Immigration, Politics, and Technology: an Interview with Maria Salamanca

entrepreneurship incubator politics tech

Below is an interview with Maria Salamanca the Community and Marketing Manager for Unshackled, a new angel fund focused on immigrant entrepreneurs. She's previously worked with some of the top names in technology and politics including the Chief of Staff for FWD.us - Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates' immigration advocacy platform -- and Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. In this interview, Maria explores her motivations for her work, stories from Silicon Valley, and practical tips for recent grads and alumni. 

(Transcribed by Zac Gunther)

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Q: What do you say when asked what do you do?

A: Well there are two sides of me -- the professional side and what I volunteer for. Of course, I’m passionate about both. I go out of my way outside of work to do things that I’m not or could not get paid for.

Professionally, Unshackled is an angel fund, what we like to call an ‘innovation solutions’ focused fund. We’re focused on immigrants to America.

40% of Fortune 500 company have been founded by immigrants. Every year, about 800,000 immigrant international students go to college in America. But every year, under the H1B visa program, only 85,000 are allowed to stay. Most are sent back home. And those that do stay must go into the corporate world to get their visa sponsored, rather than start something on their own.

We host two main groups. Sometimes it is team who have decided on their idea and formed a company, looking to accelerate their growth. They’ll often stay for around a year. But we also have an Entrepreneurship-in-Residence program where someone can spend 3 to 6 months with us, creating an idea, getting it validated and forming the team. This is unique for us, as they would not be able to do something like this under the H1B visa program without Unshackled.

My job at Unshackled is to create initiatives to increase the number of individuals that our programming could affect and let them know about it. We’re about a year old, so a lot of students and working professionals don’t know that this is possible.

We find lots of people are working with the Googles of the world, doing their start-up on the side. Then when they try to find funding, investors can't fund they without proof that you are 100% committed to an idea in terms of time, yet you need to have a sponsor for the visa and stay in the country.

I focus on maintaining relationships for the investors and engaging them with the companies. I make sure they have the resources and connections that they need to be successful. In addition, I foster our community by creating various partnerships with Universities and others. That includes making Pitch Competitions and Business Competitions to engage the good schools.

Q: How was Unshackled started?

A: The idea started with the two founding partners -- one was an immigrant that was brought over from visa (Nitan Pachisia), the other was in finance for a long time (Manan Mehta) until founding a company. His cofounder was foreign-born under a visa. Thus, his partner had to work during the day to keep the visa sponsorship. Even though Manan knew his co-founder was committed, they couldn’t get any investors without full time commitment.

The partners eventually crossed paths and from a two distinct perspectives saw the same problem. So they started Unshackled. They are the only fund that does this.

Q: How did you get involved with Unshackled?

A: In college, I worked for a about a year for FwD.Us -- a Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates’ immigration lobbying organization.

They wanted immigration reform because there were just so many needs for their companies. Companies have really a lack of supply in the number of talented workers that can stay under the visa program.

I got in there when it was 6 months old, and worked directly with the second in command, behind Joe Green -- Mark’s former Harvard roommate. Through this, I got exposed to a number of tech entrepreneurs and VCs. Among them was the founding partners of Unshackled.

Q: What makes you so passionate about Unshackled?

A: Quite frankly government advocacy only gets you so far. Even if you get a bill into congress, it can be stumped for some ridiculous political reason. My disappointed in the political process led me to tech as the way to get involved. The innovation approach to this issue, in combination to working within marketing makes this exciting.

Q: But where’s your initial interest in immigration policy come from?

A: Well, my parents and I migrated from Colombia when I was six. At the time because of the war on drugs, Colombia was eligible to stay through asylum. You could stay in the US once you met certain criteria. My father had several encounters with the problems from the war on drugs, being the dean of medicine at a prominent hospital. Due to these problems my family was able to file for asylum. Arbitrary process, I might add. We filed for it when I was 7 years old, and I eventually became a citizen when I was a senior in high school.

I always had a clear pathway of what to do next. Not everyone does once they are here. But this pathway was almost randomly selected -- other countries potentially have as much of a hard time or worse. So many people come from worse spots and they want to work hard just as much. I’m very privileged in that sense.

It’s important to realize the areas that you are privileged in. As an individual, I still get lumped in with other Latin@s. But to an extent, I’m a lot luckier than a lot of other people lumped in with me.

Immigrants wherever they are are a very gritty group. What they do simply requires levels of entrepreneurship above others. And it gives you an advantage above others that were born there. History shows that immigration (Jewish Bankers in New York, French Du Pont family from the French Revolution, and much more) grants a personality trait that makes you more gritty and risky. And while others have it, the concentration in immigrants is unsurpassable.

It fades away of course, after a few generations. There’s a very interesting book on this by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld professors at Yale Law School and the authors “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.”

Q: Even so, how did you get into such a role at the intersection of technology and politics?

A: Lots of luck and going out of my way. I found out about FWD.us very early on in college. I saw that it was a really good thing that interacts with politics, civic engagement, and tech -- all areas I was interested in.

It was so early that they didn’t have a careers page, so I just I reached out to the hello@domainname address and basically said “Hey, Love what you’re doing. This is my resume. Here’s a bit about my experience -- I can be business-savvy; I’m bilingual; I’ve had a number of research positions on campus”.

I got two or three different emails back from them. I got interviewed by the leader of the San Francisco/Oakland grassroots organizing -  and he offered me a part-time job there. But the Chief of Staff for the entire organization also got the email, and was looking for a research assistant to help him make decisions.

His name was Emanuel Yekutiel, and is one of the most well connected human beings in all of Silicon Valley. He was part of Forbes’ 30 under 30 at FWD, and just recently got pulled by Hillary Clinton to be her campaign’s Deputy Finance chief.  His job at FWD was to build relationships with high net worth individuals and with Mark Zuckerberg’s inner circle. Really his job was networking.

He interviewed me, and didn’t really care about the resume. He just talked to me as a person. Asked about my strengths/weaknesses, very candidly, and expected very candid answers.

We were at Mina Gallery -- a coffee shop in San Francisco for the interview. A few people that were obviously techies came up to us in line, and we started talking. I talked with one of the girls for a bit about Britain since I was about to study abroad at Cambridge. I ended up getting her card, and it was great.

I went back to Emanuel, and apologized for taking the time to chat with these people, but that I’d just met some really interesting folks. And then he told me: “The people you were talking to were the co-founder of Facebook, the founder of Groupon, and some huge British entrepreneur”.

He was really impressed with the way that I didn’t get star struck -- like not treat them like real people -- or freak out. Actually, he had been meaning to get the card of the British entrepreneur I met, so I just handed it to him.

He gave me an assignment to research two companies and think about how they could collaborate. I think it was Founder of WhatsApp and Max Levchin from Paypal. So I sent it to him, he thought it was great, and I was welcomed aboard.

Q: You talked early about the intersectional issues of technology and politics. What do you think of the criticism that technology is not really moving politics forward, but just moving it to its own goals?

A: Well any sort of advocacy coming from a special interest group will have its own selfish goals. In that way, tech is no different than manufacturing or agriculture.

Now, tech used to be very anti-government. The government is just so inefficient if you’ve ever worked in Washington. It takes so much time to do literally anything. And there’s not high pay or really tech savvy people either. You don’t see the innovation that you have a lot of companies.

Tech in a number of ways is frustrated with Washington, DC. They do things that are just not very business smart. For example, the immigration policy just doesn’t make sense from a business perspective. All comes down to politics and personalities that you need to convince, it’s all subjective. And in the tech mentality -- “if it’s broken, fix it by building your own”. But they can’t just build a new government.

But now, tech has found other ways to be involved with politics. For example, projects like CodeforAmerica or organizations for people that want to freesource time for the government. Many more people are finding ways of getting involved.

And on the other side, the Obama Administration is often called a ‘stealth company’. They’ve pulled a ton of individuals from Google and Facebook. Hillary too, she recently pulled Stephanie Hannon from Google as her CTO. They’re getting these people into government to do what they’re good at -- create new systems. Take for example, Healthcare.gov. While it initially failed, by bringing so many tech folks into it, they got something much better at the end.

It’s a slow shift of both sides taking each other on. Tech is able to create new systems, and help government. It’s a two-way street though. Government and tech both need to have the right mindset here.

Before Obama leaves office,  I suspect he’s looking to create even more efficient systems.

Q: How should people get involved with the intersection of politics and technology?

A: We’re beginning to wake up to the fact that advocacy and lobbying are not the best ways forward for technology. Rather, individuals can volunteer their time and energy to do this. Either through the rise of new organizations like CodeForAmerica where someone could take a fellowship or technology leaders stepping up (Eric Schmidt was considered for cabinet when Obama first get into office).

And it’s important to note that Tech as a whole is very libertarian. They want to be ‘hands off’ in general. They think this is the way to foster innovation - individuality and support. Mapping into the political realm, they split pretty evenly.

And hey, volunteering work is not really for everyone. You’ll need to forfeit pay certainly if you want to work with the government. But if you want to do this, you really can get things to happen It’s all about what do you want to do with your free time.

Q: As a last question, how do you find out about all these opportunities that you’ve been able to be a part of?

A: As a political science major and debater before that, I’ve always been a news junkie. I just read news or go on Twitter in my free time to calm down. I love to consume new content.

A good way to get started though in finding people to follow is to start reading things like the Forbes or the Fast Company and find interesting thought leaders that you care about. Who are they liking / following is a good indicator of someone to also follow. That’ll be a good way to kick start your Twitter. It’s a key for me in keeping informed and engaged.

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If you found this interview interested, Maria is doing a webinar for charity where you can ask her in a round-table format about her projects and get one-on-one advice for your own political and technological activism. The cost of this webinar is $10, and 100% of the money goes to charity. You can sign up for the webinar here: http://givegetwin.com/products/politics-immigration-and-tech-a-conversation-with-maria-salamanca-of-unshackled-io

 



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