Entrepreneurship Life Hacks

Immigrant Entrepreneurs: How to build a startup as International Students on F-1 Visa

Entrepreneurship for International Students on F-1 Visa

Immigrant entrepreneurs in the US have gone on to build some of the biggest multi-billion dollar businesses (e.g., Elon Musk). The good news is that there is a path for you to do so legally within the immigration system.

When I got to the U.S. for my Ph.D. I was very much set on launching my own tech startup. In the spring of 2013 while doing my Ph.D. I launched GuideBuddy (an online marketplace for local travel guides) with 2 of my friends. GuideBuddy did not work out due to slow traction but I soon realized that the lessons I learned from a failed startup were invaluable and could not have been learned in any classroom or job.

After I shut down GuideBuddy, I decided at that point to focus all my energy on my passion for robotics and autonomous navigation and build something during my Ph.D. that I could commercialize. That vision is now slowly coming to reality…

In this article, I show you the route I took as an immigrant entrepreneur to build my startup SIERA.AI and eventually secure a green card using the EB-1 route. This article is most suited for students in a STEM field who plan to use OPT for work.

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed immigration attorney and the information in this article is not intended as legal advice. Please consult an immigration attorney for your case.

Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Can I start my own business on OPT?

To realize my vision I needed to make sure that I could start my own business on an OPT work permit in a legal and transparent manner. So I started doing some research and the first common misconception I realized people had was, “it is not possible to start your own business on OPT”. Wrong! It is completely legal to start your own business on OPT in your own field of study. Here are some clear points written on Univ. of Michigan’s website:

Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Types of employment allowed during pre and post-completion OPT

All OPT employment, including post-completion OPT, must be in a job that is related to your degree program.

This employment may include the following (does not apply to students on a STEM extension):

Paid employment for immigrant entrepreneurs

Students authorized for post-completion OPT may work part-time (at least 20 hours per week) or full-time.

Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Working for multiple employers

Students may work for more than one employer, but all employment must be related to the student’s degree program. Employment during pre-completion OPT cannot exceed the allowed per week cumulative hours.

Short-term multiple employers (performing artists)

Students who are musicians and other performing artists may work for multiple short-term employers (gigs). The student should maintain a list of all gigs, dates, and duration. If requested by DHS, students must be prepared to provide evidence showing a list of all gigs.

Work for hire as an immigrant entrepreneur

Work for hire means that an individual performs a service based on a contractual relationship rather than an employment relationship. It is sometimes called “1099 employment” because people who “work for hire” receive Internal Revenue Service Form 1099-MISC – which shows how much money was earned for a particular year – from the contracting company. If requested by DHS, students must be prepared to provide evidence showing the duration of the contract periods and the name and address of the contracting company.

Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Self-employed business owner

Students on OPT may start a business and be self-employed. In this situation, the student must work full-time. The student must be able to prove that he or she has the proper business licenses and is actively engaged in a business related to the student’s degree program. This is the path I took.

Employment through an agency

Students on post-completion OPT must be able to provide evidence showing they worked an average of at least 20 hours per week while employed by the agency.

Unpaid employment

Students may work as volunteers or unpaid interns, and this does not violate any labor laws. The work must be at least 20 hours per week for students on post-completion OPT. These students must be able to provide evidence from the employer that the student worked at least 20 hours per week during the period of employment.

My Journey as an Immigrant Entrepreneur

To continue working for my own startup on OPT I am pretty sure I will have to get the company e-verified in order to get an OPT STEM extension. From the government website, this does not seem to be a complex or difficult process. As of this time, I am conducting more research into how I can continue to grow my business and stay within the US legally. There are several options including filing for an O-1 or H-1B visa. Long-term I am considering applying for a green card through the EB2-NIW route or EB1-EA (more difficult). As I learn more I will keep adding more information to this post 🙂

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