Sharoon Thomas launched his tech startup, Fulfil.IO, in the summer of 2015, and soon after was accepted into the 500 Startups business accelerator in Mountain View, California. His company offers small and midsize retailers cloud-based software to manage back-office operations, such as product fulfillment and post-purchase customer service. Fulfil.IO helps small retailers with limited staff and budgets save money on operations, says Thomas. He sees big potential for growth in the U.S. and was poised to start hiring a sales force.
But shortly after graduating from 500 Startups in February, Thomas and his three co-founders had to return to their home country of India because their visas didn’t allow them to start a business in the U.S.
This is a common roadblock for international entrepreneurs, says Debi Kleiman, executive director of The Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship. “There’s an enormous number of international students who come to the States for their education, who are incredibly brilliant and doing big things and creating jobs, but they have to leave because of our broken immigration system,” Kleiman says.
In response, Babson recently established the Global Entrepreneur in Residence (Global EIR) program, which uses an exemption in immigration law to help entrepreneurs stay in the U.S. Under current law, foreign workers with expertise in fields such as science and technology can apply for an H-1B visa to work here. But H-1Bs are awarded only once a year through a lottery; 236,000 people applied for 85,000 H-1B visas this year, reports the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Babson’s Global EIR program is based on an exemption that grants an unlimited number of H-1B visas to people who contribute to the mission of a college or university. Babson plans to provide exempt status for as many as 10 entrepreneurs with viable startups who are willing to base their companies at the College’s new 100 High Street campus in Boston’s Financial District.
Participants must “support Babson’s entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Kleiman, with contributions such as mentoring student startups, offering seminars, and helping professors with research. The Babson program was inspired by a pilot launched two years ago by the University of Massachusetts, which has helped 20 international entrepreneurs obtain visas and set up shop in the commonwealth. Their companies have created more than 200 jobs.
Once entrepreneurs are accepted into the Global EIR program, their visas last three years. But the UMass pilot program has revealed that participating entrepreneurs often obtain alternative visas before those three years are up, Kleiman says. Applicants for Babson’s Global EIR program can come from any country or university but must be college graduates, with preference given to those with graduate degrees. Their companies must be “well underway,” adds Kleiman. Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis.
Thomas of Fulfil.IO is one of Babson’s first four Global EIR participants (two are Babson alumni, notes Kleiman). He learned about the program from his advisers at 500 Startups and is eager to relocate from Bangalore to Boston. “It’s one of the ideal locations for us to set up, given the availability of talent and the location on the East Coast,” he says. He looks forward to mentoring student entrepreneurs and hopes to begin his search for U.S. employees on the Babson campus. “Babson is one of the schools that I would look at anyway to hire for these jobs,” he says.
Thomas currently is working in Bangalore to complete his visa paperwork and will arrive in Boston before the end of the year. Because the H-1B visa is designed for employees of established companies, not founders of startups, Thomas is working to meet certain criteria, such as appointing a board with the power to hire and fire him and hiring employees. He plans to have a sales team in place by early 2017.
Kleiman is optimistic about what the Global EIR program can accomplish. “These entrepreneurs are on to big ideas,” she says. “We hope there are lots of American dream-type stories that come out of this program.”—Erin O’Donnell