Victor Santos dreams in English.

The Brazilian entrepreneur immigrated to the U.S. at 12 years of age, and watched as his father built a construction business--working primarily with marble and granite--from the ground up. Fast-forward to 2018, and Santos is now the 26-year-old founder of a  financial technology startup called Airfox. He employs 20 people in Boston.

Santos is also a Dreamer, named for the failed Obama-era bill that would have given the more than 800,000 people who moved to the U.S. as children a pathway to permanent residency. Whether he and this cohort are able to remain in the United States or get deported is in flux. Should the latter happen, Santos's business would surely suffer.

"I pay taxes, and I create jobs," the founder says. "It feels as though my identity is American, but I'm not welcome," adds Santos, who launched the company with co-founder Sara Choi in 2016 after both spent brief stints at Google. Airfox, which also has staffers in Sao Paulo and San Francisco, began generating revenue in March of this year. It already counts roughly 10,000 users and has raised $16.5 million in funding, mostly through an initial coin offering (ICO). The company makes a digital wallet and banking app for people in emerging markets that lack access to traditional bank accounts, generating revenue by charging between 2 and 6 percent interest a month on microloans of around $100 apiece. 

Indeed, when President Trump announced late last year that he intended to do away with DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals--a program that defers the deportation of Dreamers--Santos was, understandably, alarmed. And while the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in February that it would not hear the president's appeal of a federal judge's ruling--which required the government to keep the program going in the interim--a legislative solution still seems far off. Multiple bipartisan proposals for reinstating the program have died on the vine, leaving those like Santos uncertain about their future in the country.

"A lot of DACA recipients, including myself, are very scared all the time," the entrepreneur adds. "We don't know what's going to happen, and in the meantime, people use our identity against us."

To his point, although Santos has seen a fair amount of early success with his startup, the founder says his Dreamer status has been an obstacle in more ways than one. "Some investors just didn't feel comfortable with the fact that I was a DACA recipient," Santos tells Inc. "There's a lot of ignorance, with people thinking that you'll run back to your country." That partially explains why Airfox, which raised just over $1 million from the Boston area investment group Project 11 Ventures, elected to hold an ICO last fall, through which it was able to raise another $15 million through sales of its own cryptocurrency. 

Uncharted Path

Santos and his parents are a unique case study. Originally, the family emigrated to the U.S. from Brazil--from the mountain-shrouded city of Belo Horizonte--as part of the L-1 and L-2 visa programs for intracompany transfers. Santos' father, he explains, had been able to secure the visa in the early 2000s while working on his construction firm. For years on end, the family simply renewed their visa status until one day, in 2009, their applications for both renewals and a series of green cards were denied. Santos, who was weeks away from graduating high school, had a new reality to contend with: He was now in the U.S. illegally.

Santos moved to San Francisco, where he was able to secure a job at a local startup, and applied and was admitted to U.C. Berkeley. (He and his parents were able to remain in the U.S. by repeatedly appealing the visa rejections.) There, he got his hands dirty in entrepreneurship, dabbling in a telecom startup between coursework. It wasn't until 2013, when then-President Obama enacted the DACA program, that Santos finally had the security of knowing he wouldn't be deported at a moment's notice. "That really saved me," he says.

His experience growing up in Brazil, a country where the discrepancy between the ultra-wealthy and ultra-poor is vast, inspired Santos to create a solution that would empower those who lacked access to traditional banks. Airfox--similar to alternative lending solutions such as SoFi and Lending Club--says it is able to charge its customers a much smaller fee for its short-term loans, since it uses technology to evaluate credit on nontraditional factors.

"If someone has a job, their location patterns are fairly predictable," Santos explains. "We can assess that based on GPS location." Other factors might include the frequency of payments; the number of people a user interacts with through the app on a daily basis; and transactional history. In addition to obtaining loans through Airfox, customers can use the affiliated digital wallet to deposit cash to retailers, for example.

While Santos is clear-eyed that competition in the financial technology sector is heating up--particularly from services such as Tala, which is similarly targeting emerging markets including Kenya and the Philippines--he insists that his primary market, his native Brazil, is untapped. "There is no one doing this to the level that we're doing it," he says.

By the end of the year, Airfox anticipates clinching more than 200,000 users, and doling out roughly 10,000 loans per month--but his company's continued success may all be dependent on Congress. If no legislative solution for DACA is reached, and Santos is deported, he says it would be difficult to continue working from Brazil. "We are a heavy engineering company, and all of our coders are in Boston," he says. "The Brazilian market is just not comparable in terms of talent and execution."

Santos, whose Portuguese is rusty, reinforces what many Dreamers have repeatedly told Inc.: Having left his native country as a child, he knows no one there and has no salient ties that would allow him to make a fresh start. 

"I would never have been able to get to where I am today if I was in Brazil," he adds.

Corrections & clarifications: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Victor Santos would no longer serve as CEO of Airfox if deported. He would continue running the company from Brazil. 

5 Billion Dollar Companies Launched By Immigrants
Published on: Jun 18, 2018