Manan Mehta (Unshackled Ventures)
Kesava Kirupa Dinakaran (Luminai)
Unshackled Ventures is working to support immigrant entrepreneurs in the US. Immigrants, historically and across geographies, have started and grown businesses that build enormous opportunities for employment; yet, immigrants face many challenges, particularly in the US, when it comes to their ability to work. Visa hurdles on top of everyday discrimination, as well as potential language and cultural barriers, make it far too difficult to start new businesses without assistance. We spoke to Unshackled’s founder Manan Mehta and one of his portfolio-company founders, Kesava Kirupa Dinakaran, who came to the US at 19 and started Luminai (formerly DigitalBrain), a customer-service automation platform, in 2020. Kesava’s story, intimately intertwined with Unshackled’s mission, is the perfect example of how important it is to help immigrant founders overcome the administrative barriers they face.
Interviewed February 2021
The Origins of Unshackled Ventures
Johannes Lenhard (JL): Manan, your investment thesis is completely focused on immigrants. How did that come about? Why do you focus on that specific, outstanding niche, and why do you believe in fostering this specific kind of diversity?
Manan Mehta (MM): Eight years ago, I attempted to start my first business with a co-founder who had an H-1B visa (a work visa for the United States). I am native-born and raised here in Silicon Valley—little did I know that his H-1B would shackle him to his employer. Nine months into tinkering and moonlighting, immigration became a major hurdle. His inability to transfer his visa made it much harder for us to raise outside capital and for him to work full-time. It was truly a chicken and egg problem that cost us too much time.
Over the past eight years, some of these dynamics have shifted, but the fear of not having work authorization to work on a startup is very frightening for a lot of immigrant entrepreneurs. It was through my journey as an American-born citizen that I was free, but as an entrepreneur with a co-founder on a visa, I had to learn that immigration affected me too. I had never thought about it once in my life up until then.
Every night we would go to these co-working spaces—a prime example of the type of entrepreneurial talent our country attracts. After hours, you would see so many immigrants working. You could smell ethnic cuisines heating in the microwave, hear countless numbers of non-English languages, and you could tell this was not their full-time day job. What I came to realize was that this population of entrepreneurs were immigrants, and it was significantly larger than the population of native-born people working at night.
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It makes sense, immigrants who have left their home country by choice are inherently more entrepreneurial than native-borns. These people are often more ambitious, have more drive, and more purpose. Immigrants are the most financially successful entrepreneurial group in the United States (more than 50% of tech IPOs have an immigrant founder). I do not think that has changed. In fact, one of the richest people in the world, Elon Musk, is an immigrant. This is something that is very appealing when you are talking about venture capital and creating upside.
Unshackled is not a not-for-profit: we invest in people who truly want to make both an economic and social impact. It is important that we align with them on both those philosophies. It was that intersection that brought us to start Unshackled.
What It Takes to Support Immigrant Founders
Erika Brodnock (EB): My parents are immigrants, and listening to this from the perspective of being first-generation, it is incredible, because I know how much they struggled. What do you do at Unshackled to support immigrant founders?
MM: Many immigrants come with ambition, not with money. For immigrants who leave their home country by themselves, accessing the networks of influence is extremely hard. Our goal at Unshackled is to be a scalable source of friends and family capital, who will take the full risk with founders financially. We are very fortunate that our investors are comfortable with taking the full risk. We have shown there is a strong population of entrepreneurs who could use this support and accelerate with it.
The second thing we do is provide immigration support. I’ve learned in the United States there’s a difference between immigration and being an immigrant. Immigration can be solved in time, with a thoughtful strategy and government filings. But being an immigrant is a lifelong journey. Unshackled unlocks the immigration journey early on to support entrepreneurs during the ten to fifteen years it takes to build a startup. Over the last six years, we have done 150 filings on behalf of our funders. We are excited to share that 100% of our founders have secured work authorization and/or a green card through our efforts.
The third way we support immigrant founders is through access to influential networks and resources. Our team helps immigrants indoctrinate themselves into these ecosystems where people are described as “adverse selection.” We show how these immigrant founders are a net positive. As a result, our ultimate role at Unshackled is being the strongest and fastest on-ramp to the highway of venture capital. Kesava is a prime example of how fast an immigrant can move if given a chance.
How Unshackled Brought a Knock-Out Entrepreneur into Business
JL: Kesava, let us talk about your story of being an immigrant founder. Can you share your experience of when you arrived? What have you been building and what were some of the biggest challenges?
Kesava Kirupa Dinakaran (KKD): I grew up in the southern part of India, where most of my family are all coconut farmers. There is a good thing to it, which is you get to drink coconuts all day and live on a farm. But the other side is everybody follows a very standard path: finish high school, get married, have kids, live on the farm, life moves on. I have seen people go through that path, and I thought I was going to do something similar to this world around me.
When I was 11 years old, I stumbled upon the Rubik’s Cube and started getting really good at solving them. I walked into my first ever Rubik’s Cube competition, and I was surrounded by CEOs, musicians, artists, engineers, and doctors. I was blown away for the first time, and I realized I did not have to follow the same path that my family took. I realized if I continue to participate in this community, then I will see that there is so much more to do. I ended up breaking multiple Guinness World Records and was the captain of the Indian National Team. From 11 to 17, that is all I did.
Because of the Rubik’s Cube community, I was introduced to a high school called the United World College. It is a high school that brings together people from 70 different countries to work on international peace and understanding. I went to this high school surrounded by people my age wanting to really change the world. Through this journey—from a very traditional family where, unfortunately, a lot of them still struggle to survive, to the Rubik’s Cube, to a full scholarship at the high school, to cycling across countries from Europe to Asia—I realized that anything was possible.
My journey continued when a foundation from the US flew me out for a ten-day summit called Three Dot Dash. After I finished, as someone who loved technology, I wanted to visit Silicon Valley. In April 2019, I came out to the Bay Area for five days. I crashed at a friend’s room at Stanford, and I was blown away. I thought, “This is my type of people.”
When I was back in India, I realized, “What am I doing here?” This is where we hacked the system. My mentor set up a fellowship so I could come to Silicon Valley on a tourist visa for two months. In that short period of time I learned so much. I ended up rejecting a college scholarship so I could continue learning and working on projects in Silicon Valley. Then, I completely ran out of money.
Every weekend, there are hackathons in Silicon Valley where you could end up making $5K building a product. At one of these, I met my now co-founder, Dmitry Dolgopolov. While we could code and build websites over a weekend, our immigration status denied us from high-paying jobs. Instead, we ended up hacking these hackathons and living off of it for six months.
At one point, the company that sponsored a hackathon said they liked one of our products and asked if we could ship it to them. They wanted to sign an annual contract. That was the only customer that was willing to sign a sales agreement and it got us into the whole startup bug. At one point, we realized living off of hackathons is not the most sustainable way of life. It was time for us to raise money. We had zero connections in Silicon Valley and were just trying to make our way through it. We sent about 200 emails to investors we followed on Twitter, got three responses, and all three passed immediately. We thought, “This is crazy. We have a story to tell and they were not even willing to listen.”
This is where the crazy stuff happened. Unshackled had a form on their website to be considered, and we thought, “Who is going to look at a form? This makes no sense.” But the site promises that they will definitely get back to you. We ended up filling the form. Two days later, one of the people at Unshackled got in touch.
The first meeting with Manan was the first time I felt respected. I felt that he was listening to me. At the end of the call, they were very sincere and said, “You are the kind of people who we bet on.” Over the next three weeks, we met and discussed the business. Finally, on February 13, we got $250K. Where I am from, that is more than my family has ever made in their life. It was quite wild. That put us in a place where we could rely on a community of founders and people. Unshackled was there to support us, but we were still on our journey of figuring out what we wanted to do.
This is when things start moving. Unshackled is a signal for other people in many ways. We had applied to an accelerator called Y Combinator (YC) and we did not get an interview. The second time we applied with a slightly different idea, and we got an interview. They never asked us about the idea itself. They said, “You moved from India to Silicon Valley at 19—how? This makes no sense.” That evening they said, “We like you guys. We would like to fund you, but we think your idea should change.” We iterated, learned, and went to Manan and Nitin, who told us to jump into it with the new product in customer support.
The catalyst for raising a seed round was primarily because of Unshackled. We put together a document on Notion of 100+ investment firms, and they connected us to each one of them. This is what we mean by breaking into venture capital. In a matter of three weeks or so, we raised $3.5M to grow the team. Now we are six people and living this dream we have always wanted to live. The timeline was less than a year, as a result of initial access and our hunger to move fast. I came here on a tourist visa, then my status switched to O-1, which is something I never would have thought to be possible without the team at Unshackled. Changing my immigration status was a big relief because now I can keep growing the dream and not have to worry about anything related to me being here.
The Actions Unshackled Takes on Behalf of Immigrant Founders
EB: Manan, what is your biggest challenge with immigrant founders? How do you deal with visas and other policy issues that could potentially stop you in your tracks from unearthing such incredible talent?
MM: We just went through the Trump administration, and if we can get through that, we believe we can get through a lot of immigration changes. During this period of challenging rhetoric, there was a boom in immigrants seeking more help from stable platforms. We still had 100% success on immigration after four years of Trump. The policy, the rhetoric, and the politics of it served as tailwinds for the Unshackled thesis. It accelerated us—the “why now?” became clearer to people.
That being said, the biggest challenge that we will always face is finding people like Kesava. We know there are more people like him and know there are similar stories. How do we become that first email and not the email after 200+ emails? By getting to a point of further reach, it gives somebody like Kesava a little bit more inspiration. Our responsibility at Unshackled is to share the example to immigrant entrepreneurs, so that more immigrants will try a little bit harder to break into the venture ecosystem. Our responsibility is to match the aspiration of wanting to start a company with the inspiration of doing it. Regardless of our funding, this gives entrepreneurs a much higher jump-off point.
The challenge for us is always can we serve and scale the market efficiently enough? Can we deliver our promise on a daily basis? Thus, we have to truly amplify entrepreneurs’ time and resources at the stage they need it the most.