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Bridging Cultures: US Tech Immigration with Sophie Alcorn

Sophie Alcorn

Incredible innovations, emerging technologies, and entrepreneurship. Impostor syndrome, trauma and major cultural differences presenting yourself. These are some of the issues explored by Sophie Alcorn, owner of the top start-up immigration law firm in Silicon Valley as she helps bring tech innovators to the US “in the national interest,” enabling them to fulfill their dreams.

Highlights:

Who is Michael Markiewicz

Sophie’s journey

Stories of immigration that are inspiring

Immigration and business

Advice for younger people

Sophie Alcorn Bio

Sophie Alcorn is a Top 10 California immigration attorney, entrepreneur, and thought leader. She founded Alcorn Immigration Law, lauded as in the Top Immigration Law Firms For Startups In California. She authors TechCrunch’s advice column “Dear Sophie”, serves on the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association Technology and Innovation Committee, and hosts the podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups. Sophie’s mission is to help people harness their strengths, follow their hearts, find direction in their goals, and live their dreams in the U.S.

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Full Transcript

Hello everyone, and welcome to Global Gurus, where every Friday we explore stories of international business and speak with industry leaders operating around the world. 

I’m your host, Philip Auerbach of Auerbach International. Thank you for joining us. 

If you’re tuning in for the first time, we start each podcast with a running segment called “Faux Pas Fridays,” where we explore a funny blooper or mistranslation that does not quite convey the professional image that your organization wants to project. And since today’s guest is a lawyer, I thought that it was It might be best to start with a blooper that might be a wonderful business for lawyers when people gather outside their offices and perhaps protest, because a sign outside a sign in English a Rome male gynecologist’s office said very simply, “I specialize in women and other diseases.”

So, with that, I’m pleased to introduce today’s guest, Sophie Alcorn, a Top 10 California immigration attorney, entrepreneur, and thought leader. She founded Alcorn Immigration Law, lauded as the top immigration law firm for start-ups in California. She authors Tech Crunch’s advice column, “Dear Sophie,” serves on the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association Technology and Innovation Committee, and hosts the podcast “Immigration Law for Tech Startups. Sophie’s mission is to help people harness their strengths, follow their hearts, find direction in their goals and live their dreams in the US. 

Her firm, Alcorn Immigration Law, has served over 1140 clients from over 70 countries for more than 47 tech companies, with a 95% approval rating. So, Sophie, welcome. I’m delighted you could join us.

Thank you so much, Phllip. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me today.

So before we dive in, could you please tell us a bit more about your background and perhaps how you grew up and how you gained your experience, and how you determined that you wanted to be an immigration attorney.

Thank you. I would love to. I’ve said my whole life that I’m half German and 100% American. So I grew up in Southern California, the daughter of an immigration lawyer, my dad, and my mom, who is an immigrant from Germany.

And they met because my dad was my mom’s immigration lawyer. And apparently, it was love at first sight.

My dad didn’t see my mom for several days after he met her, and within less than two years, they were married and settled in California, Southern California, and my mom was pregnant with me, and she had her green card. So, I grew up between two cultures and two languages. We would have German relatives come to town and stay with us for extended vacations. My father would host international clients from all over the world for dinner, and he would regale us every night with stories about helping people: engineers building nuclear power plants; brilliant, award-winning Michelin-starred chefs; and saving families from deportation. And I loved his stories. I loved the people I met. 

When I was 9, I wanted to learn German, so I went to Germany and lived with my grandparents, and I went to 4th grade in a German elementary school. That was my German immersion experience. I studied German throughout high school and during my international relations degree at Stanford, where I also lived in Moscow and Florence and studied Russian, Italian, and even Old Norse literature. I love languages, and cultures, and meeting people from all over the world. and I fought to become an immigration lawyer because I didn’t want to merely copy my dad, but he inspired me. 

He also fed me sugar cubes because that was the only food in his office. So, I have these numbers eating a little and pushing the Buttons on fax machines for him and getting to eat sugar cubes. So that’s where my addiction started.

That’s wonderful. What a great story. What a wonderful love story as well.

Thank you.

So with all the international clients you’ve brought to the US, this is sort of a reverse interview in that most of our interviews are about or with some Americans doing business abroad. And of course, this is a wonderful reverse story, and we’ve had a few of these with people doing big business with perhaps foreigners coming into this country or other nationalities coming into this country. So, it’s a wonderful, still very fascinating cultural experience and a business learning experience. 

Perhaps you could share with us some of the legal or business issues that you’ve encountered and let me back up for a moment because a lot of the barriers that you encounter are because of government, government issues, or those for our audience to understand. 

Of course, I don’t want to say the end client, but ultimately, you’re serving the US government, which determines, of course, through its consulates and embassies, who is admitted under what visa. But certainly, the people whom you bring over have some very fascinating stories as well.

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. 

So, as you mentioned, we do tech immigration, so we can help international professionals and start-up founders, venture capitalists, engineers, and their families get permission to live and work legally in the United States, and it’s a very, very common practice. 

We’re based in Silicon Valley. We help the world’s best and brightest in emerging technologies. They came to the US to start their companies. So yes, in one facet of what we do, it’s very black and white. At the end of the day, we either secure approval from the US government for our client or we don’t. But you know, thank goodness, almost all the time we do. 

But it’s fascinating because I get to witness my clients’ journeys and counsel them through very challenging times. As business owners with an international business, in a sense, we need to bridge culture and language, and make our services accessible to people all over the world in this way – Emerging technologies and entrepreneurship in a niche market of merging technologies and entrepreneurship.

The actual work we do is the service we sell. With regulations, compliance, and government permission, but in this world, I get to see my clients build multinational businesses and, you know, take charge of their future and destiny by deciding where they want to be based. Geographically, the world can be an emotional journey for people. So, we try to do everything from the heart because, at the end of the day, it’s about the human journey.

Can you share with us any success stories, perhaps these multinational businesses that your clients have built or others?

Yes, yes. I mean, so many stories. Every single person has a story. And some of the ones that have inspired me recently are international students in the United States, who, you know, can barely get work permission but then they create these companies that… So many technologies, I mean, one that comes to mind, they’re building the grid for electric vehicles to recharge in different places, and not just cars, but also scooters and bikes, and they’re building this infrastructure, and this is a bunch of college students and helping them get into major business awards and see them raise millions of dollars from US businesses and US venture capitalists and they’re starting their companies, it’s invigorating. 

It’s exciting. One of my clients is building a personal website. Flying suits, jetpacks, propulsion devices. Others are, you know, curing cancer with machine learning, and it’s extremely exciting and that transformation of somebody else. As we were chatting before Phillip, we were talking about Impostor Syndrome: that is where a super brilliant, accomplished, qualified person feels like a total failure and an impostor, because all they’re doing is focusing on the gap between where they are now and where they want to be in the future, and they fail to realize where they’re actually at in the present moment or how far they’ve come. 

And so, seeing the potential in people to get these very challenging visas for extraordinary ability and being in the US national interests, can be quite intimidating to evaluate yourself. If your presence is in the national interests of the United States of America, but just seeing that potential in people and shepherding them through the process and then witnessing it because of immigration is a very traumatic process for many people, it’s scary. The stakes are high. It’s hard to get around the country, even if you’re here; It can be hard to stay here. Even if you own a house and have U.S. citizen kids, your future is not guaranteed, even if you pay your taxes. People get traumatized, triggered, and scared by these experiences. They’re afraid of deportation. 

So, it’s just the greatest privilege to help people get that green card or get that visa, and knowing that now they’re one step closer to living their dreams and creating their vision for a better world is very inspiring.

That’s wonderful. I love this story about the person who invented the jetpack.

Oh yeah, it’s amazing. Can I do a demo…maybe it’s not safe yet? I don’t know.

So if you want to give me a Christmas present, I’ll be delighted to accept it.

Thank you kindly great, great. I’ll try it. I think the next step is FAA approval to go into airspace.

I suppose a lot of your business or a lot of your job is, in a way, psychology, you know, handholding and helping people with the trauma and the total fear that they’re dealing with. Have you noticed differences between nationalities in how you have to deal with people from different parts of the world? Compared to what you might do with an American, for example.

Oh, absolutely. And as an American… I mean, I know my clients are the inbound US, but I am an American doing business globally and I have to check my own cultural and linguistic assumptions all the time, things that I take for granted are very…maybe it’s scandalous for others. And I have to keep that in mind, though. There are cultural and linguistic differences.

I mean, I have so much admiration for the work that you do because in my study of languages I realized just how many languages I learned, but also how far I was from being translator quality or interpreter quality, and also just that subtle difference in meaning. And when you start dreaming or thinking in another language, somehow new concepts of thought become accessible to you that weren’t part of your cultural paradigm to begin with. 

And so, Try to remember that and keep it in mind, but one of the biggest things that I see is the cultural difference between personal branding for Americans versus for people from other parts of the world. I am particularly strong in those situations of impostor syndrome where I need to get this brilliant start-up founder’s permission to live and work legally in the United States. You know, it’s not just humility or impostor syndrome, It’s also cultural differences. Like in America, it’s, you know, fake it ’til you make it because you are it. But first, you must persuade yourself that it is worthwhile to put yourself out there as a thought leader in personal branding and personal marketing. And be an influencer and get those likes and cover social media. Go viral. You know, nobody cares about quality. 

It’s just about whom you can sell it to, right? That’s like the extreme negative version of how we are perceived. Literally, for a lot of these immigration options you have, you have to achieve those effects to get approved by the US government. And that can be a tough pill to swallow for my German clients. For my clients from Japan, I mean, many cultures around the world value humility.

Humility, exactly.

Silence. Austerity. Accuracy. You know, under-promise and over-deliver. It’s very challenging for some people to wrap their minds around it, and I have to just have to tell them, like, “Look, I know. This is hard for you, but you just have to treat this like a project. Depersonalize it. These are the results we need. If you can achieve this, then we can get you where you want to be. I know you’re a good, lovely person who’s caring and not selfish, but please do this work. Please get publicity. Please write articles. Please judge competitions. I need you in the spotlight.

This is so we can demonstrate how awesome you are so you can do this thing you want to do. But it’s really hard for people from many cultures. You know, of course, there’s like a gender difference as well, but I think in the US we’re on the most extreme end of personal branding.

Yeah, I get it and understand it. It’s actually a continuum. I can’t even remember the name of the continuum now, but I used to notice it. Oh yes, personal versus impersonal business cultures. The only cultures that are more extreme than the United States are probably Australia and New Zealand. And Israel is very, very close too in this way. So, I’ll be blunt and call it bombastic, with this self-aggrandizing business culture where you have to talk about yourself all the time and not necessarily lie about it but inflate what you’re doing.

Focus on the best possible light because, yeah, these are all individualistic societies of people who had to fight great odds for survival in one way or another.

Sure. Yeah, I like that.

In-person, there’s a difference in the It’s more of a 0-sum game, winner takes all. I want to be the winner versus a collective spirit of advancement that’s valued.

Exactly 

I lived in Japan for a year, and it was extremely difficult for me to come back to this country. And then you have to write a bio about yourself because, in Japan, of course, in Asian cultures, as you’re saying, you’re much humbler. You, on the other hand, never accept compliments, always deflect compliments, and so on. And so, to come back to this country and then have to write my bio was very traumatic as well.

There are many examples of women from countries in the Middle East or South Asia for example, they are all, you know, Ph.D. students at Stanford working on nano chemistry particles, and they were brilliant, you know, Fulbright scholars. And they are three times the level of qualification for this stuff, and they’re still afraid to do it because they think that they have to try harder first, so in some senses, we can be our own worst enemies. Sometimes, but it’s so hard to get out of one’s head and see oneself objectively.

And I believe that just one of the reasons why I love language and culture is because it’s when  I realize the boundaries of the sandbox I’m playing in and that there are other sandboxes, then there’s more room for creativity because not everything has to be a baked-in assumption. We can play with the rules.

Are there any specific other business issues that you’ve encountered with your immigrant clients? Not so much about the immigration part, but maybe just getting their businesses started or raising capital or whatever the case may be?

For people coming to the US, there’s a big issue of just banking after arrival, retaining your credit score, getting a loan, getting a credit card, getting a car, and getting a cell phone. Even though it’s 2022, a lot of those things can be challenging for people. In the venture capital world, there is an emphasis on creating Corporations with a C classification under the US Tax Code and the State of Delaware, because it’s pretty standard that most venture capitalists want to invest in companies with that structure in the hope that they’ll grow and have an IPO.

But there are services set up to help people around the world create those types of businesses, but for normal businesses, I mean, it’s hard. There are a lot of questions people have to think about with the structure of their business and talking to corporate lawyers in different countries, tax lawyers, and employment lawyers. You know, if you’re doing stuff in a country, what about the substantial presence test and tax liability? So, there’s always a lot of questions and then in the last year and a half, with the great recession, there’s also been a huge encouragement of remote and hybrid work. So, I’m seeing the rise of global PEO of remote work companies, so…

I’m sorry, PEO. What is PEO?

Professional Employment Organization. A co-employer to handle employee issues. And now there are a few companies that raised 100s of millions of dollars that are doing this globally.  

So, for example, if you have some software engineers in Brazil, instead of those Brazilians figuring out how to set up their sole proprietorships and registering them with the Brazilian tax authorities, you get a contract between your companies. 

Now you could just tell the Brazilians, OK, go. We’re going to hire you through this remote work company. They’re all set up to legally have employees in Brazil, and they’ll comply with Brazilian tax and employment law now, get on their payroll, and then we’ll contract with them.

Right. 

So that’s one of the things that’s becoming very popular.

That’s fascinating. What do you think it would be if you gave your present self some advice from what you’ve learned in the past?

There are lots of things. Believe in yourself. Keep going. Start with the end in mind. It’s OK to admit your dreams to yourself, even if you think they’re too great to be achieved. Have boundaries. Stand up for what you know is right. Don’t take garbage behaviors from people. Lots of things fill up.

And I know that you have been successful because you started your firm in your own home and you’ve grown to, I believe, 32 employees, which is pretty remarkable in a short time.

Well, thank you. I did. I started in my kitchen six years ago, bootstrapping. We’re going to be about 25 people in the next few months. And we did this, through the transition from in-person to remote during the pandemic. There were a lot of challenges under the Trump administration with the immigration landscape. There’s a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment, and it’s toughened the immigration landscape. So, I feel very, very proud to have started and grown my business in that environment, and now it’s an exciting time. We know what works. We’ve helped thousands of people, and now we can streamline and scale our offerings to be accessible to even more. There are more people in the world, so it’s very exciting.

Well, I’m sure your life is not all business. What do you like to do in your spare time?

Well, I’m a mom. I have two kids in elementary school. So, we hang out, play, and have fun. They challenge me with deep philosophical questions about the meaning of life. So that keeps me on my toes a lot. 

I’m an avid reader. I’ve been interested in ancient mystical and spiritual texts lately. traveling and doing various yoga and meditation retreats, those kinds of things. And I just love hanging out with friends and traveling and eating good food and, you know, being around people.

That’s great. I’m sure with all the clients you’ve served, you’ve had lots of invitations to visit their countries and be hosted by their families.

Yeah, yes. That is something I’m looking to pick up again now that travel is becoming more feasible.

That’s wonderful. Before we close, is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Oh, my goodness, thank you so much. Well, I mean, if anybody listening does need support with US tech, immigration, or getting visas or green cards for themselves or their team members to come to the US, we’d love to support you, and you can find us at alcorn.law/contact/and we’ll send you, you know, tell us a little bit about your goals and we can send you an appropriate questionnaire to see how we can best support you. And you know, it’s just such a pleasure to be here with you today, Philip.

Thank you so much for supporting my firm with our interpretation and translation needs. And finally, thank you for this podcast and for sharing these stories from all of your guests with the world.

Well, thank you. It’s been a wonderful pleasure to gain your insights. And your stories and mine, I hope you know, deepen Americans’ appreciation of what goes on in other parts of the world and other cultures. 

And, you know, one of the interesting insights you provided was the type of people. The behavior of humility and not promoting yourself and so forth. And one of the lessons that I’ve learned over the years, and I’ve taught other companies is that even within a company, if you have a staff meeting, there may be people from, let’s say, East Asia who are not accustomed to speaking up, especially women. Americans would assume that that’s a sign that the people – these employees – have nothing to add or that they’re just being quiet.

I mean, They’re lazy. They’re timid, they’re scared. They don’t care. They’re not taking initiative.

And that’s not the case at all. It’s much more of a cultural issue.

Yeah, absolutely. So, people come to the US to do business from around the world. Please act like people in American sitcoms about workplaces using some but, you know, do put yourself out there. It’s important to speak up for yourself. People want to hear your ideas. The squeaky wheel gets oiled. Those are some of the sayings in our work. Thank you kindly.

Well, thank you, Sophie, so much. It’s been a great pleasure to learn from you and gain your great insights and experiences.

Thank you, Philip. It was a pleasure.

So, this has been Philip Auerbach at www.auerbach-intl.com. Please join us again next week for another edition of Global Gurus and their stories of international business. Thank you.

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