A revolutionary new DNA product experience at Ancestry.com, a $2.6-billion business, would not have been possible without the contributions of Yong Wang, a senior data scientist, who came to the United States on a visa for extraordinary researchers. Wang’s specialized skill set helped create a product that connects people in more than 30 countries to their ethnic origins and ancestry with a simple at-home DNA test.
I don’t have two to three months to get a candidate onboard; I need them to start now.
He’s not the only immigrant making a significant impact at the company. Ancestry.com employs more than 1,400 people, has processed over 115 visas in the past five years, and has 22 green card applications in process. “There’s just not enough skilled workers here in the U.S.,” says Suzy Jessen, Ancestry’s director of global talent. In her role as the head of recruitment, Jessen sees exactly how crucial foreign workers are to the company’s success. Ancestry recruits from elite college campuses around the country, including Stanford University and MIT. The departments they typically recruit from—computer science, biology, chemistry, and mechanical engineering—tend to have a higher percentage of foreign students to begin with. The company is headquartered in Utah with offices across the globe, including in Silicon Valley, to attract and retain the best talent. Still, Jessen and her team often end up looking for visas for their new recruits.
Despite their highly qualified immigration attorney, Jessen says it can take months to secure a visa for an international research candidate. “I don’t have two to three months to get a candidate onboard; I need them to start now,” Jessen says. Ancestry often ends up paying to expedite the visa process, which can cost between $1,500 and $1,800 per candidate.
The fine print of visa law can also be a challenge. Ancestry.com often hires young, foreign professionals right out of school through its internship program. Then, after a year or so, they attempt to secure specialized visas for these workers. But there’s a catch-22. To get such a visa, a candidate needs experience—but immigration policy stipulates that such experience can’t come from the internship itself. “The government’s running the business,” Jessen says. “They’re telling us what we can and can’t do with regards to our employees.” She’d like to see that rule changed. Candidates “should be allowed to use the skills they gain at their current employer to get the visa,” she says.
Even with Ancestry.com’s resources, helping high-quality employees stay in the United States can be difficult. The process of getting a green card, for example, can take seven to 10 years. “I’ve got people who are still waiting on year seven,” Jessen says. “And they’re incredible employees; they’ve made great contributions, especially on the software development side.” These people are making lives in the United States, raising families. “This is these employees’ livelihood” at stake, Jessen says.
Jessen says Ancestry.com’s international workforce is vital for the company’s success. “It just makes you bigger, better, and stronger. We just grow in leaps and bounds when we infuse that diversity into the company,” she says. That’s why she believes it should be easier for companies to hire and retain international workers. “It shouldn’t be that challenging for people who come to the U.S. and have a meaningful skill set that can provide growth for a business,” she says.