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GeekWire spoke with seven tech leaders who immigrated to the United States about the changing landscape for U.S. immigration policy.

With chants of “build the wall” and the pursuit of policies to stem the flow of new immigrants and refugees, the United States seems to be rolling up the welcome mat to those born outside of its borders.

Many of the changes are hitting the tech sector. In November, government agencies are due to lay out reforms for the H-1B visa program, which admits 85,000 foreign workers each year. This summer, the Trump administration postponed the implementation of the International Entrepreneur Rule, also known as the “startup visa” or EB6. Earlier this month, Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks pledged their support for a multi-state lawsuit attempting to stop the administration from dismantling the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program. And the Trump administration recently issued updated travel restrictions for certain Muslim countries.

At the GeekWire Summit on Oct. 9-11, we’re presenting a series of sessions called “Immigrant’s Journey,” in which we’ve invited members of the Seattle region’s tech community to share their stories of immigrating to the U.S. and their thoughts on the changing outlook toward immigration. As a prelude the event, we spoke to seven women and men working in technology to hear about their experiences, the differences between tech jobs in the U.S. and abroad, and the potential impacts of curbing immigration.

Some common themes emerged from their responses:

  • In a time of deep cynicism for many Americans, this group still views the U.S. as an inspiring land of opportunity.
  • They praise the country as a haven for builders and entrepreneurs, but some of the women are perplexed by persistent gender inequities in tech — imbalances that don’t exist in their homelands.
  • And they cautioned that America’s global leadership would be greatly threatened by closing the door to an infusion of foreign talent.

Here’s what each had to say.

Reetu Gupta, CEO and co-founder of CirkledIn, immigrated from India permanently in 1999. 

What brought you to the U.S.? Initial visits were on business trips. When I came, I totally felt like I fit in, like this is where I belong. When I was growing up in India, it was not easy being a girl. Because of my gender, safety was a constant concern. When I came here, it felt this is where I should have been born. I had always felt like a misfit.

Reetu Gupta, CEO and co-founder of CirkledIn, immigrated from India permanently in 1999.

In India, people are focused on their basic needs, they can’t even think about ambitions and goals. Here your basic needs are taken of and you can think about what you want with your life. You can think about making a difference in the world.

Why did you pursue technology? I said, “Why not?” Ignorance can be a bliss. When I was growing up, in a really small town in India in the suburbs, pretty much every cousin I had was in an engineering field, but they were all boys. It was almost a given to me that I would be an engineer. That I was a girl, that didn’t even cross my mind. I always wanted to build things with my hands. I would work with my dad with bricks and concrete and electrical things. It was somewhere in my brain that engineering was what I had to do. 

What do you like and dislike about working in tech in the U.S. compared to other countries? What I like is the flexibility and the definition of “work-life balance” even if it’s a mirage. When weekend comes, it’s a weekend, you can disconnect if you want to. That was one thing that is missing in India in the workforce, where you are supposed to respond to an email, even if it’s the weekend. Here there is a personal boundary. It is still my space on Saturday and Sunday.

The second thing I like is the ease of changing functions. It’s easier than other work cultures to move from engineering to marketing or other business functions.

Finally, I like that there is no “power distance.” You can talk to a CEO as well as an entry level engineer with the same/similar ease. This is not possible in other work cultures.

The thing that I don’t like is this whole women-in-tech thing. In India, there is no such thing as women-in-tech, even though it was less than 10 percent [women] in engineering in college and work. I was equally respected and equally paid. It was not even a topic. As a woman engineer or a man engineer you worked side by side, equal value for both of you. Ideas win because of the merit of the idea, not your gender.

In India, it’s a bizarre thing. As a girl or woman you are not safe on the street, but in the workplace you are more respected than men. Women are considered more serious and committed and not goofing around and women are so damn smart. That is a huge difference. It’s hard for people to grasp that.

What do you think would be the impact on the tech sector of further restricting immigration? By doing that we, we are shooting ourselves in our foot. If you look at the last 20 years, the innovation is done by immigrants — look at Google and Apple. All the big CEOs are from different countries. If we slow immigration you will stop innovation and creativity and products coming to market. We will lose our status as being the most advanced country in the world.

In India, when I was coming here, there is something called brain drain. In India, the top 1 percent comes to the U.S. — or used to come to the U.S. The U.S. is getting free labor almost — the U.S. didn’t invest to train them. They make our products better and make better products. They innovate. The U.S. didn’t sow those seeds, and still get the fruit from that tree. And we want to say “no” to that?

[Reetu Gupta will speak at the GeekWire Summit as part of the Immigrant’s Journey series at the event.]

Xiao Wang, founder of Boundless, immigrated from China in 1989 at age 3.

Xiao Wang, founder of Boundless, immigrated from China in 1989 at age 3.

What brought you to the U.S.? When the Cultural Revolution happened in China in the 1960s-’70s, all of the schools were shut down. My parents were had to study on their own from middle school through college. Through all of this hardship, it was always their dream to study in America because that’s where the best schools were.

My mom immigrated first, followed by my dad, and I only came over after they finished their graduate studies. Before then, I was rotating between my grandparents, aunts, and uncles in Nanjing, China.

Why did you pursue technology? The reason that technology is exciting is it has the potential to dramatically improve people’s lives at scale. Non-technology enabled solutions that scale directly from human input have inherent limits in how many lives they can improve. With technology that’s not the case. It is the most powerful tool to dramatically lift everyone’s standard of living.

Boundless is a technology startup that provides information, tools and personalized support so families can navigate the immigration process with confidence. This is the most high-stakes, high-stress action that people don’t feel like they truly understand. It can determine the future of your entire family. It’s a confusing and often tragic situation. With Boundless, families finally have a partner and guide that helps them the entire way at a price they can afford.

What do you like and dislike about working in tech in the U.S. compared to other countries? What I have heard from colleagues at multinational companies, one of the wonderful things about the U.S. is that if you’re part of a good organization, people at every level have the opportunity and obligation to speak up and drive decisions for the best outcome for the customer and the company, and that is pretty amazing. Comparing China to the U.S., people here feel far less encumbered by levels and hierarchy.

What do you think would be the impact on the tech sector of further restricting immigration? We came and we stayed because there is a sense that there is no better place on Earth where you can make great things happen. There is some cynicism these days, but despite all of that, there is a reason the number of applications is much higher to the U.S. than any other countries. There is a sense that this is truly a magical place, that people can achieve greatness without having the right last name, without knowing the right people, no matter where they came from and where they started.

My greatest worry is that if people stop going through all of those [immigration] hoops and putting up with all of the barriers to come to the U.S. that we’ll slowly stop having that level of new perspectives and energy and people who make this country great. America has a long history of legal immigration and the country has benefited greatly by steady influxes of people from all over the world.

Adriana Moscatelli, founder CEO of Play Works Studios, came from Uruguay to the U.S. for an internship in 1996 and graduate school in 1998.

What brought you to the U.S.? The first time it was an internship that was part of an international program for students. The second time it was grad school.

Why did you pursue technology? I always liked to build and tinker with things as a kid. I got it from my dad who was always building and fixing mechanical devices. I still have a vivid memory of taking apart watches (and not been able to put them back!). I got my undergraduate degree in industrial design and at the time I spent a lot of time learning Computer Aided Design (CAD). That led me to develop an interest in software development and I was hooked.

I’ve worked in the field of human-computer interaction since I graduated from Carnegie Mellon. I’ve always been interested in software/hardware development and I’ve done a lot of work in that space. I’ve also worked in gaming and tech business development. Lately I’ve been doing some data analysis work and I love it.

Adriana Moscatelli, founder CEO of Play Works Studios, came from Uruguay to the U.S. for an internship in 1996 and graduate school in 1998. (SVP Fast Pitch Seattle Photo)

What do you like and dislike about working in tech in the U.S. compared to other countries? If you work in tech, the U.S. is one of the best places to be. Uruguay is a very small country and there are very few software consulting businesses. Some of them work on outsourced projects for U.S. companies (some in game development). There are no opportunities in Uruguay to work in larger software development problems and certainly no opportunities to work in advanced tech research. It is unfortunate but it is also the reality of small developing countries.

What do you think would be the impact on the tech sector of further restricting immigration? I think the impact will be negative. The U.S. attracts a lot of great tech talent and making it harder for brilliant people to come to the U.S. and contribute to the workforce would limit our ability to innovate and stay in the lead. It all starts with undergraduate and graduate students who later get recruited by tech companies and stay in the U.S. instead of going back to their countries. Without the talent, the tech industry (and other industries as well) would struggle.

Manny Medina, CEO and co-founder of Outreach, immigrated from Ecuador in 1996.

Manny Medina, CEO and co-founder of Outreach, immigrated from Ecuador in 1996.

What brought you to the U.S.? I started college in Ecuador, pursuing computer science. But as I was looking out and seeing what happens when I graduate, I realized all my friends were doing support for systems that were built somewhere else. I wanted to be the guy who wrote the software. I didn’t see how you got around that unless you got a job or went to school in the US.

Why did you pursue technology? I was going to college because that’s what you do, and everyone said you should be an engineer — your mom was an engineer, your dad was an engineer, and the one that had the most flexibility, meaning I could do anything after graduating, was computer engineer.

What do you like and dislike about working in tech in the U.S. compared to other countries?

Frankly, I don’t know that there is a lot that’s bad compared to other countries. There a couple of things that are very unique to the U.S. The whole do-it-yourself movement, going to Radio Shack and getting parts or Home Depot and building something out of nothing is almost part of the culture, it’s engrained.

In Ecuador, it wasn’t like that at all. Only the lower economic class built anything with their hands. There was a dissonance at the society level, even being an entrepreneur was not something to do. That’s when it dawned on me that I had to leave, because the U.S. was founded by immigrants who left all of the stigma behind. This is a country of builders.

What do you think would be the impact on the tech sector of further restricting immigration? We are in a very interesting juncture. You don’t need to be in this country to build something anymore. The world I was born into has moved on. If you make it difficult to bring people in here who are passionate about building something, they will go somewhere else.

You still have all this pent-up demand of people who want to come to the U.S. Capital flows so easily in the U.S., and that talent is coming here to create jobs, they’re not taking jobs. If it was harder, I would have gone somewhere else and started my business somewhere else. Greatness will find a home, it just may not be here.

Maya Cakmak, assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, immigrated from Turkey in 2007.

What brought you to the U.S.? Graduate school. My first job out of college was at a robotics lab working on a research project funded by the E.U. The goal of the project was to develop robots that can learn new skills on their own. We used to read tons of research papers on this topic and most of them were from U.S. schools. Going to one of those schools felt like the next level. So I was thrilled to get accepted to the Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech. It was a bit of a curiosity as well; the U.S. was somewhere I had never been.

Maya Cakmak, assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering where she directs the Human-Centered Robotics Lab; immigrated from Turkey in 2007.

Why did you pursue technology? When I was in high school, math was my favorite topic. I used to participate in math olympiads and once got invited to the national team’s math camp. At the time, I thought that I would go to college to study math. But during this camp we got some tours of different departments and someone in an engineering department said “engineering is using math to solve real problems.” So I decided to study electronics and mechatronics engineering.

I still enjoy solving problems, but what’s kept me interested in engineering is the human element; the possibility of helping people. That’s why I started the Human-Centered Robotics Lab. I especially enjoy working with students with disabilities — they are natural problem solvers. For example, one of my interns has limited movement and is developing a user interface that will allow her to control a robot to perform everyday tasks. Another one of my projects aims to make engineering education more accessible. I also run a summer workshop for high school students with disabilities where they learn to program robots so they can see that engineering is a possible career for them. 

What do you like and dislike about working in tech in the U.S. compared to other countries? There are so many opportunities here and so much more is happening. When I started doing research in Turkey my advisor, who also went to graduate school in the U.S., was the one person I was learning everything from. Many of the resources for learning about robotics were from the U.S. Here, we get to create those resources. The people whose books I was reading back in Turkey are now my colleagues or people who visit my lab to give seminars.

At the same time, the U.S. is more individualistic. So many titles and awards are attached to individuals. In Turkey, it’s schools and projects that are associated with success and not so much individual people. I appreciate that a bit more.

And another thing, since I’ve been in the U.S. I’m bombarded with, “Oh, you’re a woman in tech.” I was never told in high school or when I was younger that girls are not good at math. It was the opposite almost. It was: “Girls are best in their class, they are the hardest working. Boys are naughty.” Here I find it surprising when girls meet me and say, “I’m so inspired.” I feel happy about having that impact, but I’m a bit surprised that there is more of that division between genders and harmful messaging in the U.S.

What do you think would be the impact on the tech sector of further restricting immigration? Mainly loss of diversity. You could replace immigrants with local talent — but the strength of the U.S. workforce is not just about the technical skills; it is also about the diversity of views for understanding problems and finding solutions that work. We have the diversity discussion about gender all the time. I have it about disabilities and the same goes for immigrants. Different life experiences can enrich a technical team in many ways.

My husband is from Pakistan. Back in grad school, when he would travel outside the U.S., he would spend four hours in the airport for extra checks, and it’s really demoralizing. We have green cards now so it’s a little better. But it is very important to us that our families, who are back in Turkey and Pakistan, can visit frequently and have proper healthcare when they are here. The recent events have made us concerned about the future and, for the first time, consider back up plans — maybe going to Canada, going to Europe, or going back to Turkey.

Alex Samano, co-founder of Life Dreams, immigrated from Mexico City when he was 17 to go to college.

Alex Samano, co-founder of Life Dreams, immigrated from Mexico City when he was 17 to go to college.

What brought you to the U.S.? I wanted to own a business someday and I decided the U.S. was the best place to learn about it and eventually do it on my own. It helped that I was a pretty good student and I earned a scholarship to do it. After college, I had absolutely fantastic opportunities to continue to learn more and practice entrepreneurship before I went out on my own.

Why did you pursue technology? I have coded since I was 13, starting with Pascal and Basic on a Commodore 64. I had my first business at 15 with a couple of friends selling a dentist office management system that we coded for the Commodore 64. I did not want to study computer science because I felt I was already doing it — when you are 17 you think you know it all. However, I knew I wanted to be an engineer and I loved running a business. So, I decided to build my career in the middle of technology and business. I now run my own financial wellness tech startup in Seattle.

What do you like and dislike about working in tech in the U.S, compared to other countries? This is still the best place in the world to build a technology startup. There is a ton of talent and a lot of people willing to give you a hand. Entrepreneurship is part of the culture and something that is almost always embraced. We have a culture of ‘helping the underdog’ that makes it very supportive.

What do you think would be the impact on the tech sector of further restricting immigration? Very competent and bright individuals are natural citizens of the world. They don’t have a lot of restrictions because they will build their own opportunities wherever they go. As a result, they will always gravitate towards places that welcome them (and their families) and provide the best environment to realize their aspirations. In addition, they create a network effect and draw additional individuals of similar skill. The U.S. is still the best place in the world to be a tech entrepreneur. However, we need to make sure we keep it that way.

Maraki Ketema, software engineer at Tableau, immigrated from Ethiopia in 2001 at age 8.

What brought you to the U.S.? My parents have always been very big proponents for creating opportunities for us (Ketema has a brother who is three years younger). They felt the U.S. was the best place for us to grow and be pursue our dreams; they especially wanted us to be educated.

Why did you pursue technology? I was supposed to pursue the pre-med track in college — I knew that this was where the highest likelihood of jobs security was. I started taking pre-med classes and I had an internship where I was shadowing doctors in Ethiopia. I witnessed a couple of surgeries, but as much as I like science, it wasn’t for me. But I did observe that there was a huge issue around data management. Everything about any given patient was in a worn-out folder, on handwritten spread sheets. All the scenarios in which this data could be lost caused me great anxiety.

Maraki Ketema, software engineer at Tableau, immigrated from Ethiopia in 2001 at age 8. (Tableau Software Photo)

During my sophomore year I started working for my college’s IT department and I kinda liked my job. That spring I ended up taking my first computer science class and I wasn’t great at it at first, in part because I was only one of a handful of students who had never opened a terminal window. I had a lot of banter going on in my head: “Why are you doing this, you’re not good at this.”

But I had a really great professor who sat me down and was like, “It’s going to be OK. You can learn this and do this.” I ended up doing well so I decided to switch majors to pursue computer science. I channeled my pre-med course work into a neuroscience concentration. The mysteries of the human brain have always intrigued me.

What do you like and dislike about working in tech in the U.S. compared to other countries? I haven’t worked in any sort of professional capacity outside of the U.S., but I have awareness of business practices. One of the things we do really well in the U.S. is that we’re very process oriented and agile, we adjust and learn as we go.

What do you think would be the impact on the tech sector of further restricting immigration? The U.S. is one of the most powerful countries in the world. In part, it’s because the innovation and growth that comes out of the U.S. shapes how the rest of the world grows. I think about Tableau and the impact we’ve made in Zambia, for example, and the countless customers we serve around the world. It’s very hard for us as a country to drives powerful innovations and take a global-minded approach to problem solving if a diverse set of individuals, representative of the the world, are not able to contribute.

To innovate and help the world grow, we have to be able to collaborate and work with all people, otherwise any globally-minded company will reach a limit. We have to feed off each other’s unique set of experiences if we want to solve the right problems. It would be a significant failure on our part as a nation if we don’t continue to be inclusive of all individuals. This nation was built on immigrants. It’s the glue that keeps us together. Innovation will be stagnant — we won’t be able to serve a world population if we don’t have an understanding of diverse needs.

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