The Forgotten Dream

To this day, I still remember the moment that first sparked my interest in technology, way back when I was just a little kid in New Jersey — I was in the third grade, and I was sitting in the middle of the front row of the classroom. Our teacher was lecturing us about the different ways human beings pollute the environment, and she then asked the class what could be done to make things better. It was a difficult question for a group of 9-year-olds, but one kid raised his hand and said the President could change the laws to make it illegal to pollute. Another kid said something about people voluntarily making less garbage. And then I distinctly remember raising my hand and hesitantly saying to my teacher “Technology. We can use technology to make it better?” It was admittedly more of a guess than an answer, but my teacher gave a knowing nod of approval and fielded a few more answers before moving on.

That memory has somehow stayed with me all these years. I guess from that moment on, I got to believing that although we may not be able to change the laws or human behavior as quickly as we’d like, as long as technology is outpacing or at least keeping up with the problems of the world, we would be okay. As long as there are still people out there creating and pushing the bounds of what’s possible, humanity will always have a chance. Or as Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar proclaimed, “We will find a way, Professor. We always have.”

Fast forward 20 years, and now here I am in San Francisco, organizing the FIRST-ever Immigration-themed Startup Weekend taking place on May 29~31 with an amazing team of 8 co-organizers from all different immigrant backgrounds, but united in our common goal — To unite the tech+immigration community and produce real solutions to the biggest and most longstanding issues faced by immigrants today.

Why immigration, and why now?

Even though I am the child of immigrants, the husband of an immigrant, and a friend to many immigrants, I am not an immigrant myself. I was born in Texas and lived most of my life in New Jersey. It was only after living and working in a foreign country as a “local” for 5 years after college that I was able to gain a great deal of empathy for immigrants. That’s when I got a taste of what it’s like to be an adult and yet feel like a helpless child in an unfamiliar world, where nothing works the way you expect it to and language issues prevent you from ever being able to truly express yourself the way you want to. And it was while helping my wife with her green card application that I saw firsthand how hostile and intimidating the US immigration system has become. A country that was built on immigration was now actively trying to restrict the very thing that had made it so great in the first place.

I felt like this was something I had to work on, but I quickly realized that the “ecosystem”, even in Silicon Valley, was very lacking. It’s so easy to find passionate, engaged communities around Growth Hacking, UX, Bitcoin, Virtual Reality, and the Internet of Things, but I was crestfallen to find that, with the exception of a small handful of organizations, there aren’t a lot of people in Silicon Valley doing anything meaningful about the sad state of our immigration system.

This was both surprising and deeply disappointing. After all, there’s no place in this country where immigration is more important, than Silicon Valley. Immigration (and diversity in general) has always been the lifeblood of Silicon Valley, and when people from different places and ideas from disparate fields are able to cross-pollinate, amazing things can happen. Not only that, immigrants and founders have more in common than you might think — Both refuse to accept the status quo, both are taking a risk that most other people aren’t willing (or able) to take, and both are ready to sacrifice everything to make their dream a reality. In that sense, it’s not surprising that immigrants comprised 18% of small-business owners in 2010 despite making up only about 13% of the population, and some 40% of companies on the Fortune 500 were founded by first-generation immigrants or their children.

Two Birds, One Stone

For a long time I wondered why there is so much apathy around this issue, even though it’s something that both personally and professionally affects so many people and companies here. I spent the next several months trying to learn more — even working at an immigration law firm for several months — and I came to realize two things: (1) The immigrant community is extremely fragmented across nationality, language, and culture, and (2) there’s a major lack of awareness around the “big picture” history of immigration and how the system became the way it is today. And without that context and community, it can be tough if not impossible to come up with any kind of meaningful, long-term solutions.

That’s why on Friday evening, to kick off the event we’ll be featuring a speaking panel of legal experts, policy experts, and immigrant founders to help educate participants on the biggest issues faced by immigrants today, and how the US immigration system became so broken.

The rest of the event on Saturday and Sunday will be a singular opportunity for anyone and everyone who’s ever been passionate about this issue to come together and put their heads (and skill-sets) together to collectively create real solutions to one of this country’s most pressing but neglected issues. We’ll be bringing together immigrant founders, immigration startup founders, journalists, investors, immigration attorneys, government representatives, members of underrepresented immigrant communities, and of course 125+ hackers, designers, and hustlers from all different nationalities to come together and, to borrow a line from one of my favorite shows, “Light the biggest [immigration] fire the North has ever seen.”

Nowadays, I laugh to myself when I think back to that day in my 3rd grade classroom and my naive, childlike belief that technology could solve everything. Obviously it isn’t that simple, and for an issue like immigration that is so nuanced and intertwined with government and the law, great technology is merely a necessary but insufficient condition. At the end of the day it’s the people standing behind that technology, and the connections between them, that is the real driving force for change.

Forgotten but not lost

This country was built on a dream, and a belief that the course of our lives does not have to be determined by the country, culture, and socioeconomic status that we were all randomly born into. Immigration is a proven solution to this “unjust lottery” of life, but somewhere along the way we lost sight of that dream.

Join us on May 29~31 in San Francisco, and help us help this country remember where it came from. (Use the promo code “ForgottenDream” on the Eventbrite page to get 50% off the early bird price.)