At the age of 25, with just $700 in his pocket, Venezuelan-born Andrés Moreno booked a flight to Silicon Valley, California. It was the right move at the right time for the young man. In Menlo Park, Moreno raised money from angel investors, slept on friends’ sofas and spent two years sourcing seed money for Open English, which would later evolve into Open Education. He ultimately raised over $120 million. Today, the business is headquartered in Miami, and is the largest online English school in 20 countries. “We have over a thousand teachers that work with us globally,” Moreno says. An additional 150 employees are based at Open Education’s headquarters in Miami. Though virtual classes with native English speakers, the company empowers students to become fluent in English in a year or less.
Yet the U.S. immigration system made this success, and its accompanying economic contributions, difficult to achieve. Becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen took Moreno 10 years. “I immigrated here in my early twenties to make it, to follow that American dream,” he says. But because he was working for himself, instead of an established company, he had to navigate the visa process without any institutional support. “It would’ve been very, very helpful if there had been some sort of entrepreneur visa that was easier to obtain,” he says. “At the time, there really wasn’t anything available. The U.S. is the best place in the world to start a business, and the best place in the world to raise money to build a team, but gosh, that’s only if you’re already here. If you have to come here to do it, there are a number of challenges.”
The U.S. is the best place in the world to start a business, and the best place in the world to raise money to build a team, but gosh, that’s only if you’re already here. If you have to come here to do it, there are a number of challenges.
Moreno left his native Caracas, Venezuela at the age of three. His father’s work as a diplomat took the family to nine different nations over the next 15 years, including Slovenia, Chile, and the United States. Moreno learned four languages, including English, while enrolled in a Maryland elementary school. He was young when the idea for what would become a million-dollar company took root. “Being Latin American, and having travelled as much as I did because of my parents’ work, I got to see firsthand the value and power of languages,” he says, “Particularly communication in English. It’s not just the language of one country. It’s become the global tool for professional success and for personal development.”
He returned to Venezuela to attend Universidad Simón Bolívar, studying mechanical and production engineering, after which he started a company. But the challenges of entrepreneurship in Latin America quickly emerged. “I eventually realized that it was very tough to raise capital for an early stage venture, especially a technology venture, in Latin America a decade ago,” recalls Moreno, who is now based in Miami. “There’s just no education there around investing in an early-stage company.”
Today, Moreno is an active participant in South Florida’s tech ecosystem. He serves on the board of Endeavor Miami, which helps high-impact entrepreneurs get off the ground, mentors local startup companies, and reinvests his own capital as an angel investor. And on a broader level, Moreno sees his company itself as serving the public good. “We work with over half a million students, many of whom are immigrants to this country, as part of the U.S. Hispanic community,” he explains. “We’ve been helping students reach fluency in English, which adds a huge value towards helping them gain a competency that will allow them to obtain careers in areas of high job demand, such as computer programming, app development, or digital marketing– the careers of now.”
With the acquisition of Next University, Moreno’s aspirations for Open Education continue to grow. It’s now one of the largest online universities in Latin America. The business recently launched initiatives in Russia and Turkey, and is focused on continuing to create new businesses in emerging markets, complementing Open Education’s current suite of online instruction products.
“If you ask any entrepreneur anywhere, ‘hey where would you like to build your company?’ I’m sure they would say the U.S.,” Moreno says. “But immigration policy makes it tougher to bring those founding teams to this country so they can do that. If we just were able to create a path, I think a lot of ideas and a lot of innovation would gravitate here. We’ve already done the work as a nation to create the best place on earth to start a business. Now, we have to let people come to start businesses.”