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Facing challenges as an Indian professional in US, didn’t stop Soundarya Balasubrami from helping others

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Like many others from India, Soundarya Balasubramani’s journey to the US started as a student. It wasn’t long after she started her course of masters of science at Columbia University, after graduating from NIT Trichy, that she was able to figure out the huge challenges that were ahead of her as an international student and then a professional, born in India, on the journey to getting a green card in America.

“As an international student, getting a job and networking was one of the hardest things I had to do. I received over 50 rejections before one selection. And now, starting my own company this year, came with another host of challenges,” Balasubramani says.
But the challenges that she faced made her stronger in her own journey as an immigrant and it also gave her a deep sense of empathy and solidarity with the Indian community in America. The tough choices that Indian students face in the US after they finish their higher education; such as trying to get lucky in the H-1B work visa lottery and after that being stuck for decades on backlogs for a green card; were some of the harsh realities that she had observed first hand. In fact, after working for a few years, she decided to give it up and launched her own start-up venture to support non-resident Indians and help them address several challenges that they face in the immigrant journey, including the toughest one – long delays in getting permanent resident status or green cards.

“The goal in starting my venture was educating people; bringing them together into a community and connecting those who need help to those who can offer it,” says Balasubramani. And at the heart of her venture is a book that she has written with Sameer Khedekar, an immigration lawyer, called Unshackled which is a blend of real-life stories of what it means to be an immigrant; along with tactical advice on navigating the complex immigration system in America for young Indian professionals and students. “With the Unshackled book and community, my mission is to lower the barrier to entry for high-skilled immigrants to reach their full potential; this could mean starting their own company, obtaining a talent visa (O-1/EB-1), or deciding to leave the US for something better,” she says. Her goal is to bring together formative experiences from her life and that of others to help young Indians in the US, who are facing challenges, reach their potential, and live fuller lives.
Though she hadn’t planned to become an entrepreneur in the immigration space; even as a masters student at Columbia University, she was always open to helping other students who reached out to her with questions similar to the ones that she was facing herself. “People reached out asking for help, consistently. When you hear the same question come up over and over again, you can’t help but wonder, ‘What’s going on’? When I quit my comfortable $200k job at Salesforce to join a small start-up and conduct independent research, hundreds of immigrants reached out to me with questions on navigating immigration. The solution was not to repeat my responses; rather step back and look at the systemic issues,” she says. And that’s where the idea for her venture was born.
As Balasubramani, who is now 27, navigated an immigration system that was outdated, complex, and not set to serve those who contribute to it, the need to help others became clear to her. “These problems have remained systematically unsolved. Moving to a new country and settling down over there is still one of the most high-friction decisions one can take in their lives. The process to do that is fragmented: you need to get an education loan, health insurance, SIM card, housing, etc, and you generally need to get these from different vendors. Most vendors are focused on selling their product as opposed to solving the user’s unique problem,” she remembers from her when she was an international student herself.
And she collated her experiences back then in a book Admitted – born out of navigating the complex maze of moving to a new country for higher education, tackling essay writing, preparing for interviews, applying to scholarships, and getting acclimated to a new culture.
Later, negotiating the immigration system for a job was even more challenging since there has been no significant update to the US policy for skilled workers in over 33 years. “The chance of getting picked in the H-1B lottery was 10% in 2023. Over 1 million immigrants are stuck in a green card backlog. There is no startup visa. While I can’t solve these systemic dysfunctions, I can make people better equipped because of my experience and by taking an academic approach,” she says.

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