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.

Thank you Governor Baker for Bringing Back the Mass. Global Entrepreneur in Residence Program

Posted by Andi Dankert on 03/06/2015

The FWD.us Boston chapter applauds Governor Baker for reestablishing the Global Entrepreneur in Residence (GEIR) program to Massachusetts. Governor Baker faced hard decisions when presented with the challenge of a rather sizable deficit for the Commonwealth when he took office. After meeting with community tech leaders and recognizing the value of a program like GEIR, his office worked to reinstate the program, which is posed to give thousands of students and aspiring entrepreneurs the opportunity to innovate in-state.

“We are relieved and appreciate Governor Baker bringing back the GEIR program to Massachusetts,” said Todd Schulte, FWD.us President. “On behalf of the Members of FWD.us in Massachusetts who reached out to the Governor and his administration, we say thank you. This is a step to ensure the Commonwealth will continue to be a leader in innovation due to policies like these; allowing entrepreneurs with big ideas and talent to stay here in Massachusetts.”

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The GEIR program is a great example of smart and effective collaboration between the public and and private sectors. Local leaders in technology, business, and government saw the hundreds of thousands of talented students educated in Massachusetts’ world-class universities who were being kicked out soon after graduation. Simultaneously, firms across the Commonwealth reported difficulty in hiring the talent they needed, especially for STEM-related positions. Through the GEIR program, eligible entrepreneurs will work part-time for a contributing university, grow their own companies, create jobs and generate revenue – all while staying in Massachusetts. University of Massachusetts – Boston is the first university to pilot this program.

“While we continue fighting for immigration reform in Washington, this kind of innovative local program provides opportunities for talented entrepreneurs to grow their companies and create American jobs here,” shared Schulte.

We are encouraged by Governor Baker’s steps to continue funding the GEIR program. Members of the tech community made their voices heard, and our elected officials listened. Several members of FWD.us’ Boston chapter are excited to apply for the program and grow their companies here. Additionally, the GEIR program has already proven successful in keeping talented students here to innovate that other states are working to emulate the program.

We are thankful for Governor Baker and the countless community leaders who recognize the contributions hardworking immigrants make every day to grow our economy and create new jobs in the U.S. – and we look forward to ensuring that the best and the brightest can continue to do just that.

Show your support for high-skilled immigration reform by signing our petition. 

DREAMers: DHS Bill Hurts Our Families

Posted by Lucas Waldron on 02/03/2015

FWD.us caught up with FWD.us supporters and founders of UndocuMedia Justino Mora and Ivan Ceja. Both DACA-recipients, Mora and Ceja formed UndocuMedia to provide resources for the immigrant community and educate their peers about the laws and policies affecting their daily lives.

FWD.us: You guys both have received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). How has DACA affected your life?

Mora: Before DACA, I lived in constant fear of deportation and separation from my family. After receiving DACA in 2012, most of that fear went away. It’s a feeling that I would like to share with other family and community members who are not eligible for DACA. Many new doors opened as a result of having work authorization and a driver’s license. For instance, immediately after my approval in 2012, I was able to obtain a better job and apply my skills as a consultant – that’s something that I would not have been able to do without DACA. Not only that, but I was really relieved when I received my driver’s license because it gave the peace of mind to travel by land and air without the fear of detention and deportation.

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Ceja: DACA is the key to opening doors that had been closed to my community for far too long. I have helped organize campaigns to stop the deportation of friends, but have always wondered what I would do if I was ever the one facing a deportation order and the possibility of being deported has always been a frightening thought. Fortunately, DACA allows me to live with more ease because of the sense of protection that comes with it. Prior to DACA, I could not put my name down on job applications. Thanks to DACA, I have a social security number, a driver’s license and, most importantly, I can serve as a greater asset to this country I call home.

FWD.us: Last month, House Republicans introduced a bill to defund the Department of Homeland Security and block all of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, which would effectively restart the deportation of DREAMers. What does the bill mean for you and your communities?

Ceja: This bill is a direct attack on the American Dream of millions of immigrants who call this country home and want nothing more than to be recognized as an integral part of our nation. It is an attack on the hope that Obama’s executive order and executive actions have instilled within our undocumented community.

Mora: [The House Republicans’] decision to approve the measure, despite it having zero chances of becoming law, reveals their lack of leadership and true stance on immigration. It means that they care more about playing politics than to pass an immigration reform bill that would allow our nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and no longer be relegated to second-class status.

FWD.us: What types of misinformation do you see in your community about executive action? How can people get more involved in the political process to make sure immigrant voices are represented?

Mora: Unfortunately, many people are not informed about the complexities of our government’s structure and how bills become law. Thus, it is very easy for misinformation to spread and create unnecessary fear. For instance, there are several rumors going around the immigrant community that House Republicans are going to end DACA and mass deport immigrant families. This is a problem because it discourages people from applying for DACA or to seek help when they have a difficult immigration case. It’s so important to emphasize that the House Republicans’ bill has zero chances of becoming law.

Ceja: People first need to become informed about the process for bills becoming laws. Once they understand that, they will be more readily prepared to go the extra mile and get involved with community groups that push for the passage of beneficial bills, or take a stand against bills that could jeopardize our security. One simple step involves ensuring that the members of our household and surrounding neighborhoods that are eligible to vote exercise this right. My two younger brothers are U.S. citizens. Whenever there is an election, I sit down with my two younger brothers and we research the candidates and propositions to ensure they make informed decisions at the polls.

In addition to co-founding UndocuMedia, Justino Mora co-founded Push4Reform, an app that connects you to your Congressional Representative and reflects their position on critical immigration policies.

Political Advocacy: The "User Feedback" of Government

Posted by Lisa Conn on 01/26/2015

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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.