As the U.S. economy slowly moves out of the recession, it's a good bet that businesses started or led by immigrants will play a substantial role in creating jobs and driving growth. In high tech, for instance, 52 percent of startups launched between 1995 and 2005 were founded by immigrants, and foreign nationals have filed for a quarter of patents in recent years. So why are we so eager to send talented immigrants back to their home countries, instead of keeping them here so they can continue to innovate?
Our unwillingness to champion entrepreneurs, no matter where they come from, is part of a larger attitude problem around entrepreneurship: We don't celebrate their achievements as much as we should, and our government support of entrepreneurs is weak. The end result is that talent is attracted here to attend our finest educational institutions, but may not be so welcomed if it wants to stick around and start a business.
It wasn't always this way. Innovators were revered, and schoolchildren learned the names of the great inventors alongside the names of renowned statesmen. Today, people idolize athletes and celebrities -- and yes, highly successful and visionary business people like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but not the innovators who perhaps have not seen such high-flying levels of success. Can anyone name the inventors of GPS, which has such a huge impact on our lives today? (For the record, Roger Easton, creator of some of the key technologies that led to GPS, was recently inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.)
Aside from an attitude shift toward the valuable contributions of entrepreneurs and inventors, we need to cultivate more support on a government level. We can learn valuable lessons from Start-Up Chile, an effort funded by the Chilean government that aims to attract early-stage entrepreneurs from all over the world to launch their businesses in that country. The program provides subsidies to teams of entrepreneurs along with access to sources of capital. It's a great idea, and one that promises to reap benefits for the country's economy as well as provide a source for jobs.
We need our own American "mobilization" for entrepreneurship and innovators -- one that provides both the practical and inspirational support that will attract foreign talent to bring and grow their ideas here, and will help our homegrown talent thrive. Here's what we need to make this vision happen:
Longer stays for entrepreneurs: We don't have enough of our own innovators in this country, which means we need to encourage budding inventors and entrepreneurs to come here, and stay here. Our current system -- the H-1B visa that allows workers to come here temporarily, along with temporary visas for college students -- doesn't provide a long-term solution.
We need easy and hassle free access to "entrepreneur's visa" -- one that would give deserving startup innovators the time they need to conduct their research, start a company, and see it through to success. The impact on our economy and the job market would be significant.
Support from the White House: The President needs to champion the power of entrepreneurship and innovation to help turn around the economy. This message needs to resonate with high school and college students who are poised to create the next generation of entrepreneurs. It will also help restore some luster to the dulled reputations of innovators. In other needs, we need to make entrepreneurship a cherished national value.
Connections to markets and customers: The prevailing myth is that innovators and their businesses only need startup capital. But more valuable than money would be a mechanism to bring together budding companies with customers and sources of steady income -- perhaps by showcasing their wares on the shelves of America's powerhouse retailers. Under the direction of the President or a specially created entrepreneurship council, a hundred or so CEOs could meet entrepreneurs and learn more about their innovations. Major retailers could create an "innovation aisle" in their stores to promote new inventions, helping create a funding pipeline to worthy businesses.
Programs for college entrepreneurs: More schools need to drive the growth of innovation and entrepreneurship via special training or degree tracks. For instance, Babson College infuses entrepreneurship throughout its curriculum -- in fact, one of its most popular classes, the "Ultimate Entrepreneurial Challenge," lets students compete against each other in business challenges (very much like TV's The Apprentice).
Unfettered, creative and enthusiastic entrepreneurship is one of the hallmarks of American life, and allowed us to attract the best and brightest to this country. Let's bring back this spirit of entrepreneurship -- to make the U.S. an attractive venue for talent from all over the world, and to do a better job of nurturing young talent here at home.