University City Science Center president and CEO Stephen Tang made a compelling case for immigrant entrepreneurs at ThinkFest on Tuesday.
The son of two Chinese immigrants himself, Tang argued that immigrants, who are responsible for starting more than half of the new companies in Silicon Valley between 2005 and 2015, are the living embodiment of the American Dream.
Immigrants start more than a quarter of the country’s companies. In Philadelphia, the wildly popular startup ROAR for Good, which makes wearable technology for women’s self-defense, was founded by Yasmine Mustafa, who came to Philadelphia at the age of eight as a Kuwaiti refugee from the Persian Gulf War. Dr. Wan Shih of Drexel University immigrated from Taiwan and developed a revolutionary portable radiation-free breast cancer test at the university that’s now being used to save lives around the world.
While all entrepreneurs face challenges raising capital and marketing their ideas, Tang argued that immigrants face greater challenges because they must deal with an immigration system that’s not designed to facilitate startup activity. He had some specific ideas on what the barriers are and how we could work to eradicate them.
Involve immigrants in the conversation.
Immigrant contributions are overlooked and their voices are often missing in the debate on immigration, Tang said. America is still conflicted about immigration and race, and this election season revealed that immigrants are still viewed as “the other.” America will be come a majority minority society soon, and we won’t be able to move past the divide and distrust if we leave immigrants out of the conversation.
Support programs that advance the work of immigrant entrepreneurs.
The United States’ H1-B visa program allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign-born workers in specialty fields, but the demand for the visa far outweighs the supply: About 85,000 of these visas are given out per year, but more than 233,000 immigrants applied in 2015 alone, said Tang. The H1-B visa program definitely isn’t a silver bullet — immigrant entrepreneurs often can’t even go off and start their own businesses due to visa restrictions. But the key can be programs like the Department of Homeland Security’s proposed “International Entrepreneurship Rule,” which allows qualified immigrant entrepreneurs to demonstrate substantial potential for rapid business growth and job creation should they stay in residence and operate a startup.
Make sure all Philadelphians are included in Philly’s success story.
Tang put a challenge out to Philadelphia: Embrace the idea that immigrant entrepreneurs can transform our landscape, and make sure all kinds of Philadelphians are included in our workforces. “There is a lot of room to grow,” he said.