Iranian startup exec shifts plans because 'the US is just not a stable country'

People demonstrate during a protest at Downing Street in central London against US President Donald Trump's controversial travel ban on refugees and people from seven mainly-Muslim countries.
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Amin Shokrollahi was supposed to be in Silicon Valley last week to accept an award at a prominent semiconductor conference called DesignCon.

He never made it.

President Donald Trump's travel ban targeting citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries forced Shokrollahi, a native Iranian who left for Germany when he was 16, to stay behind in Switzerland, home to his tech start-up Kandou Bus.

A federal judge in Seattle on Friday granted a nationwide temporary restraining order against Trump's action, which would be welcome news for Shokrollahi and others if made permanent. An appeals court upheld the restraining order on Thursday. However, Trump has vowed to overturn the judge's stay, meaning the rules could change on short notice.

Regardless of the outcome, Shokrollahi is now rethinking his entire business plan, which had included hiring 80 to 100 engineers and designers in the U.S. Instead, that expansion is now likely to occur in Europe or Asia, places where Shokrollahi can easily travel and where the environment is more welcoming.

On top of that, Shokrollahi's visa just expired and he's been waiting six weeks for a new one. That's clearly not a priority for the new administration.

"I have to be pragmatic about my business and see where to grow it," said Shokrollahi, in a telephone interview this week from Lausanne, Switzerland. "I feel that the U.S. is just not a stable country. I can't really make long-term plans there."

I feel that the U.S. is just not a stable country. I can't really make long-term plans there.
Amin Shokrollahi
Kandou Bus CEO

Shokrollahi is a 52-year-old scientist and mathematician who speaks five languages, worked in high-tech in the U.S. for 10 years and has a PhD from the University of Bonn in Germany.

His company raised $15 million last year from prominent Silicon Valley investment firm Bessemer Venture Partners to speed development of energy efficient technology used in semiconductors. He's been traveling to the U.S. five to seven times a year since moving to Switzerland in 2003.

He is surely not the kind of person Trump was targeting when he placed a 90-day travel ban on citizens from seven countries, including Iran, out of fear of terrorism. A lawyer for the Justice Department said in a Virginia courtroom on Friday that at least 100,000 visas have been revoked in the week since Trump announced his executive order.

Shokrollahi has the tech industry squarely on his side. Companies including Alphabet, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft have denounced the order and, in the words of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, are exploring "legislative options."

Iran, in particular, is in Trump's crosshairs. On Friday, his administration imposed new sanctions on the country after the test-firing of a medium-range ballistic missile that the White House said defied a U.N. resolution.

Anti-Trump protesters gather at Alphabet HQ

Shokrollahi hasn't lived in Iran since departing shortly after the 1979 revolution to finish his studies in Germany. He visits annually to see his parents in Tehran.

Since leaving, he's worked at the famed Bell Labs in New Jersey, was the chief scientist at a company acquired by Qualcomm and spent the past 14 years as a math and computer science professor in Lausanne.

His travel to the U.S. was initially curtailed a year ago, when lawmakers implemented changes to the Visa Waiver Program, which previously allowed Shokrollahi, as a German citizen, to enter the U.S. without a visa. Now dual citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan would need one.

While losing the waiver was a significant inconvenience for Shokrollahi, as documented in a story from the Intercept, he never imagined that he'd be forbidden from entering the U.S. altogether.

"It's not for me to decide how the U.S. government will protect itself against threats," he said. "I'm just surprised. I myself have gone through so many background checks in U.S. The work I've been doing in previous companies and the kinds of customers I worked for required very extensive background checks on me."

(L-R) Amazon's chief Jeff Bezos, Larry Page of Alphabet, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Vice President-elect Mike Pence and President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower December 14, 2016.
Timothy A. Clary | AFP | Getty Images

A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

In running a fast-paced start-up, Shokrollahi doesn't have time to wait around and see how the travel ban plays out, especially given the anti-Muslim rhetoric that Trump displayed throughout the campaign.

Shokrollahi's main investor, Bessemer, understands the challenge the order could pose to its portfolio companies.

"We at Bessemer Venture Partners are deeply concerned by how President Trump's executive order on immigration will impact high-tech and life-sciences companies and the well-being of employees and their families."

The letter went on to say, "we encourage his administration and Congress to find solutions that do not unfairly penalize foreign-born workers, treat refugees inhumanely, or compel the next generation of the world's top thinkers and innovators to apply their skills in other countries."

Shayan Zadeh, an Iranian-born tech entrepreneur in San Francisco, expects the administration to impose long-term restrictions against Iranians, beyond just the 90 days.

Zadeh, 38, is in decent shape. He attained U.S. citizenship in 2013 while running Zoosk, an online dating site that reached $200 million in annual revenue.

But his 28-year-old brother is in limbo. He's a medical doctor who's been doing research at Cornell University and is now waiting for a visa so he can work at Harvard. He's also applied for a green card.

A missile is displayed next to a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a war exhibition south of Tehran on September 26, 2016.
Atta Kenare | AFP | Getty Images

All of that is on hold now.

Zadeh's mom lives in Boston on a green card and his other brother, the middle of the three, lives in Toronto as a Canadian citizen. Zadeh, who's now running a digital health start-up called Leap Rail, is the only one in the family who can freely travel (pending resolution of the executive order) and even he's reluctant to do so.

Trump's blanket fear of terrorism is creating a crisis for highly skilled and accomplished people, based solely on where they were born.

"He has no idea what's going to happen, how to continue his research, what his future looks like in the U.S. if he has any," Zadeh said of his youngest brother. "The whole family has planned to make a life here. We are more American than Iranian at this stage."