PALO ALTO, Calif.—Sam Chaudhary sleeps on the couch in the boxy one-bedroom apartment, Liam Don on a mattress on the floor. Most of the place, such as it is—and it isn’t much, frankly—has been turned over to a business. Or, at the very least, the dream of one. There are five desks with five chairs, separated from the modest kitchen by a tall dry-erase board. The handwritten sign hangs in the window and reads “ClassDojo.” The rest of the beige-on-beige complex, it seems, is all single mothers and kids cruising on pastel-painted bikes.
In an earlier era, this drab stack of living spaces could be called a tenement, a place where recent arrivals pooling their meager resources would dwell as they started new lives in America. But Chaudhary and Don aren’t traditional immigrants. And they have no hard-luck story of ocean odysseys or coyote-bribing to tell. Natives of Great Britain both, Chaudhary walked away from a lucrative business-consulting career, and Don took leave of a doctoral program in computer science. On two weeks’ notice, they left parents and girlfriends and comfortable lives in London for a Northern California outpost more than 5,000 miles from home.
In a sense, that makes this more like a scene from the embryonic days of any number of Silicon Valley giants—think Google or Yahoo—that sprouted from similarly cramped spaces and grew to employ tens of thousands of people. Chaudhary and Don have come here, three miles east of the world’s most famous venture-capital firms, to capture that same entrepreneurial spirit. With nearly $2 million from private investors, the 25-year-old hopefuls have launched one of America’s hottest educational-technology start-ups. They want to revolutionize the way teachers manage classroom behavior, using a software program that tracks student conduct.
“Anyone who has taught in the classroom will tell you that the single biggest problem is managing classroom behavior,” Chaudhary recently told a roundtable here in Palo Alto that included White House aides, immigrant entrepreneurs, and education-technology experts. “We want to move beyond test scores, to reward character traits like teamwork and empathy.”
Teachers swear that their program makes a difference. In a year or two, if things break right, ClassDojo’s software could be entrenched in thousands of classrooms—that is, should Chaudhary and Don manage to stay in the country long enough to keep their company afloat. But, naturally, that’s the problem.
Chaudhary and Don are not American citizens; and, despite the urgent need to create jobs and foster innovation, the United States does not hand out visas to entrepreneurs, even ones with sound ideas, financial backing, and a willingness to hire. If the two do not obtain long-term work visas by April, their plans—not to mention their investors’ money and the jobs they’re creating—will be in jeopardy. “So few start-ups succeed for a host of business-related reasons,” said Chaudhary, who has pleaded their case to anyone who will listen, including the Obama administration. “It seems ludicrous that what would kill a start-up would be immigration problems.”
But anyone who has spent serious time in Washington won’t find that notion ludicrous at all. Chaudhary and Don appear stuck, even though politicians from both parties are eager to import high-skilled, resourceful entrepreneurs to help make America more competitive with rest of the world. Congress hasn’t come close to being able to provide people like them with any relief—or take any other step toward resolving the nation’s larger immigration dilemma.
But beyond that, this is a story about how the government can’t solve problems, even ones with popular solutions. And if it can’t fix the simple ones, how can it be expected to tackle the nation’s more intractable woes?
At a time when Democrats and Republicans can’t seem to agree on anything, welcoming highly skilled workers like Chaudhary and Don is one rare area of consensus. “You’ve got incredibly talented people who want to start businesses in this country or to work in this country, and we should want those folks here in the United States,” President Obama said just last week.
“I’d staple a green card to the diploma of anybody who’s got a degree in math, science, a master’s degree, Ph.D. We want those brains in our country,” Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential front-runner, said on the campaign trail last year.
“The political climate made it impossible to move forward” on a sweeping immigration reform bill that a group of House Democrats and Republicans had negotiated in secret during the previous Congress. —Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California
Economists generally agree that skilled foreign workers benefit the economy and contribute greatly to the country’s innovative activity. A 2005 World Bank working paper estimated that a 10 percent increase in the number of foreign graduate students would raise patent applications by 4.7 percent. The academic debates about whether immigration harms the American labor market cluster around lower-skilled jobs and questions of legal-versus-illegal immigration, issues that have nothing to do with entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.
This article appears in the March 17, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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