By Jeff Bussgang, General Partner, Flybridge Capital Partners
I am passionate about the issue of immigration reform. In my role as an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and business school professor, I have watched our dysfunctional immigration system turn away the best and brightest from creating jobs and wealth in America.
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to testify before the Senate and share a few stories of star students from Harvard, MIT and elsewhere who, upon graduation, aspired to start their own companies. They had big ideas, great teams and venture capital all lined up. But our country told them to collect their PhDs and MBAs and get out – we didn’t want them creating jobs here in Massachusetts or elsewhere in America. You could not make up a dumber economic development policy if you tried.
I grew increasingly frustrated as Washington fumbled around with a comprehensive immigration reform bill, and turned my attention from Capitol Hill to Beacon Hill. What could we do here at home to keep some of our most promising entrepreneurs from setting up shop – and creating jobs – someplace else? We are blessed with an incredible talent base in this community. Unlike other states, we do not need to attract talent – it pours in from all over the world thanks to our world-class universities and hospitals – instead, we need to retain it. This is the only way Massachusetts can aggressively compete in an increasingly cutthroat global innovation sector.
So with the help of many contributors and local leaders from business, government and the legal sector, the Global Entrepreneur In Residence (GEIR) Program was born. GEIR establishes an elegantly simple mechanism to allow high-skilled, company-creating entrepreneurs to stay in Massachusetts. Through a public-private partnership, and a provision that allows universities to have an exemption to the H-1B visa cap, UMass is sponsoring international entrepreneurs so that they can launch and grow their new businesses right here in the Commonwealth. Two entrepreneurs – one from India and one from Ireland – have already secured visas and are launching their startups here, and many more are lining up to participate.
GEIR has been such a success that other states are taking notice and looking to replicate the program. Every state wants to be a hotbed for innovation and talent, and adopting something along the lines of GEIR means that places like Colorado, Michigan and (especially this winter) Florida can make a play for global entrepreneurs right alongside Massachusetts.
In January, Governor Charlie Baker was faced with the challenge of filling a large budget hole. As a result, he announced a round of cuts to the FY15 budget, including scrapping GEIR by eliminating its $1million in funding. It is my hope that as the FY16 budget is assembled, the Baker Administration and the legislature will work with the business community to find a way to keep this modest but vital and highly strategic program alive. GEIR enjoys strong private sector support and was always designed to be largely supported by businesses seeking to sponsor individual innovators. Our community understands that this is a short-term investment with the potential for enormous long-term payoffs and is committed to seeing GEIR flourish. We just need the shared commitment of our leaders in state government, and a willingness to provide program support and baseline funding to one of the keys to creating future growth and opportunity in Massachusetts.
Before GEIR, we were at risk of losing talent to other nations. Now we risk being victims of our own success. With GEIR being added to the long list of ideas born in Massachusetts and exported to other states (see: universal healthcare, gay marriage), we may have indeed found a way for the entire nation to retain the valuable asset that is human capital. But unless we restore funding for GEIR here at home, we will be left to watch global entrepreneurs pack their bags for competitor states who will welcome them with open arms.
The Alliance for Business Leadership and other business organizations in the state are looking forward to partnering with the Administration and legislature to continue and expand the program, despite the budget crunch, so that our economy can continue to grow. It will take some creativity and entrepreneurial ingenuity, but we’ve never had a shortage of that here in Massachusetts.