5 visas, 7 years, 2 startups, and $200,000 later…..
Entrepreneurship is hard! You have to hustle, work hard, live under budget, be working round the clock, face rejection, etc, etc, etc…. you know the drill!
So adding immigration to this mix isn’t making things any simpler. It’s wild how much is NOT even shared about the price of being an entrepreneur as an immigrant. The fact that you can’t work on your startup full time because of visa limitations. You get rejected from accelerator programs not because your idea isn’t great but because you can’t leave your work visa. And not able to get a co-founder because who would trust you when you can’t be there 100% for your idea.
Today, I want to share the full details of my and my partner’s immigration journey. I think it is important to share for a couple of reasons:
- Awareness for others in the ecosystem to create more resources for immigrant founders.
- Connection for other aspiring or current immigrant founders. Where are you? You are my people! Let’s connect…
- Education and resources that may help you or another human who wants to begin their entrepreneurship journey.
I first came to the US on a tourist visa (B1/B2) in 2013 November to spend a week with my then fiancè, Anshul. Also, since we had met online, I wanted to make sure he really had an apartment in San Francisco
Anshul and I had fallen in love over a similar startup idea and thought once we did get married, we will start a startup in silicon valley. So in January of 2014, I moved to San Francisco on H4 (dependant) Visa after we got married.
2014 – Now, welcome to my 9 MONTHS OF HELL! (H4 Visa)
What does an aspiring founder do in silicon valley?
- Looks for internships/jobs in a startup?
- Volunteers at tech/entrepreneurship conferences?
- Starts building a startup?
Well, for anyone who has been given this advice on an immigrant visa, I am sad to say that NONE of this is a possibility for you. So here I was, a dream in my eyes and no possibilities. On a dependent visa in the US, one cannot volunteer, be an intern or start a company. You need a social security number for all and dependents don’t get that. What’s more, you can’t even get a credit card!
I was the co-founder of my own profitable company in India and this hit me hard! I was completely and solely dependant on my partner. I tried joining help groups of others who were in the same boat as me and all they said is that I had to accept my reality since the wait for getting a work permit is about 12 to 15 years.
I want to share the toll this takes on a human being and their relationships. No matter how optimistic you are, when you see no light and only a dark tunnel, it is heartbreaking. But here is the thing! I have realized, humans can find a way and become resilient. I was lucky to have a partner that wanted to support me and a will to NOT GIVE UP!
So, I enrolled in a master’s program in San Francisco. My partner, Anshul, took a loan for my business education which even after a considerable scholarship was huge!
2014- 2015: Now comes the phase of unlearning and relearning: (F1 Visa)
I moved to an F1 visa, also known as the student visa. I realized how much there was to learn about startups and entrepreneurship. I met the most brilliant people, professors, advisors, and lifelong mentors.
Thanks to so many of them whom I don’t know saw what in me to support my hustle, Avary Kent, Cari Guittard, Mike Grandenetti, Larry Lui, Pat Guerra, Celena Aponte, Khaula Mahmood just to name a few.
I built a network, connected with smart people and built our idea with Anshul while being a full-time student and along with his full-time job. We won our first ever Startup Weekend and loved every bit of the magic that silicon valley has.
We went to Costa Rica in 2014 for the Christmas break and also to spend a full week uninterrupted to think and strategies our startup. Anshul and I planned the roadmap of launching our first prototype. We decided that once we came back from this vacation, we will talk to immigration lawyers and get full-time on this company once I graduate.
By 2015, I had given a talk at TEDx San Francisco, raised $20K in a crowdfunding campaign, enrolled in the Global Learning Xprize, sponsored by Elon Musk and got 2 part-time jobs to bootstrap our startup as I was now eligible for a 1-year work permit.
We hired a remote team and started building our first prototype. We had no savings because everything went into our startup. We had to miss weekends and friends because every single minute went into building. BUT WE FREAKING LOVED IT! It was exhilarating, empowering and we knew someday this will make all the difference. Hahaha how naive and crazy we were. I want to hug the Arjita and Anshul of that time. They showed REAL courage and RESPONSIBILITY! And because of them, I get to tell you this story.
2015-2016: The highest of highs of entrepreneurship. (OPT Time)
I graduated with distinction, on the dean’s list! Our prototype was ready! I was going to India to test it out with 2000 kids! And having 2 part-time jobs. And our prototype failed! Yes, too many exclamations here. But I think you can understand how crazy this time must be. OPT work permit gave me wings to explore my startup bug and we knew failures will be a part of it. So when our prototype tanked, we took it in stride and used the feedback to create something better.
And we did! We started building School of Games, a California nonprofit to teach basic literacy to anyone in the world in 18 months. I volunteered at Tech Crunch, got to know about startup grind and everything in between.
Honestly, this was the golden time and I thought it would never end! But it did.
2016-2017: The hopelessness sets in again (H4 Visa)
As my OPT ended, I had to move back to H4 as Anshulwas on H1B, the work visa of US. H1B can only be sponsored by companies who have at least a $1M and along with some other 2000 restrictions. Of course, our small startup could not meet that criterion. So here I was back to square 1.
But Obama saved us! He launched something called the H4 OPT and I was eligible. I applied for it. And remember, every visa change costs about $2000. Anshul and I thought of continuing the path of a side hustle till we could raise a million dollars for our startup and get him full time too.
For Anshul, at this point, his full-time job + a startup was getting too much. Not to say, the bills that were getting piled up. Living paycheck to paycheck was getting really exhausting. So we reached out to some of the best immigration attornies and tried to find out the best options for us. NOTHING could be done. One immigration firm told us to stop the startup idea right away and only think about it in 20 years when we would get our green card.
Yes, 20 years! That is the time we had to invest to live our dreams as an immigrant. The line of Indians and Chinese people on H1B to get a Green card is the longest. Wait times vary between 12 to 25 years.
We sent our pitches to over 100 people, cold emails, warm intros, conferences meetups. Everything. NOT A SINGLE REPLY! NOT ONE! Well, this is the normal fundraising process, I know. But we were not just any 2 founders. We were a married couple, trying to build an impact company, in a saturated space on visas in the US.
Anshul and I joked sometimes saying:
How dare we dream so different? Why can’t we just do what we are allowed to do?
But we wouldn’t give up that easily. NOT US!! So Anshul found a brilliant Attorney who told us about the Alien of Extraordinary visa. And we thought Anshul would be perfect for it. He was doing phenomenally at his day job. Had filed for patents and won awards. He will get that visa.
Getting Alien of extraordinary visa is like winning a noble prize. First of all, it has this crazy checklist that says: Have you won a noble prize of similar awards? But getting this visa in US meant that our green card would be expedited and we could freely work on our company.
We were pumped but here is the thing! Silicon Valley is FULL of engineers who are brilliant and getting this Visa was next to impossible. So the attorney asked about the work I did previously and what my profile was right now. And we got our miracle! I qualified for the Alien of Extraordinary ability Visa and my application was approved in October 2017. My work in startups, awards in social entrepreneurship, and efforts in the education field brought me this win! SO all that hustle wasn’t really bad huh….
This meant, Anshul would also get the work permit on my application and he could quit his day job soon.
But the phenomenal high doesn’t just here. We thought of upping the ante and apply for Y Combinator. YES! We did it. AND we got called for the interview. We prepared and prepared and prepared and got mentored by amazing leaders in the space. After the interview, we were rejected. It was a blow but making it to the YC interview as an immigrant is still a badge of honor that I will always wear.
Anshul left his day job in December and we were ready to reign in 2018 as full-time founders. YAS!!!!! We would get our green in 3-6 months and get funding and build something phenomenal.
Do note, the application fee and this immigration process broke our backs and banks quite literally but we knew this was the price of immigrant entrepreneurship. The good was coming. It had to.
2018-2019: The hustle, the failure, and the ultimate truth (On – Parole: No Visa)
Well, Trump became the president. And the Green card applications were all halted. Suddenly, Anshul and I were on parole which means a transit time of wait. You have no visa, no travel permissions, and endless wait time.
Every time we had to travel out of the country for a conference, our accelerator program in Finland, we had to apply for a (PAID) permission, pay an additional visa fee and the permission was always discretionary which meant all our travel expenses would go down the drain. If you don’t already know, funding such a team that can’t even travel for their startup growth is NOT a real investor pleaser so yes. We got rejected and rejected some more.
100+ NOs. Not to worry. We had to get to our NOs to find that YES!!! right? The benefits that the tech job of Anshul was giving us were no more there so we had to get our own insurance. We couldn’t take a cheap one because there were instances when green card application was rejected because it was seen that the immigrants don’t have enough finances and will become a liability. So we got the expensive one. Not kidding. For the next 2 years we paid approximately $1500/month for our insurance.
Our friends were moving to better companies, promotions, buying houses and we were paying our dues. The price of being an immigrant entrepreneur.
The hustle was on! Anshul and I got selected for a Finnish Accelerator and LOVED it! Our demo day was at SLUSH and it was epic. WE got venture-backed by Impact investors from Finland. Our first commercial product got launched in September 2018 and we got our first 1000 paying users.
It’s hard to remember what this roller coaster actually felt. The happy days were happy for both and the sad days were truly sad for both.
I turned 30 in November 2018 and had to be in Finland. My parents were planning to spend my 30th in Scandinavia with me while we worked on our startup and our travel permission was denied. My parents reached Scandinavia and we were stuck in San Francisco. Only a few moments can beat the loss of not being with your family on special occasions when you are an immigrant. I was missing so much and there was nothing in my control.
After finding our product-market fit, we made a decision to raise our seed round in 2019. We raised part of it and couldn’t raise the rest. We tried everything! But at our 200th no, we realized that we needed to revisit. We laid off our team (hardest decision yet!), and in September of 2019, made a conscious decision to take it slow. We will bootstrap our revenue-positive startup. It will be slow but we will own 100% of it.
Our Green card was nowhere in sight so we put our realistic hat on and Anshul got a full-time job. Suddenly, the pressure cooker was relieved. We could build our company at our pace, on our terms, and being the majority stakeholder. It wasn’t ALL THAT BAD. But yes we were back to square 1.
2020-2021: Liberation, security, and rise of the Phoenix (Green Card)
The world shut down! But our life was just beginning. We moved to the woods to reconnect and recuperate. On our last day in San Francisco, our green card arrived and WE WERE TRULY FREE!
Anshul and I have this tradition to dance like crazy every time something big happens in our lives but looking at our green card, we both just cried. We truly had paid our dues! We did it! And now we would rise from our own ashes like phoenixes.
The way forward……
To all those immigrants and allies of immigrants. I shared this journey not for you to see and feel bad about this struggle. I LOVE this story of mine. It makes me feel, there is nothing I can’t do. It has taken away the fear of competition, hustle, and speed because this has made me resilient. Failure is not the end but my will to give up is.
So if you read this story, know that I am here, Anshul is here and we are building solutions for you, the immigrant, the dreamer, the one that will change the world.
This piece originally appeared on LinkedIn, and was published here with permission.