Everything was going well for Mohannad “Moh” Arbaji. It was September of 2015, and he had just raised $2 million in venture capital funding for his educational prep business, Chalk Talk. But after a temporary trip to his native Jordan, where Arbaji had traveled to expand his investor pool, the United States immigration system threw up a major obstacle. His visa was suddenly rejected; he couldn’t return to America. “I was walking into the embassy with an additional $2 million in foreign money I’m bringing into the country on the horizon and a plan to create 20 more jobs,” Arbaji says. The only thing that had changed was that his business was growing. And yet, he was rejected.
I knew I wanted to go to college in the U.S. The education system produces fully rounded individuals.
Arbaji wasn’t about to give up. He grew up in Jordan and at the age of 16, had received a full scholarship to an international boarding school in the United States. He jumped at the chance. “I knew I wanted to go to college in the U.S.,” he says. “The education system produces fully rounded individuals.” Arbaji says that colleges in many other countries fail to teach the soft skills people really need to succeed in the workforce. After he finished high school, he got what he was hoping for—a full scholarship to attend Brown University.
Arbaji’s college years were transformative, and he wanted to help other students have the same wonderful experience. He knew that a lot of international students have a common problem in applying to American universities: They score extremely well in math, but their English SAT scores are low. So he wrote an SAT prep book and sold it door-to-door in Jordan over his summer break. After graduating from Brown with degrees in economics and computer engineering, and working as a consultant and software developer, he decided to start his own company.
Chalk Talk now employs nine people and, with the $2 million he raised from venture capital in Jordan, Arbaji hopes to more than double Chalk Talk’s staff in the coming year. Chalk Talk created an online learning platform that helps students improve their scores on standardized tests like the SAT, while simultaneously increasing their high school GPAs. The company tailors its lessons directly to students’ high school curricula. In this way, they’re not just working for a distant future goal but doing something with immediate, tangible benefits. Most Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have a dismally low completion rate, meaning many students drop out before they finish the course. Arbaji believes his unique model will increase motivation and help students stick to the work long enough to see real improvement. So far, Chalk Talk’s courses have a 100-percent completion rate.
And yet Arbaji was unable to adequately run his business after he was denied re-entry to the United States, despite having lived here for 11 years. “I had been here for long enough, and I had nothing on my record, so it just made no sense that I would ever have problems,” he says. He’d even initially been approved for an investor visa. And yet when he tried to re-enter the country and get the same visa reapproved, he was rejected.
Eventually, Arbaji applied for a position as an entrepreneur-in-residence at LearnLaunch, a startup accelerator in Boston. The job would make him an employee of the firm and allow him to advise and mentor a larger portfolio of LearnLaunch’s accelerator companies, including ChalkTalk. “I’m so happy to be back,” he says. “It’s such a relief.”
Arbaji believes the United States should create a startup visa for entrepreneurs who are coming here to create new businesses and new jobs. “Other countries have solved it,” he says. “There’s a startup visa in most developed countries. Just take that model that works everywhere and apply a version of it that works for you. You don’t have to start from scratch.”