The technology firm FreshAir Sensor recently won a New Hampshire pitch competition sponsored by AOL founder Steve Case that netted the small startup a $100,000 investment and a glowing compliment from the venture capitalist. “If they innovate successfully, they can build a great company, create a lot of jobs, and change the world,” Case said. “Because they are dealing with something that is really important to us in terms of health—basically making sure we and our kids are in safe environments.”
Then Case noted something else that impressed him: “It’s also a diverse team, reflective of our world out there, which is a great thing.”
FreshAir Sensor’s founder Jack O’Toole does want to create safe environments. His company’s WiFi-enabled sensor detects tiny chemical traces of nicotine and marijuana and immediately notifies building management. He hopes it will deter people from lighting up in hotels, apartment buildings, and other places where smoking is prohibited, preventing the buildup of harmful second- and third-hand smoke. And he does want to create jobs—specifically, 100 American jobs by 2020. Although ambitious, this seems feasible given the interest in his product he’s already seen from hundreds of property managers across the country and his company’s rapid expansion in recent years to 17 employees, all but three of whom were born in America.
But O’Toole wasn’t seeking team diversity; he was merely recruiting the best available talent. He found that in Kwame Ohene-Adu and Anani Sawadogo, engineers from Africa who were studying at Dartmouth College on foreign-student visas. In three years with the startup, Ohene-Adu and Sawadogo have become experts in “a very esoteric area,” O’Toole says. “There are very few people doing this. We couldn’t just get somebody else off the street to do what it’s taken three years of daily work to learn.”
It’s a fact that has caused the company continued stress, given the limitations of our current immigration system. Both Ohene-Adu and Sawadogo were both studying at Dartmouth on student visas, and after graduation it was uncertain if they would be able to stay long-term. The company was initially able to take advantage of a program that lets students stay in the country temporarily after graduation to gain training in their chosen scientific field, but the firm knew to keep them on it would have to turn to the H-1B visa for skilled professionals. When the company applied on behalf of Ohene-Adu and Sawadogo, in 2015, there were 233,000 applicants for 85,000 available spots. In the lottery that ultimately decided who would receive a visa, Ohene-Adu was lucky, but Sawadogo was not.
There are very few people doing this. We couldn’t just get somebody else off the street to do what it’s taken three years of daily work to learn.
“It was a serious stress issue when Anani didn’t get it the first time,” O’Toole says. “If he left, it would be a serious issue for us as a company.”
Sawadogo was more fortunate in the lottery this year, and the company is now sponsoring him for permanent residency. “Every country gets the same allocation,” says O’Toole. “We’re fortunate because they’re both from small countries. If they were from India, there’d be no way. We’d be stuck.”
O’Toole, who served 24 years as a U.S. Marine, says he’s proud of his county but questions an immigration system that rejects people who can help businesses thrive and create jobs. “We have to be able to have the best engineers and scientists we can find,” O’Toole says. “It will slow economic growth if we can’t pick people regardless of where they’re from and have reasonable confidence that they’ll be able to stay.”