Their concept quickly gained traction. It won the top prize in an Innovation in Education contest sponsored by NBC and Citigroup, landing Chaudhary and Don $75,000 and an appearance on the Today show. ClassDojo was the only company from its Imagine K12 class that raised money from other well-known angel investors and venture capitalists. Chaudhary and Don can’t earn any money themselves on their current visas, but they have already hired three people and plan to hire three more this summer.
Why not just launch ClassDojo in London? It would never work, its founders say. The incentives to be here are not so different from what drives a Haitian to climb aboard a raft or a Mexican to climb over a fence. The overachieving, smarter-than-you playpen that is Silicon Valley—replete with Stanford University graduates on bikes, dry-erase boards that double as coffee tables, and drip coffee hand-brewed one organic cup at a time—is a unique breeding ground for start-ups.
“You’ve got the talent—so many incredible developers here,” Chaudhary said. “You have people who have built successful technology companies and want to give back to the next generation with money, and time, and introductions. That is really difficult to replicate anywhere in the world.”
In contrast to the Senate’s languid, almost dreamlike sense of time, Chaudhary and Don face a hard deadline for the future of ClassDojo. Obtaining long-term work visas is even more challenging than building a company from scratch. Because the annual supply of 65,000 H-1B visas was tapped out, they had to go back to London for a few days in July and for a few months at the end of last year, delays that could have wiped out their business. The young men returned in January with another temporary visa, and the clock started running again.
When they made their case in Palo Alto, they sat down with White House officials who offered them little beyond resigned sympathy. Instead of scaling up their company and bringing on staff, Chaudhary told the officials at the roundtable, “we’re spending so much time navigating the system and trying to fit into a visa category that’s not designed for entrepreneurs.”
“That’s because there isn’t one,” quipped Doug Rand, a senior policy adviser in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, attending the meeting on behalf of the Obama administration. The White House delegation wore dark-blue suits, while the rest of table were clad in standard-issue California-casual—hooded sweatshirts, T-shirts, and jeans.
Chaudhary appreciated the chance to make his pitch, but the meeting meant three hours away from ClassDojo. “It’s kind of an awful trade-off, because my primary responsibility is to my company and employees,” he said.
Companies throughout the United States are experiencing the same problems as they find their business decisions being dictated by immigration policy that doesn’t work. Employers want to sponsor workers for green cards, but they can’t wait five years or longer for their workers, so they try to bring them in on H-1B visas. Almost every year, the allotted number of H-1B visas is exhausted within weeks. This fiscal year, which started on Oct. 1, Homeland Security stopped accepting applications on Nov. 22. Before the economic downturn, the 65,000 available visas were exhausted within the first few days after they were made available, a full six months before the visa holders could actually start their jobs.
The most logical immigration route for Chaudhary and Don would be green cards, but that option doesn’t exist for them. Green cards are doled out based on having U.S. citizen family members or having employers who sponsor the applicants and can prove that Americans aren’t available to do the job. Chaudhary and Don have neither.
Their last-ditch hope is the so-called O-1 visa, most often used for celebrities and Nobel Prize winners. The criteria for this “extraordinary ability” category include nationally or internationally recognized awards, membership in a professional association, authorship of scholarly articles, and proof of the ability to command a high salary.
That’s not likely to happen, just as, right now, it’s not likely that ClassDojo will be a classroom fixture in the United States one day—or that there will ever be enough green cards available for skilled workers, or that there will be a solution for the 12 million undocumented aliens in the country. America doesn’t seem to be able to solve those kinds of problems anymore.
This is the first in a series that examines America’s crumbling foundations and how to rebuild them.