New York City, CUNY to sponsor 80 entrepreneurs under H-1B visa program exempt from annual 85,000 quota

Unique plan likely to mushroom in other states too.

By Sujeet Rajan

Sujeet RajanNEW YORK: In the first of its kind in the United States, with the possibility of the same initiative mushrooming in many more states around the country, New York City has entered into a unique partnership with the City University of New York (CUNY) to bring in 80 budding entrepreneurs under the H-1B visa program.

The 80 individuals who would qualify for the H-1B visa under this new plan would be outside of the annual cap of 85,000 H-1B visas issued by the Department of Homeland Security, which now has a lottery system in place. Last year, 233,000 people vied for an H-1B visa; only around 1/3rd of applicants finally got it. This year, more applications than ever before are expected when filing begins April 1.

The laudable initiative, termed IN2NYC, announced on Thursday, is the brainchild of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), in partnership with CUNY.

The 80 entrepreneurs who would qualify for this program are most likely to be those who have some angel investors under their belt, or with unique plans which merit investment and find approval by the NYCEDC and CUNY personnel who approve applications. The plan doesn’t specify any country limits or educational degrees or experience required.

Thus, a fresh graduate of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, for example, who has a smart business plan could embark upon it in the heart of New York City instead of a metropolis in India.

These 80 individuals would be employed at CUNY and stay on the CUNY campus. Educational institutions in the US can hire as many H-1Bs as they wish to.  These 80 budding entrepreneurs would also advise professors and students while working to build companies. To qualify for quota exemption, they would have to work at least part-time on campus. There are no details of the salary these 80 entrepreneurs would be given under the initiative. It’s likely that the angel investment they receive would cover personal cost.

The New York Times commented on the new initiative in a report, saying: “The next Elon Musk may soon be working at a City University of New York campus in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, perhaps joined by the next Sergey Brin in Flushing, Queens. And they could be creating hundreds of jobs.”

Kevin Ryan, an entrepreneur who founded Gilt Groupe, an online shopping company, and MongoDB, a database company, among half a dozen start-ups, hailed the program as a way to increase the number of visas available to foreign talent in the city, reported the Times. “Normally the city says we can’t do anything about it,” Ryan said, referring to immigration reform. “So with this, they found a loophole here, which is going to add potential entrepreneurs and engineers.”

Ryan added: “It’s not as impactful as opening up the number of H-1B visas, but it’s a great step forward.”

Maria Torres-Springer, the president of the NYCEDC, said the program would build on New York’s history of being a welcoming place to immigrants. “We’re seeing innovation hubs really beginning to blossom all over the city,” she said, mentioning a clean-technology incubator she recently visited in Brooklyn, made up mostly of immigrant workers. “The program builds on the momentum, in a way where international entrepreneurs who want to relocate in the city now have a pathway to do that, as opposed to navigating what is currently a complex system.”

IN2NYC will work with seven CUNY campuses: Baruch College, City College, the College of Staten Island, LaGuardia Community College, Lehman College, Medgar Evers College and Queens College.

Under the plan, entrepreneurs will form a board of directors, most of whom will be American citizens or permanent residents with Green Cards, to establish the employer-employee relationship that an H-1B visa requires, reported the Times.

The development corporation expects that each entrepreneur will initially employ at least three people. Applications will be accepted in late spring, with the program scheduled to start in autumn.

While most critics of the H-1B visa program have opined that foreign labor tends to take jobs away from Americans, this new initiative would find few detractors, if any. This, as New York City reckons, would pay off handsomely in the long run, as some of the 80 entrepreneurs go on to start big, successful companies and employ large number of people.

In a world where ideas are everything, the initiative might also give a fillip to serial investors as they would have more ideas to look over and invest in. Of late, tech start-ups in the US have lost steam and money has stopped flowing into new ventures. The idea of young foreign entrepreneurs starting companies in the US with an eye on the global market also, is a welcome addition.

Perhaps the ones who should complain at this initiative would be countries like India, who badly need to retain top notch talent to create jobs within the country; stem the ‘brain drain’ which has resulted in India being known mostly as a service-oriented industry. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s vision of ‘Make in India’ needs entrepreneurs to create jobs within the country, which this initiative, and likely more to follow by other states, threatens to take away.

Despite the rhetoric of curbing legal immigration by some of the GOP front-runners in the presidential nominee race, including Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, there is also a strong push to increase the number of H-1B visas as top companies face a crunch to hire top talent, especially in the tech arena, in Silicon Valley.

In an eye-opener of an interview to the Press Trust of India, Bill Coleman, veteran CEO of Veritas – which has re-emerged as a newly-independent company after its purchase by The Carlyle Group for $7.4 billion – lamented the acute shortage of tech professionals on H-1B visas.

“The entire Silicon Valley believes that the H-1B visa policy needs to be dramatically expanded,” Coleman, a former chairman of Silicon Valley Leadership Group involved with ventures in Silicon Valley for about 40 years, said. “We can’t hire enough good people. They are just not available here. The salaries here are going through the roof, because everybody is competing to hire from everybody else.”

Veritas has about 1,700 employees, with Pune, Maharashtra, being a major center. Coleman said he plans to migrate some of his facilities from Florida to India.

“In Silicon Valley you go to Apple, Facebook or Google, open their websites, you will find thousands of open jobs. One of the biggest problem here is that everybody is trying to hire from everybody else. As they can’t find enough good candidates what they are doing is pushing the salaries through the moon,” Coleman told PTI.

Coleman cited the shortage of qualified tech workers through a recent “crazy” conversation he had with Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt.

“I know this is a very, very extreme example. I was talking to Eric Schmidt a while ago. He was telling me that they had a really, really top machine learning data scientist who they were trying to recruit. They ended up getting him, but with a $10 million sign on bonus. That’s crazy,” he said.

(This column was revised on Feb. 19, 2016).

(Sujeet Rajan is Editor-in-Chief, The American Bazaar)

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