Since he was twelve years old, Brazilian-born Airfox CEO Victor Santos has lived his life in flux. Thanks to the ongoing debate about the Obama-era DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) policy, which the Trump administration has threatened to end, the Forbes “30 Under 30” entrepreneur’s status in the United States and the future of his Boston-based startup is uncertain.
In the early 2000s, Victor’s father, a self-made entrepreneur and the owner of a small but successful construction firm, secured an L-1 visa that allowed his family to emigrate from Belo Horizante, Brazil to the United States. The family’s legal status was dependent upon renewing their visa, and in 2009, when their renewal was denied, they were forced to scramble to keep the livelihood they had built for themselves. Young Victor, who was set to graduate high school within weeks, was suddenly an illegal immigrant. During his three years as an undocumented immigrant, Victor struggled to get by. He attended university but was forced to drop out because he could not afford tuition and expenses and had to attend a community college instead. He endured homelessness and supported himself with credit cards; an unsustainable lifestyle that helped inspire the financial services that his meteoric startup, Airfox, now provides.
Victor and his family remained in the United States by repeatedly appealing the USCIS’s visa rejections. After years of uncertainty, Victor found new hope in DACA. Having met the requirements set by the bill designed to create a path to citizenship for over 800,000 young immigrants, he became a “Dreamer” in 2013. “That really saved me,” says Santos, whose DACA status relieved his constant fear of deportation and gave him the confidence to pursue an education and career in the United States.
Victor’s Dreamer status opened doors he otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. He moved to San Francisco, enrolled at U.C. Berkeley, and got his feet wet in the tech sector by working at a local startup between classes. After graduation, Victor landed a job at Google, where he built the knowledge base and skill set that he would need to set up Airfox.
Airfox: A Solution for the Unbanked
Airfox, Santos’s second and most successful startup, was formed with those who struggle under income disparity in mind. During his childhood in Brazil, and his years as an undocumented immigrant, Victor, and his family struggled with the lack of access to capital, which, in turn, damaged their economic and social mobility. Victor’s goal became to create financial solutions for those who lack access to traditional banks. Airfox aims to empower those who need capital by offering short-term loans with low fees using nontraditional credit evaluation methods that banks and other lenders overlook.
The service also offers a digital wallet, allowing those without regular bank accounts to make online purchases. The app has bill pay options and lets users deposit or transfer funds with a few taps on their smartphone. Although similar apps, like Venmo and CashApp, offer similar services, Airfox is unique in that customers don’t need an existing bank account to use it. For those in developing countries, like Santos’s home country of Brazil, where the app first launched, this offers a wealth of opportunities and helps close the capital gap that keeps people from achieving their dreams.
Supporting Other Entrepreneurs
Santos is particularly interested in helping those who hope to break into the tech and engineering sectors. “Airfox supports individuals who struggle to access the resources they need from institutional banks with impossible requirements,” he wrote in an email. “We provide access to the kinds of financial services that are paramount to individuals striving to advance in emerging economies.” By the end of 2018, Airfox is on track to be offering about 10,000 loans per month to about 200,000 users, with no sign of slowing down. At this stage, the main threat to Airfox isn’t lack of interest in the product; it’s whether or not its CEO and Co-Founder will be allowed to remain in the United States and continue leading the company through crucial stages of its development.
An Uncertain Future
With tensions surrounding immigration policy increasing, and regular threats to eliminate DACA from the Trump administration, Airfox’s future is a toss-up. Its continued operations are riding on Congress’s decisions about what should happen to Dreamers. Victor Santos is, understandably, nervous about what the future holds if he is forced to return to Brazil. “A lot of DACA recipients, including myself, are very scared all the time,” Santos wrote. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, and in the meantime, people use our identity against us.” Santos feels the sting of being labeled an enemy of the United States practically overnight, and voices frustrations about how immigrants are viewed by many factions of the American public. In an interview with The Guardian, he points out, “Were the U.S. to deport all DACA recipients; estimates predict that the US would lose $60bn in federal taxes and $460.3bn in economic growth over the next ten years. Dreamers are not the problem. We are a part of the solution.”
Santos explains that, although Airfox might still succeed if he were to be deported, it is, first and foremost, an American company hungry to hire American talent. “We are a heavy engineering company, and all of our coders are in Boston,” he says. “The Brazilian market is just not comparable in terms of talent and execution.” Santos is quick to point out his company’s economic impact in the United States. Airfox has raised $16.5 million in funding and employs 20 people in Boston, with endless potential to hire more motivated tech workers.
“Reaching for the American Dream”
Victor Santos cites his parent’s tenacity and refusal to give up as part of his drive to become an entrepreneur. He saw their struggle firsthand and watched as they embraced the American Dream of arriving with next to nothing and building a life in the United States. Even though he was born in Brazil, he considers himself to be as much of an American as his native-born peers. “I grew up in America. I attended American public schools. I’ve founded American companies. I’ve paid taxes since I entered the workforce. I think, speak and dream American. This is my home,” he says.
At only 27 years old, Victor Santos has managed to create a lasting positive impact, founded on the principle that upward mobility is not only possible; it is necessary for enacting real social and economic change. His frustrations reflect the experiences of many Dreamers and would-be immigrants who want to contribute to the country they consider their own, but who are facing politically-motivated discrimination and uncertainty. “I’m an immigrant reaching out for the American Dream.” Victor says, “But America is no longer reaching back.”
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