Every year during International Education Week, NAFSA releases the latest data on the contributions international students make to the U.S. economy. NAFSA reports on the dollars spent through tuition, fees, and living expenses, as well as the number of jobs supported each year in its International Student Economic Value Tool. During the 2013-2014 academic year, students from abroad contributed $26.8 billion to the economy and supported approximately 340,000 jobs.
What happens when these students complete their studies? For those that leave the United States, while the connections and relationships may remain, their contributions to the U.S. economy come to an end. For those who wish to stay, living and working in the United States after graduation can be difficult. Deciphering immigration and visa regulations is a complicated process, and there are often limits to the number of visas made available each year. The issue becomes even more complex when international students want to pursue an entrepreneurial idea and form their own company in the United States.
Bilal Zuberi, founder of GEO2 Technologies and currently a partner at Lux Capital, was once a STEM international student from Pakistan who started an advanced materials development company. Zuberi, who holds a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a bachelor’s degree from the College of Wooster, says creating a U.S. company was tough.
“Visa regulations are not entirely favorable to international students starting their own businesses. I was fortunate that I was able to work for [my investors’] existing company as an H-1B visa holder while I developed my company,” says Zuberi.
Despite the obstacles, Zuberi’s company grew to count more than 20 employees, mostly hired from MIT and the Boston area. Zuberi eventually moved on from GEO2 to become a venture capitalist and tech investor where he has supported projects employing hundreds of workers.
“I have had many students approach me with startup ideas but are eventually unable to stay in the United States to build their business. It’s frankly silly that we allow highly educated, technical minds to leave the country instead of supporting them to create jobs in our communities,” says Zuberi.
“When you are building a company, there are so many issues to tackle that one extra problem like visa complications might set you back,” says Fahim Aziz, founder of Backpack, an online marketplace platform. Aziz, an international student from Bangladesh also at the College of Wooster, is taking time from school to focus on expanding the company, which he cofounded with another international student. Undeterred by the challenges of complex U.S. visa regulations, Aziz plans to hire several engineers and programmers in the next few months as the business grows.
Heilwig Jones, founder and director of Kaya Responsible Travel, is a U.K. native who studied for one year at the University of Colorado-Denver (UCD). Years later, her experience in Thailand after the 2006 tsunami inspired her to start Kaya, a volunteering and service learning program provider now operating in 27 countries. Jones founded Kaya in the United Kingdom and later expanded to Colorado and Massachusetts, where Jones has a staff of four full-time employees.
Her time studying in the United States not only made her familiar with the market, but it also connected her to the right people. “The contacts I made when I was a student studying at UCD have been invaluable in the development of Kaya. A great friend and mentor who was actually my exchange coordinator at UCD provided some great contacts within the industry,” says Jones.
Uchennaya Ogba is another example of an entrepreneurial international student supporting the economy through job creation. Ogba, originally from Nigeria, graduated from Trinity College and founded BethanyEast, a public relations and consulting firm in San Antonio, Texas, thanks in part to small-business development initiatives in the community.
“We received a considerable amount of assistance to create a business plan, find funding, and submit our application for various certificates,” says Ogba. For international students interested in pursuing a business idea, Ogba says there are many options. “Do your research. Every city has a program that is equipped to help entrepreneurs, and they do not care where you come from as long as you are willing to work hard.”
The enormous contributions of international students, both current and former, can’t be denied. However, the unfortunate fact remains that the difficulties they face when looking for employment or starting businesses in the United States are often tied to complex visa regulations that are part of the larger immigration reform debate.
Tracy Schauff, a senior attorney at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP, a NAFSA Global Adviser, frequently works with international entrepreneurs and sees how visa regulations can become serious headaches.
“I talk to a number of student groups each year on entrepreneurial issues, and of those, maybe four or five students have actually tried to get through this daunting process. The regulations we have weren’t written for entrepreneurs. The most important advice I try to give students is to look at their long-term goal, start planning early, and understand that they will have additional costs that citizens won’t have to pay. If they don’t look long term, they might make mistakes that will prevent them from getting a green card and allowing their business grow,” says Schauff.
To learn more about NAFSA’s immigration priorities and how to you can be an advocate for commonsense immigration reform that benefits all, visit NAFSA’s Public Policy and Advocacy page.