The Startup Visa And Why The Xenophobes Need To Go Back Into Their Caves

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ImmigrationEvery time I publish a research paper on immigration or write an article for BusinessWeek or TechCrunch, the xenophobes rush out of their caves to launch mindless attacks. They fill the comment sections with bile, send me nasty emails and sometimes threaten to do me harm. I was convinced that my last BusinessWeek column on the Startup visa presented such a compelling argument that even these poor souls would support it.

After all, this visa is about creating American jobs and moving innovation here which would otherwise happen in other countries. We can boost the economy without any cost to taxpayers. It’s not about admitting H-1B visa holders who sometimes make Americans compete for high-paying jobs, but bringing in entrepreneurs who expand the pie for everyone. Not only do the Democrats support this, but so do the Republicans (their thought leader, Newt Gingrich blogged about my previous TechCrunch post on immigration and his staff told me that he was a supporter of the startup visa). So this seems like a no-brainer.

But, no, logic doesn’t prevail with this crowd. I got the same stream of hate mail that I’m used to, and the xenophobes hijacked the BusinessWeek reader feedback section again. Most of their statements are illogical and uneducated. But there are two potentially meaningful arguments which opponents of the startup visa make, which are worth discussing: that the founders we are bringing in aren’t always the “best and brightest” and that there is already a visa category for geniuses called the O-1 visa.

I know we’re not always bringing in the best and brightest. Most are just average techies. I can offer myself up as an example. When I came to this country in 1980 from Australia, I was just a low-level computer programmer. Yes, I took pride in being able to write the slickest Assembler code (anyone remember what this is?). But I was pretty average in my education and skills. I had no PhD. I had no patents. No one would ever have thought of giving me an O-1 visa. But I came, I worked hard, and I learned. And I developed ideas for how to make better software.

Years later, technology which I invented formed the basis of a software company which employed over 1,000 people and changed the way enterprise client-server systems were built. I don’t know my total value-add to the American economy but I certainly added hundreds of millions of dollars over the life of my two startups. And now I’m giving back to America by contributing my time and energy to 3 great universities, Duke, Harvard and UC-Berkeley.

Now let’s discuss the genius visa. Any immigration attorney will tell you that qualifying for this visa is so hard that even Einstein wouldn’t have cut it.  You’ve got to have a perfect academic record, have topped every class you took and have as many as 10 independent authorities say you walk on water. I happened to meet someone at a talk I gave at Berkeley last week, who qualified for this. He has a remarkable story which shows how screwed up our immigration system is.

Alex Kosorukoff learned programming in high school in Russia and started working part-time as a software developer. He later joined Ivanovo State Power University and worked part-time as a researcher in a Russian-American joint venture.  He came across several American books on entrepreneurship, read them, and started thinking about becoming an entrepreneur.

Alex persuaded two friends to start a company in 1991. (Let me remind you that this was very, very early in the transition in Russia from Communism to Democracy). They built accounting software which became a big hit. Alex rode the rising tide of entrepreneurship and launched several other companies. In 1995, he won a U.S. Information Agency “Business for Russia” contest. Part of the prize was an exchange program at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. He came to the U.S. for 2 months, learned more about American business and went back home to solve some of our problems. (Like nearly all foreigners who come here, he fell in love with America and wanted to share the American Dream).

Human-based genetic algorithm image

The flower, by runnerfrog (Cristian René)

Alex started researching why organizations struggle to scale well, why decision processes become more inefficient and why talented employees leave. Alex looked around at the natural world and noticed that biological organisms do a better job of scaling up. He designed a form of participatory organization based on evolutionary algorithms and prototyped it with a website that attracted hundreds of participants in 1998-99. His research was discovered by Prof. David Goldberg (University of Illinois), who invited the young Russian to join his lab.  Dr. Goldberg’s lab was amongst the top in the field of evolutionary computation.

Alex expected he would have the best of both worlds by coming to America—performing groundbreaking research and becoming an American-style entrepreneur. Once he got to Illinois, however, Alex realized that neither his academic research aspirations nor his entrepreneurial ambitions would be completely fulfilled.  The university told Alex that he could not work outside the strict classification of his visa, could perform no side work, and definitely could not launch a company. “They even told me I couldn’t continue to run my website, since it had ad-generated income. I had to move it to Taiwan and have a friend over there run it for me,” Alex explains.

Since the focus of his research was forming companies using evolutionary computation, Alex realized he would not be able to take his theorems and try them out in the real world, as he had done in Russia. “I had to postpone all my entrepreneurial activities and resort to simulation and doing related evolutionary computation research for other professors, but that meant a big switch away from my main area of interest,” says Alex. Still, he managed to win a number of awards for his research.

StumbleUponIn fact, Alex’s work did manage to stimulate entrepreneurial activity. Garrett Camp, who founded Stumbleupon, read Alex’s work and used parts of it in conceiving a social sharing company which ultimately sold to EBay for $75 million. If you take Camp at his word, Alex may have been modest in telling me this story. Says Camp, “Alex pioneered the concept of human-based computation. His work on human-based genetic algorithms provided a lot of insight during the design of StumbleUpon, and I referenced several of his papers in my Masters thesis”.

After Alex finished his Ph.D., he got an offer from StumbleUpon (ironically, a company that was founded in Canada in 2001 and later relocated to Silicon Valley). StumbleUpon uses human-based evolutionary computation techniques as does Wikipedia. Alex was clearly grateful for the offer. But it’s pretty easy to tell that he is itching to start his own company, something he’s done successfully several times before in Russia in what might be considered a far harsher business environment. So what’s he doing right now? Waiting for his green card to be approved.

In the meantime, the unemployment rate in California is now over 12%, a near record high. The national rate is at 10%. Credit markets are totally frozen and small businesses—the most dynamic part of the U.S. economy are suffocating for lack of operating capital. So slightly tweaking a law to allow smart foreigners to jumpstart our economy would seem to be a really easy decision politically and economically. Rather than listening to the emotion of misguided anti-immigrants, we need to listen to reason. After all, it is immigrants like Alex who have started 52% of Silicon Valley’s tech companies in recent times.

Editor’s note: Guest writer Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. He is a Visiting Scholar at UC-Berkeley, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School and Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University. Follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa.

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