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Founders of Venmo and Foursquare Explain How Entrepreneurs Can Help Immigrants

It's about more than visa sponsorship.
Founders of Venmo and Foursquare Explain How Entrepreneurs Can Help Immigrants
Image credit: Sara Wass

When President Donald Trump signed the first travel ban executive order in January, it brought a heightened focus to immigrants’ rights, experiences and contributions.

The legal community and local governments have worked to protect affected individuals. Prominent companies, especially in the tech sector, have been vocal about the crucial talents and innovative potential of immigrants. However, what’s been missing from the conversation, some founders suggest, is the opportunity for entrepreneurs to help immigrants thrive.

“How do we as a tech community, as entrepreneurs, as people who are lucky enough to have a platform, as people who have been lucky enough to build communities, how can we use that?” asked Naveen Selvadurai, co-founder of Foursquare and Expa, during a panel discussion titled “Immigration and the Future of Entrepreneurship” in New York City on March 29.

Related: Trump Travel Ban, Even While Blocked, Casts Long Shadow Over Immigrant Entrepreneurs

“How can we use our voice in different ways to really help everybody else?” he added, “To pull everybody else up?”

Selvadurai and his fellow panelists discussed several efforts they are making within their companies and communities to support immigrants and refugees.

Hire who's best for your company, despite their status.

Iqram Magdon-Ismail, co-founder of Venmo, noted that the payments company’s first employee, Shreyans Bhansali, did not have a visa prior to joining the company. Venmo hired him anyway, despite the $5,000 expense involved to help him obtain legal working status in America. He was one of the co-founders’ college classmates -- they knew him, trusted him and valued his engineering skills.

“I remember bringing his application to some lawyers in Philadelphia, and the first reaction that I received was, ‘Have you thought about possibly hiring someone who doesn’t have to go through this?’” Magdon-Ismail said. “And I was like, ‘No, what are you talking about? I just want to work with Shreyans. What’s the issue here? Why can’t we just go through this? We have the money.’”

Many companies do not consider applicants who are not citizens or permanent residents -- that’s part of what drives so many immigrants to pursue entrepreneurship. Magdon-Ismail’s advice to entrepreneurs is take a chance on someone seeking legal status to work in the States if you really want them on your team.

“If you’re a founder of a company, and it’s early stage, make yourself aware of what it’s like to hire people from all over the world," Magdon-Ismail said, "because it can really open your eyes, and in some ways, it can even make your company better than it is."

Flip the narrative.

Eat Offbeat, a service that sells meals prepared by refugees, only hires chefs who have never worked in a professional kitchen, then trains them. All of the company’s chefs are refugees, but it is careful to avoid limiting their identities in this way.

“The term refugee often has a very negative connotation,” co-founder and CEO Manal Kahi said. “We say that our chefs happen to be refugees by status, but they are chefs by nature.”

Eat Offbeat is also a for-profit, something that Kahi said was a conscious decision. She said the company wants people to see its chefs as regular employees, just like anyone else who is contributing to the U.S. economy. Kahi’s distaste for inauthentic hummus in New York grocery stores is what prompted her to found Eat Offbeat in the first place.

“Our motto is, ‘Where adventurous eaters find refuge.’ It’s really about switching perspectives,” Kahi said. “Instead of looking at it like we’re helping refugees, they don’t need help. They have a lot to give. It’s really about them helping us. They’re bringing us something new that we can discover.”

The company exceeded its donation goal in a Kickstarter campaign for a cookbook it hopes to distribute to communities across the U.S. It will feature 80 recipes and stories by at least 20 chefs from 15 different countries.  

Build platforms.

Much of the tech out there that serves immigrants specifically takes the form of apps. There are apps to assist both undocumented and legal immigrants as they seek jobs, set up emergency plans and more. There are also those which anyone can use, regardless of whether they are immigrants, to make their voices heard or to make civic engagement more accessible.

Related: More Than 200 Members of the Tech Community Sign Open Letter Opposing Trump Travel Ban

“When we do design tech systems,” Selvadurai said, “what are we really doing? We’re creating platforms that allow everybody else to rise up to the level that hopefully we’re at. We’re enabling other people to not just have jobs, to work for us, but we’re hopefully creating systems that enable them to be drivers, be more independent, be more empowered to start their own things and provide for their livelihood, for their families and so on.”

Partner with local governments and organizations.

Private companies have been joining forces with local governments on behalf of immigrants’ rights, said Paul Rodriguez, acting counsel to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Projects in New York have included the municipal ID program IDNYC, which removes the stigma of not having an identification card, and Action NYC, which provides legal services to immigrants.

“All of those, by necessity, are done with partnerships with private industry,” Rodriguez said.

In addition to providing new services, tech entrepreneurs can support existing ones. Employees of many companies have volunteered individually or in groups for mentorship programs and other efforts. There are also opportunities to build tech tools for organizations that help immigrants.

“There are community-based organizations that are now coming to realize that they have technology needs that seriously affect the way they provide services,” Rodriguez said. “Either the security of the very sensitive data that they have, the ability to provide streamlined services -- as there’s greater and greater demand on them as their funding is getting cut.”

Reach out to employees.

Leaders of companies such as Nike, Starbucks and JPMorgan have written memos to their employees in response to the travel ban, affirming their inclusiveness and commitment to their workers regardless of citizenship status. Some have offered to provide legal services and sponsorship.

Selvadurai said that at Expa, the team makes a point of having conversations about major developments in the news.

“We’re there for each other,” Selvadurai said. "The message we pass to the team is the message they pass to their communities."

Related: What Business Travelers Need to Know About Trump's Travel Ban

Spread optimism.

Amid struggles and bleak forecasts, entrepreneurs take charge and work to grow their companies and realize their visions. This attitude is infectious, Selvadurai explained.

“To be an entrepreneur, you have to have a certain amount of optimism that things are going to turn out OK tomorrow,” Selvadurai said. “We bring that same optimism to our neighbors, to our customers, to our employees, to our bosses -- everybody who we interact with on a daily basis.”