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CEO of $20 million startup could lose his visa and his business

BauBax founder and CEO Hiral Sanghavi would like to say he's achieved the American Dream. After all, he immigrated to...

Posted: Apr 17, 2018 5:24 AM
Updated: Apr 17, 2018 5:24 AM

BauBax founder and CEO Hiral Sanghavi would like to say he's achieved the American Dream. After all, he immigrated to the United States just four years ago and, in that time, he has successfully launched a company that has brought in more than $20 million in sales.

But there's one thing holding Sanghavi back: He may not be able to stay in the country much longer.

Just three years after he raised an impressive $9.2 million on Kickstarter to fund his idea to create and sell a travel jacket with a bunch of built-in features -- a neck pillow, eye mask, gloves, even a pocket to hold a soda can. Sanghavi may have to shut down the business and leave the United States.

"The thought is so scary I try not to dwell on it," says the 31-year-old.

Originally from India, Sanghavi and his now-wife, Yoganshi Shah, came to the United States to attend graduate school on international student visas.

Shah received her master's degree in computer science from Columbia University in 2010 and landed a job as a developer for a Silicon Valley tech company where she was given an H1-B worker visa.

About five years later, Sanghavi took a sabbatical from his MBA program at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management to launch BauxBax. That's when he got an H-4 visa, which was tied to Shah's H1-B. H-4 visas are given to spouses and dependents of H-1B workers. Unlike student visas, they allow the holder to work or to launch a business.

But Shah's H1-B visa expires in August and she will need to seek a renewal soon. "If my wife loses her H-1B visa for some reason, I will also lose my visa," he said.

The couple is especially nervous because the Trump administration has said it is toughening its stance on H1-Bs. In February, US Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo noting that it will require more information about an H-1B applicant's employment to ensure the worker is doing what they are hired for. It also said it may limit the length of the visa to less than three years.

Related: Kickstarter campaign that needed $20,000 got $9 million

One glimmer of hope is that Shah applied for her green card six years ago. If she is granted permanent resident status, Sanghavi would also be able to remain in the country. However, approval could take several more years.

"If my wife for whatever reason is unable to renew her H-1B, then we are without status. I would have within 30 days of the denial to shut down my company and leave the country," he said.

This impacts more than just the couple.

BauBax, which is 100% owned by Sanghavi, employs six full-time workers at its Redmond, Washington, office and 11 contractors who work remotely.

To date, the company has sold more than 200,000 BauBax jackets worldwide -- and they are not planning to stop there. For the past six months, Sanghavi and his team have been working on the next iteration of the BauBax travel jacket. This one has 25 features in it.

On Sunday, they closed the Kickstarter campaign for BauBax 2.0, raising $3.94 million from 21,409 backers -- well above their original $50,000 goal. They also launched a separate Indiegogo funding campaign for Baubax 2.0 on Monday.

Sanghavi is thrilled to see the continued support for the jacket. "But... betting your entire business on one product is risky," he said.

Later this year, he said the startup will launch two more Kickstarter campaigns tied to outdoor products as a way to expand the brand and diversify the product line. He wants BauBax to become a brand consumers might see in stores like REI.

"In my own small way, I want to believe I am contributing to the US economy through innovation, creating jobs and paying taxes," he said. "Still, I've only achieved the possibility of the American Dream," he said.

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