Doug Rand probably didn’t know that the play he wrote in high school — “The Idiot and the Oddity,” a parody of the Greek literature being forced upon him at the time — would set him on a path to the White House. But it was the first step in a serendipitous career that has given him insights into one of the biggest issues facing the country.
That career includes more than six years in the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, where, among other things, Rand led several “startup visa” initiatives to create a pathway for foreign-born entrepreneurs to build their companies in the U.S. Almost as soon as he left the White House, Rand became a founding member of startup Boundless, which is building tools to simplify the process of applying for a green card, as a spinoff from Seattle-based Pioneer Square Labs.
But let’s back up to Rand’s playwriting days. At 17 years old, his play was picked by one of the few legacy publishers that dominated the industry. The company licensed his play for about a half-dozen productions per year, and sent him a check for a few hundred bucks. Rand considered himself a reasonably successful young playwright — until a twist in the third act.
Playwriting was a hobby Rand shared with his younger brother, Jonathan, who couldn’t get the attention of any of the big publishers. Undeterred, Jonathan Rand published a few scenes from his own play on his university website, offering to send the script to interested parties in exchange for a check.
“He, in his first year, licensed over 100 productions in 12 countries,” Rand said. “And we thought, ‘Wait a second. We’re both nobodies, equivalent in our lack of name recognition in the theater world, and our plays are pretty similar, so how come I, Doug Rand, the published brother, am getting crushed by my unpublished brother? Clearly, there is a way to democratize this marketplace.”
Together they launched Playscripts Inc. to allow more playwrights to get their work published. In 2014, the startup was acquired.
“Because my brother and I were incredibly ruthless entrepreneurs in search of the largest possible addressable market, we chose to start a company at the intersection of publishing and theater,” Rand joked.
Enamored with his early success in entrepreneurship, Rand would then embark on a career dedicated to startups: building them and writing public policy to help them thrive.
In 2010, he joined the Obama White House as a senior adviser focused on fostering entrepreneurship and innovation in the U.S. economy. As expected, he worked on initiatives related to inclusion, access to capital, and other pain points for startups.
“What I didn’t expect going in, but what became really clear, is that I’d also be working on immigration policy,” he said. “The intersection between entrepreneurship and immigration became immediately clear.”
Still a bit of a Shakespeare at heart, Rand describes the story of immigration reform in the Obama administration as a three-act play. Act One involved laying the groundwork, getting to know the players, and testing bills. The administration took baby steps, but meaningful reform didn’t seem likely given the political situation. In Act Two, the 2012 election changed the political landscape and Republicans came around to immigration reform in hopes of courting Latino voters.
“Passing comprehensive immigration reform suddenly was a distinct possibility instead of fantasy because, for a moment at least, the politics had changed,” Rand said.
The administration put together what Rand describes as a “magnificent” bill, complete with, among other things, two startup visas. It passed the Senate, underwent major surgery in the House of Representatives, and was never called up for a vote. In Act Three, then Speaker of the House John Boehner told President Obama it wasn’t going to happen, and Rand and his team got to work on immigration reforms that could be implemented via the executive branch.
“I — and my colleagues — spent two breakneck years, from November 2014 until we were out of there, trying to actually implement these high-skill immigration actions that the president had promised we would do,” Rand said. “So that was Act Three, and the International Entrepreneur Rule was one of them. It was the last thing we got done three days before Trump was inaugurated.”
Obama instructed the Department of Homeland Security to create the International Entrepreneur Rule (IER), granting a parole period in the U.S. for entrepreneurs whose companies met certain benchmarks of success. It was designed to create a pathway for foreign-born entrepreneurs to establish companies here because there wasn’t a good immigration avenue for foreign-born entrepreneurs. Work visas, like the H-1B, only apply to skilled employees of established companies, not startup founders.
But the IER is on the chopping block. President Donald Trump’s administration postponed its start date to March 2018, to collect public comments on a proposal to rescind the rule. In September, The National Venture Capital Association filed a lawsuit claiming the delay is illegal.
Rand isn’t commenting on the fate of the initiative he spearheaded because Boundless is not taking political positions. The startup officially launched in September with a product that simplifies the process of applying for a marriage-based green card.
Boundless is a spinout of Pioneer Square Labs, a Seattle company that vets startup ideas, recruits founding teams, and helps get the fledgling companies off the ground. Rand got in touch with the startup studio almost immediately after leaving his gig at the White House.
“I knew I wanted to ultimately start or join a high-growth startup that I believed in, that I thought could be a successful business and also have a positive social impact and Boundless just came together much more rapidly than I would have anticipated, which was wonderful,” he said.
Rand is a co-founder and the president of the Seattle startup though he remains in D.C. Telecommuting has its challenges but his location allows him to “be in touch with people who care about and work on immigration every day.”
“I feel really fortunate because some of the most gratifying work I did in the last administration is hopefully improving the lives of a large number of immigrants through good policy,” Rand said. “Now I feel like I get to continue that mission and hopefully have a positive impact on a large number of immigrants and their families through technology.”
As for “The Idiot and the Oddity,” Rand’s legacy as a playwright lives on, too. “Eventually I got the rights back and we published it through our own company,” he said. “It’s still doing OK.”