Inaction on immigration reform harms US economy

Gary Shapiro President and CEO, Consumer Technology Association
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When people imagine the world’s most successful innovators, they often imagine them starting out isolated in their garages, toiling away at their latest gadgetry or endeavor. The truth is, successful entrepreneurship relies not on isolationism, but on assembling the right team. That is becoming increasingly difficult in the United States thanks to federal inaction on immigration reform.

The ultimate way for a “ninja innovator” — a term we coined to describe the agile, adaptive, cunning qualities of today’s successful entrepreneurs — to accomplish his mission is to build a strike force and attract the best and brightest workers to join him. Similar to the ninjas of feudal Japan, the best entrepreneurs operate in teams that are usually relatively small and targeted to a well-defined mission.

But today, some of the best and brightest trained in America’s top schools are having a difficult time joining such teams or forming their own. America’s immigration laws are making it increasingly difficult for foreign-born, U.S.-educated entrepreneurs to stay in the U.S. to innovate. Or — even worse — our laws are forcing these innovators abroad after they’ve already started assembling their teams here.

Today’s companies need to be able to hire highly skilled immigrants. High-growth firms have been a consistent source of job creation, namely because of these immigrants. In fact, a recent study by The National Foundation for American Policy found that nearly half of the country’s top venture-backed, early-stage companies were founded by at least one immigrant. Not surprising, perhaps, because advanced education in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) correlates with high rates of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Immigrant entrepreneurs are most likely to start companies in “innovation/manufacturing-related services (45%) and software (22%) industries,” according to a recent Kauffman Foundation study. Not only do these individuals play a major role in making their individual companies more profitable on a small scale, but their efforts also favorably affect economic growth and global competitiveness.

Immigrant entrepreneurship has stalled in the U.S. and is causing a reverse brain drain. Since 2005, the proportion of immigrant-founded companies nationwide has slipped from 25.3 percent to 24.3 percent, according to the Kauffman Foundation.

Ninja innovators should take the lead in stressing the need for comprehensive immigration reform that will bring the best and brightest foreign students to America to work, create jobs and innovate here. If past attempts to reform the law are any indication, job creators and businesses will have to work hard to ensure reform. In September 2012, the White House and congressional Democrats failed to pass the STEM Jobs Act, which would have helped keep foreign-born graduates in America.

President Obama says he plans to push for immigration reform this month. But it’s still unclear which specific measures he supports. I’m hopeful he will open a platform for entrepreneurs and job creators to be heard in the debate.

To remain competitive in the global marketplace and hone the ninja-like attitude of fighting for victory, companies need to be able to build effective teams. Those that attract the best and brightest to join their strike forces will be best positioned to beat the global competition.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and a New York Times best-selling author. His views are his own. Shapiro’s latest book, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses, is being released this week. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.