Not all business is on hold right now. Just ask Manan Mehta of Unshackled Ventures. "We bet on immigrants. While not a badge of distinction, we recognize many immigrants (or teams with immigrants) have lived through adversity and are well prepared to navigate it," he says. That means, that despite the coronavirus outbreak, his VC company is still actively seeking businesses to invest in. In fact, Unshackled even added a new member to their team during this trying time. "We love the power of the adversity muscle and hope you will consider us as your first investor," he adds. This is the story behind this very special firm.
Mehta (top right) was born and raised in Silicon Valley, but if there’s one thing he knows, it’s that immigrants are some of the most entrepreneurial people you’ll find. As he puts it, his story is an arc of a very privileged son of Silicon Valley immigrants, including a father who came to the U.S. for his MBA, worked for Ross Perot, and retired by age 50.
But how do you start a business in the U.S. if you’re not a citizen? That can be a difficult question to answer. That’s why he and co-founder Nitin Pachisia founded Unshackled Ventures.
Mehta, a confirmed generalist who focused on both engineering and economics in college, says that he was never interested in venture until he was presented with an issue that needed to be resolved. “We wanted to solve a problem for immigrants and saw there was an untapped population of a lot of Silicon Valley VCs that were no longer finding outliers — they’re immigrants sitting in the shadows. For us it was solving that problem that was really enticing,” Mehta explains.
It was a problem that touched Mehta personally. Both he and Pachisia previously had to shut down businesses because their immigrant co-founders were on visas. “We weren’t able to figure out how to sponsor their visas so they could work full-time on the business with us,” he recalls. In parallel, Mehta was also aware that there was a deep talent pool of immigrants moonlighting in co-working spaces around Silicon Valley.
The pair realized that what they needed was not only to bring money to the brilliant minds at work “in the shadows,” but also help them to stay in the country legally.
The goal was to provide something like a friends and family loan to people who, by virtue of being foreign nationals, didn’t have much wealth at their disposal. They also wanted to provide the right resources at the right stage. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know and when,” says Mehta. “We call it stewardship. We provide these talented, hardworking, credentialed people networks of influencers so they can knock down walls pretty quickly.”
But none of this matters without the immigration portion of the model. And that has been a massive success. Since 2015, Unshackled has done more than 120 filings on behalf of its founders. In fact, that aspect of the business is what gave it its name. “You can feel like you’re shackled. It’s not the policies themselves, it’s navigating the polices,” says Mehta. By helping people to fund their businesses and stay in the United States to see it grow, they are breaking those bonds.
Unshackled’s portfolio is diverse not only in terms of the people in which it’s investing, but also the types of businesses. Eighty percent of the team at Lily AI is women. Founder Purva Gupta appeared in Wired with the headline “The Fashion App Founder With a Pocket Full of Visas.” Thanks to Unshackled, she now has a Green Card and is raising a Series A for her company that uses AI to help retailers understand why customers buy what they do.
Other success stories include Plantible Foods, started by two Dutch entrepreneurs in San Diego. The company is developing a plant-based protein that’s odorless, colorless, and tasteless. Pod Foods was founded by two women, one from the U.S., one from Singapore. Mehta admits he was surprised that a cookie company, albeit one with an unconventional recipe using pea protein, was seeking venture funding. But in finding a market, they created “a modernized food distribution company” that allows data to drive stocking.
These kinds of forward-thinking creations only prove Mehta’s thesis that “by supporting immigrants earlier you’re actually supporting American innovation. You’re supporting American job growth. This is a land of immigrants we are very bullish that immigrants are job creators.”
So far, Unshackled has funded 44 companies to the tune of about $17 million. Their fund doesn’t supply massive amounts of collateral because its companies tend to be extremely early stage. In fact, 60% of Unshackled’s investments went to businesses before they’d even incorporated.
So how do you impress a venture capitalist like Mehta? He says that most important thing you can do is show him what makes you different. “Don’t bury the lede. Too may people go into the problem statement too quickly, they go into their solution too quickly and they forget to tell us what makes them different,” he says.
And if you impress the team at Unshackled, it could set both you and your business on a path to the American Dream.