On November 13, Albuquerque mayor Richard J. Berry (R) awarded local nonprofit WESST a $75,000 Mayor’s Entrepreneurship Prize for the organization’s La Escalera program, which is specifically designed to aid immigrant entrepreneurs.
As he gave the award to WESST, which promotes small business training and development in New Mexico, Mayor Berry stated, “Like a lot of my fellow mayors, I believe immigrants and refugees are underleveraged assets in entrepreneurial ecosystems.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that more than half of all unicorn companies in the U.S. have at least one immigrant cofounder.
But Berry’s outspoken support of foreign-born entrepreneurs stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric surrounding immigrants and refugees that has dominated the country’s political discourse for the past few years. President Donald Trump’s administration has supported legislation to cut the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country and has tightened rules for overseas workers looking to obtain an H1-B visa.
Of course, the anti-immigration rhetoric ignores data documenting immigrants’ many contributions to our economy, including their long history of entrepreneurship.
According to data from the St. Louis Mosaic project, immigrants are 60 percent more likely to start a business and 130 percent more likely to have an advanced degree than the average American, and 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies are founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Beyond those statistics, some of America’s most important founders are first- or second-generation immigrants.
Andy Grove escaped communist Hungary, took a job as a busboy in New York, learned to speak English, earned a PhD, and eventually cofounded Intel. Abdulfattah Jandali left Syria to study in America and fathered a child with wife Joanne Schieble Simpson. Their son, Steve Jobs, would join Henry Ford, the son of an Irish immigrant, as two of the most famous founders in the history of American entrepreneurship.
While Andy Grove’s and Steve Jobs’ stories are fairly well-known, what is less recognized is the important role immigrant-led startups currently play in building entrepreneurial ecosystems outside of Silicon Valley.
In St. Louis, Nigerian-born Dr. Gabriele Mbalaviele cofounded Confluence Life Sciences. Earlier this year, Confluence was purchased by Philadelphia-based Aclaris Therapeutics at a valuation of $100 million, making it one of the most notable early successes of that city’s fast-growing startup scene. Malaysian- born Jason Jan started FroYo, a frozen yogurt chain with a growing number of stores in Missouri and California. Cuong Dang arrived in St. Louis from Vietnam in 2002, completed his Bachelor’s degree, and founded DNN software.
The success of immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs is a testament to one simple fact: Innovation is not a zero-sum game. The immigrant entrepreneurs of Albuquerque and St. Louis are creating jobs and economic opportunity that didn’t exist until they moved in, took a risk, and started a business.
“Immigrant entrepreneurs are job creators, not job takers,” said Betsy Cohen, executive director of the St. Louis Mosaic Project, an organization that focuses on the economic and cultural value immigrants bring to the city. “They create opportunity for all of us, and they bring vitality to our region. Whether they are neighborhood businesses or high-tech businesses, they expand our economic output.”
Smaller cities, suburbs, and rural communities simply can’t afford to rely solely on native-born entrepreneurs. Foreign-born innovators play a critical role in building entrepreneurial ecosystems. That was true in 1963 when Andy Grove moved to Sunnyside, California to work for Fairchild Semiconductor before cofounding Intel. And it’s true in 2017, when Dr. Gabriel Mbalaviele helped build Confluence Life Sciences, a testament to the idea that St. Louis can create a thriving startup scene.
Some politicians may find anti-immigration rhetoric to be an effective political strategy. But it’s a horrible way to build an innovative, thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Mayor Berry understands that. Leadership at the St. Louis Mosaic Project understands that.
Hopefully our national leaders will come to understand it, too.
Dustin McKissen is an economic development executive in the greater St. Louis area, a LinkedIn Top Voice on Management and Culture, a CNBC contributor, and an Inc. columnist.