American citizens may find it hard to imagine having to sneak into Canada to get permission to study in another country, or being told you can’t start your own business because you weren’t born within particular borders. But this has been my reality for 13 years—and it is the reality faced by untold numbers of would-be American entrepreneurs.
I was born in Urmia, Iran, to a Kurdish middle-class family. Because my hometown sits at the border of Turkey and Iraq, I was exposed to instability and war from an early age. I dreamed of moving away and doing something great with my life.
When I was 17 years old, I moved to Tehran to study computer science at the well-respected Sharif University of Technology, where I met my friend and future business partner Alex Mehr. We both aspired to be academics, and we were both accepted to Ph.D. programs in mechanical engineering and computer science at the University of Maryland.
There was only one obstacle: We had to obtain F1 visas to attend the school we’d worked so hard to get into.
In another country, this might mean a trip to the American Embassy, but the U.S. does not have an embassy in Iran. The closest embassy was in Turkey, but there were no flights at the time because of political tensions. So we took buses, walked and hitchhiked into Ankara to get visas. It made the college application process look like a breeze by comparison.
While we were at Maryland, Alex and I changed our minds about becoming academics. Instead, we wanted to create a company using our technical skills. Our goal would have to be put on hold: The Office of International Affairs at the University of Maryland told us that they didn’t think it was possible to start a business on a student visa. The university referred us to a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who confirmed that we couldn’t move forward, and added that any company we founded as nonpermanent residents could not sponsor an H1B work visa for us. He suggested that if we wanted to create Zoosk, our online dating site, we should build it in another country.
Alex and I considered ourselves American, and we wanted access to the talent, financial backing and opportunities that the U.S. provides. So we decided to postpone our entrepreneurial dreams and try to become citizens. By going to work for Microsoft MSFT +0.02% instead, I learned a great deal about building a technology company, and I became a permanent resident in 2008, a process that took over five years. Shortly after, I left my job at Microsoft, drove a U-Haul to Berkeley to meet up with Alex, and we founded Zoosk.
During the 13 years that I was in immigration limbo, I was consistently discouraged from accepting professional opportunities that could set back my bid for citizenship. While working for Microsoft, the company’s immigration legal team and outside counsel regularly advised me not to change roles within the company while my Labor Certificate was in progress, since this would lead to a restart of the more than two-year long process. I was warned against traveling internationally, even for prestigious conferences, because the company feared I would not be granted re-entry because I am from Iran.
At Zoosk, we continue to face such issues. Of our 150 employees, dozens are not American, and we have sponsored them for visas, shepherding them through the same, frustrating immigration process.
My story has a happy ending: I finally became a U.S. citizen in April. But it also shows how easy it is to lose skilled talent to other countries. I chose to stay and put up with the restrictions because there is nowhere better to build a tech company. But many young, educated and ambitious friends of mine decided it was too difficult here, especially when countries like Canada and United Kingdom welcomed their expertise. It’s not a surprise that Microsoft and Google GOOG +0.27% have set up offices in Vancouver to work around U.S. visa quotas.
We hear a lot from some quarters about the fear that immigrants will take jobs from Americans, or drain the U.S. economy. Nonsense. Granting legal status to illegal immigrants alone would create 121,000 jobs per year over the next 10 years according to the Center for American Progress. The U.S. economy would grow by $1.4 trillion over the next 20 years if the Senate’s proposed immigration-reform legislation was adopted, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
As an American by choice, I am proud of our country’s history of welcoming the tired, the poor and the “huddled masses” who were starving or persecuted and came here create a better life. But I’m baffled by the fact that we are turning away the skilled masses that are hungry only for work, even as our economy remains stagnant.
Mr. Zadeh is the co-founder and CEO of Zoosk, an online dating website.