Opinion: Startup visas help foreign-born entrepreneurs spur economic growth

The tech industry is at the forefront of our economy, and its rapid growth has generated a pressing need for startup visas, a critical immigration policy reform. 

A quarter of high-tech companies established in the U.S. in the past two decades have had immigrant founders or co-founders, a number that soars to over 50% in Silicon Valley. Moreover, out of the 582 “unicorn” startups (valued at over $1 billion), 55% have immigrant founders or co-founders. 

In this dynamic landscape, Global Detroit plays a pivotal role. The city-based economic inclusion organization specializes in connecting immigrant talent with tech jobs and empowering foreign-born entrepreneurs with resources to launch startups in Michigan, forging a path toward innovation and economic growth.

As computers and cars merge, the technology industry in Michigan is rapidly growing our economy and positioning Detroit to be the next Silicon Valley. Detroit has historically been known for the assembly line and mass production in manufacturing pioneering efficiency. Our city’s economy thrives on the tech industry, constantly seeking fresh talent and innovation. Much of this talent comes from abroad, and we’re not alone in recognizing this trend. More than 25 countries, including our neighbors in Canada, the UK, Australia, and nations like Germany and Sweden, have already embraced startup visa programs. Even emerging economies such as Bulgaria, Malta, and Spain are embracing these reforms to foster innovation and attract new talent. A startup visa is a globally trending immigration policy reform that allows foreign startup entrepreneurs permanent residency in a country to create jobs, innovate and spur economic growth. Immigrant founders are the cornerstone of America’s startup economy, but the country lacks the basic building blocks to leverage what a startup visa program would provide.

Not surprisingly, the surge in tech growth amplifies the demand for workers with STEM skills, such as engineers, software developers, and IT professionals. Many tech companies are grappling with the challenge of recruiting such talent. To address this shortage and maintain economic momentum, we must turn to immigrants, specifically international students and foreign-born entrepreneurs. International students play a pivotal role, constituting 50% of STEM graduate students in Michigan and a staggering 70% in critical fields like electrical engineering and computer science. Harnessing the potential of this talent pool is crucial as the tech industry flourishes. But we also require a vital immigration reform that many countries have already embraced – the startup visa. 

Founded in 2009 by former state representative Steve Tobocman, Global Detroit is a national leader in advocating for and executing strategies to drive equitable local, regional and statewide economic growth through immigrant inclusion. In 2019 the organization launched the Global Entrepreneurs in Residence (GEIR) program to help immigrant startup founders connect with part-time employment at a university while being able to launch their startup company on U.S. soil and in Michigan. The original partner universities included the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, Michigan Tech, Lawrence Technological University, and the College for Creative Studies. In the Global EIR program’s first 30 months, we supported seven founders from six companies that raised $15.6 million in venture capital funding and created 50 jobs. Recently, one of our founders was accepted into Y-Combinator, arguably the world’s most prestigious accelerator, while another founder was admitted to TechStars Detroit.

As the Program Manager for Global Detroit’s Global EIR program, I have enjoyed the very interesting vantage point of meeting with international dreamers who are excited about their visions, and I have watched their innovations change our lives. The advancements in robotics, the development of design apps, and the pioneering of AI platforms will simplify our workplaces, change the automotive industry, and advance society and humanity. 

My background includes creating economic development policies for the City of Detroit, Lansing, and Harper Woods. I’ve managed small business programs and performed economic development research while living abroad in places like Russia, China, and South Africa. And I wrote my master’s thesis on the development of equity-based incentive programs in emerging markets around the world. I joined the Global Detroit team in 2021, bringing all my international experiences full circle. I see what the American Dream still means to Michiganders and what drives people to want to come here for better opportunities. 

While the Global EIR program provides a critical solution for immigrant-founded startups, it cannot replace the importance of a startup visa that would ensure America’s competitiveness and economic future in unparalleled times rife with uncertainty.

The solution is simple. So simple in fact that even emerging markets and developing countries see the utility of the start-up visa and have moved in recent months to adopt startup visa programs. China, Bulgaria, Spain, Malta, and Chile all allow for fast and efficient application processes for innovative startups. A U.S. startup visa will allow foreign-born founders to bring innovation, transformation, job creation, and economic prosperity to all Americans. A Harvard Business School analysis suggests that the development of a startup visa targeting international students already studying in the U.S. would lead some 40,000 international students across the U.S. to stay after graduation each year to launch a business and that an estimated 12,000 of those businesses would survive after a decade, creating 216,000 jobs.

Historically, immigration has enriched our nation by fostering competition and innovation, aligning with the quintessential American Dream. People from all walks of life have come to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and opportunity, often starting businesses that have shaped our nation’s history, from pioneers on the western frontier to skilled workers building our iconic skyscrapers. Bright students have sought world-class education at American universities, and many have stayed to contribute to our services- and knowledge-based economy or launch the next tech giant. The American Dream, defined as equal opportunity for success through hard work, is now hindered by obstacles that impede our nation’s economic potential. To revitalize this dream and fully harness the power of immigration, we must adapt to the changing dynamics of our tech-driven economy and embrace policies like the startup visa that align with our nation’s core ideals.

The pandemic has provided us an opportunity to rethink the American Dream and to reclaim the depths of democratic opportunities embedded in it. Political division and inequalities, eroding infrastructure, and our pivot to tech and virtual interactions have changed how we dream and what we strive for. We need immigration to fuel the breakneck pace of tech development. We need immigration in order to remain globally competitive. And we need immigration to benefit from the talent that the rest of the world is vying for. A big part of the American Dream is the learning experience, the opportunity, and going from nothing to something. It’s crucial for America to revisit its historical identity as a place of liberty and courage, recognizing that this shared struggle unites us all.

Ernestine Lyons is the Global Entrepreneurs in Residence Program (GEIR) Manager for Global Detroit 

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