I came to the United States as an exchange student from Germany when I was 15. For 20 years I lived with the fear of having to abandon my American dream and return to Germany. Last year, I finally obtained my citizenship and celebrated the occasion with my American wife, two American kids, and the 40 employees of the company I started in Austin, Texas twelve years ago.
America is still the land of opportunity for many people around the world. But the world has changed. America is no longer the only country where entrepreneurial dreams can be realized. If we don’t fix our immigration system now, other countries will step in to fill the void. The next generation of young people like me, hungry for success and willing to roll up their sleeves, can now easily find other places to start companies.
We cannot let America become complacent. We cannot turn away talented people that want to apply their passions here. Comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, is the only way to show to the world that America is still the best place for people to realize their dreams.
I came to America as a high-school exchange student and obtained scholarships from the University of Texas and Harvard. At age 26, while at Harvard Business School, I started my company, Enspire Learning, with the mission to build educational games that teach people how to think and lead. We have grown to over 30 professionals and are selling our products to dozens of brand-name companies like Microsoft and GE. Last year, our educational software programs were used in over 20 countries.
When I arrived in the early 90s, America allowed me to dream big. My parents never went to college. As an introverted teenager I was not able to find my passions and test my talents in Germany. If I had stayed in Europe, I know my path would have been very different. Studying in the United States allowed me to get the education and confidence to prepare for a successful career in business and entrepreneurship.
When I was in college I had to pay for my living expenses while on an F-1 visa, which was extremely difficult because the work opportunities for international students were restricted to university jobs. After I graduated I was able to stay in the United States on a J-1 study extension visa while I started my company in my apartment with $25K in credit card debt. We quickly grew our revenues and moved into real office space.
After my J-1 expired, I had to apply for an H1-B visa to be allowed to officially continue to work for my own company. Despite the fact that after one year we had revenues far in excess of my salary, this was another extremely difficult process. After growing my company to $5M in revenues without any outside funding, I was finally able to apply for a permanent green card – and eventually citizenship – based on extraordinary ability.
I count myself lucky that I came to the United States when I did. Today, my story would have been impossible due to the current cap and restrictions placed on H1-B work visas. The truth is also that today, I may not have fought as hard to stay in the US as I did back then. My European friends point out that Europe has grown vibrant start-up communities in places like London and Berlin. When faced with the hurdles that the United States currently throws at talented people who want to stay here I am not surprised that many entrepreneurs decide to set up their companies elsewhere.
But one of the things that has always attracted me to America is that we do get things right eventually – even if it takes us some time to get there. I sincerely hope that comprehensive immigration reform – including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigration – is passed this year so that America can continue to be the place of choice for talented people from around the world.