- - Wednesday, February 6, 2013

In his inaugural address two weeks ago, President Obama said, “Our journey is not complete until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”

One way to make this vision a reality is via the Startup Act 2.0. This immigration reform act authorizes 75,000 “entrepreneur visas” for foreign startups that meet specific criteria, including creation of new American jobs. The legislation also allows as many as 50,000 U.S.-educated foreigners with advanced degrees in science, math or technology to remain in the country.

Research shows that immigrant entrepreneurs are bringing more jobs to Americans and not, as has been suggested, taking them away. Immigrants founded Google and eBay. Currently, eBay employs more than 27,000 people, and Google’s head count stands just above 53,000. A study by the Kauffman Foundation and Vivek Wadhwa shows that in 2005 alone, U.S. science and technology companies with a foreign-born CEO or lead technologist generated $52 billion in revenue and employed 450,000 workers.

Startup Act 2.0 has bipartisan support in Washington. Yet if tech titans such as Google and Microsoft can’t help get the bill turned into law, what needs to happen next? My answer: Win a startup competition, win a visa. We should write into the legislation that foreign-born entrepreneurs who win TechStars, MassChallenge and our own Arch Grants competition would get a visa along with their funding.

By giving visas to immigrant entrepreneurs who win startup competitions that give grants of $50,000 or more and provide support services, we are encouraging more people around the globe to come here, with the caveat that they’re helping us as much as we’re helping them. It boils down to this: Show us you can start a company, have funding and support, and create jobs here, and you get to stay. Isn’t that what the investors of all of these competitions are saying?

This legislation is intended to capitalize on skilled knowledge and ability to innovate for growth, so let’s create a fast track for entrepreneur visas and get our economy rolling.

These visas can be especially useful in cities where entrepreneurs can manage what they invest in business instead of spending a lot on rent. We need more entrepreneurs, especially in cities like Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

In St. Louis, attracting foreign entrepreneurs is difficult, and we have faced the same issues as Microsoft and other companies. I helped start an organization called Arch Grants to host an annual Global Startup Competition and attract startups to our city. With our international winners, we give free immigration attorney advice. Recently, we obtained an E2 Visa for winner Arnoldo Muller-Molina. It wasn’t easy. The standards for visas are subject to individual American consultants all over the world, and they are inconsistent. Mr. Muller-Molina is the founder of simMachines, a similarity search company. Without his Arch Grant and visa assistance, he would have started his business elsewhere in the world, and we would have lost out.

The Simon Chair of Economics at Saint Louis University released a paper, “The Economic Impact of Immigration on St. Louis,” which makes this point more strongly. Citing census data, the report shows that increasing the number of immigrants will raise employment, grow incomes, boost real wages, reverse declining home prices and lower unemployment rates.

Arch Grants gives $50,000 grants with no equity taken in exchange, and includes business mentoring, free and discounted professional services, affordable rent and a dedicated community. Last year, we had more than 420 applicants from throughout the United States and 11 other countries, and awarded grants to 15 winners. More than 25 percent were international startups. They’ve already created more jobs for St. Louis.

People are saying the Startup Act 2.0 can’t be passed. Ironically, this is exactly what startups hear all the time. Surely, we can persevere, as they would, to help grow our nation’s economy by welcoming entrepreneurs from around the globe.

Jerry Schlichter is founder of Schlichter Bogard & Denton LLP in St. Louis and president of Arch Grants.