The Link Between Immigrants and ‘Unicorns’

Amidst the controversy over immigration reform generated by the current election cycle, a new report finds that more than half of our nation’s billion-dollar startups were founded by immigrants. The report was published earlier this month by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focuses on “immigration, international trade, and other issues related to globalization and the economy.” The report further reveals that immigrants hold top-level positions in up to 71 percent of billion-dollar startups. Privately held startups that break the billion-dollar profit barrier are so rare that they have been dubbed “unicorns.” It is unsurprising, then, that the strong correlation between immigrants and unicorns has many calling for an expansion of our nation’s H1B visa program.

Stuart Anderson, Executive Director of NFAP and author of the report, noted in an interview with NBC News that the current H1B visa cap system, which allows for roughly 85,000 new H1B workers per year, is outdated and does not allow enough talented and innovative immigrants to potentially make a positive impact on our economy. “What’s interesting about this is not only that half [of billion dollar start-up companies] had immigrant founders, it’s that most of the companies have immigrants in key positions. Even if an immigrant isn’t the founder, they are CTO or in a comparably high position that drives innovation and creates jobs for Americans.” Anderson stressed not only the need for the annual cap to be raised considerably, but also for an entirely new “startup visa” that would enable foreign nationals to start their own companies. As immigrant owned startups funnel $168 billion into our economy annually and employ over 33,000 people, the report urges that “a startup visa to enable foreign nationals who start companies and create jobs would be an important addition to the U.S. immigration system.” [See Over Half of $1 Billion Startups Are Founded By Immigrants, by Brian Latimer, NBC News, 23.Mar.2016.]

Of the unicorns examined in the report that were created by foreign nationals, nearly one-in-three were founded by Indians or IndianAmericans. This includes the founder of AppDynamics, Jyoti Bansal, who recalled in an interview with U.S. News & World Report, “I waited seven years for my employment-based green card and I wanted to … start a new company but couldn’t. I have friends who became frustrated with the uncertainty and after years of waiting they finally left the U.S.”

Amr Awadallah, an immigrant from Egypt who cofounded software company Cloudera, noted in the NFAP report that, while the demand for tech talent in the United States is “off the charts,” the number of skilled applicants in the domestic marketplace is very limited. [See Immigrants are Creating ‘Unicorns’ in the U.S., by Andrew Soergel, U.S. News & World Report, 18.Mar.2016.]

The NFAP report presents strong evidence that a dramatic overhaul of the U.S. immigration system is needed in order to make it easier for immigrant entrepreneurs to start businesses in the United States. Yet, despite all of the advantages offered by immigration reform, some of our political leaders continue to oppose it. One senator, who is currently in the presidential race, has called for increased restrictions to the H1B program, including a provision that would require visa seekers to not only hold an advanced degree, but to also have worked outside of the United States for at least a decade. Such draconian legislation, if implemented, would prevent innovative immigrants from founding businesses that could pump billions into our economy and create thousands of jobs for future generations. We must not allow fear and xenophobia to threaten this potential for our growth as a nation.


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