Winning the Lottery: How Immigrant Marketers Become American Marketers

Hal Conick
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways
​What? Many international marketers are now trained at U.S. universities. However, the H-1B lottery process leaves them with a one-out-of-three chance to work in the U.S. 

​So what? “Would it make sense for U.S. companies to ignore such a large pool of talent if they want to compete globally?” asks Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy.

Now what? Fiona Brook, an attorney who works with marketers applying for H-1B, says the program should be revised so that it is less random. Now, with a new president, the question remains: Will the H-1B visa application process change? 
Nov. 28, 2016

​There’s a one-in-three chance at success for foreign marketers who want to chase the American Dream.


Worry set in for Polina Haryacha. She had two marketing degrees from Ukraine—a bachelor’s and a master’s—a marketing certificate from UCLA and a marketing job in America that she loved, but lawyers told her there was a 50-50 chance she’d be forced to leave the U.S.

“I got really sad because I liked the job, and I wanted to stay here,” she says. 

Haryacha’s coin-flip odds to stay stateside came because of the H-1B, a non-immigrant visa that allows foreigners to work in the U.S. for three years. Her attorney, Fiona Brook, received an expansive request for evidence from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that asked why Haryacha’s role as a marketing product manager should be considered a “specialty occupation” that requires “technical or theoretical expertise,” all H-1B requirements. Haryacha’s heart sunk; “It was really bad,” she says, figuring the request meant her chance of staying had dropped. 

It’s not easy to be an international marketer attempting to secure a U.S. visa, which is “won” via a lottery. Each January, Brook starts working with clients to file their applications, a time-consuming process that can cost between $4,000 and $5,000. By April, they’re filed; applicants’ fates are not determined until June or July. 

“You don’t know where you stand,” Brook says. “You don’t know if you need to give up your apartment, your car, your friends, your accounts. If you didn’t make the quota, you have to make alternative plans, either to change your visa or … a lot of clients will just study further, just extend their student visa.”

In the end, Haryacha was lucky. She was one of 85,000 who won the H-1B lottery (65,000 of whom were bachelor’s degree holders or those with equal work experience, and 20,000 of whom had a master’s degree or doctorate) and works as a senior product marketing manager at 

However, with the number of H-1B applications on the rise, odds for future marketers to win may be shrinking. In 2014, 172,500 applications were submitted to USCIS; in 2015, it was 233,000, and in 2016, 236,000 applications. 

All told, there’s a one-in-three chance at success for foreign marketers who want to chase the American Dream.

Win Some, Lose Some

TJ Lim was lucky, too; he won his visa while working as a senior analyst of marketing analytics at Fidelity Investments. Lim arrived from the Philippines after being accepted to Yale University, then earned his master’s in marketing analytics at Bentley University before going to the Wharton School of Business for his MBA. 

Lim’s Wharton classmate Shin-Yi Lim (no relation) wasn’t as fortunate. She came to the U.S. from Malaysia and received a bachelor’s degree in biological chemistry from the University of Chicago and an MBA from Wharton, where she specialized in marketing and operations management. After accepting a job from Microsoft in 2013, Shin-Yi Lim applied for the 2014 H-1B lottery. After months of nervously waiting for good news, she was not selected in the lottery. 

Shin-Yi sighed when asked about the process, betraying her frustration and uncertainty felt during the process. 

“For a country that’s run on merits, it’s hard to process and comprehend that it all comes down to a lottery, a blind lottery, and it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been here,” she says. “I spent seven years of my adult life in the U.S. … I waited all the way up to the end of May before my lawyer said, ‘Yep, almost definitely you aren’t getting the visa.’”

She shifted to “Plan B,” moving to Canada to work at Microsoft’s Vancouver office, but found the country’s visa process would take too long. On to “Plan C”: Microsoft’s Singapore office, where she stayed for 15 months before winning a spot in the following year’s H-1B lottery and moving to Seattle. She considers herself lucky to have a job, especially at a large U.S. company, but remains frustrated by the lottery.

The Importance of H-1B in Modern Marketing

The H-1B is America’s “secret weapon,” said theoretical physicist and futurist Michio Kaku at a 2011 SAP event

“Without the H-1B, the scientific establishment of this country would collapse. Forget about Google, forget about Silicon Valley, there would be no Silicon Valley without the H-1B. And you know what the H-1B is? It’s the genius visa,” he said. “The United States is a magnet sucking up all the brains of the world, but now the brains are going back. They’re going back to China. They’re going back to India and people are saying, ‘Oh my god, there’s a Silicon Valley in India now! There’s a Silicon Valley in China now.’ DUH! Where did it come from? It came from the United States.”

Marketing’s scientific and technological growth has been undeniable in recent years. As tech grows, data scientists and techies are drawn to the industry by its lucrative uses of Big Data and its desire for innovation. A Venture Beat report found the average company will increase its marketing analytics budget by 73% in the next three years, an expansion that is closer to 100% for big B-to-C companies. 

Globalization has also become a focus in marketing as international companies evangelize their brands across the world. Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, wrote on that when companies visit college campuses to meet with graduate and doctoral students, they often find that more than half the study body is foreign-born. While there are no marketing-specific statistics, top MBA programs for marketers boast high international numbers. Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, ranked as the No. 1 marketing graduate program by U.S. News and World Report, says more than 30% of its students are from outside of the country. Wharton at University of Pennsylvania, ranked No. 2 by the same report, boasts an alumni network across 153 countries and six continents. 

“Would it make sense for U.S. companies to ignore such a large pool of talent if they want to compete globally?” Anderson wrote. “It is a reasonable question, and most companies would say it would not make sense to ignore this talent pool.”

Marketers know the follies of randomly carried-out or poorly planned campaigns. Pick an arbitrary campaign slogan, color scheme and target audience? Be prepared for terrible ROI. However, in the ultimate irony, the visa that allows students across measurable fields to work stateside is predicated on a randomized lottery. Degrees, work and knowledge only matter to a point; after applying for H-1B, randomness reigns supreme. 

The Process for Marketers to Win an H-1B Visa

Filing for an H-1B visa is difficult for well-qualified STEM professionals, and it’s no different for marketers.

Haryacha’s application process was so frustrating that she wrote a lengthy LinkedIn article after she won the lottery to give other international marketers hope and advice on improving their chances. 

“Make sure your immigration lawyer has substantial experience with filing H-1B applications for marketing positions,” she wrote as a general tip. “It’s even better if he or she has a track record of success stories involving RFEs [requests for evidence] for complex marketing cases.”

Brook, her attorney, has that desired track record, as she’s represented a multitude of marketers in H-1B cases. Brook “knows the pain” of the immigrant worker, as she came to the U.S. from South Africa years ago on an H-1B visa. 

Historically, marketers have a tough time obtaining an H-1B, Brook says. They often receive thick booklets requesting evidence for why marketing or public relations positions are “professional.” Brook says USCIS requests would ask, “Why do you need a degree?” or “Can’t someone who is really sharp and has years of experience do the same job duties?”

“I haven’t seen that lately because the industry has evolved so much,” Brook says. “Digital and social media has made it very specialized. Immigration now sees that you really do need people in these kinds of professional positions​.”

H-1B visas require candidates to have a bachelor’s degree, or foreign equivalent degree, or equivalent work experience. This ends up being a “complicated formula,” Brook says, which makes the process especially tricky for marketers, who don’t necessarily need a specific marketing degree to get a specialized job in the field.

After graduation, with a year of visa-free optional practical training between, young hopefuls file for the H-1B visa. Sometimes, they’re accepted. Two-thirds of the time, they’re rejected straightaway.

“[I] go back to [clients] and say, ‘I’m sorry, it wasn’t accepted. It was a random lottery.’ Then they have to scramble,” she says. “Do they leave? Do they study more? Do they look at other options? I’ve had people change to tourist visas, I’ve had people get married. You really have to scramble to get yourself in status. People don’t want to break the law.”

A lottery win means people are cleared for work for three years with a three-year extension available without having to re-enter another year’s lottery. Green card applications for permanent residency can be filed during the six years of the H-1B. If these applications are filed before the fifth year, Brook says the H-1B can continue to extend beyond six years. However, this can be a double-edged sword, as she’s had clients on H-1B visas waiting for a green card for more than a decade due to backlogs from their home country, most commonly China or India. 

“It’s very frustrating,” Brook says. “They’re stuck in jobs. Obviously the expense and ability to travel and so many things are impacted. But it is a bridge and it will allow you to extend your H-1B if you filed it in time while you wait for your green card.”

Marcelo Barros, international career expert and author of The International Advantage: Get Noticed. Get Hired!, says he’s seen more marketers win H-1Bs in recent years as companies focus on globalizing. This has led to a greater need for marketers who know the international market.

“Marketing is all about analytics these days,” he says. “Analytics is statically driven; it’s math-based. A lot of international students will play very well in that space. They’re very strong in that. … I do feel the trends in marketing—analytics, globalization—completely favor international students.”

How can international marketers take advantage? Typically, it starts when candidates find a job that aligns with their interests, he says, usually with a company that is expanding into new markets and knows an international marketer may have expertise that’s “worth sponsoring.” These jobs have become easier to find with the increase of corporations and worldwide marketing initiatives, Barros says. 

Even so, the rising ease in attaining marketing jobs gives an advantage to students only if they “fully exploit those opportunities,” Barros says. Some do, some do not. 

“The students who don’t succeed are often not maximizing the opportunities that are there for them,” he says. “Either because they’re not aware of [them], or they’re not being coached in the most effective way possible. Or they’re just simply unprepared to capitalize on what’s available. … This means a lot of networking and identification of high-growth companies that have a need or want for international expansion.”

Preparing for Life After University 

Many international workers start their training in U.S. universities. NAFSA: Association for International Educators found there were 974,926 international students stateside during the 2014-2015 school year, up from 886,052 in 2013-2014. To put that in perspective, there is a total of 20.5 million students attending universities in fall 2016, per the National Center for Educational Statistics. 

Angela Lee, chair of Kellogg’s marketing department, has a simple philosophy for preparing students for life after school: “We teach them, that’s how we prepare them.” This preparation needs to be based in reality, as international students must know about the uphill battle they face to stay in the U.S., Lee says.

Some companies simply don’t want to take the risk of hiring a visa worker. If an American and a foreign marketer are in the running for a job, it will likely go to the American, Lee says. No company will admit this due to the possibility of discrimination, but cheaper transition costs matter; it’s a “huge investment” for companies to hire, train and apply for H-1B visas for foreign employees, she says. 

“Now, of course, if someone is clearly better and is an established team member of the company, then companies would be willing to go out of their way to help this candidate apply for the work permit or residency,” she says, adding that different companies have their own hiring practices.

TJ Lim, who now works as director of client strategy at UBS, says Wharton was honest about what he’d be up against in the U.S. job market. The school gave him access to search engines to seek jobs that sponsor international students but warned him that there was a chance he could still lose the lottery, even if he did find a job. 

Shin-Yi Lim, now working as a campaign business manager at Microsoft, painted a different picture of Wharton’s preparation, saying it took a lot of online searching and speaking with other international students to try and “piece the puzzle together.” Brook says she’s sure “there’s a lot of chatter on campus,” as students she encounters learn the most about H-1B through word-of-mouth and designated student officers. 

As for interviewing, networking and other career services, Lee says Northwestern’s International Office has resources that professors simply don’t. Barros agrees; most professors consider career help to be outside of their scope. Career offices are a better resource, but it is a rarity to see companies post job listings for international employees on a university website, he says, let alone forming a relationship with universities for this purpose. 

However, Kellogg does this by bringing recruiters to campus who are interested in and open to hiring international students in the U.S., according to Lee. Some may be a poor match, but it’s a vital tool in the uphill battle for legal status. 

Economy and Controversy

One big worry—and many say the visa’s Achilles’ heel—is how many companies try to game the H-1B system. For example, some companies apply for multiple H-1B visas for the same employee under different subsidiary names, Brook says, which is not allowed under the visa’s rules. Those who are found out are disqualified, but many are successful. 

The New York Times reported that in 2014, more than a third of visas went to outsourcing firms that provide temporary workers for companies like Toys ‘R’ Us and Disney. These firms included Tata Consultancy Service, an IT consulting firm based in India, which won 5,650 visas (6.6% of total H-1Bs) in 2014, and Infosys, also an IT consulting firm based in India, which won 3,454 visas (4% of total H-1Bs). Both firms, which saw their shares of H-1B workers rise nearly 100% from 2005 to 2012, ranked toward the bottom in terms of wage distribution.

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute ​(EPI), says the H-1B is not serving the country as it was intended and is in need of reform. Somewhere between 40% and 50% of the visas are given to “offshore” work at a cheaper rate, he says, as companies bring H-1B winners to the U.S., train them and send them back to their home country, mainly India and China. Companies may save in excess of $20 per hour, but he says they hurt the economy and legitimize the program’s negative reputation of stealing jobs from American workers.

“It’s been gradually building over time; it’s been going on more than the past 10 years,” he says. “We first started writing about this problem back in 2006 and it was already a large problem back then.”

Instead of continuing in this way, Eisenbrey says immigrant workers should have a sensible path toward permanent residency, the shady tactics of outsourcing companies should be quelled and companies should not be allowed to hire at substantially less than the prevailing wage for the area, industry and position. 

“If you’re a company looking for a software developer, and the prevailing wage in the area is $120,000 and you advertise for the job at $70,000, your chances of getting somebody not very good are very good,” he says. “You could make the case that ‘I tried to find someone and I couldn’t find them,’ then you bring someone in from overseas at $70,000. You’re undercutting the labor market, you’re denying people who put in a lot of education and have a lot of experience, and this is not a small matter. The chances of discriminating against older employees, women and racial minorities goes way up.”

Eisenbrey says if H-1B was working as intended—to fill a gap in the economy that cannot be found stateside—it would complement U.S. workers. This, in turn, would increase productivity and bolster the economy.

“But if it’s really just bringing in somebody who is cheaper, then it’s not helping the economy,” he says. “It’s depressing wages and increasing unemployment here, and it really doesn’t have a benefit to anybody but the company that is getting the higher profit by virtue of using the cheaper worker.”

Should Randomness Stand?

One commonality among most who discuss the H-1B process is a disdain for the lottery’s randomness: if a certain number pops up, citizenship is granted for the next three years. If it doesn’t, better luck next time. Brook believes this system works to keep some of the brightest, U.S.-educated minds out of the country.

Brook suggests dropping the “random quota” as an improvement. “They need to make it all [based] off merit or increase the cap, and maybe they can increase the fee so they could make sure people are serious about applying and not having multiple applications. There’s a lot that can be done, but [it needs to] start with it not being a random number.”

Shin-Yi Lim, who initially suffered bad lottery luck, agrees the luck-of-the-draw approach casts too wide a net and misses many talented individuals. The system does not weigh whether a worker has any familiarity with the U.S., she says, so visas are granted to many without stateside experience. 

“That happened to me, too; I was in Singapore when they put me in the lottery,” she says. “But at the same time, it’s the idea that the number [accepted] has not been revised and reviewed in more than a decade. It’s frustrating.”

TJ Lim suggests a system based on supply and demand. Is there greater need for data scientists or marketers one year? Grant that group more H-1B visas. A need for biologists in another year? Allow them more visas. This, he says, would ensure both the quantity and quality of the immigrants entering the U.S. The world is different now, he says, more measured; changing times call for a changed system.

“Right now, the reason why things are so oversubscribed is there are certain companies that apply like crazy the minute the process is open,” he says. “A, it’s not fair and B, it’s gaming the system, but it’s also very inefficient for the economy. 

Not all hope is lost for international marketers looking for work. Haryacha’s story isn’t an exception, Barros says: “There are a lot of stories like that. It depends on the student’s ability to capitalize on what’s out there.”

However, Brook says the randomness must be addressed and “brought into line with modern times.”

“They really need to start again with it because they’re keeping out really top people,” Brook says.

SIDEBAR: H-1B’s History

The H-1B visa program began as part of the Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT). Congress initially set the number of available visas to 65,000, but that number expanded to 195,000 in 2001, according to VisaNow, before shrinking back down to 65,000 in 2004 by order of former President George W. Bush’s administration. Many people believed H-1B took jobs away from U.S. workers. 

Bush also signed the L-1 Visa and H-1B Visa Reform Act of 2004 into law, which is a salary standard set by industry expectations to quell those intent on hiring foreign workers at a lower rate.

An additional 20,000 visas are available for those who graduated with a doctorate or master’s degree from a U.S. university. Most end up going to STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

SIDEBAR: Lottery Lawsuits

There have been at least two lawsuits filed against USCIS in the past year in an effort to better understand H-1B’s lottery. 

In the most recent case, filed in 2016, Tenrec, Inc. v. USCIS, Parrilli and Renison’s website says: “The purpose of the class action lawsuit is to allow those with rejected H-1B petitions the opportunity to re-submit petitions and receive a place in line ahead of those who file for the first time at a later date. This remedy would provide ‘priority’ for next fiscal year’s H-1B numbers to those who had filed for an H-1B this year, or in previous years, and were not selected in the random lottery.”

Another lawsuit, filed by American Immigration Council and Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym, Ltd. in 2016, seeks more information about how the electronic selection process of the H-1B lottery process works and if all the lottery numbers are properly allocated.

SIDEBAR: Alternative Options to the H-1B for International Marketers 

There are alternative visas (or options) for international marketers looking to stay stateside, Brook says. For example:

Non-immigrant NAFTA Professional, or TN, visa for citizens of Mexico and Canada 

H1B1 visa for citizens of Singapore and Chili 

E3 visa for Australian citizens

Specialty occupation H-1B visa for those with exceptional work experience

Certain positions are exempt from the quota, such as work at nonprofit organizations, research education facilities and university work

J-1 visa, or Exchange Visitor non-immigrant visa, can work for those accepted into work- or study-based exchange visitor programs. This visa, however, is much less permanent than the others; J-1 visa-holders would have to return to their home country for two years before finding a bridge to permanent residency.

O-1 Visa for “individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement,” which Brook says is for those who are distinguished in their field via presentations, awards, articles or innovation in research. This is a three-year visa for people with a U.S. job and who “already have a good career and have made their mark.”



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Author Bio:
Hal Conick
Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @HalConick.
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