The Challenges Immigrant Tech Entrepreneurs Face

Guest: Agustina Sartori, CEO and Co-Founder of GlamST

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Welcome to a brand-new season of FemgineerTV!

We’ve got some great guests lined up for you this season, and we’ll be tackling some tough topics related to startups, design, engineering, product development, and leadership.

To kick the season off, we’re going to be tackling one of the toughest topics that not a lot of people talk about: The Challenges Immigrant Tech Entrepreneurs Face.

To help us out, I’ve invited Agustina Sartori, the CEO and Co-Founder of GlamST.

Agustina began her career as a software engineer in Uruguay working at a startup before deciding to strike out on her own, joining with her co-founder Carolina Bañales to build GlamST.

If you’re an entrepreneur who is thinking about breaking in the U.S. market, then you’ll enjoy hearing Agustina’s story, and how she overcame a number of challenges to make her dreams come true!

Even if you aren’t thinking of becoming an immigrant tech entrepreneur, the episode is worth watching because Agustina talks about some critical topics that impact those of us who are involved in startups, such as:

  • how she and her co-founder landed their first big client—L’Oreal—before building anything!
  • alternate sources of funding they pursued because there aren’t a lot of investors in Uruguay.
  • how cultivating a level of self-awareness when talking to potential customers and investors is beneficial to attracting them.
  • why it’s important to build relationships with organizations who can help you grow your business like accelerators.

Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to see all the new episodes when they come out, and catch up on previous ones!

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The Challenges Immigrant Tech Entrepreneurs Face Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: Welcome to the 12th episode of Femgineer TV, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker, the founder of Femgineer. Femgineer is an education company where we teach innovators how to build software products so they can find freedom in their careers, enrich other people’s lives, and make the tech world a lot more inclusive and flexible.

We all know about the American dream. An immigrant with an idea decides to move to the US to pursue an abundance of opportunities. But what does it actually take to make that dream come true? Well, in today’s episode, we’re going to be tackling this topic and exposing all the challenges that immigrant tech entrepreneurs face. And to help us out, I’ve invited Agustina Sartori, who’s the CEO and cofounder of Glam Street. Agustina began her career as a software engineer in Uruguay and then transitioned to becoming an entrepreneur. And she’s taken her company, Glam Street, from Uruguay all the way to the United States. Thanks for joining us today, Agustina.

Agustina Sartori: Thanks for having me here.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, it’s great. I’m so excited to share your journey. I know you and I met about six or seven months ago when you were at 500 Startups. I was your advisor. But I realized I actually don’t know how you started your career. What motivated you to pursue software engineering and how’d you get your start in Uruguay?

Agustina Sartori: Yeah, so, as in the US too, being a software engineer and a woman is not easy and it’s not common, right? In my case, my motivation to start engineering was the fact that I wanted to be, when I was small, a manager. I wanted and imagined myself in a company leading projects and that was the image I had of myself. And in Uruguay, a very traditional country, the way to do it was actually studying engineering. Many of the managers are engineers. I loved math at that time. I loved computers. I thought it was like a challenging thing to do so I said, “OK, let’s choose engineering when I can create what I want to do. And also, it’s a path to get to the place I want to be in the future.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, and what was that place in the future for you?

Agustina Sartori: My dream was me in a meeting room as a manager and like talking about new projects and talking about innovation and things to implement.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Uh-huh.

Agustina Sartori: That was the image I had of myself in the future.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it. So you were a software engineer for how long in your career?

Agustina Sartori: I started working when I was studying so I worked for two years as a software engineer, as a programmer. Then after that I started the company right away.

Poornima Vijayashanker: You started Glam Street.

Agustina Sartori: Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Agustina Sartori: I started Glam Street.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And so what was the inspiration behind Glam Street?

Agustina Sartori: I think for me, my inspiration of the company was starting something. My first job was in a startup. I had been part of a lot of leadership organizations, as AIESEC, for example, that is the largest student-led organization in the world. And my parents are entrepreneurs, too. So for me it was like a path that was a possibility and something that I wanted to do. I saw the four guys that had funded the company where I was working on, I was just programming on the computer and I was like, “Why can’t I be doing what they’re doing?” Right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Good.

Agustina Sartori: So I met my Caro, my co-founder, in college, so she loved makeup and I was crazy about starting a company. So that’s how, like, the idea and the starting something came together.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, so tell us, what is Glam Street?

Agustina Sartori: Glam Street is a virtual makeover app for brands and retailers. You can take a photo and you can try on different shades of makeup. It can be a tablet in the store or a mobile app and also embedded in the e-commerce sites of any brands or retailers.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it. Now, you and Caro, your cofounder, started it in Uruguay. How did you get the initial idea off the ground? Did you have some startup capital? Did you have investors in Uruguay? How did it come about?

Agustina Sartori: When we started this, everybody thought we were crazy.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.

Agustina Sartori: This was four years ago. In Uruguay, there wasn’t a big startup scene so we started in our last year in college. We got support from the university, from the engineering dean, to support us like with mentors that could help us initially and we get support from the Uruguayan government that funds a lot of innovation projects.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, cool.

Agustina Sartori: So that was our starting point of like the first year of our company.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. So you two built the initial prototype, I’m assuming? And then you started recruiting more engineers or how did that come about?

Agustina Sartori: Yeah. As we were both software engineers, the first year, us being engineers was like building the product.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Agustina Sartori: We actually didn’t had a lot of background of what is an MVP and how do we have to start? We just did it sort of intuitively. By the end of the year, we had a first prototype that we have built together with also having two or three interns that helped us to build the first MVP.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So who was your initial customer and how did you get them?

Agustina Sartori: Our first customer was L’Oreal.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Wow, that’s impressive. Yeah.

Agustina Sartori: Yeah, it was amazing that we got them because the name of having a brand like L’Oreal was very important for us at the beginning. And how did we get them…we didn’t had a prototype at the beginning.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Agustina Sartori: We just had like the idea. So we reached out to them to try to understand more about their needs, if this could be something that they would want to use. So we started working with them for, say, eight months. More like in a research, right, so we were like—

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, customer research, customer development, that’s smart.

Agustina Sartori: Exactly.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Agustina Sartori: By the end of the year, we didn’t know if they actually wanted to buy our product or no or, we were building it. So we build it with all their feedback and by the end of the year, they ended up saying that they wanted to try this in a store and see how it worked. So we end up having it in a shopping mall for one month where different customers could use it and then they ended up buying the licenses for the whole of the next year.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, wow. And then what did you do after that? Did you go to Startup Chile or what was your path after the initial customer?

Agustina Sartori: After the initial customer, we started to find out what other institutions in Latin America could actually help us get more capital to start hiring a developer, maybe not just interns. In Latin America, there are a lot of state organizations that fund projects, not a lot of like investor scene but yes, institutions and governments that fund projects. So we went to Startup Chile, which gives you 40k nonequity and we could there actually start meeting a lot of entrepreneurs from different countries, which was like a game-changing experience for us.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, so this was after your first year or your second year in business?

Agustina Sartori: This was in our second year in business.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. And what was that experience like? You’re now leaving Uruguay and going to Startup Chile. What’s that?

Agustina Sartori: Yeah. I remember when we applied that we hadn’t told anyone and then we received an email saying, like, “Hey, you’re going to live to Chile for eight months.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Agustina Sartori: And I was calling my parents, like, “I’m going to Chile in two months.” And they were like, “What? You’re going to live to Chile?” I’m like, “Yes. We’re going there.” So it was an amazing experience because they’re entrepreneurs from everywhere in the world. And for us, it was the first connection with entrepreneurs from the US. So, as I told you, in Uruguay, it was not very common at that time to start a company. So being there with like a hundred, literally a hundred more companies from like everywhere, from India, Sri Lanka, from Italy, from the US—

Poornima Vijayashanker: Wow.

Agustina Sartori: —was just like a really way to open our minds to the world.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And while you were in Startup Chile, you were still building your product, you were getting customers…were they all in Latin America, like L’Oreal in Latin America? Or were you getting customers from other places in the world?

Agustina Sartori: At that time, we were just getting customers from Latin America and we were, yes, building our product. So it was all of that stage of getting to the right product and trying to get more customers on board.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So why not stay in Latin America? What prompted you to want to come to the US?

Agustina Sartori: I think for us, well, for anyone I think from outside the US, when you talk about Silicon Valley and San Francisco, it’s like, wow, the place where innovation is created. You see it as something super super far from you but something that would be like your dream, like being there and knowing what is to really be there and be an entrepreneur in the US. On the other hand, the Latin American market was a bit behind on, like, for example, the brands didn’t have websites. They were lacking a lot of technology to actually buy our product. So we started to explore the US market and we thought the US market was prepared for our product.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Agustina Sartori: So the part of the dream of going to the US and the part of that the market was not really prepared in Latin America came together—

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Agustina Sartori: —and we started with this idea of, OK, let’s go to the US.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. So I came to the US when I was two and it’s been a easy ride for me because I was such a young kid, but I know it was by no means easy for my parents. You know, they first came here, they went to school, and then they went through a Green Card process so that they could work at any company, full-time. Then, few years later, I became a citizen, so I know that there’s a lot of obstacles that you experience as an immigrant coming into the country. What was one of the first obstacles that you had when you just thought, “OK, I want to go to the US.”

Agustina Sartori: Definitely there are a lot of obstacles and when you decide you want to go to the US, you actually don’t know about them, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Agustina Sartori: I think the first thing is like you decide you want to go to the US but you don’t really have network or connections so it’s like, “How do we start?” Like, where to start, right? That’s like the first thing you face. And so sort of getting to know different organizations helps a lot. But coming to the US is not just like, “OK, I have a passport, let’s arrive and start a company here.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. It’s more complicated than that.

Agustina Sartori: It’s very complicated.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, so what was your first step?

Agustina Sartori: My first step actually was trying to look for organizations that could help us in the US. For example, we were part of Plug and Play initially.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Agustina Sartori: This last year we were in 500 Startups. That was a huge game-changer for us.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Agustina Sartori: So getting two organizations that can help you is a super, super good first step.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Agustina Sartori: Because if not, you are lost.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. And then I know when you got here, you still had to deal with visas and all that so walk us through what that process is like. How do you actually get permission to come and start a company in the US?

Agustina Sartori: Well, the visa is the worst nightmare.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.

Agustina Sartori: I used to dream about it, like woke up in the middle of the night thinking they were going to kick me off the country or something like that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, yeah.

Agustina Sartori: It’s really stressing.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Agustina Sartori: In a way, you’re generating value and you cannot spend the whole year in the US.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Agustina Sartori: I had a tourist visa—

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Agustina Sartori: —where I came back and forth and I counted the days that I could stay in the US and then I went back to Uruguay. You feel like everything freezes when you’re back in your country. People want to see you in person, so it’s like, “Oh, I have to wait two more months to be able to go to the US.” Right? And getting a visa, it’s not easy either because you need funding of your company. You need to be incorporated in the US and you need to sponsor yourself to get into the US.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Agustina Sartori: So I just got my visa in September, after the fourth year of starting the company, so as you imagine—

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, wow.

Agustina Sartori: —it was like really hard to-

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, kudos to you for sticking it out that long. Yeah.

Agustina Sartori: Yeah, yeah. The last, I mean, I think the most important part is to understand which visa is right for you. And which one is the easiest visa to get.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Agustina Sartori: Depending on who you are, and what’s your background, and what country you come from.

Poornima Vijayashanker: I see. So what was the visa that you ended up getting?

Agustina Sartori: I got the O-1 visa, that is the extraordinary ability visa.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Agustina Sartori: That is a good—

Poornima Vijayashanker: Well-named.

Agustina Sartori: —that is a good visa because you can even get through the Green Card and it’s a three-year visa so you can stay and do your job here and you don’t have to go to a lottery. So it’s a good visa. It’s not the easiest to get but if you’re an entrepreneur and you’ve got traction back in your country—

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Agustina Sartori: —then you can prove that you can generate value in the US, that you’re going to hire a team, that you have clients in the US, so it’s easy to prove that you’re a valuable person for the US.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, and you were also fundraising back in August and September of 2015. So how was the investment community perceiving your company, the fact that you were from Uruguay and non-native and an immigrant. What was the perception like?

Agustina Sartori: Yeah, so it took us time, I think, to realize the huge barrier that it is that you are foreign. It is a huge barrier because investors want to invest in people that are like next to them. They don’t want to invest in a person that lives in Uruguay and has the whole team in Uruguay—

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.

Agustina Sartori: And they didn’t even know where Uruguay is in a map. They think that it’s like, “Oh, it’s next to the equator.” It’s…no, it’s really south, you know…

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Agustina Sartori: It’s a reasonable question.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.

Agustina Sartori: It’s something that it’s out of their classic kind of investment, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Agustina Sartori: Because why don’t you invest on the kid that went to Stanford and is right like three blocks from you, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Agustina Sartori: It’s sort of like a safer play than investing on a person that I don’t know when she’s going to come to the US, right.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Agustina Sartori: So the first barrier is if you don’t live here, it’s very hard for investors to invest in you.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Agustina Sartori: So that’s the first thing you need to overcome and it’s sort of like the chicken and the egg.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Agustina Sartori: Because you need the visa for them to tell them that you’re here and for to get funding, right. But the thing is, if you don’t have funding, you can’t get the visa.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Agustina Sartori: It’s very hard to get the visa. So it’s a moment in which sort of you have to play with your position of, OK, I have this amount of funding. I need this more to apply for the application for the visa.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Agustina Sartori: And then I’m telling the investors that I’m in the process of the application and I—

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Agustina Sartori: So it’s a very tricky and stressful part of the fundraising process.

Poornima Vijayashanker: What about your customers? Because while you were here, you were actually doing sales as well. So fundraising and sales and continuing to build your product. How did customers in the US feel about handling or working with a company based in Uruguay?

Agustina Sartori: Yeah, that is also a big challenge. I think also for investors it’s a big challenge that if you’re a seed-stage company, investors want you to validate in the local market in the US and they want you to have clients in the US.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Agustina Sartori: The first obstacle for us was that they were telling us, “OK, great, you have clients in Latin America, but this is the US.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Agustina Sartori: “So come with clients in the US and then maybe I invest in you.” Right? So that was one of the first obstacles also that we have to overcome, that was looking for clients in the US and having numbers and traction to show about companies that were incorporated here. And regarding customers, a customer, you need to create a trust relationship.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Agustina Sartori: So for us it was very important to say that we are living here in the US and you will have support if something happens and I will got and talk with you and I can go and meet with you in person. You won’t have to talk to me over the phone. It’s crazy because today you think like, yes, there are communications and Skype.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Agustina Sartori: But people still want to see you in person and people want to know that you’re there.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Agustina Sartori: So it is a big friction point and now we are hiring actually a sales team. It is important that we gonna hire people that are from the US that speak US as their native language so as to reduce also barriers with customers.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, I see, yeah. So these are a lot of challenges. How did you manage to deal with all of this over a four-year period?

Agustina Sartori: I think when we started this, we didn’t know, of course, these were all the challenges that we—

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Agustina Sartori: —were going to face, right?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Agustina Sartori: Now, if I look back to it, I feel like there were key things in our four years that took us to where we are today, that we’re here in the US, that we have clients in the US, and investors in the US. And it’s understanding which are your barriers and how to overcome them. So you have to be very self-conscious about, even you as a person, I say, “OK, why am I a barrier to the investor that’s in front of me? What is the client thinking when I am presenting and they know English is my second language. They know my team is in Uruguay, and they know maybe I and two more people are here in the US.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Agustina Sartori: Right? But you need to be sort of very humble and understand like, what do you need to do to overlap the kind of problems that you clearly face.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm. So it seems like you got over your challenges, you’ve got funding, you’ve got some great customers, some pretty big brands, and your team back home in Uruguay is building product. So what are the next set of challenges for you?

Agustina Sartori: The next challenge for us is actually scaling sales. As a software engineer—and my cofounder is a software engineer, too—we always say we need to hire more engineers. All our team are engineers. And now we got to the point where we have a product that is validated in the market but we need to scale. So, our challenge is really creating a team and really creating a pipeline of clients and closing the clients that we have already on pipeline this year so as to really scale our business.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah and are you looking to hire engineering team locally or in Uruguay?

Agustina Sartori: For now, we are not looking to hire engineers locally. We’re going to keep them in Uruguay. It’s for us like it’s—

Poornima Vijayashanker: So for people out in Uruguay, it’s a good opportunity, yeah.

Agustina Sartori: Yeah. I have a lot of friends actually in the US that now they ask me references about engineers in Uruguay.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, good.

Agustina Sartori: There is like two, three companies from the US that are hiring people in Uruguay because there’s a lot of tech talent there and of course it’s better sometimes to hire outside of Silicon Valley than it’s really competitive here.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure. Nice. So yeah, what’s the next phase? So sales and then building the product, closing customers in the pipeline, any other challenges coming up?

Agustina Sartori: I think those are our key challenges.

Poornima Vijayashanker: You’ve had enough for four years, yeah?

Agustina Sartori: Yeah. This is my sales year.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Good, good. So for our entrepreneurs out there who are not in the US, what’s one piece of advice that you would give them as they’re thinking about either coming to the US or continuing to build their product?

Agustina Sartori: I think that coming to US can be very, like, scary, and uncertain, but something important that you need to know is that you were born in a different country. And when you come here you expect that entrepreneurs maybe are very different to you and you feel very far from it. But when you actually come here, you realize they’re the same like you. You just have a different background and you have to sort of get to the point that you’re at their level.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Agustina Sartori: But really, they’re the same as us. I was like, “Hey, this is Silicon Valley, but a seed-stage startup is very similar to mine.” And I thought it was something super fabulous. You just come from a different place but you are strong. You have a great background. You have a great knowledge that you can come and explore here. And you’re not different to any other entrepreneur from here.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So final question for you, for our entrepreneurs out there who don’t yet have a visa but aspire to come to the US, what are some characteristics you think that helps you overcome those challenges and make it here?

Agustina Sartori: I think the most important thing is get traction locally. So get clients in wherever you are from and then try to close a client. One client is enough if you’re doing like a B2B business in the US. Start traveling to the US and spend time in the US. That’s super important. With those two things, if you’re really creating traction with your company from where you are, you can then prove that you can generate value here in the US. So with that, for sure you can get, figure out a way to get the visa. And once you got the client in the US, you can definitely get investors in the US.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Well, thank you so much for sharing your journey. I know our viewers out there are going to get a lot out of this episode.

Agustina Sartori: Thank you very much.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Thanks for tuning in today and special thanks to our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker, for their help in producing this episode of Femgineer TV. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Femgineer TV, then please share it with your friends, your teammates, and your boss. And subscribe to our YouTube channel to get the next episode, where we’ll be hosting Maria Guidice, the VP of Product at Autodesk. We’ll see you next time.

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