A study of women entrepreneurs released last December by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) found an estimated 187 million women starting and running businesses in 59 economies. That is a staggering number that speaks to women's entrepreneurial spirit. In the U.S., women are expected to create over half of the 9.72 million new small business jobs by 2018. And another study revealed that when it comes to starting their own business, women are more likely than men to consider individual responsibility and use business as a vehicle for social and environmental change.
However, there's a stereotypical concept of who makes a good startup founder: Guys in a Californian garage tend to fit the bill, particularly if they're recent college grads and single. This image prevails even though there are plenty of female startup founders who regularly disprove this stereotype, from Leah Culver to Jessica Mah.
So why are the efforts to bring more startup founders to the U.S. focused mostly on that stereotypical understanding of who is likely to found a startup? The Startup Visa plan calls for a law that provides a visa geared specifically towards entrepreneurs that will last two years and is dependent on the entrepreneur bringing in investment capital. In order to stay in the country after that two-year period ends, the entrepreneur needs to have created a certain number of jobs. The plan is good in concept, but it doesn't consider the needs of entrepreneurs who aren't easily able to pick up and move as someone fresh out of college with no family -- entrepreneurs, by the way, who are more likely to keep their company in the U.S. if it was established there initially.
Using the EB-5 Visa as a Basis
Currently, proponents of the Startup Visa want to base the new visa on the existing EB-5 visa for investors. The EB-5 Visa is meant for investors who wish to come to the U.S. and invest in businesses. The Startup Visa would essentially be a sub-category, sharing the allocation of the visas set aside for EB-5 applicants. There are some problems with this approach, which in turn lead to the constraints that the Startup Visa would face.
One of the big concerns is the size of the pool of EB-5 visas available, which would be split between applicants for that visa class and for Startup Visas. There are 10,000 visas allocated -- and that number has to include any dependents that comes with the entrepreneur applying for the visa. Dependents include spouses (who must be legally married, not common law partners) and children (who must be both under the age of 21 and unmarried). There may not be enough visas actually available to make this a viable program for anyone who needs more than a visa just for herself.
The Startup Visa would also only offer conditional green cards, for two years, to visa holders. That means that a spouse can have difficulty getting a job and a child who wants to enroll in college may have to try to refile separately for a student visa at some point.
What Would a Fair Startup Visa Look Like?
At the very least, a discussion of the Startup Visa needs to address some of the concerns that go along with visas in general. How do you make the visa program a practical option for someone who needs to bring her family with her?
There also needs to be a commitment from the investors who are interested in providing the money that entrepreneurs need to qualify for the Startup Visa. It's going to be hard enough for startup founders to build the international connections to land that funding, but unless investors actively move past pre-conceived notions about who is likely to be a startup founder, it's going to be doubly hard for anyone who isn't a young man with a brand new computer science degree.
There needs to be a commitment to look at women within international startup communities.