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Archived from our former blog, The Beacon.

My Experience with the Entrepreneur in Residence Program

Release Date:

(By Ted Gonder, USCIS Entrepreneur in Residence and Co-founder and Executive Director, Moneythink)

On May 8, I joined USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas and other key members of Chicago’s entrepreneurial community at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The event focused on the connection between immigration and entrepreneurship. Among other things, I discussed my experience working as an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) at USCIS this past year.

As an EIR, I had the privilege of working with an incredible team of private sector entrepreneurs and investors as well as government experts in our nation's immigration service agency. Our goal as a team was to streamline the current immigration system for foreign entrepreneurs – specifically, those who lead high-tech, high-growth companies – to come to the United States, innovate new technologies, boost the economy and create jobs.

Charged with the task of making changes within the current immigration system, we focused our energy on a few key projects:
  • building a diagnostic web tool, Entrepreneur Pathways, for foreign entrepreneurs to better understand which visa pathway they'd best be suited to pursue;
  • instituting a series of "Startup 101" trainings for the adjudicators who review entrepreneurs' visa applications to better understand the conditions of tech entrepreneurship in the 21st century (and the importance of transnational talent); and
  • identifying and clarifying certain terms and concepts that may provide underused opportunities for foreign entrepreneurs to start a business in the United States.
We coupled these internally-geared projects with externally-geared public engagements, including events at Georgia Tech and MIT, and a few open "town hall" engagements.

I am proud of the EIR team's success:
  • the website diagnostic tool has seen approximately 30,000 hits;
  • the Startup 101 trainings have been implemented for 425 adjudicators;
  • policy recommendations have been made to senior USCIS leaders; and
  • our external engagements with foreign students and entrepreneurs have been packed.
But despite these promising short-term metrics, the ultimate success of this initiative (and those that follow) will need to be shown through measuring its impact over time. Increased innovation in government (such as the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellows program), and the entrepreneurial approach to problem solving that it offers, give me confidence that this focus on outcomes and metrics won't get lost in the wake of this early and pioneering initiative at USCIS.

When I began my work with USCIS, I was still a full-time student at the University of Chicago launching my company. Unlike the other EIRs on the team, I'd never taken a company public, raised millions, invested millions, or even created a technology product to which I could point and take credit. Rather, my experience was that of a student entrepreneur interested in bringing entrepreneurial solutions to scale in existing systems: I'd interned with a few startups, had built and scaled student organizations, and had traveled broadly. In my travels, and in my time at the University of Chicago, I'd made many friends who were either a) interested in moving to the United States to start a company but discouraged by what they'd heard about our immigration process, or b) living in the United States as students but planning on leaving after finishing school (or in some cases dropping out) to go start their companies in other countries. Many of them had advanced STEM degrees and successful track records. What they lacked was a clear pathway to stay in the United States; after all, the United States is still ranked as one of the best places to start a company.

In the last year working with USCIS as an EIR, I've learned a lot. The biggest takeaway by far has been the importance of empathy, dialogue, and listening. It's sometimes difficult for government employees to understand the specific conditions of 21st-century startups (e.g. the fact that we don't need millions of dollars for warehouses and servers anymore and can launch venture-backed companies from the local Starbucks); at the same time, it's not always clear to immigrant entrepreneurs just how hard the folks at USCIS work to make America a land of opportunity and prosperity. By engaging in a dialogue across groups, the EIR team was able to begin identifying realistic, effective paths of action with potential for direct results. I feel lucky and honored to have been part of such a pioneering and creative initiative.

Read more about the EIR team’s accomplishments in the summary USCIS released yesterday.