Why Silicon Valley Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Returning Home

NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw visited Silicon Valley last month to meet immigrant entrepreneurs. At Microsoft’s Mountain View campus, he met with a dozen of them. More than half said that they might be forced to return to their home countries. That’s because they have the same visa issues that Kunal Bahl had. Unable to get a visa that would allow him to start a company after he graduated from Wharton in 2007, Kunal returned home to India. In February 2010, he started SnapDeal—India’s Groupon. Instead of creating hundreds of jobs in the U.S., Kunal ended up creating them in New Delhi.

At a time when our economy is stagnating, some American political leaders are working to keep the world’s best and brightest out. They mistakenly believe that skilled immigrants take American jobs away. The opposite is true: skilled immigrants start the majority of Silicon Valley startups; they create jobs.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurship is booming in countries that compete with us. And more than half a million doctors, scientists, researchers, and engineers in the U.S. are stuck in “immigration limbo”. They are on temporary work visas and are waiting for permanent-resident visas, which are in extremely short supply. These workers can’t start companies, justify buying houses, or grow deep roots in their communities. Once they get in line for a visa, they can’t even accept a promotion or change jobs. They could be required to leave the U.S. immediately—without notice—if their employer lays them off.  Rather than live in constant fear and stagnate in their careers, many are returning home.

American immigration officials are also clueless.  They do everything they can to make life miserable for immigrants who want to make the U.S. more competitive and create U.S. jobs. As I noted in this piece about the Startup Visa, they interpret rules and regulations as restrictively as possible.

Rapportive co-founder, Martin Kleppmann, who came to the U.S. from Germany, told Brokaw “In our case — we got a beautiful letter from the immigration service asking to prove that we had enough warehouse space to store our software inventory. We don’t even have boxes of software, it’s all on the Internet.”

Sakina Arsiwala, from Mumbai, India, struggled for years to get a visa so that she could work with her husband Naveen Koorakula on their social-networking startup, Campfire Labs. “Why deal with all this, you know, old school immigration systems, just go where you’re wanted”, said Arsiwala, who formerly headed YouTube’s international operations.

Michelle Zatlyn, a Canadian who founded Cloudflare (a TechCrunch Disrupt runner-up), said that American visa policies are very outdated and do not “promote entrepreneurship in this country at all”. She told Brokaw that her startup was trying to create jobs and hire engineers, but that the country had almost made her leave before she had an opportunity to build a company.

Aihui Ong, founder of Love With Food, spoke about America’s being under “technology attack”. Everyone wants America’s techies. Countries such as her home country, Singapore, are working hard to bring people like her back home as well as to attract skilled workers from other countries. Singapore is giving startups four dollars for every dollar they raise, she said.  Sakina Arsiwala added that living conditions in some other countries are “really really attractive”. And the founder of Backtype, Mike Montano, spoke of his home country, Canada, offering startups major subsidies. They all wonder why the U.S. makes it so hard for them though other countries roll out the welcome mat.

These entrepreneurs tell their stories much better than I can. I encourage you to watch the videos yourself. The first video below is the segment that was broadcast on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams on March 3. In this, I discuss the big picture and tell my own story—how I came to the U.S. to study, and later started two companies. My first company created over 1000 jobs; and the second, over 200. (The majority of these were American jobs—for American citizens.)  The second video is a more in-depth discussion with the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Unlike a lot of problems facing our country, this one is easy to fix. We just need to increase the numbers of permanent-resident visas available for those trapped in “immigration limbo”. And we should create a Startup Visa that is more inclusive than the VC/Super Angel bill that is being proposed. This may give the economy a significant boost at no cost to taxpayers.

Editor’s note: Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. He is a Visiting Scholar at UC-Berkeley, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School, Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, and Distinguished Visiting Scholar at The Halle Institute for Global Learning at Emory University. You can follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa and find his research at www.wadhwa.com.