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If this Canadian hadn’t immigrated, a billion-dollar U.S. company may not exist

Friday, April 29, 2016

Michelle Zatlyn, cofounder of CloudFLare, was recently featured in a National Foundation for American Policy Study, as well profiled in Forbes magazine, as a co-founder of a billion-dollar, privately-held startup in the United States. There are 87 such companies – colorfully dubbed ‘unicorns’ – and 44 were founded or co-founded by immigrants like Zatlyn.
Zatlyn grew up in Saskatchewan and attended college in Canada. After failing to find a sponsor for a work visa in the U.S., she applied to and was accepted by Harvard Business School. Eventually, via Harvard, she met Matthew Prince and Lee Holloway, with whom Zatlyn would go on to form CloudFlare.
The partners began formulating  the business while Zatlyn was attending Harvard. In order to continue her work on CloudFlare after graduating, though, she applied to the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, administered by USCIS, which authorized Zatlyn to work for a year in the U.S. post-graduation. During her 12-month OPT term, Zatlyn and her partners firmed up the business plan and started raising money for CloudFlare.
In order to keep Zatlyn in the U.S. after her OPT term expired, CloudFlare was required to sponsor her employment and applied for an H-1B visa. The application was initially turned down, pending receipt of further evidence. With additional letters of recommendation from investors and proof of Zatlyn’s importance to the firm, her H-1B visa was ultimately approved.
Zatlyn told Forbes that had she not obtained the visa, she would have returned to Canada and tried to work on the business from there, but she is sure that the company would not have achieved the same level of success it has today. Zatlyn’s experience illustrates how important the H-1B visa and OPT programs are for U.S. business. By keeping U.S.-educated talent in the United States, these programs strengthen the economy and allow businesses to be globally competitive.
Unfortunately, current limits on the programs -- for which demand far outpaces available visas – means that the U.S. is failing to recruit and retain the number of talented immigrant workers needed in the country. Without some level of reform, the U.S. may see more and more startups, like CloudFlare, setting up shop in other countries. 

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