The US needs more Elon Musks: Vivek Wadhwa on America’s brain drain problem

Your guess is as good as mine.
Your guess is as good as mine.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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Vivek Wadhwa is an Indian-American academic and entrepreneur whose new book, The Immigrant Exodus: Why America is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent, comes out today. He spoke to Quartz about his critique of American immigration policy. An edited version of the conversation follows.

You’re an immigrant yourself; how did you end up in the US?

I came here [from Australia] in 1980. From the beginning of the process, it was 18 months. It was easy as anything. I defined myself as an American, I started giving back to this country from the minute I became a resident. If I had come today, it would take me a decade or longer to get a green card, I would be sitting here biting my finger nails for the best part of my life. The US is going to lose its competitiveness. We’re going to have Silicon Valleys in other countries and wonder, how did we let this happen? What were we thinking? What were we smoking, in 2012, when we let this happen? How can we be so stupid?

America’s loss is going to benefit other countries around the world, including India. 

The rest of the world has a huge silver lining. We’re boosting the economies of India, China, Brazil, Chile, Australia, you name it, we’re giving the foreign aid we never imagined we would give. We would never willingly give them tens of billions of dollars of economic aid, we’re doing it without realizing it. From the Indian perspective, you have Vivek Wadhwa … talking about why  we shouldn’t be sending entrepreneurs back to India, he’s unpatriotic. I’m not kidding, even on Twitter I get angry messages from Indians, why are you being such an American stooge? You get used to it.

What inspired you to write this book?

The Kauffman Foundation [a nonprofit devoted to entrepreneurship] asked me to update my research from 2005. My prediction is that there will be reverse brain drain … fewer startups overall and that immigrants were increasingly returning back to their home countries. I updated the data and when I sarted getting the early returns, they were shockingly bad … a million skilled workers waiting for green cards, this is something we found a few years ago. The second stat is that the Silicon Valley immigrant-founded entrepreneurship proportion has dropped from 50% to 44%, that’s a huge drop within the last seven years or so.

Why is that?

If you look at Brazil or China or India, the economies are booming, entrepreneurs see better opportunities back home. We’re competing now, that’s the No. 1 reason. The No. 2 reason is we don’t give them visas, we don’t let them in.

Is the number of startups really a good way to measure innovation or economic growth?

The source of us competitiveness in the last two decades, what’s driving our economy right now, is technology. Apple is the most valuable company on the planet. In the United Sates, all of the net new jobs are created at startups. The US economy is in a slump, we’re in miserable shape, the only way to get out of this is new job creation.

Why are immigrants so special, anyway?

If you took the risk of leaving a country, let’s say India and China, you would be a risk taker. … You’re gonna work like a dog because you have to prove yourself. That’s what happens to immigrants when they come over. They come to a land where they are nothing and they have to rebuild themselves. They work extremely hard, they take risks, and they bet it all on entrepreneurial success.

What’s the single most important thing we can do to fix this problem?

The most important thing to do is increase the number of green cards, we should double or triple or quadruple that. We need a startup visa, if someone wants to come here and start a company, and create American jobs, hire American workers, by all means give these entrepreneurs a green card. Other countries have to bribe people to come there, in our case, they come here with their lives savings, they’ll spend their own money in visa fees, stand in line in the consulate … they are providing the US financial aid.

What’s the holdup, then?

The obstacles are political, Republicans and Democrats both agree on skilled immigration, but neither side wants to hand the other side a victory. The Democrats won’t agree on the skilled until the unskilled is resolved. The Republicans are very single-minded, we need the entrepreneurs, we need the engineers, we need the scientists, we’ll do what it takes to get them–but we’re not going to give in on the amnesty issue.

Can the two issues be separated?

They have to. There’s no way we’re going to resolve amnesty any time soon. If we wait five years to fix the problems, the unskilled, undocumented workers will still be here, they have nowhere to go. The skilled workers will be gone. We will have lost tens of thousands of highly skilled workers, [and] hundreds of billions of dollars of economic growth, for nothing.