Immigrant Founders: Are They Vital To Our Economy?

Whenever I’m in the middle of or around heated debates, I find that I can easily 1) Lose my cool, and 2) Lose my ability to think about facts. And there is a simple reason for this. My brain (and yours, too) literally goes from operating in the prefrontal cortex (the part of our brains responsible for personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior)1 into the area of the brain known as the amygdala (the part of our brains responsible for how we experience emotions—especially fear).2 And when this shift happens, it’s incredibly hard to think objectively because our brains have moved into a flight-or-fight response.3

Unfortunately, the fear center of our brains is where I think we spend most of our time these days, especially when it comes to debates about immigration. If you’ve spent any time on Twitter or Facebook, this is no surprise to you. And it isn’t just a problem in the States. Angela Merkel might lose her position as German Chancellor because of her stance on immigration, and Italy and France aren’t strangers to heated debates on the topic, either. And that’s truly just naming a few of the many debates around immigration happening around the world right now.

It’s not that I think we shouldn’t be passionate about our beliefs. For me, the issue is that so few of us are actually looking at the facts when it comes to immigration. And it definitely doesn’t help that statements on the topic are coming from all over the place. While many of them are true, most are simply opinion. And unfortunately, many of those opinions are framing our discussion and policies on immigration.

Do immigrants really “take away” our jobs?
What are “our” jobs anyway?
Do immigrants cause wages to stagnate?

What people seem to be asking is: Do immigrants decrease my ability to succeed?

So last week, I got curious to find some of my own answers and I came across this incredibly in-depth report from Partnership for a New American Economy and the Kauffman Foundation. Here’s what I found:

Immigrant Founders

Think about all of the jobs created by Fortune 500 companies. If you want the grand total, it’s around 26 million, based on data from 2013. But who started those companies? Eighteen percent, or 90 companies, on the Fortune 500 list in 2010 had at least one immigrant founder. But check this out: 23% of the Fortune 500 firms, or 114 companies, had at least one founder with an immigrant parent. So more than 40 percent of firms—or two in five companies in the Fortune 500—had at least one founder who was either an immigrant or raised by someone who immigrated to the United States. And even if you just look at the newest Fortune 500 companies—those created between 1985 and 2010—20% of them had an immigrant founder.

Here are more incredible stats:

  • Seven of the 10 most valuable brands in the world come from American companies founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. Brands like Apple, Google, AT&T, Budweiser, Colgate, eBay, General Electric, IBM, and McDonald’s owe their origin to a founder who was an immigrant or the child of an immigrant.
  • In 2010, companies founded by immigrants or children of immigrants generated more than $4.2 trillion in revenues.
  • Fortune 500 companies founded by immigrants or children of immigrants employ more than 10 million people worldwide.
  • Switching gears a bit to focus on startups, immigrants are almost twice as likely to start businesses in the United States as native-born Americans.
  • Immigrant founders from top venture-backed firms have created an estimated average of 150 jobs per company.
  • And, just in the engineering and high-tech sectors, immigrant-founded startup firms employed some 560,000 workers and generated $63 billion in sales in 2012.

What We Can Do

When I’m immersed in this kind of information or seeing the debate taking place online (or around our dinner tables or in our offices, even) I’m usually driven to one of two things: despair or action. And I’m trying everything I can to focus on action. Thankfully, that report by Kauffman also compiled a bunch of ways we can actually work to make the road a lot easier for immigrants to get here…and build businesses. Here’s what I’m personally getting excited about from their report:

A Startup Visa
This type of visa “authorizes non-citizens to start and operate a business in [a] host country,” thereby giving us the benefits of everything we see above without actually increasing the number of citizens in any given country. Unfortunately, this type of visa doesn’t yet exist in the United States. But Kauffman estimates that—if we did—it would create 500,000 to 1.6 million new American jobs.

Global Entrepreneurs in Residence
Rather than only issuing visas from the Federal level, states like Massachusetts have created a pilot program where “venture development centers affiliated with the University of Massachusetts began to employ ‘resident entrepreneurs’ on an H-1B visa” (found in that same Kauffman report). And while federal law limits the number of these visas that can be distributed every year, non-profit organizations don’t have to follow those limits.

Partnering with Cities
There are two ways I’ve heard that cities are working directly with and supporting immigrant populations. The first example is Welcoming America, an organization that “encourages cities and regions to recognize and enhance the contributions of immigrants.” One city in this network, Dayton, OH, works with existing institutions to engage and train immigrant entrepreneurs to develop new businesses that sustain long-term economic growth. The second example is the Mosaic Project in St. Louis, which assists immigrant entrepreneurs in their quest to run successful businesses by providing them with mentors and networks to guide them through the business process.

Moving Forward

In light of all of this, I hope you’ll join me in researching the facts and having a discussion about what’s happening with immigration, wherever you call home. I hope that you’ll listen more than you talk. I hope you’ll be passionate but not defensive. And together, I hope we’ll come up with more ways to work with all people who want to work with us. Because—one day—we might not be the kind of country that people turn to for economic and social opportunities that will improve their lives. When, in fact, we really, really need them if we expect the same kind of success we’ve experienced already, in a long, beautiful history of diverse people and diverse ideas enriching our society.