Dear Sophie: Any suggestions for recruiting international tech talent?

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.”

Dear Sophie,

I work in talent acquisition for a rapidly scaling startup, and I’m looking for an edge to onboard top engineers.

I’m seeing many stellar candidates who are about to graduate from a U.S. university and who mention programs like CPT, OPT and STEM OPT. How do we recruit and retain them?

— Rigorous Recruiter

Dear Sophie,

My co-founders and I have an early-stage startup. We’re having a really tough time recruiting engineering talent, but we’re open to hiring internationally.

Any suggestions on strategies and how to help our company stand out?

— Flourishing Founder

Dear Flourishing,

Thanks for reaching out! I recently invited Beth Scheer, head of talent at Homebrew Ventures, for a chat on my podcast. Scheer serves as an adviser to startup founders and executive teams on all things under the talent umbrella. She sees her job as “teaching founders to fish.” She shared her insights on recruiting talent, the importance of diversity and inclusion, and compensation:

“One of the things I say in my first meeting with, let’s say two co-founders,” Scheer said, “is until you raise your [Series] A, you will spend about 40% of your time on recruiting. And they’ll look at me and say, ‘Oh, that’s not so bad, that’s 20% each.’ And I say, ‘No, no, no, that’s 40% each person.’ And that’s when they realize how hard it is, and that’s always been the case no matter what type of [hiring] market. People underestimate how hard it is. And right now, in this market, it’s a lot harder.”

As you’ve discovered, competition, particularly for engineering talent, is extremely intense right now, with job candidates firmly in the driver’s seat. According to an analysis by the National Foundation for American Policy, there were more than 1.2 million unique active job vacancy postings in computer occupations in the United States as of September 6, 2021, up 15% from six months earlier.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn

Moreover, Scheer said the startups she works with are finding that nearly every candidate they make an offer to already has at least three other offers. That means you have to be strategic and deliberate on everything from clearly articulating your value proposition and mission statement to the makeup of your team to the benefits and compensation packages you offer.

As early as possible, early-stage companies need to be intentional about diversity, inclusion and equity whether the company has two male founders or two female founders.

“If you don’t leverage this and be deliberate, you will get to 10 people and you will all look and think the same,” Scheer said. “I’m not saying don’t look at internal networks. Obviously, you need to hire fast and smart. If someone is a known entity, great. I worked with a company that said ‘We’re putting a moratorium on hiring another male until we bring in a woman.’ Luckily, they did that when they did, because if they waited until they got to 12 people, who wants to be the first?”

Thinking globally when it comes to hiring is a great way to not only open up your recruiting pipeline but also to bring diversity to your company.

Based on her experience, Scheer said founders get overwhelmed by the cost and timing of immigration. I always recommend being strategic and deliberate about offering immigration as a benefit to recruit and retain international talent, such as offering green card sponsorship after a year or two or even sharing all or a portion of the cost of getting a green card through marriage. Take a listen to my podcast episode on how tech companies can save money on the immigration process.

To determine whether a prospective candidate will need to be sponsored for a visa in order to work, startups can usually ask:

  • Are you currently eligible to work in the U.S.?
  • Do you require visa sponsorship to continue working in the U.S. — or will you in the future?

Right now, recruiting international talent currently in the United States but working for another company is the quickest hiring option given that hiring talent currently living abroad might be more challenging depending on how the specific consulate in their home country is operating.

Many U.S. embassies and consulates remain closed due to the pandemic or are only processing visas on an emergency basis. The immigration options with the quickest turnaround times include:

  • Sponsoring a candidate for an O-1A visa for individuals with extraordinary ability.
  • Doing an H-1B transfer from another employer.
  • Getting a cap-exempt H-1B.
  • Recruiting people from Australia with the E-3 or from Canada or Mexico with the TN.
  • Hiring a candidate to work remotely from Canada or any time zone ideally within three hours.

Check out this previous Dear Sophie column in which I talk in more detail about H-1B transfers and green cards for tech talent. When candidates ask questions — “How can I transfer my H-1B?” and “How can I preserve my stage of the green card process?” — it’s important to be able to explain how your startup will support them based on their specific needs.

Scheer also tells the founders she works with to base equity and compensation packages on the job and location, not the person. “If you stay within the equity-comp bands (ranges), you won’t have bigger issues to fix down the road,” she said. “I see this often in a tough [hiring] market, or if the founder really wants to hire somebody, and they really need to go out of the pay range to close this person, they may get that person, but chances are when they go to hire the next person, they’re going to have very challenging equity and comp bands.”

Scheer pointed out that early-stage founders can get creative, such as offering a delayed sign-on bonus.

“But if there’s a $200,000 delta [between what the startup can offer in compensation and what the candidate expects], that’s probably not going to work. Early in the process, founders need to develop a rapport with candidates to see what motivates them: Is it stock, recognition or base salary? We advise founders and hiring managers to give two offers to a candidate — one with a higher base salary and lower equity, and the flip. It empowers the candidate.”

Wishing you the best!

— Sophie

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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!