Why Are Immigrants More Entrepreneurial?

Peter Vandor and Nikolaus Franke, Harvard Business Review

What do Arianna Huffington (Huffington Post), Dietrich Mateschitz (Red Bull), Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX), and Sergey Brin (Google) have in common? Apart from their success as entrepreneurs, they all share one distinct characteristic: extensive cross-cultural experience.

Their stories are prominent examples of a widespread pattern. In the U.S., immigrants are almost twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as native-born U.S. citizens. Immigrants represent 27.5% of the countries’ entrepreneurs but only around 13% of the population. Similarly, about one-fourth of all technology and engineering companies started in the U.S. between 2006 and 2012 had at least one immigrant cofounder. And this pattern extends beyond the U.S. — data from the 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor showed that the vast majority of the 69 countries surveyed reported higher entrepreneurial activity among immigrants than among natives, especially in growth-oriented ventures.

In a recent study, we investigated a different explanation: Cross-cultural experiences may increase individuals’ capabilities to identify promising business ideas. By living in different cultures, they encounter new products, services, customer preferences, and communication strategies, and this exposure may allow the transfer of knowledge about customer problems or solutions from one country to another.

Since immigration is increasingly seen by some people as a threat, the insight that more immigration may result in an overall gain in entrepreneurial activity may be a useful reminder of the opportunities associated with migration. It suggests that public money may be better spent on building incubators for migrant entrepreneurs than on building border walls.

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