AOL co-founder Steve Case brought an important message to the National Strategy Session on Immigration in Washington, D.C. this week:  America is a start-up nation.  Over the last 200 years, America has built the most dynamic economy in the world through the hard work and innovation of its entrepreneurs. 

Just like a start-up, America owes much of its success to the fact that its people are constantly taking risks and inventing new goods and services, new technologies, and new ways of doing things.  We are the people who innovated the cotton gin, perfected the automobile, sent a man to the moon and created Starbucks and Twitter.  The success of our 200 year start-up is in no small part due to immigrant entrepreneurs.  It turns out that America’s entrepreneurs and immigrants share several virtuous and uniquely American traits.

Entrepreneurs and immigrants are both risk-takers.  Entrepreneurs risk their economic fortune and often that of their family and friends on an idea.  Immigrants are gutsy enough to uproot from their home countries to take a chance on an idea of progress in America.  We celebrate risk-taking in America from the Mayflower to Steve Jobs, and aspiring immigrants from around the world embody this important American characteristic.

Entrepreneurs and immigrants are both innovators.  Entrepreneurs identify a need that is not being met and then innovate a product or service to fill the need.  Throughout America’s diverse history, immigrants (whether Irish, Italian, Polish, Latin American, or African) have arrived here and organized themselves around communities, churches and industries where previously none had existed.  They identified a need and then filled it.

Entrepreneurs and immigrants work tirelessly.  Entrepreneurs wake up every morning knowing that they are only going to succeed if they work hard to see their innovation through to fruition: nobody is going to do it for them.  Immigrants are some of the hardest working people among us.  It is undeniable that whether cutting broccoli or studying the cure for cancer in a lab, immigrants work long hours and unappealing shifts to realize their dreams.

Immigrant entrepreneurs are doing great things in America today.  Lebanese born Dr. Charles Elachi is the Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and his team just sent a rover to Mars.  Russian born Sergey Brin is the co-founder of Google. In fact, a 2011 study found that 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants.   But immigrants don’t only contribute by founding tech companies and sending vehicles to Mars.  Right now they are contributing by harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables, maintaining facilities, cooking in kitchens, building American infrastructure and caring for children and the elderly.  In communities around the country they are opening grocery stores and starting small businesses.  Immigrant entrepreneurs are contributing at every level of our economy in a way that impacts every single American.

“I don’t like the word immigrant, I like the word talent…immigration is not just a problem, it is an opportunity,” noted Case.  That is how we must think of immigration: as an opportunity to drive our economy forward with the help of hard-working, innovative people from around the world.  As America embarks on the road to a new immigration system we need to remember that we are a start-up nation and we must make it our goal to attract and retain the very brightest and hardest working people in the world regardless of where they were born.

Photo courtesy of the Case Foundation

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