In the last weekend of May, more than a hundred people convened in a downtown San Francisco co-working space to create tech-based solutions to the biggest pain points they’ve experienced.
That might sound like any other weekend in Silicon Valley, but this was no ordinary hackathon. This one focused on Immigration, which is deeply embedded in the fabric of Silicon Valley and yet doesn’t receive anywhere near the attention it deserves. After all, 25% of high tech companies founded between 1995 and 2005 had at least one immigrant founder, and 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by 1st or 2nd generation immigrants. This despite immigrants making up only about 10% of the US population.
Thanks to the headline-dominating successes of startups like Instagram, WhatsApp, and Uber, Silicon Valley has been flooded with new entrepreneurial tech talent from all over the world looking to change the way we share photos, send messages, and transport stuff from point A to point B. As a result, these types of problems are well on their way to being 100% solved.
On the other hand, there are many more problems on the opposite end of the spectrum that are much closer to being 0% solved, and Immigration is one of them. It’s no secret that the “user experience” of immigration is painfully broken. There are several noteworthy tech startups who are trying to do something about it, and organizations like the Mark Zuckerberg-led lobbying group FWD.us have done a lot of work on the political front trying to get comprehensive immigration reform passed through Congress. However, even as a FWD.us member, I always felt like there was more that could be done. Pushing for policy change is important, but it’s anyone’s guess as to when that will happen — it might happen in the next 2 years or the next 20, and in the meantime we should also be thinking of ways to make all aspects of the immigration experience better with the tools we have at hand.
Not only that, Silicon Valley is notoriously apathetic about politics, so we figured the best way to get techies interested in a cause like Immigration isn’t to turn them into activists, but rather to take something they love — being creative and building stuff — and direct it towards a larger goal.
Startup Weekend Immigration was our first attempt at doing that. Our goal was to begin building a community of social-minded tech folks who actually care about this issue and want to use their powers for good.
On May 29-31, we gathered together a hundred passionate technologists who wanted to spend an entire weekend hacking immigration.
We had participants who had driven and even flown in from as far away as Los Angeles, New York, and Miami for the unique opportunity to incubate their immigration startup idea over the weekend. They were aided by an all-star lineup of speakers, mentors, and judges representing the biggest movers and shakers in the “immigration tech” space. That included domain expert founders, investors, legal experts, and immigrant community leaders.
Friday May 29
Following a kickoff speaking panel about how the system became so broken and what to expect in the next few years from a political and macroeconomic standpoint, we got down to business. Nearly 30 different participants pitched ideas, which were voted on by the 150+ people in attendance and narrowed down to a shortlist of 15 or so. Participants formed teams around the remaining ideas and prepared for the weekend.
Saturday May 30
If Friday’s speaker panel was a “macro” look at immigration, Saturday morning’s was much more “micro”. We zoomed in on the personal stories of successful immigrant founders including Laks Srini, Co-founder & CTO of Zenefits; Tri Tran, Co-founder & CEO of Munchery; and Silver Keskküla, Co-founder of Teleport.
In the afternoon, we brought in a bevy of domain expert mentors to advise teams on product development, design, legal issues, and customer development to make their idea a reality.
Sunday May 31
Sunday was the moment of truth — Pitching time! Given how little “creative attention” immigration receives, I was excited to see what a small army of passionate hackers, designers, and business & policy experts could come up with. How could the latest tools and technology trends be utilized for good?
One of my worries going in to the event was that too many teams would work on ideas involving automating immigration application processes. A lot of companies are already doing great work in that area, including those who were at the event like FileRight, Clearpath, Bridge US, and Teleborder. Not only that, there are so many other neglected areas of immigration that need creative problem-solving, which we outlined in another Medium post titled Immigration Startup Ideas.
In that sense, I was pleasantly surprised by the winning teams selected by our impressive judging panel, which was made up of 2 domain expert founders in Romish Badani of Bridge US and James Richards of Teleborder, 2 investors in Edith Yeung of 500 Startups Mobile Collective and Nitin Pachisia of Unshackled, and 1 journalist in Dan Raile of PandoDaily.
Teams were evaluated based on the following 3 equally-weighted criteria: Customer Validation (1/3), Product Execution & Design (1/3), and Business Model Validation (1/3). A total of 12 teams ended up pitching on Sunday, and these were the winners.
Settled is your personal assistant for complex admin processes when settling abroad.
Settled operates under the premise that getting a visa is only the beginning of an immigrant’s journey. After that, there are all kinds of strange and unfamiliar processes they have to go through like getting a driver’s license, filing taxes, opening a bank account, getting a social security card, building credit, etc. Many of these are dreaded even by native-born Americans who are fluent in English, so you can imagine how daunting it must be for someone who isn’t fluent. Settled built a one-stop user-friendly interface for these different processes so that immigrants can be more productive with their team and focus on the things that matter.
Check out Settled’s presentation slides
Estrella helps you find free or low-cost immigration help near you.
In Silicon Valley, it’s too easy to conflate “immigrants” with highly-educated, English-speaking foreigners looking to work at Google/Apple/Facebook or start their own company. In fact, the vast majority of immigrants coming to the US do so because they don’t see a viable future for themselves in their home country, and they’re willing to throw away everything they know for even a sliver of a chance at a better life.
These are the immigrants who are most vulnerable to fraud and the most sensitive to the high fees and costs of immigration, which is where Estrella (“star” in Spanish) comes in.
WindowSill is a platform for immigrant home-bakers to earn money selling baked goods, made from recipes from their home country
One of the harsh realities of immigration is that even highly skilled immigrants who used to be doctors or lawyers in their home country are often forced to give up their profession in their new country due to differing qualification systems.
WindowSill’s goal was to empower immigrants by allowing them to monetize their more transferable skills, like baking. (Why baking? Legally, it’s easier and requires less licensing than general cooking.) With WindowSill, immigrants can use their home kitchen and recipes from their home country to make money making and selling delicious baked goods.
The judges’ Honorable Mention pick CarePath also had a similar idea in mind. CarePath is a marketplace for immigrant care providers to connect with senior citizens in need of care.
Neither of these two ideas are strictly speaking “immigration startups”, but what’s great is that they are general platforms that just happen to provide the most value for immigrants. Statistically, most caregivers in the US today are in fact immigrants, and everyone loves trying exotic new foods.
Greender is “Tinder for Green Card Seekers”
Greender was a fun idea which tapped into a well-known grey area in immigration law. Getting married to a US citizen with the sole intent of obtaining a green card is a criminal act (fraud), but of course millions of legitimate, loving marriages happen between US citizens and immigrants as well. If that’s the case, why not “reduce the friction” (as they love to say in Silicon valley) and make it easier to make those legitimate matches happen?
Unlike the well-known H-1B working visa which is capped each year at a mere 85,000 visas (roughly 1/4 of the number of applicants), there is no cap for Green Cards Through Marriage and it has long been seen as the “last resort” for immigrants who can’t get a visa otherwise. Greender might seem like an idea that’s straight out of The Onion, but it also serves as an interesting social commentary on the arbitrary nature of US government’s quotas for working visas and the lopsided competition for them that results.
Check out Greender’s presentation slides
Here’s a full list of all the teams that pitched, along with their prototypes and presentation slides.
So was the event a success?
Our primary goals going into this event were threefold:
- UNIFY the fragmented immigration+tech community
- EDUCATE attendees on how/why the US immigration system became so broken, and make them aware of the most problematic and neglected areas of immigration that need attention
- BUILD meaningful new solutions utilizing creative legal/regulatory hacks and the latest tech, and open attendees’ minds to what is possible
Leading up to the event, I was mentally prepared to consider this nothing more than a fun, one-and-done thing if the reception to it was lukewarm. Events like this take a LOT of time and energy to put together, and it’s just not worth the months of planning and execution if there isn’t a deeper purpose driving your efforts.
Based on all the in-person and anonymous feedback we received though, I think we’ve tapped into something special.
We started from nothing in organizing this event. We were a team of 8 volunteers who had never met each other before, and we didn’t have any personal connections in this space. But after hundreds of cold emails (thanks Thrust.io!) and months of nose-to-the-grindstone hustling, we were able to successfully find amazing sponsors like Brad Feld who we had never met before (and still haven’t) but who cared enough about this issue to back our event, sight unseen. The leaders of immigration tech pioneers like FileRight and Clearpath found out about our event and took the time to fly in from Las Vegas and Miami, respectively, to come in and mentor the next generation of immigration startup founders. And best of all, I know for a fact that several of the teams are continuing to work on what they started at the event.
It was a magical weekend in a lot of ways, and if you ask me, if just a single participant or team from this event ends up making a major impact in immigration in the next few years (that they might not have otherwise), I’ll consider this event to have been a success. Only time will tell if that will happen, but in the meantime, I’m more than happy to continue nurturing the sapling of a community that we saw sprout that weekend.
It’s always confused me why there aren’t more people aren’t working on a problem space like Immigration. After all, it’s a huge market full of pain points and inefficiencies which affect hundreds of millions of people worldwide. And unlike the many other communities that are underrepresented in Silicon Valley, immigrants are actually overrepresented here.
So why aren’t more people trying to solve it?
This seeming incongruity made me realize that there are two kinds of startup ideas in the world: (1) Those that are inevitable and natural, and (2) Those that need to be forcibly brought into the world kicking and screaming.
Twitter is the classic example of an idea that was inevitable and natural. If Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey hadn’t built the first character-constrained online social networking service, someone else most definitely would have.
On the other hand, without the Herculean efforts of Elon Musk and his co-workers at Tesla Motors, we might still be wondering when electric cars will become a reality. Don’t believe me? In 2009, General Motors’ then-Vice Chairman was quoted as saying:
“All the geniuses here at General Motors kept saying lithium-ion technology is 10 years away, and Toyota agreed with us — and boom, along comes Tesla. So I said, ‘How come some tiny little California startup, run by guys who know nothing about the car business, can do this, and we can’t?’ That was the crowbar that helped break up the log jam.”
The world needs more “kicking and screaming” ideas. Companies like Tesla and Stripe have reminded us that it’s possible for inexperienced outsiders to tackle a space with fraught with pessimism, regulations, legal liability, and hostile incumbents, and still come out on top.
So why aren’t more people trying to solve other real-world problems?
The tech media has fooled us into believing that young billionaire startup founders are demigods with superhuman abilities. But watch interviews with Mark Zuckerberg in the earliest days of Facebook, and you’ll see someone who didn’t have all the answers and had no idea how big Facebook could become. He isn’t a demigod. He’s a “mere mortal” just like you and me who happens to be smart, dedicated, and a fast learner able to figure things out along the way.
And that’s all it takes to change the world.
Silicon Valley has become obsessed with money and mythology, but you don’t have to be. Somewhere out there is a real-world problem that needs you to solve it. You might not make billions of dollars doing so, but you could get something even better — The satisfaction of knowing you changed the fates of millions of real people’s lives for the better. How many unicorn startups can say that about themselves with a straight face?
There is a better future out there, but it won’t happen on its own and we can’t wait around for a superhero to make it for us.
It’s up to you and me to create it, and the time to do so is now.
We plan on organizing another, even better immigration hackathon soon. In fact, we’re planning on making this an annual or even twice-a-year thing. Whatever it takes for immigration innovation to truly take flight. If you’d like to learn more, follow “HackImmigration” on Facebook and Twitter for future updates. Thanks for reading 🙂