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How a Mother’s Journey to America Became a Daughter’s Quest to Find Success: A Conversation with Legal Pads' Sara Itucas
This is part 3 of 5 in “The Immigrant Founder Series: Using Adversity as a Launching Pad for Leadership”, created in partnership with…
This is part 3 of 5 in “The Immigrant Founder Series: Using Adversity as a Launching Pad for Leadership”, created in partnership with growth marketing agency Ideometry. We spoke with some extraordinary immigrant founders who shared how their journey to the U.S. influenced their journey as entrepreneurs. Tune in on January 7th for another installment.
In our third interview, we spoke with Sara Itucas, co-founder of Legalpad. Her company assists immigrant founders and entrepreneurs with their visa application process so they can focus more of their energy on building their businesses and less time filling out paperwork.
Tell us a bit about Legalpad?
Sara: Legalpad creates software to automate the visa process for startups and startup founders. This could assist startup founders themselves, but could also help them once they start growing their team. Offering immigration as a recruiting tool could help them bring on the best talent possible.
We believe in transparent pricing with everything included, and we handle the visa process more quickly than the average attorney would. We raised about $2 million in our seed round last summer, and have close to 20 employees at the moment.
What’s the company’s origin story?
Sara: I started this company with Todd Heine, and we worked together previously at a company called Teleborder back in 2013. Teleborder was the first place I worked out of college, and having majored in politics, I knew I wanted to utilize my degree in whatever I did.
Teleborder was eventually acquired by TriNet HR, which made TriNet the first PEO in the U.S. to provide immigration services for clients. As time went on, I started to really miss the startup culture, and I really enjoyed working with Todd. When I started reading things about Todd in the press like, “The Visa Whisperer of Silicon Valley” on Forbes and just knowing how he automated his law firm, it got me thinking about the prospect of building something together.
He actually reached out to me asking if I was interested in joining him in building out Legalpad, and productizing this machine he created to automate putting together visa petitions. I was of course on board. I basically dropped everything and moved up to Seattle where we started building Legalpad together.
It’s been a whirlwind of an experience. I’m very grateful for a lot of the opportunities that I’ve had. My mother was a single mom and she brought me to the U.S. because she wanted to have a better life for herself. Not to say that life was terrible for her in the Philippines, she was working at a university and doing pretty well for herself. But she wanted to give me some of the opportunities that she knew I wouldn’t find there.
How old were you when you came to the U.S. and where did you move to?
Sara: I was five years old, and I initially moved to Hawaii and lived in a small town called Kohala, which was absolutely beautiful. I eventually moved to Palo Alto, CA, where I went to middle school and high school. That’s where my interest in technology was born, it was unavoidable at that point.
What hardships or difficulties did you encounter as a result of living in a foreign country?
Sara: I don’t know if there’s a specific event, but I can tell you that learning English was really hard. I grew up in Palo Alto, which might be a little more diverse now, but back then there weren’t that many people that looked like me. I always say that the biggest culture shock wasn’t moving from the Philippines to Hawaii, but from Hawaii to California. I’m not trying to bite the hand that feeds, because Palo Alto is where I learned and grew a lot.
There were definitely certain circumstances of my childhood where I was made acutely aware of maybe not where I stood in society, but certainly where my mother did. I watched her go through a lot and overcome it. It was hard watching my mother, who’s incredibly intelligent and had sacrificed a lot to bring me here, go through that. That definitely fueled my fire to be successful, so that her investment in bringing me to the U.S. was worth it for her. When I was named on Forbes 30 Under 30, I basically just presented it to her as a reflection of what she had done to how she enabled me to accomplish whatever I set my mind to.
That’s not necessarily a story about overcoming hardship, but I cannot emphasize enough how big of a role my mother has played in my life. I understand that I’m extremely lucky, just because so many things had to fall into place in order for me to be here.
What advice do you have for immigrant founders building companies outside of their native countries?
Sara: I would say don’t be afraid to take risks. What’s the worst thing that could happen in this day and age anyways? Especially when it comes to newcomers or immigrants, who may be a little hesitant to found startups, because a lot of us are very aware of the risks involved. Yes, we work hard, but a lot of what brought us here is just pure luck.
As an immigrant, I would say that we already know that we need to work hard in order to grow companies. So beyond working hard, it’s important to take risks, not just on ourselves, but on our companies and our employees as well. If you’re already well-suited for it, why wouldn’t you do it?
How has your company been affected by the changes to the H-1B visa process?
Sara: Bringing in foreign talent requires visa sponsorship, and having the H-1Bs only be available once a year makes it really difficult to apply for. Even when you do apply, there’s a good chance you don’t get it. That’s a really scary fiscal risk for a company, but it’s also a scary emotional risk for the people that the company wants to hire.
Basically, it’s made people a little bit crazy, because startups are hesitant to get involved in the visa process or bring in foreign talent unless they know their application is a sure thing. Even though H-1Bs are ubiquitous, they’re known for being notoriously difficult to get, and are lottery-based. Essentially, it’s all based on chance or luck. I think it makes start-ups who are cash-strapped or resource-strapped hesitant to invest in the H-1B visa process.
Are most of the H-1Bs that you’ve processed coming from large companies or startups?
Sara: Mature companies tend to apply for H-1Bs more frequently than startups because they’re able to absorb the risk involved with these types of visas. Of course, startups can bring on H-1Bs, but usually it’s when the founder has been very educated on how the H-1B process works, understands the risks involved, and can produce the capital to ensure a contingency plan is in place.
Startups tend to shy away from a lot of the H-1B process, and that’s what Legalpad is trying to change. A lot of what we do is just educating people on the processes. We understand your needs as a startup because we are a startup. Todd and I have about 12 years of experience in immigration combined, so if you were going to have anyone do H-1B’s for your startup, we’re good people to work with.
Startups tend to be a little more open to other types of visas. The problem is that those visas don’t get a lot of ‘air time’. The O-1, in particular, is widely unknown, as is the E-3. There’s also the TN that’s available for Mexican and Canadian born nationals, and plenty of other visas that could help others make it here. It’s a little sad that the H-1B is the visa that’s always in the news.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share in relation to being an immigrant founder and building a successful company in the U.S.?
Sara: I’ve spoken with a few other immigrant founders, and I learned that one of these founders wasn’t able to get a visa, and that makes me very sad. They came to the U.S. to get an education, they contributed a lot to this country through the hard work they put in. They built a company that I found to be particularly groundbreaking and something that the world needs right now. Yet time and time again, when they applied to the H-1B, they were rejected.
It made me sad because this founder essentially said, “I put so much into this country, and it seems like they don’t really want me here. I don’t really know what more I can do to convince the U.S. that I should be here.” I was heartbroken to hear that story. I can’t imagine investing so much time and effort and money into establishing a company here, only to be told multiple times that it’s just not going to happen.
Are there any parting words of wisdom you’d like to share?
Sara: If you don’t know whether or not you’re qualified for a visa, that’s probably the biggest thing that’s going to stop you from moving forward. That’s what Legalpad is here for; we’re not just a software or a service, we also want to help educate people on what is needed in order to navigate the immigration process in the U.S.
Stay tuned for our next interview as part of The Immigrant Founder Series: Using Adversity as a Launching Pad for Leadership. On 1/7/20, we’ll be sharing our conversation with Ukranian-born Vlada Lotkina, founder of ClassTag, an edtech company striving to simplify communication between parents and teachers in an effort to improve the education experiences for children near and far.
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