Weekly readings – 11th July 2020

What I wrote last week

I wrote a bit about the challenges of corporations in addressing different stakeholders’ needs

Here is a what I wrote about the company behind FICO score

My thoughts on the latest suspension of H1B visas till the end of the year, a self-inflicting move by the US

Business

How I grew my Shopify micro-SaaS to $25k MRR and 20k users in 14 months

A very good analysis on Twitter, discussing the company’s valuable network and challenges

Exclusive: Inside Uber’s billion-dollar bet to deliver food, people, and everything else

Technology

The Post-Covid-19 Agenda for Technology and Media Companies.

What I think is interesting

How to understand things

Charlie Munger: Turning $2 Million Into $2 Trillion

Peter Kaufman on The Multidisciplinary Approach to Thinking: Transcript

In Praise of Idleness

Growth without goals

Money Is the Megaphone of Identity

The US is trying to shoot itself in the foot again, with this move

Yesterday, the Trump administration announced new immigration policies that concern specifically international students or F-1 visa holders. Per the new policies, if students already in the US attend only online courses in the upcoming fall semester, they will face deportation. To avoid that horrible fate, students can transfer to another institution where in-class sessions are available and take those classes. For prospective students who are coming to the US for online-only programs, they can no longer come here. The policies sparked an outrage by anyone who has a vested interest or those who really care about this country’s competitiveness moving forward.

Let me tell you a personal story. 3 months after I came to the US, my two Belgian friends and I joined a 4-day hiking trip with some American friends to Badland National Park. It was my first hiking trip ever. We spent time before the trip getting to know each other and learning the ABCs of the adventure. During the hike, we spent the whole four days talking and doing various activities together. It brought us closer. Towards the end of the trip, on the last night, we sat around a bonfire and had to identify one person in the group that we learned the most from during the trip. Half of them chose me.

The point here is not to boast, I just don’t know any other example, but to say that international students can help Americans gain exposure to other cultures. I was really surprised that some people I met in Nebraska had never boarded a plane before, let alone going overseas. If there were no immigrants here in the US, how else could they gain real-life exposure to other cultures and widen their horizon? That’s one of the benefits international students bring. Well, unless you don’t think knowing about another country or culture is a good thing.

Another real benefit is the contribution to the economy. A study estimated that international students contributed $45 billion in 2018 to the US economy. That’s a significant sum. This policy wouldn’t normally affect that sum too much, I suppose; however, given the pandemic still raging on in the US, a lot of schools now have to offer online courses to protect both students and staff. The current situation makes this policy more dangerous and seriously more harmful to the economy that already took a hit from Covid-19.

For years, the US has benefited greatly from brain drain and the arrival of immigrants. Many immigrants founded great startups here after school, created jobs and contributed to the economy. Many immigrants came to study and stayed to contribute to the academic and scientific advances for the US. Many immigrants are still running the biggest tech companies in the US.

With these policies, the US basically says no the future influx of skilled immigrants. In the past, the country might get away with it, but globalization made the competition for international talent fiercer. Other countries with immigrant-friendly policies such as France, Canada and Germany are more than happy to pick up skilled workers that the US turns away.

While I was still in school, I met two Americans who were roommates to my Belgian friends and I am not exaggerating when I say this: they don’t know how to do basic maths as 20-year-olds. What does it have to do with the newly announced policies? 1) the presence of international students shouldn’t affect the learning of Americans. Whether we are here or not, Americans should be able to learn unimpeded or affected. 2) If some Americans don’t know how to maths while in university, how can they compete with skilled and educated immigrants for high-paying and technical jobs? If some local students refuse to get educated and work in STEM fields, how would the absence of international students help technology companies and other businesses in the US?

In summary, I don’t see a single one beneficiary of these policies. Universities will suffer financially because foreign students pay much higher tuition fees than locals and contribute greatly to the student communities. The economy will suffer financially because those $45 billion contribution will be reduced significantly. Businesses will suffer because there will be less talent. If schools force staff and students to go back to the classrooms under the government’s pressure, don’t be surprised that we will still have Covid-19 decimating our communities at the end of the year. Think about 5 months ago. Did anyone of us imagine that by July we usually break record for the number of cases in a day?

All of this is nothing more than a couple of xenophobic, cruel and terrible policies whose sole objective is to fire up a support base at the expense of the country and to hide the failure in dealing with the pandemic. Sadly, the US is shooting itself in the foot, again.

Globalization, Wars, Internet and Anti-immigration

A few days ago, I received a message from a German friend floating a question on why racism has risen in popularity recently in Western countries. I gave him my answer and thought I should put it out here to share what I have been thinking about for quite some time.

Globalization

Nothing is perfect and neither is globalization. We have reaped its benefits for years and I suspect that we start to see its downsides now. In Western countries, globalization leads to unemployment in certain industries whether it is because firms relocate their operations to developing nations or it is because the technological advances render some industries obsolete.

Suddenly, workers who are between jobs are left with few options. The jobs that the workers are qualified for no longer exist where they live while new jobs require skills that the workers don’t have. Instead, highly skilled jobs are now done by skilled immigrant employees. Businesses care the most about their productivity. As long as they don’t have to break banks to hire qualified staff for the jobs, they’ll do it. Even if one is local but doesn’t have the qualifications, how can one be employed?

Consequently, there is tension in the society from unemployed folks and there is a sentiment that immigrants steal their jobs.

Wars and violent conflicts

Meaningless wars and violent conflicts in Africa, Middle East and other developing but unstable areas also contribute to the rise of racism. As these unfortunate events take place, the victims have no choice, but to flee for their and their family’s lives. Who can blame them? The closest safe heaven is Western Europe, which has been quite more friendlier than the US in terms of refugees.

Unfortunately, the influx of refugees is so much bigger than what the Western European countries can handle. Once the integration efforts don’t keep up with the arrivals of refugees, the refugees stay unemployed while reaping the social benefits from the governments. When that happens, some locals would understandably be upset. I mean, who wouldn’t given the high tax rates in Western European countries.? Additionally, there are some bad “apples” such as terrorists or those who committed crimes. As a consequence, local citizens grow unhappy about the refugees and immigration in general.

The Internet

Internet enables the friction-less flow of good information….as well as of bad information such as propagandas or simply false news. As human-beings, we are more drawn towards negative coverage. Hence, media outlets keep feeding us negative news on immigration regardless of whether the news is valid or how the news stands in the whole big picture. For instance, if a refugee commits a crime, what is the percentage of the incident compared to the number of crimes committed by locals in the same timeframe?

And there are folks who intentionally distribute distorted and false information to advance their agendas. As we are drowning in an ocean of news & information every day, it’s tricky to know what is what.

Validation from the US

I don’t believe that racism only existed after the above factors. However, its rise, especially in politics, can be attributed to having a validation. The validation stemmed from the election in the US in 2016 and perhaps one year before that. Suddenly, some politicians have an example to validate their less-than-desirable behavior. I couldn’t recall seeing that much racism a few years ago when wars already took place, globalization had already been going and Internet was already there. However, after 2016, the wave of racism and nationalism has risen to a new height and gone from strength to strength to the point that even countries such as Sweden or Finland have seen more anti-immigration.

I have been pretty much an immigration since 2010, except 3 years of staying in Vietnam.  The growing anti-immigration movement concerns me a great deal and the connection between the factors above has sat on my mind for a while. I used to adore globalization a lot thinking that it was such a perfect concept. Now, I don’t think it’s perfect any more.

What if that were me?

I believe that the world would be a much better place if each of us put ourselves in others’ shoes before taking a course of action. There has been a lot of divisiveness, argument and tension that could have been avoided, especially when it comes to immigration, if we had had more compassion for others. I’d like to share what I have been through in the past two years in the US. These are personal experiences and stories I came to know from my close friends.

Administrative hurdles

Before I could board a plane to the US, I had to apply for a student visa just like so many others. After tedious preparation with plenty of paperwork, I had an interview with an immigration officer at the US Embassy. At that point, the result was essentially out of my control. The officers have the authority to deny or accept visa applications on the spot without having to give a detailed explanation. A rejection certainly doesn’t do an application any favor for future attempts. My experience is nothing compared to other refugee applicants; which John Oliver explained here. Let me tell you: it’s not easy or enjoyable to even be able to board a plane to the US.

The first time I was in the US, I landed in O’Hare airport in Chicago. There are two lines at every international airport in the US. One is for permanent residents and US citizens while the other is for other folks. It takes normally at least 1.5 or 2 hours to get through the long line of immigrants waiting to be verified by the immigration officers. These officers have the authority to deny an immigrant entry to the country and to put him/her on the plane back to the origin. Since going to Omaha always requires a connecting flight from a bigger airport such as Seattle, Chicago or New York, I always have to look for flights that must have more than 2 hours in layover. Usually, it results in a more expensive flight ticket. Imagine that was you. Would it be comfortable that you stood in line for 2 hours doing nothing, with luggage and sometimes with your crying babies after hours of flight?

I had to come back to Vietnam to renew my student visa. I used to live in a town of 50,000 people in Finland for more than two years. Every year, the only thing I needed to do to have my visa renewed was to visit the local police station and 80 euros. With the US, I had to be physically in Vietnam to apply for a renewal. I didn’t mind a chance to visit my family and friends, but it came with almost 70 hours of flight and $1,600 for a round-trip flight ticket. Before booking my flight, I was looking for a cheaper alternative. There was an option involving a layover in Canada that would cost $300-400 less. The caveat was that I would have to apply for a transit visa. The possible savings weren’t worth the administrative trouble I’d have to go through for the transit visa. What if you were me or any other immigrant? How would you feel about the troubles we had?

After renewing my visa, I came back to the US and landed in Seattle for a layover. After the lengthy immigration process at the checkpoint, I was pulled in for a random luggage investigation. I had no idea why I was pulled in, but I wasn’t going to protest or make a scene. I brought Vietnamese coffee in my luggage for personal consumption (by the way, we have great coffee!). When I opened my luggage, I saw a note saying that somebody already checked my luggage and there was coffee all over my belongings. The officer opened another bag of coffee to check. After a 5-minute check, I was allowed to retrieve my luggage and get on my way. Needless to say, I had to wash my clothes off the spilled coffee.

Racism

I suffered two incidents of racism myself while in the US. One time, I was walking to a bar in the middle of an area full of bars and clubs in Omaha. A car passed by and a young woman pointed a middle finger towards me and shouted aloud: “fuck you Asian”.

The other time was close to my university campus. I was waiting at the bus stop to go home. Standing with me was an African American guy and we started to converse to kill time. There was nobody with us there. Suddenly, a car with loud music inside passed and somebody shouted aloud: “shut the fuck up!”.

What if the roles were reversed? Would any American honestly feel that such behavior was acceptable?

Working in the US

I have been lucky enough to have a job here. The struggle wasn’t easy, though. We immigrants don’t speak the language fluently and don’t understand the local culture completely. There were a few times at my office when I didn’t get the jokes from my colleagues. As immigrants, we also bring with us the future requirement for a visa sponsorship. Companies are not in the business to lose money. So, the requirement doesn’t do our applications any favor. If you think it’s easy for immigrants to secure a job, you may want to think again.

I have two close friends whom I have known for 8 years and are living the same building as I am. They graduated in 2016 and have been working as full-time employees for more than 2 years. They are highly educated with a dual Master’s degree and absolute contributors to their respective companies. Nonetheless, none have secured a working visa for no reasons that anybody can explain. They have been working in the US with their OPT legally, but haven’t left the country for 5 years. A lot of life plans and decisions hinge on whether they can get a visa. Just spare a second to think about all the uncertainty in life that results from the anti-immigrant policy.

 

I am not trying to complain. What I have experienced is much better than many other immigrants and refugees have. The point is that to be able to live, study or work here legally, it is not easy at all for us. There are many difficulties and challenges involved. As an American, you can go to any country to travel for 30 days without a visa. You can earn a lot of money in developing countries by teaching English, the language that you speak fluently already. Whenever you come back to the US, you don’t have to wait in line for hours or live in uncertainty that an officer can put you back on a plane on the spot. In the US, you have an advantage in job search as there is no required sponsorship or gap in local culture.

Surely, there are some bad apples among immigrants, but the number makes up only a small percentage of all immigrants. It doesn’t make sense to generalize all immigrants and treat us with hate. Put yourself in our shoes. How would you feel if you had to go through what we went through?

Everything would be much better if everyone could take a second to wonder “what would happen if it happened to me?” or “what if that were me?”