Recognize immigrants as powerful source of entrepreneurship, innovation

By James Barrood, New Jersey Tech Council
New Jersey | Aug 22, 2019 at 12:34 pm
Op-Ed

In tech, we live and breathe innovation and entrepreneurship. Tech-driven innovation, for all its challenges, keeps New Jersey’s economy thriving — and America’s. It means saving lives through new medicines and devices, empowering people to be more creative and independent, widening access to knowledge and culture. It’s crucial for reasons that go way beyond gross domestic product. But we rarely consider just how essential diversity and openness to foreigners are to tech innovation and entrepreneurship. We’d better — because these advantages are at risk.

Immigrants establish 27.5% of new businesses in the United States: more than twice their percentage of the population. Here in New Jersey — and also New York — immigrants create more than 40% of new businesses. You may know the high-profile examples of immigrant entrepreneurs: Google’s Sergey Brin, Tesla’s Elon Musk, Intel’s Andrew Grove, eBay’s Pierre Omidyar. But what about Slack, Peloton, Affirm, Avant, CrowdStrike, JetSmarter, Warby Parker, WeWork, PayPal, LinkedIn? All founded or co-founded by immigrants.

Attitudes towards immigration shape nations’ ability to benefit from their entrepreneurship. While recent polls actually show Americans becoming more supportive of immigration, what foreigners see in law, regulation and official pronouncements tells a different story. As Stuart Anderson writes in Forbes, it’s become harder to hire or retain high-skilled foreigners, including international students in STEM disciplines.

The current presidential administration also has canceled a new startup visa program in its infancy, relegating foreign entrepreneurs to a short-term “parole status” process typically limited to those here on humanitarian relief missions. While America was doing that, Canada launched and expanded its own Entrepreneur Start-up Visa program, and made it easier to welcome foreign high-tech talent.

Canada’s openness to innovative foreigners is helping grow its tech sector more broadly. As Fast Company recently reported, Toronto now hosts North America’s fourth-largest group of tech workers. Since 2017, it’s added more tech jobs than Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., New York City and Seattle combined. In just the past several months, Uber, Microsoft, Samsung, Intel and Shopify have all announced expansions there — and Canada’s openness is a key reason.

Research suggests that entrepreneurial individuals are likelier to migrate: they’re the people most prepared to overcome the fears and challenges associated with building something new in an unfamiliar environment. But, as Peter Vandor and Nikolaus Franke recently wrote in Harvard Business Review, something else may be at work, too. Their research suggests that cross-cultural experiences help entrepreneurs identify promising business ideas to borrow and adapt for new markets. (Dietrich Mateschitz visits Thailand, sees an inexpensive energy drink, returns home and invents Red Bull.)

The implication: Even companies that operate primarily within the U.S. can benefit from immigration, by continually leveraging the experiences and insights of colleagues born elsewhere — if given the chance.

America’s history reflects a constant tension between welcoming foreigners and keeping them out. That’s not new. Neither is the proclivity of immigrants to create new companies: AT&T and Pfizer were each created by 19th century immigrants. But, we’ve eventually had the confidence to recognize openness as one of America’s most valuable differentiators. The sooner we do so again — in both attitudes and public policy — the better off we’ll be.

James Barrood, New Jersey Tech Council.

ROI-NJ Staff | editorial@roi-nj.com | @ROINJNews