Meet the VC firms that want to help immigrants found their own startups so they keep their talents in the US
Many immigrants have founded successful companies, but the pathways to entrepreneurship are limited by visa restrictions. These firms can help.
The Unshackled Ventures founders Nitin Pachisia, left, and Manan Mehta. Unshackled Ventures Some of the most well-known tech companies today were born out of the Great Recession of the late 2000s, including Twilio, Airbnb, and Dropbox. For a certain kind of entrepreneur, the challenges of an economic downturn represent an exciting chance to build something new from the rubble of the old. Many of those top tech companies were founded by former employees of titans like Amazon or Google, which has given hope that the wave of layoffs sweeping Silicon Valley will lead to a similar startup renaissance.But that opportunity simply isn't available to a certain key class of tech worker: The immigrants who are in the US on work visas like the H-1B.
Many of tech's most powerful and influential figures, including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, the Stripe cofounders John and Patrick Collison, and Zoom CEO Eric Yuan came to the US as immigrants.H-1B visas are sponsored by the holder's employer, meaning that if they lose their job — either voluntarily or as part of a layoff — they generally have to return to their home country within 60 days. That's bad news for tech because those workers possess important, highly desirable skills, and it's not clear whether or when they'd be able to come back if they wanted to. Enter a new breed of venture-capital firms trying to keep that talent in the US by making it easier for immigrants to found American startups — sometimes even by sponsoring those visas themselves.Jacob Colker, a managing partner of the AI2 Incubator program for artificial-intelligence startups, told Insider he wanted to change the perception that it's impossible to build a company while on an H-1B visa.
It's certainly not easy, but it is possible, he said. "If you are truly compelled to go solve a problem, and you want to control your own destiny, and you want to make your dent in the universe, and you're on an H-1B, it is possible to found a company," Colker said. "It is not guaranteed."Insider spoke with four firms that focus on investing in immigrant founders, which represent a mix of VC firms and startup incubators, about how to pitch them and which types of resources they could provide. The Unshackled Ventures founders Nitin Pachisia, left, and Manan Mehta.
Unshackled Ventures Unshackled Ventures was founded in 2015 and is now investing out of its third fund. Its mission is to make it possible for people to be on a work visa while founding a company, Manan Mehta, one of its cofounders, told Insider.The firm will invest in founders during the awkward time between getting founded and getting funded by institutions like the Y Combinator startup accelerator or traditional venture-capital firms. Mehta said his firm generally invested between $300,000 and $500,000.Unshackled also provides full immigration support, including sponsoring the founders it works with for H-1B or other work visas.
The company keeps two immigration lawyers on staff to help each founder with their unique situation."We want to make sure that there's never just a one-size-fits-all strategy," Mehta said. The firm looks more like a research-and-development technology lab than a typical VC firm, Mehta said. "Our business model is to invest in projects/founders for equity versus trying to spin them out versus trying to do a licensing agreement versus trying to do anything else," Mehta said. "That has allowed us to meet the need of immigrant founders, which is typically at day zero, who oftentimes have multiple ideas." Founders can pitch Mehta and his team through a form on its website, and they make an effort to speak with all of them. That process aims to ensure equal access and that the firm meets a wide variety of founders, Mehta said.
The firm typically invests in 15 to 20 founders a year. Since it's such an early-stage investment, Mehta said, the firm considers each founder's story and their potential more than anything else. "We're not investing in people that have built a product yet, necessarily," he said. "But there's a strong sense of self-identity into why their life story, their life journey to get out of their home country into the United States led to the problem that they want to solve." Semyon Dukach, the founding partner of One Way Ventures. Semyon Dukach One Way Ventures invests in immigrant founders only and generally contributes between $1 million and $1.5 million to its startups' seed rounds. Semyon Dukach, the firm's founding partner, said he and his team firmly believed that people had the right to live and work anywhere."Immigrants are by far the strongest group of people that's most likely to build the largest, most successful companies," Dukach said.
"Investing in immigrant founders is not a service; it's a huge privilege."We generate larger terms for our limited partners because we are able to convince the best immigrant founders to accept our money when they can take anyone's money."The firm offers some support with immigration, mainly via referrals to outside lawyers, but it doesn't have the resources to sponsor visas for founders themselves. Most of their founders typically come to them after they have their immigration and visa situation sorted, Dukach said. The firm has four investment partners focused on a few key technology areas. Dukach focuses on deep tech, outer space, and the application of AI and machine learning.
His three colleagues focus on fintech, proptech, enterprise cloud software, supply chain, and logistics. When considering an investment, the partners look at whether the founder is a strong leader with a strong vision for what they want to build, Dukach said."They have to have thought about how they'll be scaling the business," he said. "I would say more important than all that is some demonstrated ability to get really strong people to follow them."We want them to be able to hire the kind of people who would never work for anyone else." The Born Global general partners Sunny Shuoyang Zhang and Sandip Bordoloi. Born Global Partners Born Global Ventures is another venture firm focused on investing in immigrant founders.
The firm was started by two immigrants, Sandip Bordoloi and Sunny Shuoyang Zhang. They wanted to create a program where they could work alongside founders and offer monetary support as well as expertise while they were building their companies, Zhang said. "We both started our studio together in 2017 because we saw a huge gap in early-stage venture building," Zhang said. "We have assembled a fit-for-purpose, cost-effective expert teams to work with founders."So we are so-called institutional cofounders, where we put in the money as investors, but we're also co-building with the founders."They want to provide immigrant founders with not just funding but also a network of experts they can rely on as they build their businesses.
The biggest hurdle immigrant founders face is a lack of a strong network of friends and family who may have access to the generational wealth and resources to get a company off the ground, Zhang said. She wants to remove that hurdle. "The biggest disadvantage for a lot of immigrant founders is the lack of social-capital connections," she said.While Born Global doesn't provide visa sponsorship outright or a legal partner in-house, it has an outside immigration law firm with which it works closely.The firm invests in sectors across the tech industry but is especially excited about climatetech, energy transition, and sustainability. The firm typically writes checks of $100,000 to $500,000 for preseed and seed-stage rounds.
AI2 Incubator's team. AI2 Incubator AI2 Incubator helps founders who are looking to build companies in the artificial-intelligence space.While AI2 doesn't have a specific mandate for funding immigrants, the firm told Insider it did provide immigration support for the many founders it worked with who needed it. It works with an external law firm that helps founders ensure they stay in America within the bounds of the law while building their companies. The incubator came out of the Allen Institute for AI, which was founded by the Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen.
AI2 got started in 2020 and is focused on investing in founders and projects that apply AI to real-world situations in smart or clever ways. "We've gotten very good at helping entrepreneurs to build products that have real differentiated applied AI at the very core of the product," Colker, its managing partner, said. Founders can apply through a form on AI2's website, and the partners will read every application that comes in, Colker said. They then set up meetings with those who have strong pitches. They accept applications on a rolling basis and typically take on five companies a year. The companies they've taken on are now worth a total of $650 million combined.
Two of their companies have been acquired, Xnor by Apple and Kitt.AI by Baidu.The firm invests in three stages. When it brings on a new team, it will invest $30,000 per cofounder to help them cover personal and business expenses as they start out. If the team is on a good trajectory, three to six months later, AI2 will invest a preseed round of $500,000.
AI2 then helps those teams raise a seed round and provides guidance on the pitch and introductions to VCs.Are you an immigrant founder and want to share your story? Contact this reporter via email at EMAIL or Signal at 925-364-4258. (PR pitches by email only, please.) Tech H-1B visa Immigration