Immigration was one of the most talked about issues of the 2016 presidential election. With the election now behind us and a new administration entering the White House in 2017, immigration reform will continue to be top of mind. For this issue of Catalyst we’d like to explore the critical role that immigrants play in Illinois’ tech economy and showcase one story of immigrant entrepreneurship to highlight the need for reforms that will keep this high-demand talent in the state.

At ISTC, we’ve long championed the important role of immigrants in Illinois, and specifically in the state’s tech economy.  In October, the ISTC released its annual Illinois Innovation Index Talent Issue detailing the progress the state is making in its production of STEM talent.  The Index also took an in-depth look at the outsized role that immigrants play in the state’s talent supply. In 2015, immigrants made up 17.7 percent of the workforce in Illinois, but accounted for 23.1 percent of STEM workers in the state and 22.1 percent of entrepreneurs.[1]

Our analysis also found that the number of international students receiving advanced STEM degrees from Illinois universities is on the rise.  In 2015, nearly one-quarter of non-health STEM degrees were awarded to immigrant students (around 5,200 degrees). In addition, nearly 80 percent of these degrees are awarded at the master’s or doctoral level, making international students more than twice as likely to receive advanced degrees in STEM fields. Given that an influx of international STEM talent is shown to create jobs, this rise in international STEM degrees in Illinois represents a tremendous opportunity for the state’s economy. In fact, the addition of 100 foreign-born workers in STEM fields with advanced degrees from US universities is shown to add 262 jobs among US natives.1 Below we detail the growth of Cubii, a growing Illinois startup that provides a tremendous case study of international students who become immigrant entrepreneurs.

Cubii – A Chicago case study on immigrant entrepreneurship


The story of Cubii is not only one of “accidental entrepreneurship”, but also one of creative inspiration and dogged determination that characterizes so many immigrant entrepreneurs.  Cubii (formerly Fitness Cubed) is the brainchild of immigrant co-founders Arnav Dalmia, Shivani Jain, and Ryota Sekine who met while attending the University of Chicago.  While finishing their undergraduate degrees, the founders completed internships and noticed how sedentary the typical corporate workplace could be.  With the idea of creating a device that would change that, the Cubii team sought guidance from the University of Chicago’s New Venture Challenge, as well as area resources like 1871 and the Healthbox accelerator.  Armed with a prototype, Cubii launched what would become one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in Chicago’s history, raising nearly $300,000 in less than two months.  Since the campaign ended in 2014, Cubii hasn’t looked back, shipping over 5,000 units, raising $1.5 million in revenue, and growing from three employees to over 15.

Despite the explosive success of Cubii, its founders have had to overcome many of challenges faced by immigrant entrepreneurs nationwide.  Co-founder Shivani Jain explains, “The biggest challenge was working on our business alongside figuring [out] our immigration [status] – we had to figure out how to work on the [legal] paperwork while giving our startup the attention and time it needed. The risk that we might not be able to stay in the country was always present at the back of our minds.” Jain initially applied for an H-1B Visa, but was not selected by the H1-B lottery system. Instead, Cubii’s founders were able to use their successful Kickstarter campaign to qualify for a merit based O-1 Visa. Jain explains the important role an immigration attorney played in helping Cubii’s founders navigate the challenging immigration process, “it was very helpful to work with an attorney who made suggestions throughout the process.”

The success of Cubii is a testament to the drive of its founders, but also serves to illustrate the need for immigration reform that would make it simpler for immigrant entrepreneurs to stay in the country, grow their businesses and create jobs. This past March, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) extended the Optional Practical Training program, allowing foreign-born residents with a STEM degree a 24-month extension to their legal status (replacing the previous 17-month extension). In August, USCIS also released a new draft rule allowing foreign entrepreneurs up to a three-year extension to oversee and scale their startup in the U.S. Should this new rule be implemented, it would greatly reduce confusion for future foreign born entrepreneurs and help ensure the growth of their business in the U.S.

Going forward, the ISTC will continue working in close partnership with the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition and to advocate for meaningful immigration reform to advance our state and nation’s global competitiveness, provide stability for more hard working families, and continue to attract, retain and support innovators and entrepreneurs. 


Illinois misses out on $645M by not retaining foreign-born students after graduation, says a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs study. Watch the video below recorded from the release of the report, featuring Ellen Rudnick and Chancellor Michael Amiridis, higher education leaders from the Universities of Chicago and Illinois at Chicago respectively, Ujjwal Gupta, the immigrant founder of Chicago-based tech startup BenchPrep, Giovanni Peri, the author of the study, and Nataska Korecki, senior political reporter at Politico.


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Illinois Innovation Network Featured Resource

Cleantech UP, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, is a premier opportunity for university students to tap into entrepreneurial ambition and passion for change. Students submit a business plan for a clean energy startup idea, 8-10 finalists are chosen, and one team will win a $50,000 grant to further develop their idea. Application due 12/1/2016.cet