Entrepreneurship Is Intellectual Immigration

At the MIT Celebration of 50 Years of Entrepreneurship in November, I heard a number of fantastic lines that have stuck with me. One of them was from Noubar Afeyan.

“Entrepreneurship is intellectual immigration.”

As I sat in an audience of about 200 extremely accomplished MIT graduates spanning over 50 years, I thought to myself “he just fucking nailed it.”

I’m a huge fan and supporter of immigration, especially around entrepreneurship. If you look at the landscape of success entrepreneurs in the United States you see a remarkable number of first and second generation immigrants. We can argue about immigration policy all day long (and plenty in DC do, mostly to insure that nothing actually gets accomplished) but the historical statistics around immigration and entrepreneurship in the US are undeniable.

Noubar talked about immigration being “going someplace outside of your comfort zone.” Every first generation immigrant I’ve ever met has talked about immigrating to the US as something akin to this. Many entrepreneurs I’ve met have articulated a similar emotion around their experience leaving whatever they were doing to start a new company.

My whole life has been built around the idea of intellectual immigration. I’m constantly exploring new things, getting out of my comfort zone, and moving toward new “things.” As part of this, I’m moving away from (emigrating away) from old, established things.

Ponder that.


Also published on Medium.

  • Hmm. I like your blog, it has a depth of thought to it that I like. That said, one of the things that drives me nuts is this need to package ideas in these little phrases. Occasionally you’ll make some connection between perhaps peripherally related ideas label it with a little phrase and admire it for awhile. I think we as humans do this (certainly most business people I know do it a lot more than you do) as a way of encapsulating things we need to deal with so we can manage them.

    In this case tho, I don’t see it. Here’s a guy who’s an entrepreneur who happens to have immigrated here. However, there are as many stories of how to get into entrepreneurship as there are people. The vast majority have nothing to do with VC. So this phrase he came up with is much too limited to encompass all entrepreneurs.

    As I’ve pointed out in the past, my opinion is that you and other VC’s advocating for immigration comes off as a little too self serving. You’re all looking for the IIT grads (or equivalent) that you can bring here to make your investments have a better chance of hitting. I get that but I don’t notice you guys jumping up and down to bring in more people to glean the fields.

    Finally, as you have already noted, this is a highly political issue and the political winds are changing wrt certainly to illegal immigration. I laud your ideals in this situation but they are clearly aspirational in this changing environment.

    • Sure – I like clever phrases that help me organize my thoughts.

      I don’t think this is about linking immigration and entrepreneurship. It’s about linking the concept of “immigration” and moving out of your comfort zone to something new to the concept of immigration, not the act of immigration. I guess I wasn’t very clear, but I’m not saying “immigrant entrepreneurs are …”, I’m trying to say “entrepreneurship has similar attributes to immigration.”

      Re: the statement: “my opinion is that you and other VC’s advocating for immigration comes off as a little too self serving. You’re all looking for the IIT grads (or equivalent) that you can bring here to make your investments have a better chance of hitting. I get that but I don’t notice you guys jumping up and down to bring in more people to glean the fields.” all I can say is “seriously?” You haven’t paid any real attention to the Startup Visa activity or the Global EIR Coalition. This is what I spend time on, not getting IIT grads to the US to work for companies I’m funded. Of course – you are entitled to your opinion – but the way you phrase it makes the criticism completely not credible to me.

      Re: Aspirational ideals: I’ll stay with my aspirational ideals …

      • My apologies for overlooking that facet of the Global EIR Coalition!

  • Rich Weisberger

    An entrepreneur immigrating from a developing economy to a developed economy certainly may require him or her getting out of their comfort zone, but it is no where near the courage of the immigrant who goes from a developed country to a developing country to embark on a similar path. We don’t hear much from the latter group, who they are, and the successes they have had. I for one which we would.

  • vince coyner

    Brad, I wrote you last year about the book “They Made America” that you said you already had. That book is the embodiment of exactly what you’re talking about. I haven’t counted, but I’d venture to say that half the entrepreneurs, innovators and inventors in that book are / were either first or second generation immigrants who came to America to make their marks on history. From Leo Baekeland (plastics) to Ida Rosenthal (bras) to the founders of eBay & Google the United States is a catalyst that gives – and sometimes encourages – those who seek to build something the opportunity to thrive.

    Unfortunately however, Silicon Valley (and much of the left) often uses the fact that so many successful companies have been started by immigrant entrepreneurs to push the open borders meme… There is a significant difference between creating a legal framework where immigrants get the opportunity to come to the US and become entrepreneurs or bricklayers or busboys and simply eliminating the borders so that anyone can come or stay. We’ve had the latter since before Ronald Reagan made the horrible deal with Tip O’Neal for amnesty and the results have not been good. Silicon Valley and the rest of the country rest on a framework of a culture of individual effort, limited government and the rule of law. Many immigrants – and native born Americans – don’t understand that and don’t vote for that, with the predictable outcome being less than stellar economic growth, bloated government programs and suffocating government regulations.

    Immigration is indeed a big net positive for Silicon Valley and the United States as a whole, but to the degree that many equate immigration and illegal / uncontrolled immigration that is a purposeful lie – to be clear I’m not suggesting that’s what you’re doing at all. Free markets of ideas & commerce are the soil in which prosperity thrives… The beauty of America has always been that it’s free markets have beckoned entrepreneurs from elsewhere who felt stultified or stymied or simply regulated into submission.

    Unfortunately, our dysfunctional system does just the opposite (http://bit.ly/2hShWyy) it discourages college graduates from staying legally and building the next big thing while communities across the country actively thwart the federal government as it reluctantly seeks to send home those who are here illegally.

    Frankly, if the United States were to flip its immigration system on its head and welcome in entrepreneurs and inventors and innovators such as those Evans chronicles, while at the same time curtailing the open door policy for illegals, I’d posit that our economy would become a juggernaut no one on the planet could match. (We’d need a move to back towards free markets too…) To paraphrase a quote Eddie Wilson didn’t quite say… “What’s good for America is good for the world”. One reading of “They Made America” and one can’t help but recognize that when the United States is the economic and innovative leader of the world, most of the world benefits…

    • Yup – Evans book is excellent. My sense is our views are pretty similar.

  • Jason Randell

    Nomadic Minds, Ever In Wanderlust

  • Tom O’Keefe

    Hi Brad, not sure if I shared Not an Alien with you previously. My partner Neelu came to the US from India 15+ years ago, and we launched this podcast about people’s immigration experiences in 2016 as our small contribution to political sanity and dialogue: https://notanalien.org

    It has no sharp emphasis on entrepreneurship, but a number of the interviewees, perhaps not coincidentally, are entrepreneurs, including Neelu herself.

    • Cool. I’ll take a look.

  • I must confess it took me a second to get it, but I concede it’s a powerful metaphor.

    I have emigrated from my comfort zone as a restorative mason in 2010 in search of a new intellectual land, and I’m still paddling in the ocean.

    Not every ship has made it to the New World….

  • huge fan of immigration too. Smashing Ideas together in a particle accelerator is fun.