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4 undocumented immigrants share their American startup stories

“We want to ship those rugs and sell them here. This art of handwoven, unique, traditional rugs that Tibetans have made for centuries is slowly dying out,” she said. “And I felt like I could relate to these people. I don’t have a home either in a sense.”

Finding capital

The next step for Nafees is to finance the business. But as a full-time Ph.D. student, it’s no easy feat to find the time to pitch investors. Events like UndocuInnovation in San Francisco gave her a chance to meet other undocumented entrepreneurs, get advice and find potential funders.

David Silva, the founder of Techqueria, a 1,600-member community for Latinos and Latinas in tech, also attended the conference. He said it was important and inspiring to him to be in the company of individuals who are rising above their circumstances.

“I got to meet so many talented people. I left with so much inspiration and motivation,” he said. “A lot of Americans have this idea that undocumented immigrants are short Mexicans working on farms, but we’re so much more.”

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David Silva is the founder of Techqueria.

Silva, who is 29 years old, immigrated to Florida from Colombia when he was 18 years old so he did not qualify for DACA. Ultimately, he was able to find a job at a telemedicine company in San Francisco, but he was fired last year after a leadership change — the new CEO didn’t want to employ an undocumented immigrant.

Currently, Silva, works for a health care startup in New York City. Though the company is aware of his undocumented status, he still is not legally an employee. So Silva filled out a form online and paid $50 to set up a limited liability company (LLC), registered under ‘internet services and website programming,’ and invoices his boss every two weeks to get paid.

He’s currently building an internship simulator that would allow budding software engineers to participate in coding challenges, post their solutions and get feedback.

‘You can run a business with or without DACA’

Though seemingly counterintuitive, undocumented immigrants assert that it’s practical to start a business — because they’re betting on themselves.

“You can run a business with or without DACA. That’s why I work for myself instead of working for someone else. If you’re working at a restaurant under the table and you’re not making enough money or you have to support your struggling parents, the best place to look is to start a business,” said Lee.

“It’s really the fastest way to build something for yourself without depending on legislation,” she added.

While DACA has afforded an estimated 700,000 undocumented immigrants the security of staying in the U.S. and being employable, their futures remain highly uncertain and unpredictable.

‘University became the safest place to be’

You have to be scrappy to survive, said Elizabeth Vilchis, the CEO of nonprofit LatinoTech.

After moving to New York City from Mexico when she was 7 years old, Vilchis was aware that she was different from her peers, but didn’t quite understand until she started applying for college.

“We lived in constant fear. It wasn’t normal. It wasn’t until junior year of high school when I couldn’t fill out certain parts of applications that I realized I was undocumented. I was missing this nine-digit number that’s really important in this society and my parents couldn’t give me a clear answer,” she said.

She credits her high school teachers for finding a program that would pay for her education at a City University of New York school. However, during her junior year, she fell short of the GPA requirements and she dug around to find private scholarships. While in school, she worked for an architect under the table to help finance her education.

“That’s the trap we fall into. It took me a bit longer to finish school because I had to find ways to finance my education. University became the safest place to be. I just stayed in school because I didn’t have an answer. I got really good at finding money to finance my education,” she said.

While she was contemplating taking the GREs to apply for grad school, DACA passed and she ultimately started working for the CUNY system and landed a job at Samsung’s venture investment fund.

‘We have to put our careers on hold to try to fight for a solution’

At the end of last year, Vilchis left the fund and committed to working for LatinoTech full-time, coaching entrepreneurs on how to take investor meetings, and raise funding, given how underrepresented Latino founders are of venture-backed startups.

Vilchis, who now lives in New Jersey, accompanied Senator Cory Booker to the State of the Union address, said it is her life’s calling to empower other immigrant entrepreneurs.

“I made the decision to quit because it’s time that I’m not advocating and raising awareness of the issue. For self-preservation, actually focusing all my time on someone else’s business would not help me. Trying to find a solution to my situation would help me,” said the 29-year-old.

“For people like me, we constantly have to make big decisions like putting our careers on hold… to try to fight for a solution. It sucks that we have to make a decision but we have to.

Speaking up — empowering others to take control over their lives

Undocumented immigrants are constantly in fear and distress about potential deportation, so why are these entrepreneurs sharing their stories?

“When I share my story, I felt the love and warmth from communities across the country, across the world,” said Nafees. “It’s more of this obligation and this duty to come forward to speak. It’s not like i can go back. I can’t go back and take off everything online that’s been published about me. There was a time when I thought I should probably be more careful and not be so out there, but now i see that there are so many others who are afraid to speak out, and rightly so, but it’s that much more important for me to speak up.”

Vilchis echoed this sentiment, expressing her desire to exert as much control over her life as possible. And she doesn’t want anyone else telling her story.

“Unfortunately, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Sure, you can stay in the shadows, and hopefully, nothing happens to you. But, right now, whatever the authorities say is who you become in the eye of the public,” said Vilchis. “You no longer have a say in it. I speak up because it adds a layer of protection around my character and who i am. I would rather go out proud of who I am rather than hide and be afraid.”

Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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