“Do you want to have the next Google in the US? Or in São Paulo or Hong Kong?” asks Iñaki Berenguer.
Berenguer, a Spanish-born tech entrepreneur who sold his last company for $26.5m (£16.3m), is, as US immigration laws put it, a man of “extraordinary ability”. He has to be – it is the best way that he and other skilled foreigners can earn a green card to work in the US.
One obstacle that dogs nearly all foreign-born entrepreneurs is obtaining and renewing work visas – never mind full green cards. The high bar, long wait times and confusing rules are discouraging to those who want to come to America to participate in the booming startup scene.
Berenguer, now at work on his second startup, believes talented entrepreneurs will eventually move elsewhere if the current US visa system is not overhauled. Many others agree; the idea was the linchpin of entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa’s book, The Immigrant Exodus.
“If the US continues to do what it’s doing, five, 10 years from now, it’s not going to be the leader any more,” says Seattle-based immigration lawyer Tahmina Watson, who has many foreign-born tech clients.
“Is that what the US wants?” asks Watson. “The prosperity is not going to remain here, jobs are going to go somewhere else.” Countries like Chile, Singapore and Canada are currently creating startup hubs to attract foreign entrepreneurs.
As Berenguer points out, many foreign-born tech entrepreneurs still consider the US ideal for business. It offers capital, talent to hire, infrastructure that supports a growing business, and a huge consumer base.
“If you want to make it big, you have to come to the US,” asserts Berenguer.
Inaki Berenguer, who says “to make it big, you have to come to the US” Photograph: Nina Roberts/Nina RobertsBerenguer is a lean 38-year-old, typical of marathon runners, one of his only activities outside the world of technology. Affable yet intense, Berenguer sports a pair of perfectly fitting worn jeans and a blue Oxford shirt in his downtown New York office. The office is now home to the second company he co-founded and which recently launched the caller ID app Klink.
By most measures, he would already be considered a success. A graduate of the University of Cambridge, with a stint at Columbia University on a Fulbright scholarship, Berenguer co-created the photo aggregations app Pixable, along with Andrés Blank and Alberto Sheinfeld, both originally from Venezuela. In 2009 all three moved to New York City from Massachusetts, where Berenguer and Blank earned MBAs from MIT. Pixable uses a combination of meta-data, algorithms and editors to curate photos for its users. Within three years of its creation Pixable was bought by SingTel in 2012 for $26.5m; Berenguer remains the CEO.
His current office, in downtown Manhattan’s hip SoHo neighbourhood, is the picture of the typical US startup. Scribbled-on whiteboards decorate the walls, monitors and laptops sit atop all surfaces, and a couple of employees work at standing desks while the rest stare into their screens. One of the “team values” stated on a poster is “delight our customers”.
Berenguer has an informal job as something of a visa whisperer to his fellow foreign-born entrepreneurs. When immigrant entrepreneurs converge, professionally or socially, conversations quickly turn to visas.
Late last year, he shared a stage with two co-founders of New York tech startups – José de Cabo and Eduardo Fernández – to a rapt audience in Lower Manhattan. Eager foreign-born entrepreneurs who packed the space wanted to know how they managed to start US-based businesses as foreigners.
Berenguer and his fellow panellists rattled off their education, work histories, startup functions, and even amusing culture clash anecdotes like the time Fernández was making a presentation to a room full of Americans and joked, “I’m from Spain, so I’m not very ambitious,” which, he reported with disappointment, did not elicit one laugh.
But what this audience desperately wanted was guidance regarding the labyrinthine legal path a foreigner must follow to obtain the proper visa allowing them to start a business in the US. There were no magical solutions revealed other than “hire a good lawyer”.
“Getting them is difficult,” explains Berenguer of the work visas, “and once you have them, they expire.”
Those with enviable visas are asked, “How did you do that?” and then tell a complicated tale that usually includes a patchwork of applications and forms – sometimes with creative wording, innovative lawyers, fees paid, numerous waiting periods, additional paperwork, and possibly trips home.
“Basically every case is kind of different,” says Berenguer who had a tenuous visa situation until recently when a green card was granted because of that special qualification, his “extraordinary ability”.
It’s an inadequate answer, which Berenguer himself has lived through. In a Spanish accent, complete with rolling r’s, he unabashedly praises the US startup culture and corporate landscape, using the word “meritocracy” often. He adds earnestly that he’s living the American Dream. But enthusiasm wanes when Berenguer addresses the US’s visa system for entrepreneurs. Like many in his position, he has found it murky, subjective and frustrating. The orderly tech expert in him seems to find the disorganisation baffling.
“There is not a single website that tells you – with very simple, five bullet points – whether you qualify or not, or what are your options,” says Berenguer.
Part of the problem is that the framework for employment-based immigration stems from 1990, according to New York City immigration lawyer Chris Gafner.
Populations, quotas, technology and global immigration options have changed drastically since then. An innovative solution introduced to help immigrant entrepreneurs is what’s known as the startup visa, which is now languishing in Congress. Gafner explains the startup visa would fill a current visa void for those foreigners, often graduates of US universities, who want to remain in the country and start businesses.
Berenguer was educated at Cambridge, where his intellectual idols had taught and studied Photograph: oversnap/Getty ImagesBerenguer did not set out to be a businessman at all. He assumed he would have a quiet, secure life in academia. He never thought he would be dealing with investors, visas and running a company. He grew up in Muro de Alcoi, a village near Valencia, during the early post-Franco years. His father never attended high school, which Berenguer calls “typical” of middle class, smalltown 1950s Spain. Berenguer spent his teenage years consuming biographies about science’s greats: Darwin, Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton, among others, who all had affiliations with the University of Cambridge in the UK. Berenguer headed to their alma mater to earn his master’s and PhD in engineering after his undergraduate years in Spain.
The entrepreneurial spirit was awoken at Cambridge when Berenguer was exposed to serial entrepreneurs like Andy Hopper, and concepts like commercialising the solution to a problem troubling multiple people.
“I didn’t know about venture capital and all that until I was there,” recalls Berenguer. He was a goner: entrepreneurship sounded far more risky, challenging, and exciting than academia.
After moving to New York City in 2009 and raising $400,000 through family and friends, the Pixable team, now five, worked out of Berenguer’s cramped Manhattan apartment, sometimes working 80-hour weeks.
Perhaps no one was more delighted than Berenguer’s beleaguered roommate when the Pixable founders were accepted into the Varick Street Incubator, a tech startup incubator run by the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering.
“We warmly welcome immigrant entrepreneurs,” says Micah Kotch, the incubator’s recently departed director of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Allotting resources to an immigrant startup versus a native-born US startup is a complete non-issue according to Kotch.
“As long as they were willing to base the company in New York and create jobs in New York,” says Kotch, “they could have come from Antarctica, or India, or Texas.”
He adds: “No country has a monopoly on good ideas. And I think particularly in New York City, it’s in our DNA to be a home for immigrants.”
The venture capital firm Highland Capital Partners took an interest in Pixable and invested $7m (£4.3m). After SingTel bought Pixable, Berenguer beams that the investors multiplied their money.
Berenguer is equally proud that every Pixable team-member made money from the acquisition through stock options, an aspect of US startup culture Berenguer appreciates. In Spain, typically only a company founder makes money through an acquisition.
The NYU School of Engineering Varick Street Incubator that accepted the Pixable team Photograph: BerenguerThere is another reason foreign-born tech entrepreneurs have trouble making their case. Perhaps it is a case of sour grapes or legitimate concerns about income inequality, but critics of the current tech startup scene consider the companies overvalued and producing empty first-world entertainment products – immigrant-owned or otherwise.
But successful tech companies do innovate, create jobs and pay taxes; employees rent apartments and eat in restaurants creating a local economy.
Not that Berenguer is doing much partying. His leisure activities, beyond marathon-running, are skimpy on glamour.
“I read blogs about technology, magazines about technology,” says Berenguer, adding that he also likes to watch videos of technology conferences and presentations.
He does socialise – with other tech entrepreneurs.
“It’s a very blended, blurry line between work and pleasure,” concedes Berenguer. He likes to spend time with his wife, who is not in the tech world, “but I share all the stories with her,” laughs Berenguer.