It’s no surprise that Colombian-born entrepreneur Alex Torrenegra was named one of the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Young Global Leaders, MIT’s TR35 Colombia Top Innovator of the Year in 2012, and one of Business Insider’s 2013 “Badass Immigrants in Tech.” Fifteen years ago, after being in the country for only five years, he’d already launched a successful web services business in Miami that employed six American citizens.
Despite his success and given the fact that no work visa exists for immigrants who start small businesses, Torrenegra was told by officials that he’d have to return to Colombia. The irony of the situation did not escape him. “I was the co-founder, but I couldn’t work for the company,” he explains. At the time, Torrenegra had just begun to date fellow Colombian-born businesswoman Tania Zapata, who had just recently obtained U.S. citizenship. The couple decided to throw the dice and get married, enabling Torrenegra to remain in the United States. “I met Tania six months before,” he says. “We had fallen in love. Now, we’re not only still in love, but we ended up co-founding several businesses together. We also have a beautiful daughter.”
Zapata was also born in Bogotá, Colombia. For her, the process to legalize her status in the United States took 12 years. She arrived in the country in 1974, when she was six. By age 18, her uncle’s visa sponsorship for the family had finally come through and Zapata became a legal resident.
In 2005, the young couple started Voice123, a company that blossomed into what Torrenegra says was the largest marketplace of voice actors. But the couple soon began to think even bigger. Zapata, a trained voice actor, realized that her jobs frequently came through networking, a time-consuming process that sometimes seemed dependent on luck. The pair realized they could use technology to more seamlessly connect artists with available jobs. In 2012, they started Bunny Inc., a production services website that linked companies with freelance designers, artists, and writers. Bunny Inc. became successful enough—with hundreds of thousands of users—that Torrenegra’s decision to remain in the United States was simple. “There were so many opportunities here that I knew I wasn’t going to have in Colombia,” he says. Bunny Inc. was rebranded in June 2016 as Torre, and now employs 63 people.
There are so many beneficial things that immigration brings: more people consuming, more people adding to the economy, more people paying taxes.
Despite their success, the young couple’s time in the United States hasn’t been without sorrow. Zapata’s mother grew sick, and the U.S. immigration system provided no way for one of her brothers to come see her. “I tried to prepare all of the documents so we could ask for a tourist visa, and see if maybe, because of the emergency of my mom being sick and all, that he could get it,” she says. “He was denied. Mom passed away, and my older brother was never able to see her. I think that was probably one of the most painful things that we have gone through.”
Zapata doesn’t understand the cause of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. “There are so many beneficial things that immigration brings: more people consuming, more people adding to the economy, more people paying taxes. That’s why the economies that have the larger populations are the ones that do best. It’s because people consume things and that helps the economy grow.”
And even today, Torrenegra finds that wrangling with U.S. immigration policy is a challenge. He planned to hire Santiago Jaramillo, an accomplished business professional and Colombian native, and spent around $6,000 on legal fees for the visa application process. Yet the U.S. government grants high-skilled visas based on a lottery system. Jaramillo didn’t make the cut. Torrenegra forged ahead, and assembled a team based in Colombia, headed by Jaramillo, who is now the company’s Chief Operations Officer. “Because of the U.S. government not wanting to grant a visa for him [Jaramillo], now we have 25 employees in Colombia that could have been here in the U.S.,” Torrenegra says.
Other employees of Torrenegra’s companies, like Colombian native Luisa Moscoso, have been forced to leave the country even after graduating from U.S. universities, lacking a legal pathway to remain in the country to work. American companies may require workers with skills that are hard-to-find or unavailable among U.S. workers, necessitating a search for a skilled worker who might be based abroad. “Why should I limit my talent pool? Talent is a global market, it’s not just an American market.”
Torrenegra believes in immigration reform that will factor in the challenges faced by innovators and entrepreneurs who depend on highly skilled workers. As such, he’s a member of the March for Innovation, a virtual march on Washington that promotes innovation and entrepreneurship within comprehensive immigration reform bills. “Luck shouldn’t be the deciding factor about whether a person who can bring a lot to the economy should be able to stay,” he says.