With Investors Wary of Non-Citizen Founders, Two Immigrants Launch Multimillion Dollar Startup With Credit Cards

Marcela Henao’s company, LeapFactor, helps corporations increase efficiency and revenue and boasts clients such as L’Oreal, Bayer, JPMorgan Chase, and Avon. The Colombian immigrant, who manages a team of tech professionals across Latin America from her company’s base in Miami, has been successful from the start. By 2014, just four years after snagging its first client, the business brought in around $3.5 million in annual revenue. But while Henao is happy to have founded her company in the United States, the country’s immigration policy has made the process extremely difficult.

Launching LeapFactor in the United States did give Henao the benefit of speed. “I think it’s very important to start the company in a place where the ecosystem helps you do it in a faster, friendly mode,” she says. She and her co-founder, Lionel Carrasco, a Bolivian immigrant, envisioned a company that would reinvent field sales execution by creating modular apps that can be customized based on individual client needs. The team compiled by Henao pulled developers from the United States, Argentina, and Mexico, drawing talent from across Latin America and North America. “Good ideas don’t come from U.S. citizens alone,” she says. “Good ideas come from any bright brain. It’s not based on if you are citizen or if you are Latin or Chinese or from Israel.”

I think that entrepreneurs, people with good ideas, people that can offer wellbeing to others— … those people should be supported by immigration [policy], no matter what they are and no matter where they come from.

But launching in the United States also posed a challenge for Henao, who is a permanent resident but not a U.S. citizen. “VC companies don’t want to fund people that are not citizens,” she says. “The reason why I got so many ‘No’s in the last five years was because I am not a citizen.” Some prospective investors questioned what would happen if, for some inexplicable reason, her residency suddenly expired after they’d invested in her company. “These days, people invest in the people who drive the idea to success, not the product itself,” Henao explains. “It’s all about the people behind the product. That’s one thing that has really affected and shaped the opportunity to be funded.” The lack of resources meant that Henao and Carrasco had to use credit cards and their own personal savings to start the company. Eventually the duo raised $2.4 million.

Their personal investment and hard work are paying off, and the company has been noticed. In 2014, the nonprofit Endeavor, which backs promising business ventures, granted both Henao and Carrasco slots among 29 high-impact entrepreneurs, all chosen based on their company’s potential to develop a high-growth model and scale at an international level. “Great ideas will not be stopped or denied because you are not a citizen from this country,” she says. “I think that entrepreneurs, people with good ideas, people that can offer wellbeing to others, that have innovative products, that have social impact products — those people should be supported by immigration [policy], no matter what they are and no matter where they come from. That can and will generate value for everybody.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…