Launching a startup company is difficult. Doing it in a different country, while simultaneously navigating a complicated immigration system, is even harder. But several Boston entrepreneurial leaders on Wednesday offered reassurance to would-be founders hoping to set up shop in the United States: Start your company, we’re here to help.
They were participating in discussion on “How to Attract Global Entrepreneurs to Boston” that included representatives from Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office, the Venture Development Center at UMass Boston, the startup accelerator Techstars Boston, and Casseus Law, a local law firm working with immigrants seeking to secure documentation to live and work in the region.
The event, at the UMass Club, was part of HUBweek, an ideas festival founded by The Boston Globe, Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
John Barros, Boston’s chief of economic development, said immigrants have become a driving force in Greater Boston’s continued prosperity. Immigration growth helped the city weather the economic downturn, he said, and immigrants now contribute $4.3 billion in consumer spending to Boston’s economy each year, leading to the creation of more than 20,000 jobs.
Barros noted that the city’s dedication to creating opportunities for immigrants will also help shape job growth in the future — particularly if the city is able to land the second headquarters for e-commerce giant Amazon, with its promise of 50,000 high-paying positions. “We’re currently working on an Amazon proposal and there will be a big section [in it] on how we support immigration and immigrants and bringing in talent to the city,” he said.
Attendees also heard stories from immigrants and their struggles to establish themselves professionally on foreign turf. Srinath Vaddepally and Ivan Fernandez de Casadevante, the founders of two startups, both earned graduate degrees in the United States, but then struggled to secure the immigration-status documentation they needed to keep their nascent companies afloat. De Casadevante, a native of Spain, cofounded the robotic furniture startup Ori Systems while at MIT. He said being an immigrant adds a level of difficulty to the already complicated process of starting a business.
“I always compare the path of starting a startup with playing a tennis game against Rafael Nadal — the ball always comes back,” he said. Being an international entrepreneur means bringing more balls to the court, he said, creating complications that can make a fledgling business more likely to fail. After finishing school and securing funding, De Casadevante said, he and his team still worried about their immigration status.
“We faced the reality that there wasn’t really an option for me to stay in the country,” he said.
Fortunately, both de Casadevante and Vaddepally — who founded the health care startup RistCall — found support through UMass Boston’s Global Entrepreneur-in-Residence program which provides visa sponsorship to international entrepreneurs. The first-of-its-kind initiative, which launched in Boston in 2014, has now hosted 36 students throughout the region and expanded to 13 universities across the country. The total amount of venture capital raised by companies connected to the program is $306 million and their employee headcount now stands at more than 500.
Barros said programs like the one at UMass Boston can be game-changing for the city’s 55,000 international students. “We want you to stay in Boston, we want to work with you, and make this your home,” he said.