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For Promising Immigrant Entrepreneurs, a Struggle to Stay in U.S.

Siva Raj was working as a product-development manager in Rochester, New York, in 2013 when he realized he had a problem. Although he exercised regularly, his health was poor. “My blood pressure was starting to rise, and my aerobic capacity was less fit than someone who was my grandfather’s age,” he says “My father had three heart attacks in 10 years, so I knew what was coming.”

Equipment already existed that could analyze a patient’s cardio and aerobic capacity, but it was expensive and typically only available to elite athletes and ailing patients. What if, thought Raj, there were a cost-effective way for anyone to undergo the tests, before they developed a problem? Thus Revvo — an affordable exercise bike that measures a user’s cardio and aerobic capacity — was born.

Raj made himself the first guinea pig. “The bike allowed me to experiment with my training, and I suddenly started to show a quick improvement in my cardio and aerobic performance. I was training smarter,” he says. Still in its early stages, the company has since initiated pilot programs at workplaces across the country, including at LinkedIn, Hyatt hotels, and the University of Arizona. “We want to bring this technology to everyone,” Raj says. “If you know what the issues are in advance, you can actually take action like I did.”

Raj came to the United States from India in 2010 on an employer-sponsored visa. He had master’s degrees in econometrics and business administration, and a deep pool of experience in market research and data technology in India, Dubai, and London, where he invented an algorithm for a one-touch glucose monitor at Johnson & Johnson. After providing the government with evidence that it was unable to secure a comparably skilled U.S. worker, Bausch + Lomb obtained Raj’s H1-B visa, a temporary visa for high-skilled workers. When Raj changed jobs, to consult for the research agency Kadence International, his new company was also able to obtain an H-1B visa for him.

There isn’t a dedicated pathway for entrepreneurs. At every stage you have a real concern about whether you will be able to stay in this country and continue doing what you’re doing.

Trying to build his own company in the United States, however, proved far more difficult. Immigrants found companies at substantially higher rates in America than do U.S. born residents. And, overall, new firms create an average of 1.5 million jobs for Americans each year. Nonetheless, the United States still does not have a startup visa for entrepreneurs, making it difficult for immigrants — even those with a proven idea and funding — to launch in the United States.

In order to remain in the United States, Raj had to incorporate his fledgling company, assemble a board of directors, and sponsor an H-1B visa for himself as an employee. It’s a costly process — one that’s out of reach for many young companies — and comes with no guarantees, given that only a limited number of H-1B visas are issued each year.

Further complicating matters, the H1-B visa is only valid for three years, or six years with an extension. Raj was fortunate in that he was able to obtain an O-1 visa, a non-immigrant visa for individuals of “extraordinary achievement.” But, after three years, that visa also requires holders to get an extension every year.

While Raj is grateful to be in the United States, he calls this patchwork approach time-consuming and stressful. “There isn’t a dedicated pathway for entrepreneurs,” he says. “At every stage, you have a real concern about whether you will be able to stay in this country and continue doing what you’re doing.”

Many promising entrepreneurs either abandon their business plan altogether or move to one of a growing number of countries with policies designed to attract and retain foreign talent. In January 2017, the Department of Homeland Security finalized a regulatory measure that would give more foreign entrepreneurs a chance to grow their firms in the United States. But that rule has since been delayed and appears on the way to being rescinded.

“That is a serious untapped opportunity for the United States,” says Raj. “America does a fantastic job of attracting the best and brightest from all over the world. But it doesn’t make it easy for them to build new businesses. If that happened, they could go from being in a job to actually creating jobs.”

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