Guest comment: a plea to President Trump

by Scott SandellMar 07, 2017

*This piece was originally published by The Washington Business Journal

In 1977, an investor named Richard Kramlich met a young man who wanted to develop and sell something most people had never heard of: a personal computer. Mr. Kramlich made a small investment in the fledgling enterprise — an early example of the formidable instincts that would make him one of the world’s most successful venture capitalists.

The outcome was extraordinary, by any measure. The man (Steve Jobs) and his company (Apple) pioneered two of the seminal technology transformations of the last century — desktop computing and mobile devices. Mr. Kramlich, for his part, went on to co-found New Enterprise Associates, which grew under his leadership to become one of the world’s largest venture capital firms.

Although it is difficult to gauge the precise impact of U.S. immigration policy on Mr. Kramlich’s career and his firm’s success, there is no question that foreign-born talent has played a vital role: Between 1995 and 2005, immigrant founders started more than half of new companies in Silicon Valley, according to The Kauffman Foundation.

But what does that have to do with Apple? Steve Jobs wasn’t an immigrant. True. But his biological father was a Syrian-born immigrant who came to the U.S. to study, first at Columbia University and later at the University of Wisconsin, where he met Jobs’ biological mother. When she became pregnant, the pair decided to put the baby up for adoption. While it’s impossible to predict Apple’s fate had Clara and Paul Jobs not adopted the child, it is highly likely that under both current and proposed immigration policy, Steve Jobs’ biological parents would never have met.

The story is emblematic of the history of venture capital and Silicon Valley in one important way: Success, and very possibly existence, depends upon immigration policy that enables and encourages foreign-born individuals to study, work and live in the United States.

Immigrants have disproportionately empowered our country’s innovative economy through entrepreneurship. Among venture-backed companies that went public between 2006 and 2012, one-third had at least one immigrant founder at the helm, according to the National Venture Capital Association. Today, more than 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.

Availability of H-1B visas to highly skilled workers is critical to the growth and success of many U.S. companies — not just tech giants like Facebook and Google, but also the thousands of startup businesses that are building the next wave of innovative technologies, products and services. Yet, the hurdles to attain H-1B visas have grown considerably in recent years, and we are deeply concerned that some of President Donald Trump’s proposed immigration initiatives could ultimately cast a long, dark shadow on American innovation.

As Trump and Congress begin to shape immigration policy under this new administration, we hope they will acknowledge the critically important role immigrants play in fueling a healthy U.S. economy. We hope that they will set priorities and policies that empower innovation and entrepreneurship, with a commitment to enabling the world’s best talent to study, work and build companies in the U.S.