A Bummer for Silicon Beach: Trump Is Blocking "Startup Visas" for Foreign Entrepreneurs
Gaurav Bhattacharya is the CEO of Involvesoft, a tech startup based in Santa Monica, with a Fortune 500 clientele. The Trump administration's decision to block a visa program for foreign-born entrepreneurs brings uncertainty to the company's future.
The Trump administration says it plans to rescind an Obama-era program that allows foreign entrepreneurs who launch startup companies in the United States to live here. Leaders from the technology industry say the move could harm thriving technology corridors such as L.A.'s Silicon Beach.
Finalized near the end of the Obama administration and set to take effect July 17, the International Entrepreneur Rule aims to attract foreign entrepreneurs to the United States with the offer of renewable, 30-month "startup visas." Non-citizens whose companies have financial backing of at least $100,000 in government grants or $250,000 in venture capital investment would be eligible.
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly announced in a memorandum on Monday that the department will delay the start of the program until next spring and that ultimately the "intent is to rescind the rule."
The program was backed by the technology industry as a means to maintain a competitive edge over other nations. It is the latest Obama-era policy eliminated pursuant to Trump's emphasis on restricting immigration.
"This isn't just a Silicon Valley issue," says Peter Boogaard, communications director for FWD.us, an advocacy group founded by technology leaders including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. "We want the best and brightest international business leaders to be starting their companies in the United States. We want to make sure the next Google, Facebook and Apple are built here and not somewhere else."
Gaurav Bhattacharya says he was planning to apply for a startup visa when the program took effect next week. Bhattacharya was born in India and last year launched a technology startup, Involvesoft, that now has eight employees.
Bhattacharya, a 25-year-old graduate of Cal State Long Beach, co-founded Santa Monica–based Involvesoft to link corporate clients to volunteer service opportunities. He says the company already has surpassed the $250,000 of venture capital investment required to be eligible under Obama's ill-fated program.
“It would have been very helpful if the entrepreneur visa would have taken place," he says. "That would have solved a lot of issues.”
Will Sentance is a co-founder of Codesmith, a startup that trains software engineers in Playa Vista. He was born in England and says the current visa system could push foreign entrepreneurs like him to relocate their companies overseas.
Visa issues can be a major distraction from the work of launching a company.
Will Sentance, the 28-year-old co-founder of Playa Vista–based startup Codesmith, says he was forced to return to England for three months last year after his visa application was declined, leaving the company and its 20 employees in limbo until his new visa was approved.
"The goal of the International Entrepreneur Rule was to try to attract and provide a route for the best entrepreneurs in the world to come to the United States and make those moves to get their businesses off the ground and create lots of jobs for talented Americans," says Sentance, who estimates that he's trained about 250 software engineers for high-paying jobs since 2015. "To remove that is a lost opportunity."
Lina Chen, co-founder and CEO of Nix Hydra, a company in downtown L.A. that makes mobile games and apps tailored to young women, says that dealing with visas can feel like a second job at times, and that Obama's program would have allowed tech entrepreneurs like her to focus more time on the success of their companies.
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"It should be good for the American economy if we have more entrepreneurs creating jobs, regardless of where the entrepreneurs are from," she says.
To continue to run his company from Santa Monica, Bhattacharya has applied for the H-1B and O-1 visas, the latter a competitive category reserved for individuals of extraordinary ability or achievement.
He says the Trump administration's intention to rescind the startup visa could have immediate and serious consequences.
"There may be delays in companies getting off the ground, and companies already doing well may be impacted," he says. "It adds tension to future CEOs and the workforce and to innovation in general."
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