He’d first come to the United States in 2006 from his native South Korea to learn English at Dominican University near Chicago—and because he was a huge fan of American basketball. He transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to complete his undergraduate degree. When he graduated in 2011 with a double major in economics and mathematics, he had a job offer from a startup development firm in New York City, where he moved to pursue a career in financial services.
Over the next five years, as Choi built his career at companies like Citigroup, and took extra classes so that he could graduate a semester early from the investment management master’s degree program at Pace University in Manhattan, all the late nights and all those slices of the city’s famous pizza caught up with him. In a 2015 call to his brother Victor, who was back in Seoul, Choi mentioned that he wanted to lose 10 or 15 pounds, and the two pledged to drop the weight together. With nearly 7,000 miles between them, they turned to technology to hold each other accountable.
The brothers logged twice-daily weigh-ins on a Wi-Fi scale that automatically uploaded their information to a shared account, so that they could each monitor their progress. Then they decided to up the stakes with a wager: whoever lost the most weight after one and a half months would win $200. “We both lost more than 20 pounds,” says Choi. “That’s when we realized betting money works better than any other fitness app we had used.” In the end, Victor took home the cash prize, but both knew an idea had been born.
Choi and Victor began developing the concept for Spryfit, a rewards-based fitness app that uses cash prizes and other rewards to motivate users. They decided to launch the company in the United States: “The market is bigger than any other country, and [American users] are going to spend a lot in the app,” Choi says. “The obesity rate is too high here, so we’re trying to be helpful by providing some fun incentive platform to the U.S. people.” But first, he had to figure out his visa issues.
As an international student, Choi was eligible for a three-year Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa following his graduation from UNC. It’s a visa that allows most immigrants who graduate from colleges and universities in the United States between one and three years to secure a longer-term visa—such as the work-sponsored H-1B visa, which is reserved for highly skilled immigrants—or else return to their native countries. During that time, Choi received three full-time job offers from companies in New York, but none of them would agree to sponsor his H-1B visa given the high cost and uncertainty of it. (Every year, hundreds of thousands of people apply for one of the 65,000 visas available to for-profit companies, which are doled out via a random lottery system.) According to Choi, “Companies are like, ‘We can apply, but what if you don’t get it? Then we are wasting time and money.’” Choi was able to continue living in the U.S. after his first OPT visa expired by going back to school for his master’s degree, which earned him a two-year student visa, followed by another OPT visa, this time for a single year. But if he wanted to remain here to launch his business, the clock was ticking.
There are a handful of existing ways for certain immigrant entrepreneurs to stay in or come to the U.S. even without the IER, points out Steve Yale-Loehr, an immigration attorney and professor of Immigration Law Practice at Cornell Law School. But they are “essentially figuring out how to put a round peg into a square hole.” In addition to H-1B visas, there’s an L-1 visa that allows certain immigrants who work for a foreign company that does not already have an affiliated U.S. office to come to the U.S. to establish one, via an intracompany transfer. There’s also an Extraordinary Ability Green Card, reserved for immigrants who’ve made significant contributions in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics. But it’s not easy to quantify. “Other countries do try to make it easy for would-be entrepreneurs to come to their country to start their companies,” says Yale-Loehr. “But Congress has failed to reform our broken immigration system, including establishing a category for entrepreneurs, so international entrepreneurs have to navigate the existing U.S. immigration system…You have to be creative.”
Of course, creativity is the dominion of the entrepreneur, the mother of invention and innovation. And a necessity, it turns out, for immigrants like Choi who are educated, motivated and capable of starting a business in the U.S., but have few options for relocating here. Before Choi returned to South Korea, he registered his company in Delaware and began paying taxes there in 2016, in the hopes that he would eventually be able to return to the U.S. on a permanent basis.
In the meantime, he and his brother have raised about $200,000, launched Spryfit in the Apple app store, registered about 60,000 users and plan to kick off a round of seed fundraising early next year. But further scaling the company—which is so promising it’s been accepted into three U.S.-based accelerator programs—has been difficult, because they’re having to do everything from more than 6,000 miles away.
Choi and his company Spryfit are still holding out hope that one day they’ll be able to move to the U.S.. “We want to create more job opportunities for U.S. people—up to 20 people within five years, is my projection,” says Choi. “We still think the U.S. is the market leader in terms of technology and stuff.” But, he adds later, “a lot of countries like France are supporting foreign startups.”
Like everyone else, they’re left waiting to see what happens.