Today Rishi Shah is cofounder ContextMedia, one of the fastest growing startups in Chicago. But he traces his entrepreneurial roots to his parents, who immigrated to the US from India.

“Immigrant parents are equity investors,” he recently said. “Think about the mindset of someone who leaves everything they do…because they see a future state that is so important to them, that they take a leap into the unknown.”

“It’s an act of entrepreneurship,” he said. 

Immigrant parents are equity investors

Shah isn’t the only local entrepreneur who traces success back to immigration. At the Techweek panel, “Inspiration, Vision, and Roots, ” Shah, Ujjwal Gupta of BenchPrep and George Bousis of Raise, discussed their triumphs and struggles as an immigrant (Gupta) and son of immigrants (Bousis), as well as their continued frustration with the immigration system and its impact on innovation.  Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a pro-immigration group backed by tech industry leaders, moderated the panel.

Over half of US unicorns (companies valued at over $1 billion) were founded by immigrants. In Illinois, where the number of foreign born students continues to rise, immigrants founded two of the state’s five unicorns and 40 percent of Illinois’ venture-backed businesses. Despite this, there is no visa for foreign-born founders and the temporary worker visa system (H-1B) is clogged by outsourcing companies. This makes it difficult for immigrant entrepreneurs and highly skilled workers to work in the US tech industry.

“The immigration system is 30 years backwards” said Gupta, who is originally from India. “The immigration system is extremely complicated. The rules are not for innovation.”

Gupta, who nearly moved BenchPrep to India because of visa issues, said he gets emails from foreign-born students and founders every day asking for help navigating the system.

Immigration policy has “made it hard to hire a lot of candidates…that are incredibly qualified,” added Bousis, whose parents immigrated to the US from Greece. It can be expensive to hire a foreign-born employee, he pointed out. In addition to entering the H-1B lottery (which had 236,000 applications for 85,000 spots this year), they have to spend money on the application and recruiting other potential candidates, to prove they didn’t pass over a qualified American for the job.

However, Shah pointed out that it’s only in startups’ best interest to hire the top candidates. “If we bring the most qualified person in to do the job, that will create growth,” he said. 

If we bring the most qualified person in to do the job, that will create growth

Though there’s a call for immigration reform across the political spectrum, there’s endless debate on how this should be done. Leaders in the tech industry have called for a “startup visa” that allows entrepreneurs an initial three year visa to get their startup off their ground. Highly skilled tech workers hope for an increase to H-1B, or better policing of outsourcing companies that scoop up a big chunk of the visas. But, amid more xenophobic reasons, opponents believe increasing visas will encourage abuse of the system.

To help resolve the debate, Shah said there has to be more discussion. “You can’t just talk to people who agree with you,” he said. “And that’s tempting.”

And sometimes that includes talking to people who are coming from a place of fear over logic.

“We have to acknowledge their fear and connect [with] their pain before they will open to facts and ideas,” Shah added later on Twitter. “It’s not easy.”