What do Google's Sergey Brin, WhatsApp's Jan Koum, and VaynerMedia's Gary Vaynerchuk all have in common?

You're likely to recognize them all as highly successful entrepreneurs. You may also recognize each of them as immigrants to the United States, but you're perhaps less likely to know that they and their families were each relocated and resettled by an organization called HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, one of nine primarily faith-based organizations partnering with the federal government to help refugees resettle in America.

That information is especially resonant in light of two developments this week: the Trump administration's announcement of the end of the U.S.' participation in the Global Compact on Migration, and the release of findings from the Center for American Entrepreneurship which indicated that 43 percent of founders of the 2017 Fortune 500 list are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

I was born in the U.S., but my startup's co-founder and half of our team were born elsewhere so I'm particularly attuned to these developments and to the relationship between entrepreneurship and immigrants. I dug further and asked questions of people more informed of the policies and the history behind this week's developments.

What accounts for the affinity between entrepreneurs and immigrants? For many newcomers to this country, starting a business gives them a place to start.

"It's often easier [for immigrants] to start a small business right off the bat, because it gives them a chance to start earning," said Bill Swersey of HIAS. "Often people's job training or language skills don't translate that easily when they first get there, so being self-employed can be the best way to make ends meet."

In some cases, "making ends meet" has ultimately led to employing hundreds or thousands of people, and generating revenue in the millions or billions of dollars. Here are four of the most striking findings of the Center for American Entrepreneurship study:

  1. 48 percent of the top 60 companies, and 57 percent of the top 35 companies (as measured by revenue) were started by first- and second-generation immigrant founders.
  2. 13 million people around the world are employed by immigrant-founded Fortune 500 companies, and they have combined revenue of $5.3 trillion. They are located in 68 metro areas in 33 states.
  3. New York is the largest metropolitan area for immigrant-founded companies in the Fortune 500 list, with 31 companies. Chicago is next, with 11, followed by San Jose with 10, Houston with 9, Dallas with 8, and Los Angeles with 6.
  4. Though there is a strong concentration in urban areas, 45 percent of immigrant-founded companies on the list are based outside major metropolitan areas.

Despite these strong statistics, however, the proportion of immigrant-founded companies shows signs of strain.

According to a study by the Kauffman Foundation, authored by Vivek Wadhwa, the proportion of immigrant-founded companies across the country has fallen nearly 4 percent in the past seven years. In Silicon Valley, the drop was even steeper: the percentage of immigrant-founded start-ups declined from 52.4 percent to 43.9 precent, which is a 16 percent change.

The problem boils down to a need for visa reform -- the Start-Up Visa Act is one part of Congress' efforts to pass immigration reform -- and reducing the stigma that the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service will scrutinize startups more closely.

Recent Trump administration policies and decisions -- such as ending the U.S.' participation in the Global Compact on Migration -- are not helping, nor is the Supreme Court's ruling earlier this week to allow the full implementation of Trump's latest travel ban.

"President Trump has removed our country from global migration talks, making the United States increasingly irrelevant to the global migration debate," said Mark Hetfield, HIAS President and CEO. "The Trump Administration's decision to isolate the U.S. from the international community as it seeks to address global migration is an abdication of U.S. leadership."

As a business owner of a technology startup, this week's developments are troublesome and problematic, especially given the long history and successful track record of immigrant entrepreneurs within the tech space. We thrive on innovation and fresh, non-traditional ways of thinking. That is the lifeblood that, right now, threatens to drain away.

Published on: Dec 8, 2017