Over the past 3 months I’ve worked on a task force with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS/DHS). The Entrepreneur in Residence program brought a group of private sector entrepreneurs and investors together with USCIS experts to help streamline the immigration pathway for foreign entrepreneurs to start high growth technology companies in the US or join startups (you can read more in this White House blog post). Last Monday we had the opportunity to host an update on the progress of the task force at Georgia Tech
I’m not an immigrant – I grew up in a small town in North Carolina. So why am I volunteering my time for this effort?
In part, because I believe access to technical talent is the biggest threat to our global competitiveness and ability to innovate. Clearly the US needs to focus on nurturing more STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) talent here at home. But we also need to continue what has worked for the country in the past – attracting the best minds from all over the world. It’s a cliché we often hear, but it’s true – we are a nation of immigrants.
But the real reason this resonated with me is because during my time as an EIR at ATDC I’ve come to believe keeping talent here in Atlanta is one of the biggest keys to strengthening our startup community.
Startups will tell you the students they recruit out of Tech want to go work for Google or Facebook and talk about how we need to do more to highlight the startup community here in Atlanta to retain them. They are right. Fortunately folks like Keith McGreggor are working to become on-campus evangelists for the startup community and the execs at the companies at ATDC are becoming more active in the Georgia Tech community.
But there’s another issue – we’re losing much of that talent not just to other tech hubs and companies here in the US – we’re losing them to other countries.
One of the coolest parts about being an EIR at ATDC is seeing all of the incredible technology innovations coming out of Georgia Tech and other research universities in the area. Commercializing these innovations represents enormous economic development and job creation opportunities.
Behind each of those innovations are teams of professors and students. At Georgia Tech, about half of those inventors and would be entrepreneurs are foreign born. They came to the US to study because we have the best universities and advanced degree programs in the world.
For graduates that want to go work for large established companies, the immigration pathway is clear. But for those that want to commercialize their innovations, immigration obstacles often prevent them from starting a company or joining a technology startup.
Many would say “So what… let them get a job with a big company or go home. Leave those startup jobs to Americans.” While unemployment in Georgia is over 8%, unemployment in the technology sector is less than half at 3.2%. Money and talent are the two biggest challenges for the early stage companies. I run the CEO Roundtable at ATDC and one of the most frequent topics of discussion is how the struggle to find great technical talent is their biggest barrier to growth. Think about that – coming from startup CEOs located on the campus of one of the top engineering schools in the country during a time of record unemployment – and their biggest challenge is hiring the employees they need to grow!
When foreign students get their masters or PhD and take that knowledge with them and start their companies in another country, we lose out on the jobs created and taxes collected from the wealth generated. If they join startups in another country, our local startups can’t hire the talent they need to grow. We lose out on the technical, sales, marketing, and other jobs that come along with the success. In addition, their research is funded by not only by commercial sponsors, but federal and state grants as well. I want the benefit of those taxpayer investments to stay here in the US.
Current immigration laws hurt our economy by losing out on the next Google or PayPal (both co-founded by foreigners) and denying technical employee starved companies like those at ATDC of the talent they need to grow. I attended a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS – part of the Department of Homeland Security) summit in Silicon Valley earlier this year on this topic where leading West Coast VCs and academics outlined the problem and talked about the Startup Visa initiative currently stalled in Congress. They took it farther by outlining the danger of this reverse ‘brain drain’ on US competitiveness and innovation. Other countries like India, China, the UK and Singapore are benefiting not only by recruiting these entrepreneurs and startups, but they are attracting venture investment dollars that would otherwise be invested here in the US. Chile has gotten a lot of attention for a program created to attract the brightest entrepreneurs by not only eliminating immigration barriers, but by giving them $40,000 in seed money to locate there.
USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas deserves a lot of credit for putting this task force together. He gave us incredible access to USCIS officials and allowed us to travel to the regional operations centers to educate the USCIS employees that adjudicate these cases on startups and the realities of business today. Those of us from the private sector gained an appreciation of what a difficult task they face and the complexity of driving change in the immigration process, policies, and laws.
I think we made some important progress in addressing immigration barriers for entrepreneurs and hope to see some of the recommendations implemented soon. It’s a big opportunity to increase the talent pool not just in Atlanta, but nationwide. I’ll share more about our progress, what we learned, and my thoughts on streamlining the pathway for foreign born entrepreneurs in a future post.