Welcome to our VC Policy Pulse series, where we speak with a VC or founder on a policy issue that is having a major impact on the venture and startup ecosystem. Today, we’re speaking with the founder of a VC-backed startup about the International Entrepreneur Rule. Yiannis Yiakoumis founded Selfie Networks in 2017 and since then has raised VC financing from Bowery Capital, Lightspeed, and individual investors. Yiakoumis is originally from Greece and has been able to stay in the U.S. to build and continue to grow his company here through the International Entrepreneur Rule. We spoke with him about his immigration journey, utilizing the International Entrepreneur Rule, and what the rule could do for other founders who want to found new companies in the United States.
The International Entrepreneur Rule (IER), which was originally put into place at the end of the Obama Administration in January 2017, operates like a startup visa and would facilitate immigrant entrepreneurs being able to launch high-growth companies in the U.S. The Trump Administration attempted to remove IER, but NVCA successfully sued the Trump Administration to prevent its removal. The Department of Homeland Security tried again to remove IER, but, after NVCA advocacy, failed to finalize its removal order before leaving office. The survival of the IER opens the door for the Biden Administration to properly launch IER and allow more immigrant entrepreneurs like Yiannis to come to the U.S. and build new startups here instead of in other countries.
Q&A with Yiannis Yiakoumis
Give us a bit of background on yourself, how you got involved in entrepreneurship, and your startup Selfie Networks.
I did my undergrad in Greece, and came to the US to do a PhD at Stanford’s Electrical Engineering department. I was clueless about entrepreneurship when I first joined, but slowly got intrigued by the combination of technology and entrepreneurship, and how it can drive impact and change.
Few years later, as part of my research and an internship at Google, my advisor and I stumbled upon an interesting problem (and the beginnings of a solution). We saw that in today’s Internet, a user’s privacy, security, and choice of what content they can consume, is at odds with the robustness, efficiency, and security of the networks that this user connects to. We realized that this problem will grow bigger with stricter requirements around privacy and security, and thought we can build a technology to benefit users without sacrificing the security and performance of the network. This is how Selfie started, and since then we’ve been working on the technology, business and regulatory policies to make this happen.
What was your experience trying to navigate the U.S. immigration system?
In one word – “interesting.” I came to the US with a Fulbright scholarship, which comes with a J1 visa and the requirement that me and my wife have to spend two years in my home country before we can get an immigrant visa (or green card). This has largely defined my complex relationship with the immigration system.
After graduation and a training period, I switched to an O1 visa to continue working at Selfie, but this meant my wife had to resign from her work and stay unemployed for 2+ years.
IER gave us a unique opportunity to extend our stay, while giving both of us the ability to work and pursue our goals. Starting a company and starting a family often happen simultaneously, and founders frequently have to work long hours and with reduced salary. A spouse’s ability to work is super important both to let them grow their own careers independently, but also for financial family security especially in the early stages of a company.
Overall, I would say that through our J, O, and IER visas we were fortunate enough to stay in the US for 10+ years. This path unfortunately also brings a great deal of instability/challenges with ensuring that we maintain work authorizations, as well as opportunities we had to pass up. Also, even though we were delighted to do road trips in the Canadian Rockies and Mexico to reenter the country for visa purposes, the trips were not necessarily taken at the most convenient times (especially with Covid travel restrictions in place).
How did you find out about the International Entrepreneur Rule?
Hmm… I don’t remember to be honest. But I remember talking with several immigration attorneys who discouraged me from applying and passed on the case, before Elizabeth Goss (from Goss Associates – my current attorney) – said she was willing to take on the challenge. I remember that when I first reviewed the process information on the USCIS website, there was a big disclaimer saying “we prepare legislation to withdraw IER and we will ignore everything you send us”. We had no other choice and there was no downside, so we applied and leveraged all available tools to push the government to respond to our application. We received a response a year later asking for additional documentation, and after a few more months my application got approved.
From what I understand I got the first IER parole ever granted in San Francisco, and likely in the US.
This meant VIP service from USCIS as they called me personally, explained the process, and when we visited USCIS in San Francisco almost everyone in the building knew who I am. I guess this was largely because they had never seen this visa type before and they were also trying to understand the process along with us.
As a sidenote, it’s hard to overstate the impact of NVCA’s actions on our success here, and I am very happy that I finally get to talk to you and publicly thank you for your efforts!
Describe your experience so far with the IER and how it’s worked for you.
Thanks for the question and apologies in advance to your readers if my answer is too detailed and boring. IER has great potential, but there are obstacles in the process that significantly reduce its value. I want to describe my experience in detail in case somebody who reads this can make improvements.
IER gives you a parole document – similar to what you get as part of the green card process. The document is valid for 30 months, supports multiple entries, and you can extend it once (for another 30 months). As an entrepreneur I can immediately start working with my new status, but my spouse has to apply for a working permit and EAD card. Parole status gets activated when you (re)-enter the US and get a stamp by a border officer. This is where the tricky part starts.
Even though the parole document is valid for 30 months, your parole period is decided by the officer at the border; and they all seem to grant a maximum of 1 year (we experienced this both in the Tijuana border and San Francisco’s airport). This 1 year expiration date, defines the valid period for I-94 and EAD cards. Anytime you re-enter the country, you get a new stamp (at your passport this time) with a new expiration date one year later.
Unfortunately, the combination of long wait times for EAD approval, with the 1 year parole period, means that spouse working permit lasts only for a few months. This means unnecessary trips outside the country for I94 and EAD renewal, and gaps between extensions.
To put it in context: we entered the country with IER and applied for my wife’s working permit in July 2020; the EAD card arrived in February 2021 (7 months wait time) and expires in June (4 months actual duration). We just did another trip to Mexico (the second during Covid) to re-enter the country and get a new expiration date for 03/2022, applied for EAD extension, but given the current wait times for EAD approval my wife’s working permit will likely have a gap in the between.
What could the government do to make the IER work better for immigrant entrepreneurs like yourself?
I am no legal expert, so my thoughts here come from my limited personal experience and discussions with my attorney on how to simplify the process for entrepreneurs and their family members.
Ensuring that all 30 months are granted right away upon entry in the country would solve the vast majority of issues we had. Another tweak to the system that would help to alleviate the need for unnecessary trips and EAD gaps would be to add IER parole holders to the list of EAD types that have an additional 180-days extension based on filing.
Another thing that is unclear is what happens if a company gets acquired. Ideally IER status would extend for a certain period post-acquisition.
Finally, there was some complexity in proving the ownership of a company, that somehow required us to get documentation from other companies in the same VC portfolio.
What has staying in the U.S. under the IER allowed you to build here in America?
We’ve helped large U.S. companies to partner with mobile operators all over the world and grow their audience worldwide; worked with policymakers and improved the regulatory framework on net neutrality to better support innovation and competition; and showcased with our partners the first 5G network where end-users can leverage premium network quality capabilities for their video calls without sacrificing their privacy or freedom of choice. Ah, and two lovely boys!!
What are you looking forward to for Selfie Networks in the years ahead?
Last year has been exciting for Selfie. We’ve been taking all the lessons we learned working with our customers over the last three years, and double down on building a new kind of product to enable enterprises better secure, troubleshoot, and monetize their networks. Not much more I can share for now, but looking forward to grow the company and contribute our fair share on building a better infrastructure for our digital lives.