When I came to the United States at age 19, most of what I knew about America came from watching the television show Friends. Today, I’m living a life I could have never imagined back on the couch in my native China. As a co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of the tech startup Polarr, a photography and artificial intelligence company, I’ve gotten a real taste of the startup dream. Now I’m just hoping my dream doesn’t end before it truly gets started.
I joined Polarr in August 2014, months after I completed my undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt University. When I first met my two co-founders at a meet-up in San Francisco, I was immediately blown away by their product: a photo-editing tool that lets users do sophisticated post-production editing in a web browser. The product was beautiful, intuitive, and incredibly fast. It was also the first, free online photo editor that could handle the RAW photo format often used by professional photographers. I realized immediately that they were onto something big, and that I wanted to help them with everything I had.
Those first few months at Polarr were a whirlwind. Our product debuted in November 2014, and within a week it was a featured app in the Google Chrome store. Then Polarr was accepted into StartX, a top accelerator program, and the company really took off. Today, 200,000 people actively use Polarr’s photo editing tool via our Website and 180,000 people regularly use it as a Chrome app. We raised $1 million in funding from Pejman Mar Ventures, a leading early-stage venture capital fund, and are planning to do a larger fundraising round later this year. We are also launching our second product, an artificial intelligence platform that finishes photos based on a user’s preferences and the image’s content, in the next two months.
Despite all this though, I may not be able to stay in America for the long term. I am currently on an Optional Practical Training Visa, a visa that allows graduates of U.S. universities to remain in the country immediately after graduation. My visa expires this summer, and I have applied for an H-1B visa, an employment visa for high-skilled immigrants. Getting an H-1B is my last chance to remain in America, and sadly, my chances of receiving it are dismally low. Only 85,000 H-1Bs are available each year to private firms, but the government will likely receive more than 150,000 applications in April alone. If I don’t get the visa, I will have to return to China.
Deporting entrepreneurs like me makes little sense for the U.S. economy—or for the country’s growing tech sector, which provides so many Americans with jobs. Here in Silicon Valley, more than 52 percent of startups launched between 1995 and 2005 had at least one founder who was an immigrant. In 2011, immigrant-owned businesses contributed $775 billion to the U.S. economy and provided a job for one out of every 10 Americans who worked at a privately owned firm. At Polarr, we currently employ two American citizens, and after our second fundraising round later this year, we plan to hire many more. We hope that those jobs will be in the United States, but given current immigration policy, that is far from certain. My two co-founders are also Chinese nationals. We worry if the immigration situation doesn’t improve, we may ultimately have to move our company elsewhere.
American policy doesn’t need to be this way. In countries such as Singapore, Ireland, and Canada, immigrant entrepreneurs with a business plan and committed investors are eligible for entrepreneurship visas and financial incentives to remain in the country. Here in the United States, no such visa is available for job creators and entrepreneurs like myself. Efforts to fix the H-1B visa system are also caught up in Washington gridlock. In January, Sen. Orrin Hatch introduced the Immigration Innovation (I-Squared) Act, which would raise the number of H-1B visas available so the numbers are more in line with the needs of the U.S. economy. So far, Congress has failed to take action.
I hope leaders in Washington hear my story and the many others like it and realize they need to pass immigration reform this year. Right now, I’m in the best place in the world to do what I love. I just hope I get to see some changes can be made, in the near foreseeable future.