Advocating for return: UNC MBA student and online entrepreneur not allowed to return from trip to India
Deepak Gopalakrishna, a master’s of business administration student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler School of Business and an entrepreneur, said he hadn’t left the country in more than four years.
The 32-year-old said he hadn’t seen his 3-year-old nephew in that time, so he felt it was time to visit. He said he’d applied for a student visa, and believed everything was in order so he could go to Singapore and India. He left the country in March during spring break, but said Thursday that he’s been unable to return.
“Even though everything was in order, and I had done extra leg work, I am being held up with no reason given,” Gopalakrishna said in an email.
Gopalakrishna said he’s been trying to keep up with his school work from India, but was dropped from some classes. He said he’s been communicating with members of the team behind the online start-up business he’s founded, RxAnalytics, through conference calls and video conferences.
His four-person team is scattered, so he said he’d be communicating with them using technology anyway. But he said he’s doing it at more inconvenient hours.
Gopalakrishna said he’s contacted school as well as political officials to advocate on his behalf. He was hopeful that he’d be able to return to the country on Monday. He had bought a plane ticket, although he said he’s already had to change the date on his return flight several times already.
He said he’d like to see the current federal immigration reform negotiations to include a provision for visas for founders of start-up businesses. He said he believes that would help his case. A group of U.S. Senators is reportedly working on immigration reform legislation, according to the Associated Press.
“I like my way of life in the (United States) and would like to continue to grow my company there,” Gopalakrishna said. “Unfortunately, Congress needs to figure out how to let me do that legally, and not want to tear my hair out every time I think about leaving the country.”
‘Careful balancing act’
A native of India, Gopalakrishna said he’s been in the United States since 1998. He said that maintaining his status in the country is a “careful balancing act.”
He got a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, went to study at Tulane University, but said he returned to the state due to Hurricane Katrina. He subsequently completed a doctorate in genetics at UNC Chapel Hill.
As a graduate student, he said he started his first company. He later left the area to work as a research associate at George Washington University in 2011, and then started his second company, RxAnalytics, last year.
The company is behind a website that provides personalized, fitness-related recommendations using computer analysis of health-related data. Gopalakrishna said the company is targeting sales to members of the CrossFit fitness program, but he believes it could also have wider applications in health care.
Last year, RxAnalytics was part of the Durham-based technology accelerator Triangle Startup Factory, a program that offers funding as well as mentorship to fledgling businesses. The company was not generating revenue when it entered the program, but Gopalakrishna said Thursday it’s now making money off of the beta, or an early-stage, version of the website. He said the business has also raised private investment dollars as well as money from family.
Following the completion of his advanced degree at UNC-Chapel Hill, he said he was able to stay in the country through the Optional Practical Training program. The 12-month period of the OPT program expired in May of last year, he said, so he said he had to figure out a way to remain in the country, or leave.
He said he could go back to school or work for someone else. He said he believed working for someone else would give him “zero time” to run and grow RxAnalytics.
He was accepted to business school, and applied for a change of status to a student visa. He said that as long as his application is in, his immigration status in the country is legal. He said he had to submit additional documentation for the visa, but believes the visa was approved.
After leaving the country, he said he tried to get documentation to return to the country, but was told his application was flagged for administrative review.
“They had no way to tell me why, or what I could do to expedite the process – just wait,” he said.
Katherine Pfaff, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of State, said that because of federal law, department officials cannot disclose details about an individual case. An official with the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs Office of Policy Coordination & Public Affairs could not provide information for this story in time for publication. In addition, attempts to reach U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials were not successful in time for inclusion in this article.
Ted Zoller, director of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and an associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, said he’s been advocating for Gopalakrishna.
He said he believes the situation, and others, leaves the United States “vulnerable to lose some of our best-trained talent that we’re training.”
“It sends the inadvertent message that we don’t value the people we’ve trained,” Zoller said. “It’s a fait accompli that they’re going to, of course, migrate out of the country some of the most competitive and talented people that we’re training. We’re sending (them) back home and (we’re) not able to take advantage of their talents.”
For, against start-up visa concept
Judith Cone, the special assistant to the chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship at UNC-Chapel Hill, said immigrants get degrees and start companies on campus, which is “a very positive thing for society.”
She said a proposal for visas for entrepreneurs introduced as part of the Startup Act 3.0 “makes such good sense.”
The bill was introduced in February by U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, and others. It included a provision to allow for up to 75,000 conditional visas to be issued to qualified entrepreneurs, according to a bill summary.
The conditional status was to be removed after four years, if the entrepreneur is able to meet certain qualifications. The proposal did not make it out of committee.
Emily Lam, senior director of federal issues for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade group for companies in California’s Silicon Valley, said the group is working with other national and regional business groups to lobby for the entrepreneurship visa.
Lam said officials with the group “fully anticipate” that a proposal for an entrepreneurship visa would be included in any impending major immigration reform proposals.
“Part of what we’re lobbying for with this entrepreneurship visa is something that has, basically, requirements that fit the needs, the timeline, and the situation of entrepreneurs,” she said. “Meaning, it’s quick, so it can be approved quickly, and that the guidelines are things that, you know, the entrepreneurial community generally accepts as good standards. A valid business plan and that kind of thing.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, said lobbyists have floated the idea for the proposal. He said it could be folded into the anticipated immigration reform proposals, but said “we have no idea and we won’t for a couple of weeks probably.”
But Krikorian criticized the proposal for a visa program for entrepreneurs. He said the center is a proponent of policy that would lower immigration numbers through measures including restricting skilled worker immigration to the “real Einsteins,” Krikorian said, among other proposals.
“Every foreign student who wants to stay will be coming up with some kind of website, some kind of eBay-based business or whatever it is, to persuade Immigration Services to give them a green card – it’s a stupid idea quite frankly,” he said. “Half of businesses fail anyway, what are they going to do, take their green cards away?”
Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is part of the group of eight senators that’s reportedly working on the immigration reform, said he could not provide information on whether the negotiations have included a proposal for a visa for entrepreneurs.
“No legislation has been unveiled/introduced yet and we have not negotiated in the press,” he said in an email.