Failure to Recruit (by Brad Bernthal)
For a country that obsesses over where its high school athletes sign for college and which professional sports team wins the draft lottery, you’d think we’d understand the importance of recruiting talent. Yet American immigration policy is disconnected from the common sense insight behind the importance of recruiting and drafts. Highly talented people are not fungible.
Boulder’s startup scene just lost Pedro Sorrentino (pictured here at right) to immigration regulations. Forget the legal merits surrounding H-1B visas. America’s ongoing failure to produce and recruit the creative class talent necessary for a thriving 21st Century economy is delusional. We should be recruiting Pedro. Instead we’re booting a multilingual entrepreneur with digital training, startup experience, and a community-oriented mindset. What is America doing?
Pedro Sorrentino is a Brazil native on a trajectory to join the global elite. His exceptional interpersonal skills are useful across several cultures. He speaks three languages fluently and is passable in a fourth. In Brazil, Pedro studied journalism and – observing disruption in the publishing industry – adapted his skill set into a role as a “digital monkey” (his words) at a Brazilian startup. From there he migrated from programmer into public relations. Two startups later, the company he was with went public on the Nasdaq, his personal reputation concerning digital strategy was on the rise, and Pedro was ready for a new challenge.
Pedro came to America. This was not a new infatuation. He wanted to be here. He’d visited several times and this was his 12th time in the States. He studied at CU’s Boulder Digital Works. At BDW an adjunct professor, Robert Reich, “changed my life” (Pedro’s words) and inspired him to take his own startup swing. As he took his idea forward, I came to know him last year through CU’s entrepreneurship championships, the CU New Venture Challenge. His company launched a web-site Resolvame and has raised money from Buscape Company, the biggest e-commerce conglomerate in Latin America. Pedro struck me as among the bright lights in Boulder’s next generation startup pipeline: digitally oriented, community-minded, polished interpersonal skills. In addition, Pedro also joined SendGrid, a VC-backed Boulder company that is quickly going “up and to the right.”
This is where the American story takes a U-turn. In December his H-1B visa application was denied. With a week’s notice, America unceremoniously packed Pedro away for the holidays. He’s now back in Sao Paulo. A motion to reconsider the visa application is pending. Count me among those who would be delighted to testify as to why America needs Pedro.
Let me connect some dots. Today’s innovation age depends on creative class talent. There are two paths to talent assembly: (1) grow it, and (2) recruit it. On the first path – grow it – this is a worthwhile objective. But it is currently a grim domestic picture. Thomas Friedman’s and Michael Mandelbaum’s new book, That Used To Be Us, pulls together a variety of research that details why we should be deeply concerned. The 2009 OECD tests of 15 year-olds across countries, designed to measure critical thinking skills, show that American 15 year-olds don’t perform in the top 10 in math, reading or science (p. 106). A generation ago, the US had the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. No longer—now we’re #9. Korea comes in at 58%; the U.S. at 42% (p. 221). Skyrocketing tuitions and diminishing support for state schools won’t help this number any time soon. And here is a statistic that freaks me out. The U.S. military says that it cannot recruit 75% of American 17-24 year-olds, either because of education shortcomings, a criminal record, or obesity / physically unfit (p.221). Even if this final number is only directionally correct, it is alarming.
Especially while trying to reverse these unhappy trends concerning home-grown talent, the United States better recruit well. Vivek Wadwa has underscored how important high-skilled immigration is for startup companies, finding that 52% of startups founded from 1995-2005 in Silicon Valley were immigrant founded. Anno Saxenian’s New Argonauts details the importance of global entrepreneurs and cross-regional connections. Read Start-Up Nation for a powerful illustration of the connections between high skill immigration and entrepreneurship. In the decade following 1990, 800,000 citizens from the former Soviet Union came to Israel, resulting in 1/5 of the country’s population at end decade. These immigrants – many of who were among the best and brightest in the former Soviet Union – were part of catapulting Israel’s high tech scene into the world’s elite.
Meanwhile, America is not only failing to recruit the best and brightest. We’re telling them to leave. Pedro’s is a Boulder story on top of a growing national problem concerning creative class tech talent. For those looking to do something, the Startup Visa is one place to start.
In my professor’s hat at Colorado Law, I lead a technology clinic that examines an array policy issues. Many of them involve complicated questions, difficult trade-offs, and hard judgments. This is not one of those tough issues. It is an easy one.
Brad Bernthal is Director of the Entrepreneurship Initiative at Silicon Flatirons.