How a Personal Struggle with Substance Abuse Led This Saudi Entrepreneur to Build a Company in the U.S.
This is part 2 of 5 in “The Immigrant Founder Series: Using Adversity as a Launching Pad for Leadership”, a series created in partnership…
This is part 2 of 5 in “The Immigrant Founder Series: Using Adversity as a Launching Pad for Leadership”, a series 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 every 3 weeks for another installment.
Born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Yossuf was exposed to many different cultures and backgrounds at a young age. His diverse upbringing allowed him to see the world as truly united as a people, not divided as individuals. Yossuf personally struggled with substance abuse at a young age, and if it wasn’t for a timely intervention that changed the trajectory of his life, he may have never discovered his true purpose. Fueled by his personal battle against addiction, Yossuf aims to curb prescription abuse by monitoring opioid usage by patients in real-time and providing proper treatment when necessary.
Can you tell us a bit about Pilleve?
Yossuf: Pilleve’s mission is to prevent prescription abuse and addiction. We’re starting with opioids because of how big the crisis is, but also because it hits home with us. Both myself and our other co-founder, Gautam Chebrolu, have had personal experiences with substance abuse, and part of our story is to first destigmatize it and make sure patients that might be at risk receive the proper intervention at the right time.
The device that we created is a smart pill bottle that helps patients comply with prescription opioids and helps physicians oversee their intake remotely. Basically, the device monitors opioid usage in real-time and detects if patients are taking too much or showing signs of addiction or abuse.
What are some of the milestones your company has achieved?
Yossuf: We’ve raised close to $1 million to date. We just closed our last funding round, which included an investment from One Way Ventures. We’re currently working with several hospitals across the nation, and are currently validating the product and putting it in the hands of patients that are prescribed opioid pills. It’s yielding really solid data so far. Hopefully, in the next year, we’ll be able to publish it.
We were also part of 500 startups (Batch 24), MassChallenge, and Halcyon Incubator and recently made the 2019 Forbes 30 under 30 list.
Other than that, we’ve grown in terms of employees over the last year. It really started with my co-founder and myself working out of a coffee shop in North Carolina. We then moved up to DC, then Boston, and finally San Francisco. Over the course of the year, we’ve grown as founders, but also as a company. Currently, we have eleven employees at the company and continuing to grow.
What’s the company’s origin story?
Yossuf: To be completely honest, I never really thought I’d pursue the entrepreneur path. I had heard about entrepreneurship and all the success stories of young founders, but for me, it wasn’t a path that I thought I was going to pursue. It really came down to the purpose that I found towards the end of my years in college. I personally struggled with substance abuse growing up, so it hit home in that respect, and it allowed me to really look at the world in a different way. I was very lucky to receive an intervention early on that changed the trajectory of my life.
When I was in college, I began working at a rehab center as a volunteer and was able to better understand what addiction is. It was there that I discovered there was a lot of injustice going on. For me, I just wanted to correct that and amend some of the issues in the healthcare industry around prescription controlled drugs. I wanted to support the patients who needed help, patients that may have been on the same path that I was on.
Once you find your purpose and figure out what you’ve been put on Earth to do, no one can stand in your way. That desire to assist patients and look out for them was present early on. Without that desire, I don’t know if I could’ve garnered the confidence to pursue something in an industry that I had very little experience in.
Aside from that, healthcare is a very complex industry, so partnering with the right people off the bat was very important. Eventually, I managed to build my own team and get advisors that were industry veterans, which definitely bolstered my confidence. One of our early advisors was ex-pharma, and worked extensively in the addiction space. When someone with that stature starts believing in you and believing in the product, that definitely gives you a boost of confidence that can push you to the next stage. It’s like a snowball effect; as your company gains more momentum, your confidence starts building up.
Tell us about your immigration story?
Yossuf: I’m originally from Saudi Arabia and was born and raised in Jeddah, which is a city on the west coast. The city was a melting pot, so I grew up around many different cultures and people. My family is also quite diverse, so I’ve always been exposed to other parts of the world from a young age, which definitely opened up my eyes. When I was 18, I decided to attend college in the U.S. I started in New Hampshire, but slowly made my way down to North Carolina. I never really planned to stay in the U.S. beyond my college experience. I always wanted to go back and give back to my community, but I realized that my community was actually present here.
Solving this addiction crisis is part of my journey, and that helped me realize that all human beings are intrinsically connected. It doesn’t feel like I’m trying to solve a foreign problem because it’s a problem that deeply affected me and affects others worldwide. I never viewed the world as divided as people view it today. I was very lucky to develop that mindset at a young age.
After starting the company, I worked for a year with my OPT after college, and within that period I met with twelve different immigration lawyers. It sort of felt like a startup within a startup, because I was always trying to sell myself to these lawyers and tell them why I deserved to be here. It was very tough in the early stages. I didn’t have the right support in the beginning, as I was trying to find myself and trying to build a company, while also pursuing immigration status in a very complex environment.
I didn’t want to discuss the immigration process with my employees and my co-founder, because we were under a lot of pressure, both as individual people and also as a company. I tried to stay positive, but it was hard when I knew that I only had a year from the moment I got my OPT. Even though I was trying to stay optimistic, it was looking harder and harder as the months went by. I had to meet with several immigration lawyers, who all told me I was limited in terms of what visa I could get.
I won’t dive into the technicalities of what visas we were looking at, but after meeting with about a dozen lawyers I started losing hope. But the founder in me said that I had to keep pushing and believe that the solution was out there. It was almost like fundraising, where it felt like a numbers game and I just had to keep trying. About a month before my visa was about to expire, I met this lawyer at MassChallenge who was very enthusiastic and had a good track record and was very entrepreneur-friendly. He had experience helping immigrant entrepreneurs stay in the country, and best of all, he believed in me and my story.
I pitched him what I was hoping to build and why it was important to me, and the story really resonated with him. He recommended that I pursue an EB-2 visa, which is something I had heard of but never really considered to be an option. But we worked on the application together and a few weeks later, about a week before my Visa was going to expire, we filed it and waited.
I received my work authorization card a year later and will hopefully receive the green card within the next year.
What are some challenges you’ve encountered as an immigrant founder running a company in the U.S?
Yossuf: I think a lot of it has to do with perspective. For me, I never really viewed myself as being marginalized, even though that may have been the case and I just wasn’t aware of it. I think the struggles that we went through have to do more with the industry that we’re operating in versus our status. Healthcare is very much about credibility and experience. There are a lot of moving parts, and you need to be able to tap into multiple different industries and people to come up with the right product. In the early stages, I think some of our efforts were restricted due to a lack of experience and knowhow.
Our story also resonates with a lot of people, but as someone who’s struggled with addiction, there’s certainly a stigma surrounding it. As someone who had struggled with addiction, was new to the industry and was an immigrant, I don’t know if it was the most appealing mix of qualities. But I also believe that it allowed us to connect with the right people.
Over time, you eventually build up your network and start gravitating towards people who support you and vice versa. One quick story about that is when I was meeting with an immigration lawyer, who was one of the first ones I met, and I told him about my story. The lawyer said that I shouldn’t talk about my past experiences because it could be used against me, and I was a bit shocked. The lawyer was basically highlighting the fact that addiction was stigmatized and validated the stigmas that existed.
The point is you have to find the right people that are going to believe in you. Your story matters, and it should be considered and understood before any investments are made.
What advice do you have for immigrant founders building companies outside of their native countries?
Yossuf: I’ve actually spoken to a few founders that have had experiences similar to mine, and the advice I give is that even though these people advising you are specialized in immigration law and this is their area of expertise, you can’t let their words impact your decision on whether you want to start a company here in the U.S. You don’t have to look too far to find success stories and find hope that you can be one of those success stories.
Of course, in some cases the odds for finding success might be against you, but I truly believe you have to take your lawyer’s advice at face value and sometimes go with your gut. Be practical, but if you believe that your company can have an impact in the space that you love and are passionate about and America is the place to build it, then go for it. People are going to tell you otherwise, but this is your story and you could potentially make a big impact in our world, so go for it.
I also believe you have to do your research on finding the best stakeholders and supporters for your company. Companies aren’t created overnight and they’re not created by one person, it’s a movement. In a lot of cases, when I was doing my immigration work, I had to collect letters of support from industry experts.
Had I not built a network over the first year of starting the company, had I not developed strong relationships and spoke about my story in an honest and vulnerable way that resonated with people, it probably would’ve been impossible to find success. We’re living in an era where having support can make all the difference when it comes to building a business. You’ll thank yourself for building your support system early on.
Stay tuned for our next interview as part of The Immigrant Founder Series: Using Adversity as a Launching Pad for Leadership. Next week, we’ll be sharing our conversation with Sara Itucas, the founder of Legalpad who has developed a software that automates the Visa process for foreign entrepreneurs and startup employees working in the U.S.
To hear from more founders like Yossuf, sign up for the One Way Ventures newsletter.
Ideometry is a Boston-based full-service marketing agency serving a global client base. With a full suite of creative, development, and strategic services, Ideometry helps growth stage startups and Fortune 500 companies alike get the business results they’re looking for. If you’re doing something interesting, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with us at ideometry.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.