In the last weekend of May, more than a hundred people convened in a downtown San Francisco co-working space to create tech-based solutions to the biggest pain points they’ve experienced.

That might sound like any other weekend in Silicon Valley, but this was no ordinary hackathon. This one focused on Immigration, which is deeply embedded in the fabric of Silicon Valley and yet doesn’t receive anywhere near the attention it deserves.

It’s no secret that the “user experience” of immigration is painfully broken. From navigating the visa process to establishing oneself in a new country, there are plenty of problems that could use a creative fix.

I’ve always believed that the best way to get techies interested in a cause like Immigration isn’t to turn them into activists, but rather to take something they love — being creative and building stuff — and direct it towards a larger goal.

Startup Weekend Immigration was our first attempt at doing that. Our goal was to begin building a community of social-minded tech folks who actually care about this issue and want to use their powers for good.

Who won?

One of my worries going in to the event was that too many teams would fixate on automating immigration application processes, only because (A) there are a lot of established companies already doing great work in that area, and (B) there are so many other neglected areas of immigration that need creative problem-solving.

In that sense, I was pretty pleased by the winning teams selected by the judging panel.

1st Place

Settled is your personal assistant for complex admin processes when settling abroad.

Getting a visa is only the beginning of an immigrant’s journey. After that, there are all kinds of strange and unfamiliar processes they have to go through like getting a driver’s license, opening a bank account, building credit, etc.

2nd Place

Estrella helps you find free or low-cost immigration help near you

The immigrants who gave up the most to come here are often the ones most vulnerable to fraud and the most sensitive to the high fees and costs of immigration. That’s where Estrella (“star” in Spanish) comes in.

3rd Place

WindowSill is a platform for immigrant home-bakers to earn money selling baked goods, made from recipes from their home country

WindowSill empowers recent immigrants by allowing them to monetize their more transferable skills, like baking. With WindowSill, immigrants can use their home kitchen and recipes from their home country to make money making and selling delicious baked goods.

Here’s a full list of the teams that pitched, along with their prototypes and presentation slides.

So was the event a success?

Our primary goals going into this event were threefold:

  1. UNIFY the fragmented immigration+tech community
  1. EDUCATE attendees on how/why the US immigration system became so broken, and make them aware of the most problematic and neglected areas of immigration that need attention
  1. BUILD meaningful new solutions utilizing creative legal/regulatory hacks and the latest tech, and open attendees’ minds to what is possible

We started from nothing in organizing this event. We were a team of 8 volunteers who had never met each other before, and we didn’t have any personal connections in this space.

But after hundreds of cold emails (thanks Thrust.io!) and months of nose-to-the-grindstone hustling, we were able to successfully find amazing sponsors like Brad Feld who we had never met before (and still haven’t) but cared enough about this issue to back our event, sight unseen.

Leaders of immigration tech pioneers like FileRight found out about our event and took the time to fly in from Las Vegas to come in and mentor the next generation of immigration startup founders. And best of all, I know for a fact that several of the teams are continuing to work on what they started at the event.

It was a magical weekend in a lot of ways, and if you ask me, if just a single participant or team from this event ends up making a major impact in immigration in the next few years (that they might not have otherwise), I’ll consider this event to have been a success. Only time will tell if that will happen, but in the meantime, I’m more than happy to continue nurturing the sapling of a community that we saw sprout that weekend.

We plan on organizing another, even better immigration hackathon soon. In fact, we’re planning on making this an annual or even twice-a-year thing. Whatever it takes for immigration innovation to truly take flight.

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