From founding groundbreaking companies to fueling the workforce and reinvigorating neighborhoods, immigrants have shaped the U.S. economy since it began. While coming to the U.S. has brought a better life for many, hurdles remain for immigrants, particularly for those seeking to start companies.
An immigrant led company, whose founders experienced the difficulties of starting their own businesses, are trying to smooth the path for others hoping to realize their entrepreneurial dreams. That’s the goal of Unshackled Ventures.
Certain laws make starting businesses difficult or impossible for holders of temporary work visas. For example, a F1 visa holder who leaves Carnegie Mellon or CalTech with an earth-changing idea can work for a startup legally, but she may not be able to start one.
The San Francisco-based venture capital firm — founded by two Indian immigrants in 2014 — started its second venture fund two years ago. It aims to use its $20 million to take its mix of VC mentoring and immigration advisory to help company founders get their ideas off the ground and not get bogged down in red tape, co-founder Nitin Pachisia said.
“That’s a net loss for this country in terms of job creation,” he said.
The company’s first fund raised $5 million, was backed by Bloomberg Beta and the Emerson Collective. Unshackled has made over 30 investments across fintech, food, infrastructure, artificial intelligence/virtual reality and space technology.
Pachisia, who came to the U.S. in 2005 on a work visa and then worked at Deloitte for five years before starting his own firm, spoke with Karma’s contributor Michael Moran.
Michael Moran: Besides the fact that you have experienced the complex immigration system personally, how and why did you structure a fund that focused particularly on immigrant founders?
Nitin Pachisia: There is tremendous value to be created by tapping into immigrant founders, and as I experienced myself, there wasn’t a lot of venture help around to solve the particular problems that immigrant founders face. Investing in immigrants is historically proven to be good business and so we didn’t have to really justify why this particular class of entrepreneurs was attractive.
But our special approach was to address what these immigrant entrepreneurs really need, and that’s been the thought process of Unshackled Ventures from the start. We are the only venture fund that invests at the earliest stages of the company and takes care of immigration bureaucracy for any of the founders who are immigrants.
We have three pillars in our strategy: investing capital at an early stage, taking care of immigration issues to give founders their time back, and using the network we’ve built among other immigrant founders to help accelerate the company building process.
Moran: How did the company get funded in the early days?
Pachisia: We had no seed round, per se. We really just went out and talked with people we knew and told them what we were trying to do. Our first fund was a proof-of-concept fund, so in typical entrepreneurial style we invested our time and our personal capital into bootstrapping the management part of it and raised the funds to deploy in the first 20 or so companies to prove the business model.
Moran: What aspects of the immigration documentation process are you helping people with outside of the early stage funding?
Pachisia: Building a company is a long-term process and there’s 11 different types of visas or green cards that we have used for our portfolio founder.
We have in-house immigration counsel capacity and we take over the immigration strategy and execution piece for them. What is the right kind of visa pathway for them? How does their current visa status get transitioned to their own company? What does the structuring for the company need to be? If they don’t have that eligibility then what’s the alternative pathway? The point is that founders should not be spending their time figuring out, “Do I quit my job and launch this, or will I lose my immigration status?”
Moran: Do you ever find that you’re actually sponsoring the visa or is that something that you can’t do?
Pachisia: We have sponsored people through our research arm. Sometimes we will hire people whose company is too young for the criteria of the visa. In that case, we will employ them. They will still be shareholders in their own company, they would have all the same rights in the company until the company progresses, but the key is that they are spending the time doing the research in the field in which their company is operating, not wasting their time on some ancillary stuff.
Moran: Can you give me an example or two of impact investments you’re particularly proud of?
Pachisia: We were the first investor in Starsky Robotics, which is a driverless trucking company. They are taking drivers out of the vehicle and allowing them to stay close to their families rather than leave for weeks at a time.
We are investors in Plutoshift, which is focused on optimizing the use of water in the food industry and other industries that do a lot of water treatment. Using AI and machine learning, they optimize the systems of their customers so that they can run their plants without failure.
Another company is Bluefield, uses space tech to detect methane gas emissions in natural gas production. Obviously these leaks are harmful to the environment but also represent lost revenue and can cause major accidents.
These are the kinds of things that we’re really proud of in terms of both the commercial capability that they bring and the high-value impact they’re having.
Moran: Tell me a bit about the second fund you’ve launched, which is four times the size of your original fund.
Pachisia: The second fund is $20 million and it gives us about four years of investable capital. We’re very fortunate that our limited partners are from some of the most successful business families or business operators in the country (Bloomberg Beta, the Emerson Collective are joined by Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang’s AME Cloud Ventures and others that preferred not to be named). So this fund gives us investable capital for 35 to 40 companies. We have we enough capital right now.
Moran: Has the current political atmosphere affected your model?
Pachisia: We’ve had a 100% track record on immigration filings under both the Obama and Trump administrations. I think a big part of it is the kind of folks that we’re backing. Our people have already legally come to the U.S. and have some kind of visa, so they’ve been vetted through the system.
Entrepreneurs happen to be job creators and the American value system revolves around entrepreneurship and jobs and wealth creation. This applies very well to us. We wouldn’t be here, after all, if we didn’t believe that.