How UMass Is Helping Foreign Entrepreneurs Stay In Boston

Paulo Melo, Co-Founder of doDOC, mentors UMass Boston students as a part of GEIR

In the past decades immigrants have been instrumental in harnessing technology to innovate, create jobs and bring society forward. PayPal, Uber, SpaceX, WeWork and The Huffington Post all have at least one founder who wasn’t born in the US. Yet immigrant entrepreneurs find it incredibly hard to work on their ventures in the US due to the lack of a proper visa category that would enable them to stay in the country legally. The path to a Green Card is long and winding, and the 85,000 annual H1B visas are distributed through a lottery, leaving foreign-born entrepreneurs in limbo. However, a small exception to the H1B rule lifts the cap for non-profits and universities, allowing them to hire high-skilled immigrants more easily.

This loophole was the pinnacle for the creation of the Global Entrepreneur in Residence (GEIR) Program at the Venture Development Center of UMass Boston. Pioneered in 2014, the program allows the university to sponsor H1B visas for entrepreneurs as long as the founders are employed at UMass Boston at least part-time. This eases the entrepreneurs’ deportation worries, allowing them to focus on their venture and attract investment — something that can be impossible if their immigration status is not sorted out.

So far, the GEIR Program has proved to be an enormous success. Since its inception it has supported a total of 31 entrepreneurs, who have attracted a total of $226M in investment and have created more than 370 jobs. The founders came from 15 different universities, with Harvard and MIT topping the list with 35% of the participants. According to Aijan Isakova, Program Director at the Venture Development Center, the average tenure of a startup there is approximately one year, after which the founders are usually able to file H1Bs through their own startups, move on to a Green Card or an O-1 visa (awarded to exceptional business professionals). This has been the fate of the 13 ‘graduates’ of the program, all of whom have gone on to work on their ventures independently. The success of UMass Boston has also inspired other universities to join the GEIR, with UMass Lowell joining the efforts shortly after the creation of the program and Babson College coming on board in June 2016. Other states were quick to follow: universities in Alaska, Colorado, Missouri and California opened their own GEIR programs in 2016, and Chicago announced that a number of its universities would participate in March 2017. The increased popularity of the program and its enormous success only comes to show that there is a substantial need to keep entrepreneurial individuals in the US, and UMass Boston helped us find the way to do so.

In an effort to help even more entrepreneurs, the Venture Development Center at UMass Boston is hosting an event on Wednesday, May 24, 4PM-8PM. Dubbed “Success Stories and Strategies for International & Immigrant Entrepreneurs, or, How to Make It as a Startup When All Odds Are Against You”, the event will feature two panels that will provide insight on the political challenges and economic considerations that led to launching the GEIR, and advice from successful immigrant entrepreneurs respectively. Learn more and RSVP at goo.gl/nqJiWV.