Immigrants start businesses at twice the rate of native-born Americans. But many potential immigrant entrepreneurs face an awful headache: the paperwork required for work authorizations and permanent residencies. Unshackled Ventures helps ease the pain and has established a strong track record by specializing in this niche.
Founded in 2015 by Manan Mehta and Nitin Pachisia, the San Francisco-based firm has more than doubled its assets under management..
Since its founding, Unshackled Ventures has invested in companies now valued at an aggregate of $3.3 billion in enterprise value backing diverse immigrant founders. Some 35% of the companies have a female founder.
Unshackled also launched a program in July called Eighteen150, a founder-in-residence program to support 30 solo immigrant entrepreneurs with $150,000 each for 18 months.
“We are going to invest in people even earlier so they can spend the time thinking of ideas,” Mehta said. “We can provide them with employment authorization and money so they can create the next big thing. The consent is for people to be free of immigration constraints and have 18 months to decide what they want to build and who they want to build it with and graduate to seed stage.”
The Business Model
The firm essentially provides the “friends and family” capital that immigrant teams often need, Mehta said. The VC firm sponsors visas, provides full immigration support and a community of resources.
By removing these obstacles, Mehta said immigrant entrepreneurs are able to succeed quicker and focus solely on scaling their startup companies. Unshackled is filling a hole in the financing world that other firms hadn’t recognized. “While people are zigging, we should be zagging,” he said.
Mehta and Pachisia have worked together since 2010 when they met at an education software company called Kno. They dove into the intricate and often challenging world of immigration and employment law in the U.S. after they noticed many immigrant founders were moonlighting at coworking spaces and going there in the evenings after work.
Many immigrant entrepreneurs are forced to rely on large corporations such as major tech companies who are willing to sponsor their visas and spend time working on their startups in the evenings and weekends.
“It’s really been fruitful,” Mehta said. “If we remove the immigrant constraints, we can help immigrants start more companies in the U.S.”
By removing some of the obstacles, Unshackled Ventures has completed over 230 immigration filings for founders and invested in over 200 founders and over 80 companies. The VC has supported immigrant founders in at least 13 immigration categories, including E3, EB1, H1B, H4, J1, L1, O1, OPT, PERM and TN filings.
Unshackled Ventures has a 100% success rate with obtaining the visas needed for the founders since its immigration team also stays constantly engaged with portfolio founders throughout the process from work authorization to citizenship, according to the firm. These immigrant founders in turn have supported local communities and economies by creating over 1,100 jobs.
“We step in, but nothing we do can’t be done by somebody else,” Mehta said.
Some 73% of its funding comes from institutional investors, including Cambridge Associates, Cendana, Emerson Collective, California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank and Sorenson Impact Advisory.
The founders backed by the firm represent all six continents and 35 countries.
The staff at the venture capital firm are also diverse – out of the six employees, four are women, two are men and their ethnicities include Black and Brown and also the LGBTQ+ communities.
“At the heart we want to be a social signal other people follow,” he said.
Does the Party in Power Matter? Not Really
While the immigration policy in the U.S. has not changed substantially since 2015, the firm plans to go “the distance” for its founders.
“We’ve had three different presidential administrations since we were formed,” Mehta said. “The narrative has changed, but the policy has not changed that much practically.”
Two out of three of its investments were at the earliest stages, alongside the incorporation of the business, according to the firm. It invests in 15-18 companies a year.
The company’s portfolio companies include Lily AI, which received an investment from Fund I eight years ago to help Indian founders Purva Gupta and Sowmiya Narayanan launch their AI-powered platform that provides a platform for both consumers and retailers. The Mountain View, California-based company has raised a total of $46 million through their Series B.
Lily AI now has over 70 employees and is “doing really well” with a range of clients from ThredUp to Macy’s, Mehta said.
Pine Park Health, which Unshackled funded eight years ago from its first fund, provides primary healthcare at senior living facilities in 130 locations. The Oakland, California-based company also has raised a total $43 million through its Series B. It was founded by George Khasin, who is from Israel.
Unshackled invested from its second fund in Plantible Foods, which is growing a plant called lemna in order to extract the rubisco protein that will be used as an ingredient to create more nutritious and better tasting baked food since it can mimic the taste and feel of eggs and butter. The protein has no smell or taste and can be adapted to be used in animal-free dairy and meat as well as sports and adult nutrition products. The plant protein company was founded by two Dutchmen – Maurits van de Ven and Tony Martens Fekini.
Creating shelf stable food is critical as climate change impacts crop growth globally and food insecurity and lack of nutrition remains a major concern, according to the United Nations. Plantible says its product needs 10 times less water and can produce 10 times more protein per acre compared to soy.
“The plant-based protein can be grown in 48 hours and has the amino acid profile as a full egg white, boasting no taste or smell,” Mehta said.
The San Diego-based company recently opened a facility in west Texas, raising a total of $42 million and is “reinventing part of the food supply chain,” he said.
Pachisia and Mehta believe that many venture capital firms are missing out on a large percentage of deal flow because immigrant founders often need visas and other work authorization. They saw that many of them were moonlighting at coworking spaces and going there in the evenings after work.
“I don’t think we could exist anywhere else in the world other than in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s one of those things that probably looks obvious in hindsight. It is not typical for VC funds to think about all these pieces.”
Name: Unshackled Ventures
Location: San Francisco, California
Size: Unshackled Ventures raised $35 million Fund III which closed on June 30, 2023. Fund I raised $4.5 million in 2015. Fund II raised $20 million in 2019.
Typical investment size for companies from the fund: $300,000 to $500,000
What it is: Unshackled Ventures focuses on investing in immigrant founders at the earliest stage.
What kinds of companies does it invest in? Unshackled Ventures invests in all sectors, but seeks to invest in companies that can grow at “venture scale” in large market opportunities, such as software and hardware, deep tech, life sciences and materials.
The VC invests throughout the U.S., including Silicon Valley, Brooklyn, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta and Toronto.
Leadership: Manan Mehta and Nitin Pachisia, founding partners
Track record of leadership: Unshackled is 73% institutionally backed and has a 72% graduation rate from pre-seed to seed.
“We have led rounds in 80% of businesses we invested in since 2005,” Mehta said. “In our current fund we have led investment in all but one 17 out of 18 or 94%.”
The companies backed by Unshackled Venture have raised $750 million in follow-on financing.
“We really enjoy being the first ones in,” he said. “We are finding incredible talent that the other funds missed. We create more value in the economy and opportunities for more immigrants to start companies.
Mehta previously worked as an analyst at RBC Capital Markets and led marketing at Kno while Pachisia served as a vice president of finance at Kno and a manager at Deloitte.
This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.