“I’m a very proud American, but I believe there are things we can do to improve on as a country—one of those things is immigration.”
—Edi Demaj, Kosovo
Demaj’s refugee status meant that his family arrived in the United States with “full benefits.” This allowed him to study, work, and eventually help set up three companies, including Rocket Fiber, recognized as one of the biggest startups to come out of Michigan in decades. The high-speed internet provider currently employs 31 people in Detroit and plans to expand to other cities and states. Demaj is eager to replicate this success with his other companies but is hindered by an immigration system that doesn’t allow him to hire top global talent. “It shouldn’t be that complicated for somebody who has a good idea that is picking up steam [to come to the United States],” he says.
Demaj arrived in Detroit in 1999 as a refugee fleeing the war in his home country of Kosovo.
“In order to be an entrepreneur, you have to be determined. And with that determination, you will find a way to make the immigration system work."
—Robert Haidari, Poland
Haidari, the Polish-born founder of Hot Emu, a Chicago-based startup that writes software for other tech startups, came to the United States in 2002 on a student visa, living with a relative while he completed high school. He planned to go to college until he discovered that the price tag for international students was prohibitively high. “It was $9,000 just to go to community college. I had to skip my first semester so that I could figure out how to pay.” Haidari was eventually able to earn legal permanent residency and graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He went on to launch Hot Emu, which currently employs 30 people and also advises at a venture capital firm, working to attract funding to the Midwest. But he continues to be frustrated by the immigration system, having to regularly turn away well-qualified applicants at Hot Emu because of their immigration status. “I can’t hire the people I want to hire. There’s got to be a better solution.”
Haidari came to the United States in 2002 on a student visa.
“To succeed in the American immigration system, it seems you have to both be phenomenal [in business] and have connections."
—Ujjwal Gupta, India
With a staff of 14 in its Chicago office and millions in revenue, BenchPrep's adaptive learning platform has already benefitted more than a million students across 20 countries. However, because of Gupta’s challenges with the immigration system, the company almost never came to be. After graduating with a PhD from Penn State in 2009, he was pushed to return to India, having no legal option to stay and start a company. “My entire PhD was sponsored by various U.S. government organizations. Why would they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars and then not give me any option to stay and start a company?” Gupta was eventually able to return to the United States on a temporary H-1B visa and started BenchPrep with a fellow Indian immigrant. After five years of immigration hurdles—at one point, he even had to call on a contact for assistance—he finally received legal permanent residence in 2015. He hopes that the immigration process can be streamlined to foster future entrepreneurs: “It is a complete no-brainer that if you graduate with a masters or PhD in STEM, you should get a green card stapled to your degree.”
Gupta is the Indian founder of BenchPrep, a Chicago-based education technology startup.