Innovation comes from educated, hard-working immigrants—not genius dropouts

The exception, not the rule.
The exception, not the rule.
Image: Reuters/Kimberly White
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The stories of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and more are like updated Silicon Valley versions of the American dream. An inspired genius bucks tradition, drops out of college and starts a superstar company that rattles the lives of millions around the globe.

The moral of the story is that innovation comes from a certain defiance of the norm. But that defiance is the exception, not the rule.

Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a DC-based think tank, surveyed 923 tech innovators in the US—focusing on people who’ve won national awards for their inventions, filed key technology patents, or otherwise made sizable contributions in science and engineering. Did it find most US innovators to be brilliant college dropouts? Quite the opposite.

Most innovators have years and years of education under their belts; 80% had at least one advanced degree, and 55% had a PhD in a STEM (science, technology, math, and engineering) subject. Collectively, the 923 innovators in the survey boasted 1,075 degrees. What’s more: the median age was 47, and most spent years working their way up in large companies—not boldly striding into the Silicon Valley elite as teenagers, the way the Zuckerberg/Jobs narrative would have you think.

That ”iconic mythology” simply doesn’t hold up across a wide spectrum, Adams Nager and Rob Atkinson, two co-authors on the report, tell Quartz.

More than a third of those surveyed were born outside the US—a much higher percentage than in the general population—and another 10% have at least one parent born in a foreign country. Europe, India, and China are responsible for most of the US’s immigrant innovators.

Unfortunately, ITIF’s findings on women (who made up a measly 12% of the innovators) and minorities (8% of US-born innovators) were more in line with the tech industry stereotype.

All this suggests the American path to success, at least in technology, is still very firmly rooted in tradition: specifically the tradition of the hard-toiling immigrant, working his way up the educational—and then corporate—ladder. For all of the US tech world’s forward-thinking aspirations, its leadership demographics are still playing it very safe.