People.ai

It was a dark, snowy night when I pulled up with a U-Haul to the Canadian border station. I’d spent years as an F-1 visa student at Boston University, graduating Cum Laude, and now, suddenly, my student visa had expired and I had to leave the country. With my strong passion as an entrepreneur, my heart sank as my hopes for launching a start-up in the U.S. vanished with the miles behind me.

Would they take me?

The Canadian immigration officials smiled and welcomed me to their country. I knew no one. But with their welcome, the spark of hope that I could still create my dream stayed alive. I went on to work for a company that I helped take public as an early employee. Then, I built my own business — a successful tech startup called Semantria. Canada got my taxes and my gratitude, and 50 jobs I created.

But I always had my Silicon Valley dream. So what would America think of me now?

Twelve years later, having successfully sold Semantria in 2014, here I am in the States, Founder and CEO of People.ai, having just announced our Series B funding with Andreessen Horowitz. Our future is bright. The dream remains strong. But in the last few weeks, there is a shadow that has drifted like a dark cloud over my dreams, and it’s the cloud I’ve experienced before.

Visa Problems Robbing Us of Exceptional Talent

People.ai recently offered employment to a talented engineer who has been working for a big tech firm via an H-1B visa here in the States for many years. We applied for his H-1B visa transfer, as companies must do. Historically, once you’ve been approved for your H-1B visa, typically it has been a quick approval for the transfer to a comparable position. After all, aren’t we all free to chase those dreams? Apparently, not anymore.

This employee was denied without explanation. Unfortunately this was after he had already resigned from his previous company and had become one of us. Within days he had to return to his home country where he hadn’t been for almost a decade.

Just like that. The dream was gone. An important project he was working on for People.ai dropped, hundreds of friendships were broken; but most importantly, after years of living the American dream, it all vanished overnight.

It’s well known that Silicon Valley relies heavily on H-1B high-skilled labor; in fact, up to 75 percent of engineers and developers are from other countries. This isn’t an issue about American workers (more on that below), our companies need these brilliant minds to stay competitive globally. No matter your political affiliations, a policy of denying amazing talent who have the ability to take this country to great heights in innovation just doesn’t make sense.

Since 2017, the current administration’s heightened processing policies and denials without explanation have ripped thousands of our most advanced tech professionals from their jobs, their families, their dreams — and from companies like People.ai. We need and value the talent and minds of professionals who take bold risks to accept positions in the United States, chancing everything on trust in the companies who decide to employ them.

It’s not just these professionals who lose out, it’s U.S. citizens as well. It’s reported that for every H-1B visa worker, four jobs are created for Americans.

There are other deep implications of this current trend of denying H-1B visa transfer applications:

Career development – Talented H-1B workers can’t advance their careers. With the high risk of denial and getting sent back to their home countries, many H-1B workers are not willing to take the risk of changing companies. This means they are more or less stuck at their current employer. Those employers can abuse their powers and employees could lose rights if they feel they must remain employed with the same company at all costs.

Recruitment takes a hit – Companies like mine, that depend on being able to compete for and recruit the best talent — how can we do that when that talent isn’t free to move around? There aren’t enough non-H-1B workers to fill the gap. The talent pool shrinks dramatically when people are faced with having to risk losing everything they’ve worked for just to accept a new position at a new company.

Freedom of choice – What if you are unhappy with your current employer? Isn’t it a basic human right to have the freedom to move from an unhappy position and seek out a better situation. If you can’t leave the company that’s treating you badly, to explore opportunities at better companies, you do not have your freedom of employment. This is taking a major step back in our civil liberties.

So I ask myself, and you should also ask, is this the America we want? What about the American Dream? Many of us came here as an immigrant, with hope in our hearts that we’d make our big dreams come true. America was built on the courage of people who risked it all for a future only they could see. That’s what has kept this country so alive, so beautiful, such a hallmark of hope for the world. It’s why I’m here and why I love this country.

Now, this isn’t a political statement. In fact, it’s always my principal to strive for a solution.

What can we do?

  1. Prove our values by fighting for the talent we need.
    I have Peope.ai lawyers working on fighting for this prospective employee. We value our people like family here, we paid for his flight back home, his storage costs, and we will keep the req open for him until the situation is figured out. It seems the least we could do; how we could live our value “We take care of our people.”
  2. Go global.
    As long as America is turning away the talent we need, then maybe we need to go where the talent is. We’re considering opening a Canadian office where our engineers from all over the world would be based. When it comes down to it, it’s a business-critical mission to stay competitive. China is investing heavily in AI and is set to move fast on AI — and America is turning away AI experts?! Other countries have made it much easier for high-skilled workers to work in their countries. We have to find a way to compete and if going global is the answer, then that’s what we’ll do.
  3. Lobby for legislative change.
    It’s important that our voices are heard. Not just the big tech giants, but all of us — those of us who ARE living the American Dream and walking this path of start-ups and innovation. We need to band together — not just to make our voices heard at the government level — but at the talent acquisition level. We have to keep the hope and the spark alive for the next generation of innovators.

Aside from competing for talent, this really is a human issue. We all say we care about people. That people matter. That without our people, we couldn’t do what we do. If that’s true (and it is true here at People.ai) then we must take this H-1B transfer denials situation seriously. We must show the world’s brightest talent that we want them and value them and that America is still a great place to make your dreams come true.

Because I still believe in the American dream, and others should, too.