My immigration story
It’s been 7 years since I moved to the US.
I love this country. Most major events in my life happened after I moved here and I really appreciate the opportunity this country gave me.
When I tell my story about how I immigrated here, many people find it very interesting, so I decided to share it here.
The American dream
Although I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, when I started to study the US immigration law – it turned out that there’s no such thing as entrepreneurial visa (except EB-5, but you need ~$1M for that). I was very surprised. When I was a little kid I read all these stories and watched all these movies about people coming to the US and starting their own companies here. I guess back then the laws were different…
Anyway, I had to find another way to immigrate.
Summer in Washington
First of all, I decided to come to the US during my summer break in 2005. There’s a program called Work and Travel that allows international students to come and work during summer months. I spent about 8 months searching and finally got a job offer from a pool management company located in Washington, DC. Since early childhood almost all Russian kids know how to swim, so it was not a problem for me to get a job as a lifeguard for $7.25/hour and on June, 1st 2005 I landed in Washington. Although I spoke some English, nobody understood me and I could not understand anybody. I had to spend the whole first night at the airport because my flight was late and my host company’s office was already closed. I only had $600 of pocket money and I did not want to spend this money on a hotel. I was able to find a good enough bench at the airport and even get some sleep before coming to the office the next day. First day on the American soil was not very easy.
Next day I started a 3 day lifeguard training and right after that my work began. Now looking back I think that being a lifeguard is probably the best job for an international student to learn English. I worked at a subsidized apartment complex pool in Southwest Washington 7 days a week. Every day the tenants would come to me and talk about all the recent news or share their stories. By the end of that summer I was fluent in English. I also picked up a lot of slang – in that neighborhood of Washington there were plenty of teenagers who were able to teach me really well. I was threatened to be killed multiple times because I would not allow their friends who were not the tenants enter the pool. Not exactly a dream job, but it allowed me to buy some food and learn English.
Also since not too much was going on at the pool most of the days, I started to read a lot. First of all, I read all the forums and blogs on the topic of immigration to the US. It turned out that the only legal way for me to immigrate was through employment. I also realized that in order for me to get a ‘real‘ job I will have to stand out from all other international students somehow and I started to prepare for Zend certification. After I got back home in September I quickly passed the exam and became the first PHP certified engineer in Russia. I updated my resume and my search for a ‘real american job‘ began.
The job search was brutal. I was working full time, studying full time and looking for a job pretty much full time. It was obvious that the only thing I could count on was an internship. I had a lot of responses, but when people were finding out that I was in Moscow at that moment – they would politely reject my application. After several months I got an offer from a small company in Boston, but I declined it because (a) it was only $8/hour and (b) I did not want to move to Boston. I got another job offer in Miami, where I really wanted to be, but after a while it turned out to be a scam, so I changed my mind on the Boston offer and in May 2006 I came to Boston and my ‘professional’ US career started.
The job was great. It was just me and the company’s founder in a tiny little office right on Copley square. I quickly proved myself as a valuable asset to the company. I remember my boss’s surprise when by the end of my first day I finished my first task while he thought it’s going to take me a couple of weeks. Throughout the summer I was working really hard trying to do as much as I can so that at the end of the summer I could ask to come back again for a ‘real’ job next year. My plan worked out pretty well. My boss liked me and I was offered a remote job which worked great for me. Upon returning back to Moscow I started to study during the day and work during the night. 8 hour difference between Boston and Moscow made it very simple. I also got a promotion to $10/hour making more money than most of my college classmates 🙂
In March 2007 I asked my employer to apply for a work visa for the first time. For those not familiar with H-1b: Only employer can do it and only once a year (in April). There are certain limits of H-1b visas issued each year and unfortunately for me that year the economy really picked up and too many people applied for this type of visa. The government decided to flip a coin on the applicants (literally there was a lottery) and I was not selected. Well, I came again to Boston for another summer break and worked for yet another 3 months. Salary increased to $12/hour – not bad!
In March 2008 we applied for H-1b again. Same story this year: Too many people, lottery, I’m out of luck. It was really frustrating. I think the most frustrating fact with H-1b visa is that if you’re out of luck, the only thing for you to do is to wait until the next year. Another summer in Boston, back to Moscow after that.
Moving to Boston
Meanwhile, in 2008 I graduated with a Masters degree in Computer Science and got my 1 year J-1 “internship” visa. Since I did not get my H-1b in 2008, I had to figure out my game plan for 2009. The problem was that even if I finally get lucky in 2009, the H-1b visa would take effect in October, while my J-1 was expiring in May, so I had to get another visa in the meantime.
The most feasible option for me was getting an F-1 “full time student” visa, but for that I had to go and study something. I did not want to study Computer Science again, so I asked myself – what do I want to study? The answer was perfectly clear to me. I wanted to become an entrepreneur, so I want to study entrepreneurship. To my biggest surprise it turned out that the best entrepreneurial college in the US is located in the Boston area. And it is not Harvard or MIT. Babson college is totally dominating entrepreneurship rankings for many years, so I decided that I must go there. I spent several months preparing for GMAT. Basically it was taking my entire time outside of work. Although math section was relatively easy for me, English was brutal. Some parts just did not make sense. Nevertheless, I scored 660 on the exam, which was good enough for Babson. I decided to apply for their Evening MBA program since I could not afford to pay this much money and my plan was to just pay for college using my salary. I asked my boss for a raise, but he said ‘he could not afford it’. For me, on the other hand, having $25K/year salary was really hard to afford $1,100/credit college (I needed 60 credits to graduate). I was also not eligible for any student loans, so I ended up using all of my lifetime savings and save money on pretty much everything to afford college. Looking back I’m really glad I made this choice – I graduated from Babson being loans-free and although it was a rough couple of years, it was definitely worth it. Thus in January, 2009 I took my first class at Babson and the new chapter of my American dream began.
In April 2009, I finally got some good news – my H-1b was finally approved! And even though I could not easily change the employer now, I had some leverage, so I started to look for a job. It took me just a few weeks to get a job offer and I accepted it. The new job was only 5 minutes away from Babson and the salary was $35K/year – 40% higher than then-current salary. I still remember the day I had to tell my boss that I was going to take another job. It was probably one of the hardest things I did in my entire life. He was very good to me and I knew that the company depended on me, so it would be a major blow. I explained to my boss why I was leaving and all my frustration with the company and my salary and he said “Ilya, if you have a problem – you should talk about it. You were just silent and never brought this up to me. I wish you could have told me earlier“. Years later I still remember this conversation and I definitely learned my lesson: If you’re unhappy about something – speak up.
Staring a company on H-1b? Not so fast, son.
To my surprise, even being on H-1b did not allow me to start my own company. I talked to several lawyers and all of them told me that I’d get into trouble if I incorporate a company in the US. It was really frustrating. I could not understand why the US government would not allow this. After all, small businesses account for 60 to 80 percent of all U.S. jobs. Why would the government prohibit anybody from starting their own business? I did not have the answer and I started to think about my options. I needed to get a green card, but the only way for me to get it was to ask my employer to apply for it. The problem with that is – most employers do not benefit from it at all. While you’re on H-1b they can pay you much lower salary (I’m a perfect example) and the chances of you finding another job are very low. I worked really hard and when I got a chance – I asked my current employer to apply for my green card. They said “OK but later“. I tried to get a specific timeframe on that, but there was none. Therefore, when I was approached by a recruiter from Nokia – I immediately took the call. Back then for any Russian Nokia was like Google for American. We grew up using Nokia phones. (I think my mom still has a Nokia). Besides, they offered me $75K + $5K/year tuition reimbursement. That was a dream come true.
After I started at Nokia I was full of hopes about getting my green card. We started the process and went through several stages, but then Nokia really went down. There were several rounds of layoffs and my green card process was cancelled. The whole idea of getting employment-based green card is that the employer is saying that they can’t find an American to fill this position. Obviously, when a company is having these layoffs – it’s really hard to prove.
I seriously started to consider moving to Canada or Australia, where people could get a permanent resident status based on certain qualifications such as education, English knowledge, experience, etc. I could have easily gotten enough points and move there immediately.
Since the possibility of getting a green card at Nokia was close to zero, I had to consider moving to another company. And where do all tech entrepreneurs want to go? Silicon Valley of course. By that time I graduated from Babson and got my MBA, so there was nothing holding me in Boston.
I had a friend who introduced me to a bunch of companies in Silicon Valley and I came to San Francisco in September, 2011 to complete 6 interviews in just 3 days. I came back to Boston with 4 job offers in my inbox. Wow! Back then I did not realize how hard it was to find a developer in the Bay Area so I was really thrilled to get all these job offers. I considered them very carefully. Since my final goal was to become an entrepreneur, I decided to join the smallest company that made me an offer. The company was called Torbit and I would be their first employee after 2 founders. Several emails back and forth and I accepted the offer. I often think about what would have happened had I accepted one of the other offers – I actually interviewed at a lot of really great companies, including:
- Pinterest (I thought the idea was bad )
- Slideshare (acquired by LinkedIn)
- Credit Karma (great product, I use it myself)
In October, 2011 my wife and I packed our bags and drove all the way across the country. The trip was awesome, we took the northern route through Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone and it was definitely one of the best trips we ever had. On November, 1st I started my job at Torbit and since the beginning I made it clear that I needed a green card. Again, working very hard, trying to prove myself. And again, nothing really happened. The company’s priorities were obviously very different. I started to have a lot of arguments with the founders. I thought that I knew better than the CTO and we had clashes almost every day. Part of that was definitely my fault, but looking back on it I was just not a good fit there. I wanted to quit, but I could not – according to the terms of H-1b, you can’t just quit – you have to find another job and I was sick of job searching.
And at that time I got my green card… by winning a lottery. Literally. There is a ‘Diversity Visa‘ program that gives you a chance of simply winning a green card through a lottery. Your chances are based on the country where you were born and my chances have always been about 1.2%. Even though I applied every year, I never really counted on winning. But it happened!
We got the interview scheduled for April, 26 (Thursday) and we expected to get the approval. The interview was in the morning and I was prepared to come back to work after that and give my notice to the founders. It turned out to be not that easy. Although my wife’s application was approved, mine was stuck on the ‘background check’ so I had to wait for at least a couple of more weeks. Bummer! I really hated my job and I wanted to quit, but again I could not. So the help came from the outside. On Friday the two founders asked me to take a walk with them and, for the first time in my life, I was fired! It sounds OK now, but back then I was shocked. I did not have my green card and I was fired. It meant that I had 30 days to find another job or get my green card, otherwise I would violate the terms of my H-1b visa. Nevertheless, I did not start looking for a new job. On April, 28, 2012 the first few lines of Datanyze code were written and I did not want to care about anything else. Two weeks later we got our Green cards and everything turned out just fine.
Now several years later Datanyze pays more money in taxes that I could ever make on my salary, employs 30+ people and continues to grow steadily. If you ask me one thing that I could change about the US immigration system, it would be introducing some type of entrepreneurial visa. I know that hundreds, maybe thousands of people like me are willing to start their companies here in the US, employ people, pay taxes, drive the economy, but they are not as lucky as I am, so they do it all abroad. I really hope that this situation will change one day, because like I mentioned at the beginning, America to me has always been an example of a country where entrepreneurs all over the world come to fulfill their dream but I think with the current immigration system it’s definitely not the case.