We came to graduate schools in the US with the objective of starting up. As foreigners under F1-visa, we went over some obstacles and would like to share our experiences.
Can F1 students own a company?
Answer is YES! It means to start up, you just need to register a company with the division of corporation in your state. Many companies register themselves in Delaware for tax purposes, but you can operate in a different state from your place of registration. State laws apply when it comes to documentations required.
Note that when you actually want to work for your start-up, it’s a good idea to consult the school’s international office to make sure you are compliant. They will provide contacts of the immigration lawyer for additional guidance. This note from CMU may help.
What type of companies can you register as?
There are three broad categories: LLC, corporation, and partnership. LLC is very simple to set up and it has some tax advantages compared to corporation. However, for a start-up that most likely want to receive venture capital funding, a c-corp may be more suitable as you can issue shares to indicate ownership of the company. Note that most VCs won’t accept S-corp or LLC.
What can you do to run the company as a foreigner?
OPT typically allows you to work on your own company. Once your OPT expires, there are a few options: O1 and EB1 can be considered. Note that H1B typically does not apply if you own the company – H1B requires evidence that you can be removed from the company. If you are the owner or control the board, that typically will not get through.
What are the entrepreneurship resources at Harvard?
Harvard Innovation Labs
For people with the idea to startup but have no clue on what’s next, Ilab definitely is the go-to place. It is running every semester and even throughout the summer. There are several different tracks, most people will start with ‘Start-It Track’, and progress into ‘Build-It Track’. Regardless of the track, most start-ups registered with the i-lab are eligible to apply for the Spark Grant. Don’t underestimate the confidence boost it can bring – this may be the first time you are winning non-dilutive institutional funding that unconditionally supports whatever idea you are making up!
ilab offers a few great things in addition. Firstly, it provides a physical space. This is very important when you would like to work in teams. We especially loved the fact that you can write on WALLS. It is the best thing for brainstorming.
Second, it has an extensive list of expert resources that you can book your slots for free. They are CEOs, serial entrepreneurs, industry experts, partners of legal firms, etc. Start-up is another form of learning. Having good mentors that guide you along the way is crucial.
Third, being affiliated to the ilab also gives you access to discounted corporate services in website-making, name card printing, etc. These are small costs, but they can add up. Be frugal with money and maximize the resources at hand is the start of any entrepreneurship.
Harvard Business School
There is no doubt that HBS has so much to offer. The professors are impeccable, and the industry connections are extensive. We name a few courses that we have taken as cross-registered students, or have heard of from other friends:
- Field X & Field Y: led by Prof Randy Cohen and Matt Sutton, this is a wonderful course that supports your entrepreneurial journey. You come in with an idea and work on it throughout the semester. You are supported by the two instructors along with 400+ mentors who open office hours throughout the semester.
- Launching tech ventures: led by Prof Reza and Prof Jeff Bussgang.
- Industry-specific classes will always help! Specific to our venture, US Healthcare System by Prof Dafny is immensely helpful.
Harvard Law School Clinic
Not everyone knows about it, but Harvard Law School offers law clinics during the semester. The transactional law clinic, for example, is an excellent resource for start-ups to obtain initial legal support in company registration, document drafting, etc. An HLS student will work with you under the guidance of a registered lawyer. They are very professional, and they are FREE. You do need to register before the semester starts to receive this service though. There is also HELP (Harvard Entrepreneurship Law Project) that provides pro bono legal research and analysis to entrepreneurs at Harvard and MIT.
Harvard International Office
The international office won’t talk about entrepreneurship, but they will offer valuable advice on how to maintain your visa status in the US. They also have references of immigration lawyers if you need to consider things for the long run. Always be compliant!
There are school-specific programs that support entrepreneurial effort. For example, Harvard Medical School has a healthtech fellowship program. Every spring, they also offer an innovation class that educates students about various aspect of biodesign. This can be cross-registered from other schools. Cheng Fellowship from Harvard Kennedy School is also a great program for social innovations.
Pitchbook is a great resource for researching about market and investors. Its annual subscription costs much and Harvard students have access to it, for FREE.
The above are just our experiences, not legal advice. When in doubt, consult a lawyer :)
- Amber Nigam & Jie Sun