Companies can get flexible to combat worker visa issues
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“Hey Mat, do you have a second to chat?”

Good news rarely follows that question, and, in this case, I knew exactly what bad news I was in for.

Gerardo, our upstart finance guru, wasn’t coming to me with a dismal forecast, a big downsell, or even a budgetary emergency. He was here to tell me he hadn’t won the lottery.

Normally that wouldn’t be news, but Gerardo had more to lose than a $10 ticket for the Massachusetts State Lottery. He had lost his bid to renew his U.S. work visa. After five years studying and working in the U.S., Gerardo was going to have to move back home to Guatemala.  

To continue working in the U.S., highly-skilled foreign workers must be covered by an H-1B visa. Every year, nearly a quarter-million employees submit petitions to have their H-1Bs renewed for the next three-year period, but only 85,000 are accepted. Random chance is all that separates the winners from losers.

Some, like Gerardo, are relatively new to the U.S., but have student visas set to expire a year after graduating college. Others have been living and working in the U.S. for years, but are once again at the mercy of the lottery when it comes time for renewal.

While this process is undoubtedly stressful for the applicants, it can pose a significant headache for their employers as well. The H-1B lottery does not take into account how talented applicants may be or how much their companies rely on their skills. When the rejection notice comes in, there’s little a company can do but absorb the setback.

The proprietors of a relatively small, bootstrapped startup, we couldn’t afford to lose one of our promising young recruits; especially after investing a year into his development. There had to be other avenues we could explore. So, we had to think creatively.

If we couldn’t keep Gerardo at Repsly, we’d have to take Repsly to him. Rather than losing Gerardo to Guatemala, we would simply redeploy him. It was time to open an office in Latin America, and we had just a few weeks to do it.

Rethinking The ‘Millennial Problem’

At first glance, this prospect might seem more of a knee-jerk reaction than a thoughtful strategy. After all, no matter how enthusiastic an employee is, running an international branch of a company is no easy task for a 23-year-old kid, especially given his generation’s poor reputation in the business world.

But, despite millennials’ characterization as being lazy and professionally uninspired, I have found the exact opposite to be true. In my experience, this generation is characterized by its resourcefulness, enthusiasm and competitiveness. In that light, "G" (as we affectionately call him) was actually the perfect candidate around which to build our new office. 

For one, this wasn’t G’s first time trying to succeed in a new city. When he was 18, Gerardo left his hometown of Guatemala City to study at Boston University. Then, even as he adjusted to life as an American undergrad, Gerardo took advantage of opportunities to work and study abroad in India and the U.K.

In India, Gerardo and another student developed a plan to help the country improve its reputation with foreign investors, thereby boosting its exchange rate. At the end of the six-week program, the duo presented their findings to the Reserve Bank of India.

In London, Gerardo got a taste of the local work culture through an internship with a boutique headhunting firm. While plenty of millennial students have the chance to study abroad, few take advantage of the number of opportunities Gerardo embarked on, and even fewer participate with such depth.

From that perspective, he was prepared to make the move and unafraid to dive in headfirst. The time he spent in Boston made me confident that he would continue to be every bit as energetic and committed in Guatemala as he was in our main office.

Since Repsly is a consumer-style enterprise application, it only made sense that a millennial would represent our company in this new market. There’s a natural parallel between the way Repsly connects field teams to one another and the way people use social media to connect with their friends.

While my generation might have more business experience and acumen, who better to convey the value of transparency, instant communication and collaboration than someone who grew up on communities like Facebook?

What Made Latin America The Perfect Market

Beyond the fact that G was the right person for the job, his home location in Guatemala didn’t hurt either — Latin America was the perfect market for a SaaS company of our nature to tap into. 

The region hasn’t historically been at the forefront of technological innovation, nor has it typically been an early adopter of software. However, alongside Latin America’s growing middle class, dynamic young businesses are closing that gap.

Latin America now has the fastest rate of smartphone adoption in the world, according to FastCompany. Plus, 91 percent of Latin Americans with internet access also use social media. So, while traditional enterprise technology hasn’t typically flourished in the region, a consumer-style application like Repsly that uses social media paradigms is well-suited to take off.

We rely heavily on inbound marketing to connect with potential customers. While the low-touch model has proven successful here in the U.S., it is far less effective than in-person sales in Latin America. Gerardo was familiar with the longer buying process and personal business culture that can make or break transactions in Latin America. 

So while G’s imminent departure was no doubt a disappointment, it opened the door for us to not only expand our business, but give one of our most eager and well-travelled young employees the opportunity of a lifetime.

Moving From Concept to Customer

Logistically, the move meant a lot more than simply having G log on from his new base in Guatemala City. First, we had to build some infrastructure to support him. Off the bat, that meant building a Spanish version of the website. For lead generation, we realigned one of our Spanish-speaking business development reps to target Latin America exclusively, setting up appointments for Gerardo with local prospects.

Our marketing team got involved as well, creating an adword campaign targeting Spanish keywords popular in Latin America. While we built that framework, we were also busy transitioning Gerardo from a full-time financial analyst to a front office professional well-versed in the world of sales.

Now nearly six months since his move, we’ve settled into a regular routine. Gerardo connects with all of us in the Boston office every morning as we all get on the same page for the day ahead.

In between our scrums and weekly sales and marketing calls, G is in constant contact with our customer success team, absorbing the nurturing and sales process we’re honing here in Boston. Now, Gerardo leads a steady stream of prospects through software demos every week and has already started closing deals of his own. 

While every situation is unique, our success relocating G is proof that businesses don’t have to part ways with talented employees when they aren’t granted new visas. A bit of flexibility and creative thinking can often expose alternatives to simply accepting and absorbing the loss — no matter how small or resource-strapped your company.

 

Mat Brogie is COO of Repsly, Inc., a developer of easy-to-use mobile apps that enable managers and field representatives to collaborate in real-time.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.