Undocumented immigrants build America’s startups.


Saba Nafis, 25, speaks at a TEDx event at Texas Tech, where she is pursuing her Ph.D.  DACA recipient Nafees immigrated to the US from Pakistan at age 11 (YouTube).

Saba Nafis, 25, speaks at a TEDx event at Texas Tech, where she is pursuing her Ph.D. DACA recipient Nafees immigrated to the US from Pakistan at age 11 (YouTube).

Jessica Heijin Lee is the founder and CEO of BiteSize, a platform that helps companies drive sales through one-to-one conversations on messaging platforms. She is also a dreamer who immigrated to America at the age of 12.

“If you’re undocumented, you’ll be better at running and starting a business because you’re used to jumping over hurdles and finding your own solutions,” she says.

After attending middle and high school in Los Angeles, Lee received a full scholarship to Bryn Mawr College. Still, she worried about her ability to work in the future. While her classmates landed internships at banks and tech companies, Lee spent her college summers working as a babysitter, waitress, and associate at a small business — all for cash.

Then, in June 2012, a month after she graduated from college, President Barack Obama enacted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which gave Lee the right to work in the United States.

Jessica Hyejin Lee is a DACA recipient and founder of Bitesize, a startup in Silicon Valley.

Jessica Hyejin Lee is a DACA recipient and founder of Bitesize, a startup in Silicon Valley.

The DACA program expires on March 5 and there is still no option to protect the so-called Dreamers who immigrated to America as minors. DACA provides two benefits – protection from deportation and work authorization.

Regardless of legal status, you can Become an independent contractor or build a business as long as you have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) or Social Security Number.

Lee, 26, earned a spot in M&T Bank’s management development program in July 2013, but quickly realized her heart was elsewhere. Lee used to spend her spare time organizing protests for undocumented immigrants, and she knew the power of personalized, direct communication in motivating people to attend rallies or sign petitions.

Using her experience, she launched Handstack in 2014, a service for political campaigns to connect directly with voters. Bitesize is a broader iteration of this concept and now Lee works with all brands, not just politicians, to reach their audience. She is currently seeding and says her startup is generating high six-figure income.

Entrepreneurship as a side hustle

and While Lee is a full-time entrepreneur, many other undocumented immigrants run their businesses on the side. “A lot of us undocumented Americans are doing a billion things at once because we don’t know what our future holds,” said Saba Nafis, 25, who moved to Fort Worth, Texas from Pakistan with her parents and two older sisters. When she was 11 years old.

In the year After receiving her bachelor’s degree from the Texas Tech Honors College in 2014, she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Mathematical Biology. In addition to teaching undergraduates, she also runs a startup called Shop Global, which she co-founded last fall.

DACA recipients Saba Nafis and Jonathan Jayce-Green at the UndocuInnovation Festival in San Francisco (Daniel Clayton)

DACA recipients Saba Nafis and Jonathan Jayce-Green at the UndocuInnovation Festival in San Francisco (Daniel Clayton)

In 2015, she decided to enter the University of Rochester Tibetan creative challengeIt aims to improve the lives of Tibetans living in refugee camps in India. She and a few of her classmates came up with an idea to sell carpets handwoven by Tibetan refugees to Western countries through an online sales system. As a finalist, Nafis was able to present his idea to the Dalai Lama in New York City; In the end, she won the competition, receiving a $5,000 prize to make the project a reality. Then, in 2016, Texas Tech funded a team trip to India and Nepal to learn how the refugees could make carpets and develop a business plan.

“We want to export those carpets and sell them here. This art of hand-woven, unique, traditional rugs that Tibetans have made for centuries is slowly dying,” she says. “And I felt like I could relate to these people. I don’t have a home either.

Access to capital

Nafees’ next step is to finance the business. But as a full-time Ph.D. Student, finding time to develop investors is not easy. As events UndocuInnovation It gave her a chance to meet other undocumented entrepreneurs in San Francisco, get advice and find funding.

David Silva, founder of Tequeria, a 1,600-member Latino and Latina community, also participated in the tech summit. He said being with individuals who are rising above their circumstances is important and inspiring to him.

“I got to meet some very talented people. I was overwhelmed with inspiration and motivation,” he said. Many Americans have the idea that undocumented immigrants are short Mexican farm workers, but there are so many of us.

David Silva is the founder of Tequeria.

David Silva is the founder of Tequeria.

Silva, 29, did not qualify for DACA because he moved to Florida from Colombia when he was 18. Finally, he managed to get a job at a telemedicine company in San Francisco, but he was fired last year after a change in management – the new CEO did not want to hire an undocumented immigrant.

Currently, Silva works for a healthcare startup in New York City. Even if the company knows that he is not registered, he is still not legally an employee. So Silva filled out an online form and paid $50 to set up a limited liability company (LLC), filed under ‘Internet Services and Web Programming’ and sending biweekly invoices to his boss.

He is currently building an internship simulator that will allow budding software engineers to participate in coding challenges, post their solutions, and provide feedback.

‘You Can Run a Business With or Without DACA’

Despite what seems counterintuitive, undocumented immigrants insist it’s worth starting a business — because they’re playing against themselves.

“You can run a business with or without DACA. That’s why I work for myself instead of working for someone else. “If you’re working in an under-the-table restaurant and you don’t make enough money or you have to support your struggling parents, the best place to start is to start a business,” Lee said.

“It’s the fastest way to build something for yourself without relying on the law,” she added.

DACA has given an estimated 700,000 undocumented immigrants the security to stay and work in the US, but their future remains uncertain. Very uncertain and unpredictable.

“University became a very safe place.”

You have to be fierce to survive, says Elizabeth Vilchis, CEO of the nonprofit Latinotech.

After moving from Mexico to New York City at age 7, Vilchis knew she was different from her peers, but didn’t fully understand until she started applying to college.

“We lived in constant fear. It wasn’t normal. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school, when I couldn’t fill out certain parts of the application, that I realized I was undocumented. I was missing this nine-digit number, which is so important in this community, and my parents couldn’t give me a straight answer.” she said.

She credits her high school teachers with getting her a program at the City University of New York that paid for her education. However, in her junior year, she missed the GPI requirements and dug around for private scholarships. While in school, she worked under the desk for an architect to help finance her education.

“It’s a trap we fall into. It took me a little longer to finish my studies because I had to finance my studies. University became a very safe place. I just kept studying because I didn’t have an answer. I was very successful in getting money to finance my studies,” she said.

When she considered taking the GRE to apply to graduate school, she passed on DACA and eventually started working for the CUNY system and landed a job at Samsung’s venture investment fund.

We have to stop our work to fight for a solution

At the end of last year, Vilchis left the funds to work full-time for Latinotech, training entrepreneurs on how to take investor meetings and raising funding, considering Latino founders are venture-backed startups.

Vilchis, who now lives in New Jersey; State of the Union Address with Senator Cory BookerShe said it is her calling in life to encourage other immigrant entrepreneurs.

“I decided to stop because it is time to stop and not understand the issue. To protect myself, it doesn’t do me any good to focus all my time on someone else’s business. “It helps me to try to find a solution to my situation,” the 29-year-old said.

“For people like me, we constantly have to make big decisions like quitting our jobs…to fight for a solution. We have to make decisions, but we have to make them.

Speaking – encouraging others to take control of their lives

Undocumented immigrants are constantly in fear and anxiety about possible deportation, so why are these entrepreneurs sharing their stories?

“When I shared my story, I felt love and warmth from communities across the country, around the world,” Nafis said. “It is more of a duty and a duty. Not that I can go back. I can’t go back and pick up everything that’s been published about me online. There was a time when I thought that maybe I should be more careful and that I shouldn’t be out there, but now I see that there are many others who are afraid to speak up and that’s right, but it’s just as important to me. Speak up.”

Vilchis echoed this sentiment, expressing her desire to have as much control over her life as possible. She doesn’t want anyone else to tell her story.

“Unfortunately, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Of course, you can stay in the shade, and hopefully, nothing will happen to you. But, now, all the authorities are talking about is who you are in the public eye,” Vilchis said. “You have no say in it anymore. I speak up because it adds protection around my character and who I am. I’d rather be proud of who I am than hide and be afraid.”

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Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter. @melodyhahm.

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