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4 undocumented immigrants share their American startup stories

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer
Saba Nafees, 25, speaks at a TEDx event at Texas Tech, where she is pursuing her Ph.D. Nafees, a DACA recipient, immigrated from Pakistan to the U.S. when she was 11 years old (YouTube).

Jessica Hyejin Lee is the founder and CEO of BiteSize, a platform that helps companies drive sales through one-on-one conversations on messaging platforms. She’s also a Dreamer who immigrated to the U.S. when she was 12 years old.

“If you’re undocumented, you’re so used to jumping hurdles and finding your own solutions that you’re probably great at running a business or starting one,” she said.

After attending middle school and high school in Los Angeles, Lee got a full scholarship to Bryn Mawr College. Still, she was anxious about her ability to work in the future. While her classmates were landing internships at banks and tech companies, Lee spent her college summers working as a babysitter, hostess and associate at a small business — all in cash.

Then, in June 2012, a month after she graduated from college, President Barack Obama established Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which gave Lee the right to work in the U.S.

Jessica Hyejin Lee is a DACA recipient and the founder of Bitesize, a startup in Silicon Valley.

The DACA program winds down on March 5 and so far there is no alternative to protecting the so-called Dreamers who immigrated to the U.S. as minors. DACA offers two benefits — protecting from deportation and work authorization.

Regardless of legal status, you can become an independent contractor or build a business as long as you have an individual taxpayer identification (ITIN) or Social Security number.

Lee, who is 26 years old, landed a spot in M&T Bank’s management development program in July 2013, but quickly realized her heart was elsewhere. Lee had been spending her spare time organizing protests for undocumented immigrants, and discovered the impact that personalized, direct communication has in mobilizing people to attend rallies or sign petitions.

Using her experience, she launched HandStack, a service for political campaigns to connect directly with constituents, in 2014. Bitesize is a broader iteration of this concept, and now Lee works with all kinds of brands, not just politicians, to reach their audience. She is currently raising a seed round and says her startup is making high-six figure revenue.

Entrepreneurship as a side hustle

And while Lee is a full-time entrepreneur, many other undocumented immigrants are pursuing their businesses on the side. “Many of us undocumented Americans are doing a billion things at once because we never know what our future holds,” said Saba Nafees, a 25-year-old who moved from Pakistan to Fort Worth, Tex. with her parents and two older sisters when she was 11 years old.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Texas Tech’s honors college in 2014, she’s now pursuing her Ph.D. in mathematical biology. In addition to teaching undergraduate students, she is working on a startup called Shop Global, which she incorporated last fall.

DACA recipients Saba Nafees and Jonathan Jayes-Green at the UndocuInnovation Festival in San Francisco (Daniel Clayton)

In 2015, she decided to enter the University of Rochester’s Tibetan Innovation Challenge, which aims to improve the lives of Tibetans living in refugee camps in India. She and a few classmates submitted a proposal to sell rugs hand woven by Tibetan refugees to Western countries through an online point-of-sales system. As a finalist, Nafees was able to present the idea to the Dalai Lama in New York City; she ultimately won the contest with a $5,000 award to actualize the project. Then, in 2016, Texas Tech funded her team to travel to India and Nepal to witness how the refugees make the rugs and figure out a business plan.

“We want to ship those rugs and sell them here. This art of handwoven, unique, traditional rugs that Tibetans have made for centuries is slowly dying out,” she said. “And I felt like I could relate to these people. I don’t have a home either in a sense.”

Finding capital

The next step for Nafees is to finance the business. But as a full-time Ph.D. student, it’s no easy feat to find the time to pitch investors. Events like UndocuInnovation in San Francisco gave her a chance to meet other undocumented entrepreneurs, get advice and find potential funders.

David Silva, the founder of Techqueria, a 1,600-member community for Latinos and Latinas in tech, also attended the conference. He said it was important and inspiring to him to be in the company of individuals who are rising above their circumstances.

“I got to meet so many talented people. I left with so much inspiration and motivation,” he said. “A lot of Americans have this idea that undocumented immigrants are short Mexicans working on farms, but we’re so much more.”

David Silva is the founder of Techqueria.

Silva, who is 29 years old, immigrated to Florida from Colombia when he was 18 years old so he did not qualify for DACA. Ultimately, he was able to find a job at a telemedicine company in San Francisco, but he was fired last year after a leadership change — the new CEO didn’t want to employ an undocumented immigrant.

Currently, Silva, works for a health care startup in New York City. Though the company is aware of his undocumented status, he still is not legally an employee. So Silva filled out a form online and paid $50 to set up a limited liability company (LLC), registered under ‘internet services and website programming,’ and invoices his boss every two weeks to get paid.

He’s currently building an internship simulator that would allow budding software engineers to participate in coding challenges, post their solutions and get feedback.

‘You can run a business with or without DACA’

Though seemingly counterintuitive, undocumented immigrants assert that it’s practical to start a business — because they’re betting on themselves.

“You can run a business with or without DACA. That’s why I work for myself instead of working for someone else. If you’re working at a restaurant under the table and you’re not making enough money or you have to support your struggling parents, the best place to look is to start a business,” said Lee.

“It’s really the fastest way to build something for yourself without depending on legislation,” she added.

While DACA has afforded an estimated 700,000 undocumented immigrants the security of staying in the U.S. and being employable, their futures remain highly uncertain and unpredictable.

‘University became the safest place to be’

You have to be scrappy to survive, said Elizabeth Vilchis, the CEO of nonprofit LatinoTech.

After moving to New York City from Mexico when she was 7 years old, Vilchis was aware that she was different from her peers, but didn’t quite understand until she started applying for college.

“We lived in constant fear. It wasn’t normal. It wasn’t until junior year of high school when I couldn’t fill out certain parts of applications that I realized I was undocumented. I was missing this nine-digit number that’s really important in this society and my parents couldn’t give me a clear answer,” she said.

She credits her high school teachers for finding a program that would pay for her education at a City University of New York school. However, during her junior year, she fell short of the GPA requirements and she dug around to find private scholarships. While in school, she worked for an architect under the table to help finance her education.

“That’s the trap we fall into. It took me a bit longer to finish school because I had to find ways to finance my education. University became the safest place to be. I just stayed in school because I didn’t have an answer. I got really good at finding money to finance my education,” she said.

While she was contemplating taking the GREs to apply for grad school, DACA passed and she ultimately started working for the CUNY system and landed a job at Samsung’s venture investment fund.

‘We have to put our careers on hold to try to fight for a solution’

At the end of last year, Vilchis left the fund and committed to working for LatinoTech full-time, coaching entrepreneurs on how to take investor meetings, and raise funding, given how underrepresented Latino founders are of venture-backed startups.

Vilchis, who now lives in New Jersey, accompanied Senator Cory Booker to the State of the Union address, said it is her life’s calling to empower other immigrant entrepreneurs.

“I made the decision to quit because it’s time that I’m not advocating and raising awareness of the issue. For self-preservation, actually focusing all my time on someone else’s business would not help me. Trying to find a solution to my situation would help me,” said the 29-year-old.

“For people like me, we constantly have to make big decisions like putting our careers on hold… to try to fight for a solution. It sucks that we have to make a decision but we have to.

Speaking up — empowering others to take control over their lives

Undocumented immigrants are constantly in fear and distress about potential deportation, so why are these entrepreneurs sharing their stories?

“When I share my story, I felt the love and warmth from communities across the country, across the world,” said Nafees. “It’s more of this obligation and this duty to come forward to speak. It’s not like i can go back. I can’t go back and take off everything online that’s been published about me. There was a time when I thought I should probably be more careful and not be so out there, but now i see that there are so many others who are afraid to speak out, and rightly so, but it’s that much more important for me to speak up.”

Vilchis echoed this sentiment, expressing her desire to exert as much control over her life as possible. And she doesn’t want anyone else telling her story.

“Unfortunately, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Sure, you can stay in the shadows, and hopefully, nothing happens to you. But, right now, whatever the authorities say is who you become in the eye of the public,” said Vilchis. “You no longer have a say in it. I speak up because it adds a layer of protection around my character and who i am. I would rather go out proud of who I am rather than hide and be afraid.”

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Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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