When the U.S. immigration system falls short, entrepreneurs must find a different path for their companies, investors, and dreams. FWD.us recently spoke with CliqStart founders Areti Kampyli, a Greek citizen, and Raphaël Mazet, a French and British dual citizen, about their immigration challenges in the U.S. and how an inflexible system ultimately caused them to relocate the company to the U.K.
FWD.us: Tell us a little bit about yourselves – where are you both from and how did you meet?
We met ten years ago at the London School of Economics. After our studies we both went our separate ways, Areti built a career in digital marketing at Ogilvy before creating her first startup in 2009, and Raphaël worked in corporate communications and government relations in Europe and Latin America. We created CliqStart in 2014 and met the rest of the team later that year at SpartUps, an early stage accelerator program in San Jose.
FWD.us: What is CliqStart and where did you get the inspiration to start your company?
CliqStart is a digital campaigning tool for nonprofits, advocacy groups, and political movements. Our inspiration for the company came from our desire to allow people to take more concrete action than simply liking Facebook posts or signing petitions when it comes to issues that affect their daily lives.
We wanted to empower people to make more of an impact on the issues they feel passionate about, and feel more engaged in the democratic process.
FWD.us: How did your time in the Bay Area affect your company?
Our time in the Bay Area was mind-blowing and opened our eyes to the radical entrepreneurial philosophy and risk-taking spirit in the Silicon Valley. What we learned and the people we met were crucial in terms of how we are building and scaling our company.
FWD.us: You both have crossed the globe a couple of times – what challenges or complications have you faced as an immigrant in the United States?
The U.S. is a country of extremes: we’ve never felt so totally accepted and rejected at the same time. On the one hand, we had an incredibly warm welcome from the people, investors, and businesses of the Bay Area. But we also had to deal with the constant uncertainty of whether we would be able to stay and build our company. We found out that the rhetoric about the American dream and the U.S. being a land of opportunity was full of caveats and exceptions. The complexity of the immigration process was soul-crushing at times and completely at odds with the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley. As entrepreneurs, we already had a ton of issues to deal with, and the visa process was a totally unnecessary distraction that ultimately made us decide to move to London.
FWD.us: What are the biggest takeaways you’ve drawn from your immigration experience?
We were discouraged by the lack of transparency of the whole process, which seemed arbitrary, bureaucratic, and very expensive – definitely not compatible with the bootstrapping mentality of a fledgling startup. We paid quite a lot for lawyers to assess our chances, and tell us that it would likely take a lot of money and time to apply for any of the available visa options, but that even then our chances were slim. Even just trying for a 6-month visa for Raphaël failed, because someone going to the United States for half a year to build a company was judged “too risky” by the immigration officers. After that, we decided the effort and money needed to obtain a visa just wasn’t worth it.
FWD.us: From your perspective, how can the U.S. immigration system be improved?
It needs to be more transparent about its application criteria, and be more flexible and modernize how it assesses aspiring immigrants. It also needs to come to terms with the entrepreneurial and risk-taking spirit that the U.S. has created, by giving easier visa options to entrepreneurs. It seems that the immigration system is frozen by the fear of immigrants coming into the country to leech off the system, but the result is that the U.S. is limiting its ability to attract and invest in foreign talent that will create jobs in the country.
We feel that the Bay Area invested a lot of time in educating us about how to create a successful startup, but didn’t capitalize on it, because that knowledge is now benefitting the U.K.’s tech sector.
FWD.us: Why should people in the tech community, and beyond, get involved on this issue?
First and foremost, it’s about the survival of the Bay Area as the world’s leading tech hub because attracting talent is what fuels the whole ecosystem. We know too many people that were offered an engineering job in Silicon Valley but can’t make it into the country because of the immigration system. We also know too many entrepreneurs, like ourselves, who have had to let go of their dream to build a startup in the U.S., and who instead are making the most of the opportunities they have in Europe. We were surprised about how quickly the startup scene is changing in London, for example. It seems like every year it is becoming more robust, and more appealing to entrepreneurs who would otherwise have decided to try their luck in the U.S.
Learn more about the work we’re doing at FWD.us to advocate for the Entrepreneurs Pathways program, a new visa for entrepreneurs.