How to get a U.S. VISA as a startup founder

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Since founding my startup called W8X I have had conversations with numerous other entrepreneurs and the only question that is hotter than “How is fundraising going?”, especially among international entrepreneurs is “What VISA are you on?”.

B1/B2 VISA

As if bringing a Company to life is not hard enough, the U.S puts quite a barrier for foreigners wanting to start a business here. While working on the business idea for W8X, I was still in Germany. Knowing that we would start the Company in the United States, I applied for a B1/B2 VISA, which allows me to hold business meetings and stay in the United States for up to six months at a time. This VISA is fairly easy to get, at least for citizens of the European Union.

However, as the expiration of this VISA was approaching we got into the DeltaV accelerator at MIT. To avoid having to leave the country in the middle of the accelerator I needed to pull all strings and somehow get on another VISA.

J1 VISA

Luckily I was working closely with professor Bill Aulet at MIT, who after some convincing agreed to sponsor me as a visiting researcher at MIT Sloan, working for the Martin Trust Center of Entrepreneurship.

Side note: Bill Aulet is also the author of bestselling book Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup, which is by far the best resource for starting a business that I have come across so far.

However, getting a VISA does not happen with the snap of a finger. After reviewing the recommended timeline for J1 VISA applications posted by MIT, I quickly realized that the traditional process will not work for me.

This is what I found:

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The proposed timeline was 75 days. However, in the midst of applying for accelerators and assembling our prototypes I had taken no time to think about a VISA application. It was the 11th of May and the program would start on June 12th. Which would give me 32 days to figure out the VISA situation if I wanted to be back at MIT in time.

So I needed to get a bit creative. I dissected every step of the 4 proposed steps and found out who the stakeholders were. I tracked each responsible individual down and asked by how much they would be able to accelerate their part of the application process if it came down to it. After about two days of non-stop phone calls I was able to put together the following accelerated timeline.

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I was able to show that I will be able to make it in time for the start of the program if everyone tried to stick to their fastest estimates. After that I did follow up calls with everyone involved and send over the accelerated timeline, to ensure that the urgency is understood. Sure enough on June 6th I was able to pick up my VISA in Germany and return to Boston in time.

Not a long term solution

Having obtained this new VISA status I knew that I would have time to prove the viability of our business idea, but also knew in the back of my head that this was definitely not a long term solution. However, as a startup founder you do not want to spend any time doing something that is not directly related to your startup. As the VISA crisis was now adverted I dove head first back into the startup grind with no sleep and no weekends. Luckily the work our team put in was rewarded. We were gaining recognition far beyond the MIT community and received prizes and awards, from MIT, Masschallenge, AVNET and Arizona State University. These prizes totaled over $100k and allowed us to build our product further and show early customer traction. Then it was time to worry about the VISA again.

H1B STATUS/VISA

Through a fellow entrepreneur Alessandro Babini (founder of Humon) I was introduced to the GEIR program, run by the Venture Development Center (VDC) at UMASS Boston. This program allows international startup founders to obtain a cap-exempt H-1B visa, sponsored by the University of Massachusetts, contributing to the development of the university’s entrepreneurship and innovation eco-system, while pushing their startup forward.

Applying for this program requires your startup to be far beyond idea stage, have proof of traction as well as pre-seed or seed funds or a 3rd party sponsor to fund employment related costs associated with getting an H1B through the university. Read How Does the Massachusetts Global Entrepreneur-in-Residence Program Work to get more details on how the program actually works. Fortunately, our startup — W8X — has shown a significant traction and I was accepted into the GEIR program at UMass Boston’s VDC. As part of the program, you are working for the VDC part-time, holding lectures, organizing events, providing practical projects to students, mentoring entrepreneurial students and faculty, and overall helping the UMass Boston’s community on entrepreneurship related topics. There are many ways to contribute to the university, depending on your skills and what you like to do.

Within about a month after applying I received an RFE (request for evidence — not the greatest thing but fairly common among H1B cases), which required the attorneys team to prepare the response and provide additional details in regards to my case. Usually RFEs have nothing to do with founders’ credentials but rather address legal issues of a specialty occupation H1B petition is filed under. But again each case is unique and I cannot speak to all of the H1B cases. Nevertheless the attorneys team handled this process pretty well and I received my H1B VISA this month. At least for the next three years I will not have to worry about the VISA too much (but you always worry).

The bottom line

If I had to give final advice to someone starting a Company in the U.S, I would discourage them from worrying about the VISA situation too much in the beginning. I would not have received any of the VISA’s or sponsorships had I not convinced through my work and the progress of our startup. If you are working hard on your Company and actually have what it takes to build a startup, you will also have what it takes to figure out your VISA situation.

Written by

Co-Founder of W8X

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