Let’s say you are a super smart kid living overseas and you get accepted into an Ivy League school in the United States. You’re ready to move to the US to go to college and then you want to start your own US company. That’s the American Dream.
That’s also job creation. The stats are clear that this nation of immigrants is still heavily powered by the newcomers, according to the Kauffman Group.
Unfortunately for the immigrants, the process is full of “pain and tears,” one tech startup founder who’s been through it told us.
And it can leave workers vulnerable to an almost indentured-servant situation with their employers.
This is Taher Baderkhan’s story
Baderkhan is the CTO cofounder of a startup called YouVisit, a New York virtual reality company founded by three immigrants. Today it employees 85 people, Baderkhan tells us, and it’s never taken VC money — meaning it is supporting itself on its own profits, he says.
But it wouldn’t have happened if Baderkhan didn’t fall in love with a US citizen in college, a girlfriend who then patiently waited almost 10 years for him to hit his head against the green-card wall.
Get laid off, get deported
Baderkhan came to the US in 1999 when he was 18 years old to study at Brandeis University on a full-ride academic scholership. He’s from Jordan, a country known as one of the US’s strongest allies in the Middle East. He came from a well-to-do family: his mum a teacher, his dad an executive for a mining company, and his parents still live in Jordan.
After school, he landed a job at the Boston company where he was an intern. They agreed to sponsor his H-1B visa.
“I was so excited about being in the US, working, contributing,” he says. “This is a place where you can make dreams happen.”
But on his first day as a full-time employee, they laid off a third of the company. They kept him and told him, with everyone else gone, congrats, he’d been promoted to the head of the department.
“That scared me,” he says, not of the responsibility but of the company’s financial shape. “If I get laid off, there’s no one to sponsor me.”
If a H-1B visa holder loses their job, the person must land another job within a few weeks with a company willing to sponsor the visa. If not, the person is sent home.
“So anyone migrating to the US, studying here and working with an H-1B visa, it’s always at the back of your mind, that you could at any second be deported,” he says.
Fortunately, he landed another job at Accenture in New York, a company also willing to sponsor his visa. He stayed there for seven years.
All work, no life
About four years into his work at Accenture, he and two of his college buddies had an idea for their own company, YouVisit, making and hosting “virtual reality” content for businesses and organisations.
The content can be viewed with a virtual reality headset like an Oculus Rift, or on a regular website, letting you look 360 degrees by moving your mouse around.
The problem was, he couldn’t leave the day job at Accenture. Not only did the company have to sponsor his visa, but it also had to sponsor his application for permanent residency, “the green card.” That’s a process that takes years, he says.
And he needed the green card before he could apply for citizenship.
All three of YouVisit’s cofounders are immigrants. CEO Abi Mandelbaum is from Colombia and CTO Endri Tolka from Albania, but the two had already obtained their green cards.
And yet his own company still couldn’t sponsor him, even as it started making money and hiring people. To be a self-employed sponsor requires investing a half a million into a company, Baderkhan says. In its early years, the young company wasn’t making enough profits to quality for that.
So for two years, he did both, maintaining his day job working 10 hours a day at Accenture, and then working until 4 a.m. on his company, plus working weekends, he says.
There was one other way out: Get married. He and his girlfriend had been together nine years by then, he says.
“I’m a stubborn person. I didn’t want to get my green card through marriage. I wanted to prove to myself I could get it on my own,” he tells us.
And then things got rocky because he was working two jobs.
“During those years where I was working those hours and not sleeping, my relationships almost got ruined,” He says. “Not only with my wife (girlfriend at the time) but with my friends. Basically I had no life,” he says.
She made it clear she wasn’t going to wait forever. “I had no choice,” he said. “We were in love. I got married.”
Couldn’t see his family
There was one other hardship during those H-1B visa years.
He couldn’t go home to visit his ageing parents because the visa he had would not have allowed him back in the country.
“Because I’m an Arab from a Muslim country and I was 28, the prime age, they needed to do a security clearance,” he says.
The clearance is done at an embassay after you leave the country, and, at best, it would take a few weeks. But it’s risky. If anything is flagged, a mistake gets made, if his name was similar to a known terrorist, the security clearance could take six months to a year. He’d be stuck out of the country, lose his job, lose his visa, and not be able to return at all.
“I didn’t go back to Jordan for six years. I didn’t see my relatives. I didn’t see relatives before they passed away. That was difficult,” he says.
Once he was married, he got his green card quickly. He immediately quit his day job.
And his business took off, he says.
The company went from 11 employees in its first two years to 85 today. It currently has over 500 customers, including the US Army, Harvard, Yale, Carnival cruises, big real estate companies, entertainment brands, concerts and so on, he says.
Within three years of gaining permanent residency, he became a US citizen.
“I love being in the US. When they say the US is the land of the American Dream, I truly believe in it. If you are smart, if you are talented, if you work hard, you can be anyone you want. And no one will judge you. People will applaud. They will cheer you on, help you get there,” he says.
Now he and his cofounders are paying it forward. “We hire talent. If we find the right talent who needs a sponsor, I’m happy to sponsor, not just for an H-1B visa but for a green card, right away. If the person wants to be in the US and contribute, I feel that’s my duty,” he says.