Immigration policy must target entrepreneurs
Opening the doors to skilled talent will boost economies on both sides of Atlantic, says leading academic
Vivek Wadhwa: “We’ve messed up the magic formula. It used to be that you could get a green card [in the US] within 18 months. Now it takes about 15 years.”
In just a few years, successful entrepreneur-turned-academic Vivek Wadhwa has become the go-to guy in the United States for research into a phenomenon perhaps best recognised in Silicon Valley: the close connection between entrepreneurship and highly skilled immigrants.
Work he produced five years ago showed that more than half of Silicon Valley companies had an immigrant founder, often Indian or Chinese. His writings for a range of publications point to more evidence: 40 per cent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by first generation immigrants or their children.
Immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a business. They comprise three-quarters of the key product or management teams in VentureSource’s 2011 top ranked venture-backed companies.
And now, Wadhwa has become a leading voice for US immigration law reform, an issue that, having been highlighted by President Barack Obama, has made its way onto the current political agenda – writing opinion pieces, quoted by politicians.
Trying to catch up with him can be hard. One week he is on the US east coast, where he holds positions at Duke and Emory universities. The next, he’s back to his home base in Silicon Valley, where he holds another position at Stanford University, and is vice-president of academics and innovation, Singularity University, a unique venture based at Nasa’s Silicon Valley research park.
Sitting in an old Spanish-style building part-occupied by Singularity University – and once used as astronauts’ quarters – the amiable Indian native argues that, given economic stagnation, not only should the US introduce a proper entrepreneur visa, but it should dump so-called “diversity visas” (a significant share of which have been historically targeted at Ireland) and instead give them to skilled workers and graduates in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.
“If you look at Silicon Valley during the last technology boom, 1995 to 2005, 52 per cent of the start-ups have been founded by immigrants,” he says.
“I’ve been researching what makes Silicon Valley tick, and it’s really the diversity. It’s the free thinking, the sharing of ideas, a fearlessness to take risks, that makes it what it is. And all of this comes with the immigrants who are coming here.
“You come here knowing you have to prove yourself again and you have to succeed at all costs. So you’re a risk taker. You come with a different background. You come with a global outlook.”
That’s why he believes immigrants are so driven to found companies. But he is alarmed that the H1B immigrant visa system, which for years has been oversubscribed and in huge demand from technology companies, is so broken that those immigrants are leaving the US and returning home to establish their start-ups – to the detriment of the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the entire US economy.
“We’ve messed up the magic formula. It used to be that you could get a green card within 18 months. Now it takes about 15 years, and the trouble is you can’t change jobs within that 15 years, so if you started as a computer programmer, you can’t now become a manager, you can’t now move in to product design or project management.