May 19, 2010

Attracting the Next Generation

America finds itself confronting a host­­­­­­ of problems – from environmental crises to reform on Wall Street, Congress has no shortage of pressing issues to tackle. One issue stands out to me, however, as particularly important in the effort to attract America’s next generation of global leaders: America needs immigration reform for legal immigrants.

Ever since September 11, 2001, America has been making life extremely difficult for legal immigrants who want to stay in this country, start companies and contribute to the growth of the U.S. economy. In recent years all the focus has been on the 13 million illegal immigrants currently in the country.

From 19th century industrialists like Scottish-American Andrew Carnegie to Yahoo’s Jerry Yang, PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, Google’s Sergey Brin, or Harvard Business School’s recently nominated dean Nitin Nohria, immigrants continue to occupy important positions of leadership in creating and driving the next generation of American businesses to success. Many foreign students come to the U.S. to study at our great universities and stay to study medicine, science or business in America’s leading graduate schools. Yet they are sent back home as their student visas expire. It pains me to see so many of my Harvard Business School students who are sent back to China, India, Africa and many other countries and watch them found dynamic countries there instead of doing so in the U.S.

Leaders who come to America from abroad play a key role in driving companies forward – they fuse together ideas from different cultures, help to disseminate best practices from across the globe, and import new models of innovation from abroad. Moreover, the multinational business networks that these immigrants bring with them can also enable companies to tap into new supply chains and access customers in previously unreachable markets, key competitive advantages in an increasingly interconnected economy. 

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who writes frequently about immigration reform, hits the nail on the head when he describes immigration as a key generator of new and innovative ideas, products, and people that infuse and enrich America’s business community. Critical outside perspective, along with knowledge of foreign markets and best practices outside our borders, are keys to successfully navigating today’s global marketplace.

Politicians would do well to focus on immigration reform for these legal immigrants by expanding the H1b visas for graduates of American graduates, rather than mixing these straightforward issues with the highly complex issues like border security and amnesty. Congress needs to pay particular attention to the following core issues in considering immigration reform:

Retaining students. America’s higher education system is unrivaled in attracting the world’s top engineers, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen to study at its universities. A reformed system should ensure that those who come to the US to study and earn advanced degrees receive a fast-track to citizenship.

Increasing the number of skilled worker visas. Increasing the ceiling on the number of H-1B visas for skilled workers ensures that America continues to attract the top set of leaders. A 2006 study by Duke University found that immigrant entrepreneurs in the United States founded 25.3% of all engineering and technology firms over the past decade, generating an estimated $52 billion (in 2005 dollars) in sales and creating 450,000 jobs. Today only 65,000 H-1B visas are issued per year, despite some 163,000 applications in 2008. These rejected applications represent almost 100,000 workers every year who could dynamically contribute to our nation’s economy and help launch the next generation of entrepreneurial start-ups.

Involve the business community. With such high stakes in an immigration reform bill, Congress needs to ensure that all voices are heard in the debate, particularly those of the business community. To this end, major companies like Cisco, Genentech, and Coca-Cola have formed a coalition, Compete America, to advocate for immigration reform on behalf of the business community.

The bid to attract the world’s top intellectual capital is escalating. Australia, Canada just completed immigration reform overhauls to boost their attractiveness to would-be migrants to the United States. Moreover, countries like China, India, and South Korea, long exporters of their country’s top talent, are fast becoming major centers of innovation and reversing the diaspora of intellectual capital. While ideas like the recently introduced “Start-Up Visa Act” in the Senate are positive starting points on the road to reform, America urgently needs to retool its immigration system to retain and attract the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders. Without reform, we could very well face a future void of the next Intel, Sun Microsystems, or Google.