Entrepreneurs are the embodiment of the American dream. More than half of the highest-valued startups in the U.S. were founded by immigrants, according to a study from the National Foundation for American Policy. 

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time weren't even born in this country. Arianna Huffington is Greek. Steve Chen, Co-Founder of YouTube, is from Taiwan, and Mike Krieger, Co-Founder of Instagram is from Brazil. Studies show immigrants are far more likely to start new businesses than native-born Americans.

However, I think a lot of non-immigrants don't understand the process entrepreneurs, employees, and even employers have to go through in order for immigrants to work in this country. I know immigration stories probably do not impact or matter to some of the people reading this column, but I thought it was important to share my story since it shows what many Americans might take for granted.

My wife and I decided to start the process to file for our green cards 11 years ago. In 2006, we were living and working in Atlanta. We knew we wanted to stay here and start our family.

For an immigrant, having a green card means you get to live and work permanently in the United States. At the time, I thought it would be three to five years, tops. While waiting on the green card application, we were both on work visas.

In total, my wife and I have been in the States for 15 years and going through the green card process for 11 years. We had no idea if we would get to stay in this country that we love and call home because we had to keep getting our visas renewed every two years. 

Thankfully, at the time, I was a consultant for one of the "Big Four" accounting firms who could afford lawyers for the work visa process. Unfortunately for employers, especially startups, it is getting harder to obtain work visas for immigrants

I'll put the politics aside for now. We applied for our green cards in 2006, and it wasn't until about three years later that my wife and I earned our employment authorization document (or EAD card), which is an "adjustment of status."

Another challenge for immigrants applying for green cards is that until you hit a certain step in the process, you can't change your job or move to another company. You can't make a pivot to another profession or even think about going out on your own and founding a startup until you earn your EAD card.

But once you get your EAD, you, the employee, can renew your EAD until your green card come through. This is what I've done for nearly a decade while waiting for our green cards. My wife and I still were waiting for the government to catch up to the 2006 application in 2017.

We had no idea the green card process would take more than a decade, and we weren't even sure it was going to happen. Our immigration lawyer also became our therapist, consoling us through the process and helping us get over the anxiety.

Since my wife and I got our EADs in 2010, we've had two children and bought a house in the quintessential American suburb. I had a startup success story when I was head of marketing at Pardot and we were acquired by Salesforce. Now, I'm nearly four years into another startup, Terminus, which made the Inc. Top 50 Best Workplaces in 2017.

I even drive a Jeep! What's more American than that?

This is where I work, live, love, dream. I'm building businesses, creating jobs, and all the while hoping one day I can call myself an American citizen. And so as I work toward that next step, I wanted to share some of my lessons learned with fellow immigrant entrepreneurs:

  • Hire a good immigration lawyer, one who can also be your therapist. My wife also discovered this forum through the Murthy Law Firm that is chockful of information.

  • Have whatever faith you can in the process, and try not to get discouraged by the lengthy timeline for your application to go through.

  • Stay cognizant of your deadlines. Set Google Calendar reminders months in advance to ensure you don't miss any renewal dates.

  • Let your team know that you can't just jump on a plane for international travel. I messed up on this once before and missed an opportunity to speak at a conference in Canada.

  • Focus on your business. What kept me going was knowing I was doing the best I can.

Lastly, for everyone reading this post, always remember that we live and work in the greatest country in the world. We are so lucky to have this opportunity to go for the American dream.

Published on: Oct 19, 2017