Will the proposed US startup visa help the world connect with Silicon Valley?

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The Obama administration is making a push for the ‘startup visa’ that will encourage foreign nationals with advanced tech degrees to stay in the US to start up enterprises.

Two things attract entrepreneurs, and this type of individual would usually flock to where these two things are: money and a market. It would make little sense to start up a business if you don’t have a market in mind, and it would not be viable if there would be no economic returns down the road.

Let’s face it — in terms of technology startups, Silicon Valley is still the place to be. Even with emerging startup hotspots around the world, capitalists, investors and talent would usually gravitate to the valley, because this is where one would find the right resources and network to build on, apart from other potential startup capitals in the country.

With America supposedly having the money and a big market, it would make sense for technology entrepreneurs to build on their ideas there. Seeing that potential talent can come from everywhere, there is now a rekindled interest in the so-called ‘startup visa’, which will allow immigrant entrepreneurs who found startups in the US to “remain permanently” in the country if they raise a certain level of financing, employ a certain number of workers, and see growth in their businesses.

To this end, a bipartisan group of senators are re-introducing the STEM Jobs Act — which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — that aims to reallocate up to 55 000 new green cards to foreign students in US universities who graduate with advanced degrees in these fields. The proposal will also create triggers for further increases depending on market demand, and aims to keep families together by granting visas to eligible family members, as well. “The STEM Jobs Act allows employers to fill their talent needs with foreign graduates of US universities with advanced degrees in STEM so that they can continue creating jobs and growing our economy,” it says.

Boosting economic growth

The concept of a startup visa was actually introduced in congress in 2009, although the proposed amendments to the US immigration laws are only recently resurfacing, given the need to boost economic growth. The act passed in the house of representatives in December, and is currently set for deliberation in the senate.

The Obama administration is in support of this proposal, with President Barack Obama citing that turning away potential entrepreneurs would hurt the economy, as this is “not how you grow new industries in America.”

“Right now there are brilliant students from all around the world sitting in classrooms at our top universities,” Obama said. “They are earning degrees in the fields of the future like engineering and computer science. But once they finish school, once they earn that diploma, there’s a good chance they’ll have to leave our country.”

Other countries have their own versions of the startup visa, too. Notably, Canada’s startup visa program will take effect by April this year. Both the US and Canada have their own “entrepreneur” visa, although these usually come with bigger investment requirements.

The proposal for the so-called startup visa does have its detractors, who say that foreigners will crowd out otherwise capable Americans who are also competing for jobs and capital. However, supporters say that welcoming foreign entrepreneurs will “make it easier for more entrepreneurs to start businesses in the US and create jobs.”

What it means for entrepreneurs internationally

The startup visa does have its limitations, particularly that those eligible are ones who have attained advanced degrees in American universities. In essence, though, the proposed immigration law amendments mean that it will be easier for aspiring entrepreneurs to set up shop in the US, hire talent from within the country and target their market there, as well.

Immigration horror stories are commonplace, even among moneyed investors and entrepreneurs who are forced to leave the country due to visa limitations. Oftentimes potential entrepreneurs are prevented from starting up in the US because of bureaucratic red tape. It could take years for a visa to get approved, and within that time frame, an entrepreneur could already have started a business somewhere else.

This has prompted governments around the world to make their immigration policies easier for entrepreneurs. Mexico, for instance, is reportedly interested in loosening immigration policies to attract entrepreneurs. Even the concept of BlueSeed — a cruise ship docked just outside of US jurisdiction, enabling entrepreneurs to ferry in and out on a regular basis — might sound interesting.

The main purpose of the startup visa is to promote local entrepreneurship among qualified foreigners, although this does not preclude the possibility of these people bridging the divide between the US startup community and elsewhere. Given the connectedness of economies today, whatever benefits an entrepreneur can reap in the US would inevitably flow back to his or her home country.

This can be both monetary (such as capital flowing back from US based Filipino entrepreneurs to the Philippines) or non-monetary (such as cultural and idea exchanges in the community).

Given the usual legislative processes and economic lags, though, it might take five to ten years before the US and the rest of the world would feel the actual effects of the country loosening its immigration policies to accommodate entrepreneurs better. But if the net benefit is a positive one, then it would surely be a welcome move.


This article by J. Angelo Racoma originally appeared on e27, a Burn Media publishing partner.

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