While spending eight years working as a successful private equity investor in the United Kingdom, Nicola Boyd sometimes had the feeling that she could be doing more. “I loved my job,” Boyd says, “but I really wanted to push myself and give back in a way that wasn’t really possible in a larger firm.” So in 2013, Boyd left her native United Kingdom and enrolled in a one-year business program for mid-career professionals at Stanford University. She arrived excited to be at the epicenter of the U.S. tech industry, and eager to see if the experience could help kick start an exciting new chapter in her career.
During the year that she was in her program, Boyd, who studied psychology as an undergraduate, happened upon an issue that truly excited her. “There is a depth of research coming out now, from Stanford and other top universities, showing that the number of words one hears between the ages of zero and four is the greatest predictor of future success,” Boyd says. Inspired by such research, Boyd partnered with two fellow students—American brothers and serial entrepreneurs who served with the U.S. military in the Middle East—to found Versame, a start up aiming to tackle this very problem. In the last year, Versame has developed a prototype of a wearable device that counts the number of words the child hears each day. The information is then transmitted to cell phone app, where parents or others can track their progress.
Versame has already attracted a lot of enthusiasm. Two private family foundations have already given the company significant seed funding to develop the product, and venture capital firms have approached Versame hoping to invest as well. “We want to build this into a billion dollar company,” Boyd says, “and from the conversations we’ve had, we think this is possible in the next five to 10 years.” Boyd says she sees a market for the product among families who want to monitor themselves or see if babysitters or other caretakers are speaking to their children during the day. At the other end of the spectrum, a number of high-profile nonprofits, including the Bezos Foundation, have made it a focus to invest in programs that try to boost the number of words said to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Several such groups have expressed interest in using Versame’s tools to measure the success of their interventions.
Despite these successes, however, Boyd is one of many people who may have to leave this year if she is unable to secure a high-skilled H-1b visa. Boyd is currently engaged to an American, but when she was transitioning from a student visa to the Optional Practical Training, or OPT visa, that students use to stay on immediately after graduation, she inadvertently left the United States for a trip back home without the proper stamp on her passport. This has made the green card route through marriage very difficult for her. As a result, she views this year’s H-1B process, and likely lottery, as her best shot of staying in the country without having to spend an extended amount of time abroad while lawyers work on her case. “It’s a very stressful situation,” Boyd says, “If I don’t get the H-1B, I would essentially have to put my life on hold.”
Boyd says if she has to go back to the United Kingdom, the move would be incredibly disruptive to her business. In addition to the founders, the company currently employs four workers—all of them highly educated American citizens. Boyd says despite having heard from friends that America had a difficult immigration system, she never dreamed she would have such struggles. “As a graduate of two of the top universities in the world – Oxford and Stanford – I didn’t really believe it would be this hard to stay in America and build a successful business here,” she says, “From an economic perspective, the whole immigration system just defies logic.”