At MIT Sloan, U.S. immigration chief addresses challenges for foreign-born entrepreneurs

Students, faculty share stories, offer solutions in open conversation

December 4, 2012

USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas with Trust Center Director Bill Aulet

USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas with Trust Center Director Bill Aulet

A top immigration official visited MIT Sloan Nov. 28, where he met with students and said his agency is adapting to the needs of foreign-born entrepreneurs who are frustrated with the complex immigration and visa process.

“It has been a sea-change in our agency in terms of recognizing the startup profile, a startup venture, and trying to match that venture with a legal instrument that the immigration system can provide,” said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas during a conversation and panel presentation at Wong Auditorium, sponsored by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.

The Cuban-born Mayorkas has led the agency since 2009. Since then, he said, it has been on a learning curve about the needs of entrepreneurs who have the potential to create American jobs. In the not-too-distant past, he said, companies with less than 25 employees, or lacking an office floor plan, a history of revenue, or organizational chart were at a disadvantage when applying for visas.

“The immigration system, unfortunately, doesn’t lend itself to easy, smooth paths for these individuals, but too often presents obstacles,” Mayorkas told students. “The law provides very limited paths for individuals who want to be entrepreneurial in the United States who were born [elsewhere].”

Following his talk, Mayorkas took questions and suggestions from students in the crowd—by a show of hands, about 90 percent of whom were immigrants or first generation Americans and about 50 percent of whom said they were trying to start a business in the country.

He sat, as well, for a panel discussion that included: Indian-born engineer and entrepreneur Anurag Bajpayee, MIT PhD ’12; immigration attorney Lisa Burton, who has provided pro bono services for MIT students; Matthew Marx, the Alvin J. Siteman (1948) Career Development Professor of Entrepreneurship; and Rene Reinsberg, MBA ’11, the German-born CEO and co-founder of menu management company Locu.

Matthew Marx, who teaches MIT Sloan’s Dilemmas in Founding New Ventures course, said the top questions he receives from young entrepreneurs are “How do I find technical talent? How do I find a technical co-founder? Where can I find some good engineers?” Marx said that when he worked at speech recognition technology startups, finding top talent required hiring workers from overseas.

Panel members acknowledged significant global competition for startup founders, specifically mentioning Start-Up Chile, a program to attract innovators to found companies in Chile, and the United Kingdom’s unique entrepreneurship visa. But even with the competition, the group pulled for the United States to maintain its top position attracting the world’s best and brightest.

“There’s something unique about the U.S., about places like MIT, Silicon Valley,” Locu CEO Reinsberg said. “That’s why we came here. We all met at MIT.”

While at MIT Sloan, director Mayorkas unveiled Entrepreneur Pathways, a new website guiding company founders through the immigration process. It is one of the first resources developed through the agency’s Entrepreneurs in Residence Initiative, which employs five successful entrepreneurs to advise the department on issues of interest to the startup community. Mayorkas said the initiative helps “realize the current immigration system’s full potential to attract and retain startup enterprises that promote innovation and spur job creation in America.”