Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.
“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”
I’m a female entrepreneur who created my first startup a few months ago.
Once my startup gets off the ground — and as COVID-19 gets under control — I’d like to visit the United States to test the market and meet with investors. Which visas would allow me to do that?
—Noteworthy in Nairobi
Congratulations on founding your startup! There are many ways to engage with the U.S. startup ecosystem, and you can start now, even before you physically come to the United States.
I recommend doing some research into the programs and resources offered to entrepreneurs like you through the U.S. Embassy and Consulates near you in your home country. I recently interviewed Lilly Wahl-Tuco, a foreign service officer who has worked for the U.S. Department of State for 15 years, on my podcast.
Wahl-Tuco discussed some of the State Department resources — including programs, competitions and grants — made available by U.S. embassies and consulates for entrepreneurs living in the area.
Serving as the first Environment, Science, Technology and Health (ESTH) officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2015, Wahl-Tuco was tasked with energizing the entrepreneurs of Bosnia. After she traveled around the country, visiting every incubator and meeting several entrepreneurs, Wahl-Tuco said she was surprised that most of the people she talked with didn’t know about the resources that the U.S. government offers through its embassies.
She recommends that entrepreneurs reach out, network and do online research to figure out what’s offered in their country or even if other foreign embassies offer resources and programs aimed at entrepreneurs.
Wahl-Tuco also suggested that entrepreneurs reach out to their local U.S. Embassy. For example, you can contact the U.S. Embassy in Kenya to find out if you can discuss your startup and business plan with an ESTH officer (if there is one) or someone else there. Connecting with embassy staff can open up many opportunities.
For instance, the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, or AWEP, which is operated by the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), brings about 30 African women entrepreneurs to the U.S. for three weeks to attend professional development meetings and network with U.S. policymakers, companies, industry associations, nonprofits and more.
AWEP participants are nominated and selected by the staff at U.S. Embassies across Africa based on their accomplishments and potential to advance the relationship between their country and the U.S. In addition, the U.S. Embassy in Kenya offers a Public Diplomacy Small Grants Program aimed at strengthening cultural, academic and professional ties between Kenya and the U.S.
Consider becoming a member of the American Center Nairobi, which is free to join and can help you make connections with embassy staff — the center is located inside the embassy. The American Center has a library that is open to the general public to access information on a variety of subjects including the United States, business and entrepreneurship; borrow books; and conduct online research. By becoming a member of the American Center, you will also be alerted to programs and guest speakers at the center.
Keep an eye out for an announcement about the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, an annual event organized by the State Department that will hopefully be rescheduled after the pandemic. Wahl-Tuco says the last summit in 2019 generated hundreds of thousands in investment for entrepreneurs from all over the world. In addition, the State Department’s Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) initiative offers a host of programs, including pitch competitions, startup training and mentoring.
You should also be aware that November is Global Entrepreneurship Month in the United States, when the entrepreneurs who innovate and boost the U.S. economy are celebrated. U.S. embassies and consulates designate one week each November as Global Entrepreneurship Week, during which events are organized to inspire individuals from all backgrounds to be entrepreneurs.
Participation in these programs and networking with embassy staff could land you in an exchange program sponsored by the State Department to come to the U.S. These programs can also help you boost your qualifications and accomplishments if you want to come to the U.S. for a longer period of time on a work visa or apply for permanent residence (green card).
In terms of your immigration options, to visit the United States on a business trip to meet prospective investors, negotiate contracts and incorporate a new business, you can apply for a B-1 visitor visa for business. Under a B-1 visa, you cannot perform any hands-on work for pay by an entity in the United States.
If you want to open an office in the United States for your startup, you can apply for an L-1A visa for executives who have worked for at least a year at a company abroad to come to the U.S. to work in the company’s U.S. office or to set up one. The L-1A can lead to an EB-1C green card for multinational executives. Take a look at this column for an overview of the common immigration options for founders.
The International Entrepreneur Rule (IER), the closest thing to a startup visa that we have in the United States, may be an option once your startup gains traction and investors. The IER was created through an executive order by President Barack Obama after efforts to persuade Congress to create a startup visa failed. The rule was finalized during the waning days of his administration. The Trump administration took action to do away with it, but didn’t follow the proper procedure to do so, and the rule remains on the books.
However, no one has received what’s called entrepreneur parole (a temporary stay) under the rule, so I’m also looking for international startup founders to be test cases for the IER. Take a look at the requirements for the rule, and contact me here if you would like to learn more.
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The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.
Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major platforms. If you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!