Singaporean nationals.
- E-3: While this visa is specific to Australian candidates, this workforce is a top group to acquire, as Australian citizens are brought up in one of the top 20 STEM education programs in the world. This visa is more powerful than both the TN and H-1B because the E-3 allows spouses and children to work in the United States as well, serving as a major recruiting advantage for onboarding highly skilled employees with families.
Startups are an extremely risky venture for any entrepreneur and ensuring you have the most qualified, talented people around you, regardless of their citizenship, is arguably the most critical piece of your startup’s success. Despite limited H-1B visa availability, it is not the be-all and end-all for startups looking to bring in foreign talent. The three visas outlined above offer new options for entrepreneurs whose candidates haven't been among the 36 percent of H-1B applicants accepted this year.
It is imperative that U.S. entrepreneurs and the government do whatever it takes to accommodate foreign-born talent -- or we will quickly see Silicon Valley relocate beyond our borders. The United States has become one of the most brilliant startup ecosystems in the world, and we can’t let immigration reform be the reason to change that.