Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Vital for American Innovation
Open borders brought Andrew Carnegie and Andy Grove to the U.S. They also brought Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger, a slew of German theoretical physicists to work on the Manhattan Project, and countless investors and entrepreneurs, including me.
Immigrants to the U.S. have been transforming the industrial geography and the technology landscape since the 1860s when Scottish-born Andrew Carnegie launched Keystone Bridge Company, which became the cornerstone of his mammoth steel empire. A century later, Palestinian-born Jesse Aweida launched Storage Technology in Colorado, spawning an ecosystem of storage companies in the region. Shanghai-born An Wang turned a $600 investment into Wang Laboratories in Boston in 1951, and nearly five decades later Russian-born Sergey Brin co-founded Google.
For venture capitalists who invest in the earliest stages of a business, the ability to draw on a vast pool of trained and experienced technology minds is critical. Indeed, many investments would probably never have been made if the right team, often including experts born outside of the U.S., had not been assembled.
Could some of these companies have been started by homegrown entrepreneurs? Possibly. But founding teams, especially in high tech, are a unique blend of knowledge, skill, and endeavor. Today, they are as likely to be immigrant as U.S.-born. Importantly, U.S. investors have a privilege those of no other nation have: to pick from a pool of the very best globally.
Fostering innovation in the 21st century is a uniquely challenging phenomenon. It’s about bringing together people and ideas. No country has nurtured innovation better than the United States, in large part due to our ability to attract the best minds in science and engineering from around the world. Diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths.
A few contemporary examples of immigrant entrepreneurship: Aditazz, which aims to revolutionize building construction, was co-founded by Deepak Aatresh from India and Felicia Borkovi from Romania; Cellworks, designing new therapies that target a range of health issues, founded by Taher Abbasi, Shireen Vali, and Pradeep Fernandes, all foreign-born and U.S.- educated; high-def videowall maker Prysm was started by Amit Jain from India and Roger Hajjar from Lebanon, who studied at Boston University; and big data innovator Guavus was launched by Anukool Lakhina, another immigrant entrepreneur.
More than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants (90 companies) or by their children (an additional 114 companies), according to a report by the Partnership for a New American Economy.
In 2011, two of every three electrical engineering Ph.D. degrees in the U.S. were awarded to foreign nationals. Nearly as high a ratio of all E.E. Masters degrees were too, the National Science Foundation reports. These graduates are here in the U.S., ready to create companies and employ others. The cost of creating innovation teams around them would be far less—and the chance of success far greater—if we could be certain that those we recruit will be here for the longer run. Increasing the allocations of and more strategically implementing H1-B visas is crucial. FWD.us is one tech-industry-led organization (started by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg) that is fighting for such changes, through its support for comprehensive immigration reform.
The entrepreneur visa should also be part of the mix. Immigrants who have raised money from qualified investors already are permitted to work in the U.S. But the process of demonstrating that is costly and complex, bureaucratic and time consuming. The true test for the entrepreneur visa shouldn’t be whether someone can fight the regulators to a standoff. It should simply be, can the entrepreneur build a business that creates jobs and contributes to economic growth?
As immigrant entrepreneurs and immigrant investors, we are especially aware of how fertile the U.S. is for innovation. The access to seminal research, the willingness by investors to risk venture capital, an equities market that is willing to fund ideas still not fully proven, and a legion of corporate buyers all are critical to the process. But nothing is more critical than people and the talent they bring.
Sure, there is controversy over how far-reaching the U.S. guest worker program should be. And recently released reports suggest that Silicon Valley’s claim of a labor shortage—and one rationale for guest workers—is overblown. That may be, but it’s hard to question the necessity of tapping the best pool of talent—homegrown and foreign—to maintain our leadership as innovators.
In his book “The Next 100 Years,” Futurist George Friedman says that in the first half of the 21st century the population bust will create a major labor shortage in advanced industrial countries. “Today, developed countries see the problem as keeping immigrants out. Later, in the first half of the twenty-first century, the problem will be persuading them to come,” he writes.
We already have a willing army of highly skilled technology innovator immigrants here. Immigrants that aren’t displacing other workers aren’t depressing wages—simply building on the innovation leadership of America. We should focus on keeping them here.
Yatin Mundkur is a managing partner at Artiman Ventures, a Palo Alto venture capital firm.