A New, More Inclusive Approach to Startup Funding

Many immigrants who come to the U.S. to work in technology dream of starting their own companies, but the limited visa system makes this ambition near impossible to achieve. Other aspiring entrepreneurs may be U.S. citizens, but simply can’t incur the risks and costs of starting their own companies without a reliable salary or health insurance. The founders of a new angel fund, Unshackled, rethought what it means to support entrepreneurs who may face these obstacles despite showing great promise. The fund they’ve created will consequently enable a greater diversity of passionate entrepreneurs to take the leap into building their businesses.

“We saw an opportunity to be more inclusive from the funding side,” explained Manan Mehta who, together with his business partner, Nitin Pachisia, launched Unshackled just weeks ago. As experienced and solution-oriented entrepreneurs themselves, Manan and Nitin built an innovative kind of angel fund.

In addition to investing in the startup teams selected for funding, Unshackled will sponsor visas for entrepreneurs already authorized to work in the U.S., but “shackled” to their current employers. Most high-skilled immigrants come to the U.S. on H-1B visas, but if they leave their sponsoring company, they’re no longer eligible to remain in the U.S. This restriction thus bars talented, would-be entrepreneurs from devoting meaningful time to starting a new company. Madhuri Eunni, for instance, is originally from India and worked at Sprint for nearly 10 years. But when she decided to launch her own venture, she uprooted from the U.S. and moved to Toronto where she could more easily and quickly secure a visa.

Visa sponsorship isn’t the only benefit Unshackled offers. They also pay founding teams steady salaries and provide health insurance, aspects that may attract other potential entrepreneurs who would otherwise be unable to pay their student loans, rents, or health costs out of pocket while committing resources to their startups. This unprecedented fund liberates founders from what are debilitating yet unavoidable challenges for many people.

“The funding model has been the same for the last 50 years. How can we modernize it to reflect realities in our country?” asked Manan.

With a $3.5 million fund financed by heavyweights in the investment community, Unshackled plans to work with up to 25 teams of two to three founders over the next couple of years.

Like many other potential investors, Unshackled will evaluate a prospective startup’s founding team, business plan, and prototype in deciding whom they’ll accept. Selected startup teams will then become employees of Unshackled and receive a working space in the Bay Area, a salary that allows them to cover living expenses in the region, and benefits. Unshackled will cover legal costs, visa sponsorships—if and when necessary—and manage banking. And the fund will also connect entrepreneurs to an experienced network of mentors and advisors from the very beginning.

Unshackled is now accepting applications for prospective teams and Manan says they’re already attracting impressive proposals, which doesn’t surprise him. The high-skilled immigrants Unshackled may appeal to, as Manan points out, have “already had to beat out the best in their country,” to even be accepted to study at a U.S. university or acquire one of the very limited visas. They’ve already proven they “have the hustle and the passion to become the best entrepreneurs.”

And data overwhelmingly supports this: in one study the Kauffman Foundation concluded that immigrants are nearly twice as likely to start businesses in the U.S. as are native-born Americans.

Eventually, Congressional immigration reform could both expand and ease the visa process for high-skilled workers and aspiring entrepreneurs. President Obama’s recently announced plans for reform expressly recognize the enormous talent pool among our immigrant population and the economic importance of diversity among entrepreneurs. And one initiative the president has proposed could provide founders with a special exemption from the company sponsorship requirement if founders can prove they’ve created jobs. Yet a true “startup visa” similar to those in other countries starting to attract and retain entrepreneurial talent and innovation will require congressional action.

Meanwhile, Manan and Nitin plan to enable a pool of entrepreneurs who at this point in time may otherwise be excluded from accessing capital and growing their businesses here in the United States.

“I hope we can prove to not only the venture community, but the global community that America can retain the top talent by giving everyone an equal opportunity in innovation,” said Manan.

by Anna Duning at Engine, a public policy organization supporting tech entrepreneurship. This story is part of Engine’s series, “Innovation for All,” documenting efforts to diversify tech. Read this post and others on our blog at http://engine.is/news.