Seattle-area entrepreneur Mina Yoo has been in the United States since 1991, receiving a dual Ph.D. in sociology and business administration from the University of Michigan, working as a University of Washington professor, and launching her own consumer device company, among other accomplishments.
“I went to pick up my new U.S. passport, and the guy who gave me the passport, a young guy, was like, ‘Welcome to the United States.’ And I was like, I think I’ve been here longer than you’ve been alive!” she recalled.
That’s just one of the illuminating anecdotes we heard while interviewing a diverse group of immigrant entrepreneurs and tech leaders for a special video series on GeekWire this week. The project was originally intended to recognize Immigrant Heritage Month, but many of the issues we discussed in the interviews have become even more relevant amid the broader national debate over U.S. immigration practices.
In this first installment, we ask: If you could change one thing about U.S. immigration policy, what would it be and why? We posed this question to a group of immigrant tech leaders and entrepreneurs. Their answers covered a wide range of topics, from the H-1B visa program to the impacts of immigration policy on the U.S. tech industry.
The video above is Part 1 of GeekWire’s video series featuring the perspectives of foreign-born entrepreneurs and tech leaders. Click here to watch Part 2, which focuses on unique challenges faced by women immigrants. Scroll down below to read a full transcript of the interview.
Here are the immigrants featured in the first video:
Nourah Yonous, founder and executive director of African Women Business Alliance, which helps black women — especially African women immigrants — start, grow, and scale small businesses through professional business development training, coaching, networking, and access to seed capital. Yonous is originally from Somalia and grew up in Tanzania. She moved to the U.S. in 2005. Yonous has a decade of advocacy experience in global south feminism and gender activism and also works as a capacity building program manager at Nonprofit Assistance Center. She holds bachelor’s degrees in political science, feminist studies and legal studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
William Lai, president and co-founder of 8Ninths, an augmented, virtual and mixed-reality studio in Seattle. Lai grew up in Hong Kong and moved to the U.S. when he was 15 years old. He says his family immigrated mostly for political reasons, as they were concerned about Hong Kong’s stability after the transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China in 1997. Lai spent 13 years at Microsoft, where he served in an instrumental role in architecting the MSN/Windows Live Messenger service, one of the earliest cloud-based services when it was launched.
Manny Medina, CEO of Outreach, the Seattle-based sales automation technology company that raised $65 million in its latest funding round. Medina is originally from Ecuador. When he was 20 years old, he immigrated to the U.S. to finish his undergraduate studies and pursue opportunities in engineering. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Pennsylvania.
Elena Tarassova, founder and CEO of Vioure, which manages a portfolio of short-term and corporate rentals in Seattle. Tarassova and her family are originally from Russia and moved to Seattle in 2001. Tarassova said there was a lot of uncertainty as the Soviet Union was falling apart, and her parents decided to move to the U.S. to provide a better future for their children.
Sabastian Mugazambi, co-founder of Adisa, a startup that allows African artisans to manage and maintain an online marketplace. Mugazambi is originally from Harare, Zimbabwe. He moved to the U.S. in 2013 to study computer science and statistics at Carleton College in Minnesota on a full scholarship. Mugazambi turned down an offer to work for Morgan Stanley in New York to pursue his dream of becoming an entrepreneur. In 2017, he walked away with $18,000 in funding for Adisa from the WeWork Creator Awards.
Satoshi Nakajima, chairman of Xevo, which provides software for auto manufacturers. Nakajima immigrated from Tokyo, Japan to the U.S. to pursue a career at Microsoft, working closely with Bill Gates as the lead software architect of Windows 95. He was in charge of building the Windows Desktop and Internet Explorer. Nakajima has founded seven companies and employed more than 300 people since moving to the U.S.
Xiao Wang, CEO of Boundless, a startup that helps people navigate the immigration process. Wang was born in Nanjing, China. He said that studying in the U.S. was always a dream of his parents, who had to stop attending school during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Wang immigrated to the U.S. when he was 3 years old to reunite with his parents after they finished their graduate studies. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a master’s degree from Stanford University.
Mina Yoo, founder and CEO of HEROCLIP, a consumer product company that aims to help people stay organized and keep their hands free. Yoo is originally from Korea and moved to the U.S. in 1991 before attending Brown University for college. She later attended the University of Michigan to get a dual Ph.D. in sociology and business administration. She was previously a professor at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. Yoo also spent a couple of years in Palo Alto, California, researching immigrant entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.
In this video, we asked, if you could change one thing about U.S. immigration policy, what would it be and why? Watch the video above, and continue reading for a transcript.
Yonous: I would say the whole system needs to be changed.
Medina: Things like caps on immigration, quotas on immigration, for tech, are just ridiculous. Why? Why would we cap the influx of people that we need, that we’re not generating enough of, here in the U.S.?
Mugazambi: The H-1B process and the process of actually getting authorization to work in the U.S. should not be as difficult as it is right now.
Yoo: I believe in the market speaking, and if immigrants come here and they have the skill set and they have the drive and the willingness to take on a job and they do it equal or better than other folks, let them in.
Tarassova: The landscape right now, to me, it feels disheartening. The attitude is that immigrants take away and not add, but I feel it’s the opposite
Yonous: America, as a country, has always seen itself as the savior, and these immigrants are always the victims — deserving help, deserving support. But we need to shift that lens and see immigrants and refugees as people who come and contribute so much to this place.
Tarassova: Me and my family are here, and we’ve become employers. We’re creating jobs for folks that are born and raised here or have also come here.
Wang: Not only is the number of international students as a whole falling in the first time in a decade, but the number of and the percentage of them actually staying in the U.S. afterwards has also been declining … These are people who are coming to this country and often really want to help contribute.
Mugazambi: I found it very difficult for me to be able to gain a lot of hands-on experience while I was a student because there’s a lot of paperwork that goes into actually filing to be able to work. Even if you’re an international student in the U.S., most of the companies, when they hire interns, they hire interns with the prospect of extending a full-time offer after they graduate. Extending a full-time offer to an international student is more than just giving them a job. You need to sponsor their H-1B at some point.
Yoo: I’ve been here since 1991. It’s now 2018, and I got my citizenship two years ago, after 25 years. And I went to pick up my new U.S. passport, and the guy who gave me the passport, a young guy, was like, “Welcome to the United States.” And I was like, I think I’ve been here longer than you’ve been alive! … Streamlining the immigration process or even just the work visa process, I think, will do a lot to bring some really good talent to the United States.
Nakajima: If we don’t open up enough, then the smart people in India or China — Actually, in China it’s actually happening. Instead of coming over here, they start their own companies there and try to succeed. So more competition will happen. I think that’s the biggest threat.
Lai: From a competitive standpoint, the industry wants to attract the best and the brightest, no matter where they are, what they look like, where they come from. That’s what’s contributing to the success of America in tech and has been leading American economy for a very long time. And anything to disturb that magical formula will have very long term consequences, I think. And it might not appear at first, but just being a little harder to recruit the right person to contribute to your startup or recruit the right person to work in a company … Those things will accumulate and compound over time.
Medina: If I need somebody consumer-facing, it’s very likely that I will find them in the U.S. There’s a lot of good, solid talent for that kind of role. But if I need a machine learning engineer, there’s just not that many of them in the U.S., and the great majority of them are from Russia, China, India, or somewhere in eastern Europe, and we need it. We need to move the ball forward. Innovation will happen. And if it doesn’t happen here, it will happen somewhere else. And I would rather have it happen here.
Wang: What we do with immigrants is something that will have outsized impact 30 years from now. So as we think about policy changes and as we think about how we redesign the system, this is, at its core, what is going to make or break the position of America in the later half of the 21st century.