Why entrepreneurs should join the government
If you have a compelling start-up idea, the Chilean government will give you $40,000 to move there and build it. The Chilean embassy in your country will grant you a one-year visa within days. When you arrive in Chile, you’ll have free offices, fast Wi-Fi, unlimited coffee and croissants, and a community of intrepid friends. Not surprisingly, the Chilean program has received thousands of applications from entrepreneurs worldwide.
Chile’s start-up recruitment program was the brainchild of a serial entrepreneur whom the government recruited to help ignite a new wave of economic growth in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. When I reported on the program in 2011 for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and again in 2012 for the University of Chicago, I was struck by how differently the Chilean and US governments approached the issue of attracting foreign entrepreneurial talent. Chile was rolling out the red carpet for immigrant entrepreneurs. The United States was doing nearly the opposite by letting the best and brightest in to study and then sending them back home after they graduated.
Despite the strong economic case for lowering US barriers to immigrant entrepreneurs, I saw a clear disconnect in the federal government’s system for meeting those needs. This was a government challenge in need of entrepreneurial solutions. I wanted to get involved as a citizen to make a difference, but the biggest solution on the table—a proposal called the Startup Visa Act—had foundered repeatedly in a gridlocked Congress.
At a meeting of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness in October 2011, officials from the office of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced a plan to bring a tactical team of business experts from the private sector into the federal government to help streamline the process for letting foreign entrepreneurs into the country. USCIS, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, realized that the existing immigration system was inadequately serving the needs of immigrant entrepreneurs. As a result, the country was missing out on innovation and jobs.
The entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) model was designed to bring new ways of problem solving into government. The hope was that American entrepreneurs would apply specific expertise and empathy to the task of attracting talented foreign entrepreneurs to the United States. I applied, was selected to serve, and spent the next 12 months working on a team tasked with improving the current immigration system.
We focused on helping foreign entrepreneurs better understand how to navigate the US immigration system and helping the agency better understand the lives of technology entrepreneurs in the 21st century. We also paved the way for the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which today brings citizen innovators into multiple sectors of the federal government, leveraging technology to help the government be more efficient, transparent, and accountable.
Since completing my stint as an EIR, I’ve received calls from administrators at other organizations interested in launching EIR programs, including state and local governments as well as universities and libraries. After many such conversations, I’ve distilled a few thoughts about how entrepreneurs can promote positive change within large, bureaucratic organizations.
Policy is not everything
New policies can drive big changes, but they can take ages to enact given the gridlock in our political system. If you bring an entrepreneurial mind-set to public service, you can often make headway by simply improving existing bureaucratic processes. In the case of immigration reform for entrepreneurs, it’s important to make sure that immigration adjudicators understand how modern technology entrepreneurship really works.
In the 21st century, you don’t need office space to build a viable company, for example. Yet a lack of office space can be a red flag for immigration officials, with the result that many otherwise highly qualified entrepreneurs have had their visa applications rejected. As entrepreneurs in residence, we were able to pinpoint this outdated regulation and train more than 500 immigration officers to treat the applications they review with more sensitivity.
Another bottleneck that we pinpointed was the lack of clarity regarding pathways to reaching business, residency, and citizenship goals. As entrepreneurs, what made the most sense to us was to build a new website that provides as much clarity for the immigrant entrepreneur as possible. The evolution of internal systems often requires a user-oriented, efficient, risk-taking, problem-solving attitude not currently found in many US government offices. Indeed, if we’ve learned anything from the recent healthcare.gov rollout, it’s that the need for more efficient and user-friendly systems in government has never been greater.
This very attitude—what we might call an entrepreneurial mind-set—will characterize entrepreneurship in the 21st century. Gone are the days of the traditional, limited definition of the entrepreneur: someone who creates a company to disrupt a market. Looking ahead, entrepreneurship must take on a more expansive and flexible definition as an approach to problem solving that spans multiple sectors, industries, cultures, and sizes of institutions.
The government needs more entrepreneurs
If entrepreneurs want their government to keep pace with the rapid evolution of start-ups, they must be willing to run for office or take public-sector jobs. One might contend that low pay and oppressive bureaucracy will always discourage the entrepreneurially inclined from public service. Yet for successful entrepreneurs who have made their money and are looking for ways to make an impact, the public sector provides leadership opportunities that can generate high social return on investment.
For entrepreneurs looking to settle down and raise a family, public-sector work can offer a chance to directly affect government systems and policies, as well as education and other public services in their local communities. EIR programs are a great start, but long-term change will require entrepreneurs to enter and stay in government. That kind of retention will only happen if entrepreneurs take it upon themselves to serve.
Our project at the department was a pilot to see if bringing entrepreneurs into the government would lead to new solutions for the immigration bottlenecks our country faces. While we were obviously unable to fix the entire system during our short and focused time, we improved USCIS’s training processes, Web presence, and communication procedures. We also started a productive conversation about the special needs of immigrant entrepreneurs that has continued internally since our departure.
In sum, folks who have experience building new ventures outside of government ought to consider putting their expertise to work in the public sphere. And government officials should proactively welcome the fresh perspective of entrepreneurs.
When my stint as an EIR at the immigration service ended, I left government to build a venture in the private sector. But I learned through my experience that regardless of the sector, entrepreneurial problem solving is an approach and a mind-set that will pave the way to a better future for all.
(photo: Robert Fogarty at Dear World)