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.

Texas Celebrates Immigrant Heritage Month by Hosting Immigrant-Founded Startup Pitch Challenge

Posted by Nick Baker on 08/02/2016

Immigrant Heritage Month Texas

Cobby Amoah, founder of Obaa, speaks at the Immigrant Heritage Month event in Dallas, Texas. (Photo credit: Luiz Sifuentes)

June marked the third Immigrant Heritage Month, and the Dallas Chapter of FWD.us came together to celebrate the occasion by hosting a pitch challenge featuring immigrant-founded startups.

Two companies, Obaa and La Gioia, tied for third place in the pitch competition. Obaa, founded by Cobby Amoah, focuses on streamlining data sharing and communications between healthcare providers and patients. The startup aims to improve healthcare outcomes for patients and lower costs for providers with his all-in-one platform. La Gioia, founded by William Lechuga, delivers exclusive designer uniforms at affordable prices, to businesses such as boutique hotels and restaurants. William aspires to help businesses communicate their brand to consumers through fashion. Check out this photo album for an inside look at all the pitches and presentations from the event.

Cobby and William are both immigrant entrepreneurs. Cobby is originally from Ghana, and William immigrated to America from Spain. Cobby initially came to America with the goal of becoming a doctor. However, when he realized computers were going to dramatically alter the healthcare industry, Cobby decided to shift course and found a health tech company. He dreams of drastically improving our health care system, but there are many challenges he must overcome along the way. In addition to the challenges inherent to being an entrepreneur, he must also navigate the complicated U.S. immigration system. Cobby has applied for a green card based on his extraordinary talent–but there is no guarantee it will come through.

Immigrant Heritage Month Texas

William Lechuga, founder of La Gioia, is in the process of applying for an E-2 investor visa. (Photo credit: Lilimar Oliveras)

William is a newcomer to Texas. He made the move to Dallas at the beginning of April of this year in order to grow his business and pursue opportunities that don’t exist elsewhere. William envisions La Gioia changing the way institutions present themselves to the world. In five to ten years, he sees La Gioia serving a variety of markets, including schools, airlines, and hospitals. William is in the process of applying for an E-2 investor visa. But since the E-2 is a “non-immigrant” visa, it won’t enable William to apply for a green card. Without a clear long-term immigration pathway for entrepreneurs, Cobby and William have no assurance they will be able to stay in the U.S, grow their businesses, and benefit our communities.

Cobby and William are not alone in the challenges they face as immigrant entrepreneurs. Cobby believes a Startup Visa would be beneficial both for immigrant entrepreneurs as well as the United States. He has many friends who have faced similar issues with the American immigration system. If hardworking, entrepreneurial immigrants are able to stay in the U.S., they will contribute both innovations and jobs to our communities.

To put the entrepreneurial drive of immigrants in perspective, the American Immigration Council found that immigrants started more than a quarter of a million businesses from 2006 to 2010 in Texas alone. These are businesses that generate revenue, create jobs, and contribute to the state’s economy. Immigrant entrepreneurs are at the forefront of innovation, but they lack the necessary tools to stay in the U.S and grow their businesses. Without a long-term immigration pathway for these entrepreneurs, we miss out on the economic benefits generated by companies like Obaa and La Gioia.

FWD.us’ Push For Reform tool makes it easy to advocate for immigrant entrepreneurs. Simply type in your address to find out where your member of Congress stands on immigration reform, and use the built-in tools to to contact your representative via social media, a phone call, or even a custom letter.

It’s up to you to let our leaders in Congress know we support entrepreneurs like Cobby and William.

Chicago Chapter Members Attend D.C. Advocacy Day

Posted on 04/14/2015

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began accepting H-1B visa applications from innovative, hard-working immigrants on April 1st. Fast forward five business days, and enough applications had been submitted to fill all 85,000 available visas for the entire year. In other words, America gave immigrants less than a week to apply for the right to legally work and contribute to our country’s economy.

The next step is the lottery: Over the next few weeks, immigrants wait to hear if they were lucky enough to be selected at random from the thousand-page piles of applications.

The visa process is broken. Our country’s tech hubs desperately need high-skill immigration reform. That’s why entrepreneurs from across the country – including Chicago – flew to Washington D.C. and met with legislators, including staff from the offices of Rep. Bobby Rush (IL-1) and Senator Dick Durbin, on Tuesday.

Group-Photo
The Advocacy Day participants with FWD.us Organizing Director Lisa Conn and President Todd Schulte.

Representing the Chicago’s tech community is Nihal Advani.

Nihal is an experienced digital marketer, globetrotter, and Founder & CEO of Georama. Originally from India, he spent his teenage years as an internationally ranked tennis player before coming to the U.S. on a full tennis scholarship. Upon graduating at the top of his class with a B.S. in Marketing, he joined Microsoft where he spent five years in various marketing and data roles, including as Program Manager for the Microsoft Media Network. Nihal combined his passion for technology and travel by launching Georama.

Check out the photos from the Advocacy Day on Facebook and sign up to get involved with FWD.us’ Chicago Chapter here!

Political Advocacy: The "User Feedback" of Government

Posted by Lisa Conn on 01/26/2015

collaborate

Our Organizing Director, Lisa Conn, spoke last week about political advocacy at Collaborate, a conference bringing together the nation’s leading innovators, startups, and entrepreneurs for engaging conversations. Learn more about Collaborate here. Read on as Lisa explains the role of grassroots advocacy on the political process and how tech is trying to close the government feedback loop.

I often hear skeptics claim that tech and politics do not (and should not) mix. Tech is fast, efficient, and innovative, while government is slow, overly bureaucratic, and wasteful. But in reality, our democracy parallels the start-up model more than you might initially suspect.

As the Director of National Organizing at FWD.us, I work alongside both successful entrepreneurs and leading policy makers. And from my experience, what do these two groups most share in common? A strong emphasis on feedback.

Think about it. When entrepreneurs build a product, they continually test user feedback, learn from their assumptions, and then improve the product. Likewise, when representatives make decisions, they turn to feedback loops of their own: elections, town halls, petitions, in-person meetings to understand what policies their “users” want. This is advocacy, and it’s a tragically-overlooked force for change.

The problem today is that too few people take advantage of government feedback loops. Most of the general population only engages in the political process during high-profile presidential elections, if at all. That’s every four years. I can’t imagine a startup being successful if it only received feedback every four years, so why should we expect this of our government?

Luckily, there is a clear solution. We need to provide our government with smart feedback, more often. And it’s my belief that the tech community a group celebrated for being bold, innovative, and solutions-oriented is well-positioned to make this happen.

Now, as newcomers to advocacy, tech doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. In fact, I think one of the oldest models is the most promising community organizing. Just look at any major social movement in modern history: civil rights, women’s suffrage, even President Obama’s campaigns. Each of these movements depended upon the efforts of people who organized communities in a way that continually produced new leaders.

At its core, community organizing is about uniting people around shared values. It grows influence by training volunteers, who then go out and mobilize their own community of supporters, and so on. It’s effective, scalable, and iterative, all qualities that go hand-in-hand with the tech mentality.

Back in 2012, I witnessed community organizing’s power first-hand as a Regional Field Director for the Obama campaign in South Florida. My team was expected to turn out over 300,000 voters and register 50,000 new voters in only ten months. So what did we do? We cultivated fearless leaders among our initial group of volunteers, taught them everything we knew about organizing, and watched as they brought more new leaders into the fold. This process continued, neighbor-by-neighbor, until Election Day when we won the state, and the election.

Replace those volunteers with entrepreneurs and leaders within the tech community, and you get a rough sketch of how FWD.us operates. Our national membership is comprised of people from the tech community who are passionate about being part of the political debate. In turn, these innovators inspire others within the community to lend their skills to improving our advocacy, thereby democratizing the feedback mechanisms of government.

The intersection between tech and politics is still evolving, meaning the possibilities for a new and improved landscape are limitless. Imagine a democracy that people have access to. Imagine representatives who are held more accountable to their citizens. Now imagine a tech community unified around making this vision a reality.

Read more insights from Collaborate speakers and attendees on their blog.