The University of Iowa

Some UI international entrepreneurial students struggle with federal laws

February 20th, 2012

By Chastity Dillard, The Daily Iowan


Angeline See loves baking.

The University of Iowa junior longs to craft her dream business — a bakery chock-full of delicious and colorful Asian desserts.

But the native of Malaysia found out her endeavors may be postponed last fall when applying for an office space at the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory. The lab allows students to start their own business with the assistance of UI resources.

International students are prohibited from self-employment while on student visas. So for students like See, the only chance at launching a business would be finding a native student to partner with.

“It’s kind of disappointing, though, because for the international students, we pay more than $12,000 in tuition fees a year, but we don’t get any chances or opportunities to try our own business here,” she said.

The 23-year-old said finding a good business partner is a difficult process.

“I think partners need a lot of trust, and you need to really know who your partner is,” See said.

Mark Rhoads, an immigration attorney based in Richmond, Va., said the restrictions are in place to keep jobs available to U.S. workers.

“U.S. immigration law does not have easy options for international investors or entrepreneurs to start businesses in the U.S.,” he said.

Leanne Seedorff, assistant director for advising in UI International Programs, said international students are only permitted to seek employment on campus, though certain circumstances do allow students to go off-campus.

Optional Practical Training is one such option. The program can last up to 12 months after a student graduates, but it must be in a degree-related field.

Though students could start their own business during this time, Rhoads said, after the 12-month period, the graduate would have to close up shop or apply for a new work visa. Such work visas are very limited, he said.

According to the U.S. Department of State, 140,000 employment-based visas are distributed each year.

One option, H1B, allows students to work but not be self-employed, while the E-Visa is available to certain foreigners whose countries have trade agreements with the United States.

Rhoads said he feels these restrictions hinder foreign investments.

“These businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs do not displace U.S. workers,” he said. “They create jobs.”

Hung Tran, a UI Ph.D. student in computer science, said he was fortunate to partner with an American student. He and partner Thomas Hornbeck have worked together for many years in classes and decided to create TutorUniverse — an online eBay-style tutoring service that will launch by late March.

Tran said the ability to practice starting businesses is a good way to implement what they learn in the classroom.

“I think that benefits not just the student but the school and for the people,” he said.

Seedorff said International Programs officials are unaware of the collaborating efforts among U.S. and international students.

“… that may still not meet the criteria for us to give the necessary legal authorizations to permit an international student to be employed in that manner,” she said.