Stanford Entrepreneurs Launch Startup to Offer U.S. Immigrants Opportunity to Transfer Credit History

Posted by Caron Creighton on 08/15/2016

Nova Credit Offers U.S. Immigrants Opportunity to Transfer Credit HistoryNova Credit, a cross-border consumer credit reporting startup backed by Y Combinator, Pejman Mar Ventures, and StartX, made their official product launch today. Nova began as a collaboration among recent Stanford graduates and immigrant entrepreneurs Misha Esipov, Nicky Goulimis, and Loek Janssen.

Misha, Nicky, and Loek recognized a need for access to credit histories across borders to lessen the financial toll on immigrants to the U.S. They first saw the need for access to lending opportunities in their own lives, as well as in the lives of their fellow international students at Stanford, where over 40% of MBA students hold passports from outside the U.S.

“I got rejected from a ton of credit cards, and have to pay for really expensive student loans. I’d written off that category like…this is just something that happens, I’m not going to do anything about it.It was interesting when Misha started having this idea…maybe there is a solution,” said Nicky.

Nicky grew up in the U.K. in a family of Greek immigrants. After graduating from Cambridge and working at Bain & Co and most recently at Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency, Nicky moved to the U.S. to get her MBA at Stanford.

Without the ability to transfer their credit histories, immigrants have difficulty proving their reliability as borrowers and are often forced into less ideal options like payday loans, that can charge 300% or more in interest. As a result, immigrants living in the U.S. often struggle to navigate life tasks and milestones, such as taking out a loan to start a business, buying a car, or renting an apartment.

“Immigration is a really vulnerable point for individuals in their lives. Giving them the credit to get that head start, it helps…unlock opportunities for them,” said Nicky.

Misha, Nicky, and Loek seek to provide a systemic solution to aid the more than 42.4 million immigrants living in the U.S. with limited access to credit. “[We] allow people to bring their credit history with them so that they’re treated as equals when they come to the U.S., to not have to start from scratch,” said Misha.

Misha is a naturalized U.S. citizen whose family moved to the United States from Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Most recently in his career, Misha worked at Google[x] and Goldman Sachs, before completing his MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“My immigration story is a huge source of pride for me in getting to where I am,” said Misha.
“I’ve been in this country for more than 25 years and had the good fortune of being educated here, and benefited from the sacrifice that my parents made in taking a big risk and leaving the safety net that comes with being in a country where your education is respected. Where you speak the language. Where you understand the culture. Where you have a big family. You come to a new country…you’re starting over. I have been lucky enough in life to make it to here. I think about the sort of the path that’s gotten me here, and what I want to accomplish in the future. I want to help people get to a similar stage.”

Part of Nova’s goal is to help immigrants from all walks of life find pathways to success.

“If you’re already having to struggle with income and then you don’t have special services handy, it’s even harder. The system is not really optimized across the whole income curve,” said Loek. “It takes like three to five years to build [a credit history] that is up to par to what it was back home, and we solve that gap.”

Loek moved to the U.S. from the Netherlands in 2014 and received his Master’s degree at Stanford in Artificial Intelligence and Software Engineering.

Silicon Valley’s population alone is 37% non-citizens. Considering 42.4 million people in the U.S. are immigrants, Nova Credit has positioned itself to fill a wide gap. Nova currently validates credit information from Mexico, Canada and India, with plans to expand to several different countries in the coming months. If Nova Credit succeeds in their goal to provide credit history for immigrants, it would create a $600 billion lending opportunity for American institutions.

In order to continue to grow their young company, the founding trio must contend with not only inherent entrepreneurial challenges, but also the ever-present uncertainty of Nicky and Loek’s future in the U.S.

“I’m faced with the risk that my two co-founders may not be allowed to stay in this country, in a year and then in two years,” said Misha.

Nicky is currently on an OPT student visa, and plans to apply for the H1-B visa through her work with Nova. Loek is in the U.S. on an OPT STEM extension, which allows him to stay in the country legally post-graduation for up to 2 years.

“We need greater clarity on the ability for highly qualified, talented, driven people to stay in this country,” said Misha.

Unfortunately, Nicky and Loek are just two of many highly skilled and educated immigrants whose potentials–personal and professional–are stuck in limbo due to the limited and outdated options within the U.S. immigration system.

“I know so many really dynamic and amazing international entrepreneurs who haven’t been confident that they can find a visa solution in order to make it work…they could contribute more to the economy if they had the flexibility to pursue startup jobs,” said Nicky.

In the 2015 H-1B visa lottery, only 65,000 visas were given to companies seeking to hire high-skilled, foreign-born workers in STEM fields. Even if a company does petition for a foreign-born employee to receive an H-1B visa, the chances are slim and the winners are chosen at random. The visa system’s ambiguity and the low odds of actually “winning the lottery” often deters companies from hiring talented immigrants.

The founding team is proof of highly skilled and innovative immigrants’ contributions to the economy. Nova Credit serves as one of the many examples of the impact that commonsense immigration reform–with options for foreign-born entrepreneurs–could have on American society.

“If you have a visa environment that allows people who are driven, well-educated, and ethical, the ability to stay in this country and to create value here, that does tremendous good for the bigger economy,” said Misha. “It creates more jobs, it creates innovation in this country, which then trickles into other countries and continues to promote the U.S. as the bellwether source of innovation around the world.”

Countless other foreign-born entrepreneurs in the U.S. also provide invaluable services through their businesses, as well as a boon to the American economy. For example, in the U.S., immigrant-founded companies have a collective value of $168 billion and create an average of 720 jobs per company. Additionally, the average immigrant living in the U.S. contributes about $120,000 more in taxes than they consume in benefits.

“I think it really is Congress’ role to continue to build this ideal that America was founded on, and to be outward looking and bold,” said Nicky.

Share Misha, Nicky, and Loek’s story and join the fight to pass commonsense immigration reform in 2017.

Silicon Valley's High-Tech & Undocumented Immigrants Swap Stories for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Posted by Shilpa Sachdev on 11/02/2015

silicon valley immigration reform

Last week, participants for the pilot session of FWD.us’ Immigrant Community Project met to exchange stories and educate each other on how our broken immigration system has affected them. We wanted to bridge a gap between high-tech and undocumented immigrants and encourage them to share their stories and backgrounds.

Isabel, a former undocumented immigrant, came to the country at age 14 with her parents who were looking to build a better life for the family. She’s always felt like she didn’t belong to either country — neither the U.S., which passed anti-immigration laws at the time; nor Mexico, which felt distant and foreign after leaving long ago. After living in fear and uncertainty for 26 excruciating years, Isabel finally applied for a change of status earlier this year.

Sonam, an MBA graduate from Santa Clara University, currently works on an Optional Practical Training (OPT) student visa. She came to the U.S. on a spousal visa in support of her husband’s career path. Because she was unable to work on the spousal visa, Sonam decided to pursue a Master’s degree in hopes that, upon graduation, a company would sponsor her H-1B visa. Considering H-1B visas are issued once a year via a random lottery system, this was a risky bet; last year, there were over 230,000 applications competing for just 85,000 visas.

Lupita, an undocumented immigrant, was brought here at age 2. Growing up, she was filled with despair when she considered her limited options after high school. The benefit of college would be lost because she wouldn’t be able to get a job. While in high school, one of her teachers encouraged her to apply for college. Despite being accepted into her dream university, Lupita chose a local school due to lack of financial aid for undocumented immigrants. She’s a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, due for renewal in 2017; however, she still needs a permanent legislative fix.

Aditya moved to the U.S. to further his career on an L-1 (transfer) visa. Being on an L-1 meant that he was tied to a single company, hindering his professional growth. He then decided to switch visas, yet found that being on an H-1B still limited his options. Only a few companies can afford to sponsor an H-1B and are willing to take the risk involved.

As the participants exchanged their stories, a few common themes stood out.

Fear and uncertainty. A lot of the things we, as American citizens and/or documented immigrants, take for granted don’t come so easily to those who are undocumented. For example, Isabel spoke of her reluctance to go to a doctor until absolutely necessary for fear that people will find out she’s undocumented. When there was a family emergency, Sonam made the tough decision to not travel to India because she couldn’t get a clear answer from several immigration attorneys if she would be able to re-enter the U.S., despite having proper documentation.

Frustration. Having applied for a Green Card once – the wait for which is incredibly long – Aditya must now go through the entire process again because he moved to a different employer. Both Isabel and Lupita spoke of people who, after being victims of crimes, were too scared to report incidents to the police.

Lack of opportunity. Isabel and Lupita can only work for certain organizations. Their idea of America being a “land of opportunity” may not be as picture-perfect as they hoped. Once the clock runs out on Sonam’s OPT, her employer has agreed to sponsor her H-1B. Still, however, the odds are slim that she will get picked in the April 2016 lottery.

Sense of not belonging. America’s convoluted immigration laws give all four participants the impression that they aren’t welcome in this country. Yet, they are contributing to this country – its local and national economies as well as its communities.

Our goal was to bring the two immigrant groups together in conversation, sensitize them to the issues the other community faces and show them those issues are not so different from their own. But I think we accomplished more than that. We created a safe microcosm where the high-tech and undocumented worlds come together to celebrate their successes and shun anti-immigration sentiments.

However, there is still a lot of work to be done. Join us in advocating for comprehensive immigration reform. Come to our next FWD Silicon Valley chapter meetup and share your story to get started!

Celebrating Immigrant Innovators for L.A. Innovation Week(s) 2015

Posted by Gillis Bernard on 10/26/2015

This October, FWD.us commemorated L.A. Innovation Week(s) 2015 by highlighting the innovative contributions immigrant entrepreneurs and creatives make to their communities. From October 2nd to 22nd, we attended events, shared stories, and celebrated the creativity and diversity behind countless Los Angeles companies, works of art, and culinary endeavors.

Among those whose stories we shared was Lina Chen, a South African immigrant, Yale graduate, and CEO and cofounder of Nix Hydra, an L.A.-based startup that creates mobile games for young women. Lina took over FWD.us’s Instagram last week with a “day in the life” series to lead us into the final days of LAIW in style.

“Getting a U.S. visa to start Nix Hydra was actually the most painful and difficult part of starting my company,” said Lina. “I imagine other founders’ experiences may vary, but for me it was more difficult than raising our $5.6M in funding, more difficult than creating a hit product that reaches over 13 million people, and more difficult than building a talented and happy team of 30.”

Check out the series below to learn more about Lina’s immigration story and what it is like to be an immigrant entrepreneur in our up-and-coming California startup capital!

 

✨At the end of the day, my experience as an immigrant entrepreneur so far has been both incredibly rewarding and incredibly challenging. I grew up in South Africa, and am a South African citizen. Getting a U.S. visa to start Nix Hydra was actually the most painful and difficult part of starting my company. I imagine other founders’ experiences may vary, but for me it was more difficult than raising our $5.6M in funding, more difficult than creating a hit product that reaches over 13 million people, and more difficult than building a talented and happy team of 30. I guess the silver lining is that after my visa struggles, I no longer see any challenge as insurmountable. Thanks so much for following along today! It’s an exciting time to be a part of L.A.’s innovative startup community. ?

A photo posted by FWD.us (@fwdus) on

Interested in joining our L.A. chapter? Find out more information here. 

Changing the Face of Immigration Through Story Sharing

Posted by Stephanie Bauer on 09/15/2015

Changing-Immigration-Immigration Story

 

By Stephanie Bauer, FWD.us Boston Intern

When I started working at FWD.us almost two months ago I knew little about why the immigration debate was so critical in the United States. I knew from watching the news that we were experiencing a crisis but did not understand how much of it stemmed from our own country’s policies. A lot of Americans have the same problem: We don’t have enough information. Even worse, we have politicians and organizations spreading wrong information. Faced with horrific stories and images depicting immigrants as terrorists and drug dealers, we forget the real stories. Immigrants are our coworkers, our neighbors, our friends, and even our own family.

When it comes down to it, almost all of us are from families of immigrants. There is a reason people say that America is a country built by immigrants. Whether your grandfather came through Ellis Island or your mother carried you across the Texas border as a baby shouldn’t make a difference in how you’re treated once you’re on American soil.

I’m proud of my family’s immigration story. My mother’s parents were originally from Hungary, but fled the country amidst Communist occupation in the aftermath of World War II. They risked their lives to cross the border into Austria, and were forced to spend a night in jail because they lacked correct papers. After making their way to Italy, they boarded a ship to North America. Due to quota limits they were unable to enter the United States and instead sought refuge in Canada. It took 15 years working odd jobs in Ontario to save up enough money to send my grandfather to medical school. After his graduation, they were finally able to secure visas to move to the United States. Here, my grandfather became a successful doctor, saving countless American lives.

Many Americans have stories similar to this. We just conveniently forget our own histories as we get caught up in the highly political immigration debate. By sharing our own stories, we can change the narrative around immigration, as well as gain support for reform.

Take a couple of English gentlemen I met in New Hampshire. Originally from London, they have lived in the U.S. for the last 11 years, running a small inn located in a rural part of the state. Their inn attracts tourists and provides some of the only part-time employment in the area. Every few years they are forced to apply for an extension of their visas, which must be granted in order for them to stay in the country. If forced to leave, not only would their business have to close, but the two men would be forced to return to a country that doesn’t recognize them as a couple. By sharing their immigration story with friends and inn visitors, they have created a community of supporters willing to do everything from writing letters on their behalf, to meeting with government officials.

This is just one example of the effect that sharing stories can have. Although we often don’t believe it, one story can make a difference. One advocate can create an entire community of support. FWD.us hopes to inspire people to share their stories.

At 7 p.m. on September 15, FWD.us, in a partnership with the Arlington International Film Festival, will show the film No Le Digas a Nadie at the Emerson Paramount Center.

No Le Digas a Nadie is a film about a young girl named Angy Rivera who moved to the United States at the age of four. Growing up, she was taught not to discuss her undocumented status. By the age of 24 she could no longer stay silent. Instead, facing the threat of deportation and separation from her younger siblings who were born in the United States, Rivera became an advocate for the undocumented. She shared her story and her status through social media, support groups, and demonstrations. By doing so, she inspired thousands of people to get involved in the immigration debate.

Sharing immigration stories often takes courage. But without stories, we wouldn’t have the ability to inform citizens about the true failures of our immigration system. Stories focus the debate on what really matters: people, not policy. They do more than touch hearts. They can change minds.

Consider sharing your own unique story on our platform.