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Innovation Chamber: Increasing the region’s population through immigration (Part 3 of 3)

July 26, 2011 by

About the Author: Tom Chapman, director of entrepreneurship and innovation for the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, is a regular guest contributor to Silicon Prairie News. In his series, Innovation Chamber: A Look Outside the Chamber for Innovation, Chapman draws on his professional experiences to lend advice, share observations and provide milestones to the entrepreneurial community in the Silicon Prairie.

At the Chamber, Chapman has worked with hundreds of local (and some non-local) new ventures, many very large companies seeking innovation advice and a host of funders looking for deals. To learn more about Chapman, see our introductory post.

Contact Chapman at tchapman@omahachamber.org.

A sign at SXSW promotes the Startup Visa Act, a piece of legislation that would allow entrepreneurs to keep their companies and jobs in the United States. Photo by Alexander Torrenegra via Flickr.

Editor’s Note: This it the third of three Innovation Chamber posts on the subject of increasing Omaha’s population. To read the previous posts, see: “through migration” and “through college students.”

Omaha must become a more welcoming place to people who are not from here and people who are different – a solution to the provincial problem from Post One. A great bellwether for this problem is international immigrants. This is a key group not just as a bellwether but also because a high priority because immigrants can play key roles as entrepreneurs and highly skilled knowledge workers.

In Omaha, international immigrants make up approximately 5.9% of the total MSA population. Interestingly, a much higher percentage of Omaha immigrants are from Asia compared to Europe. Moreover, the largest statistical class is from Central America and Mexico – making up more than 50% of the total immigrant population in Omaha.

Unfortunately, a high percentage of these immigrants are low wage, low skilled employees. In fact, in a recent immigration analysis – Richard Florida’s group identified markets where immigrants were above and below the national median wage – and Omaha’s immigrant population was statistically below the national median wage. These places despite being located within pockets of immigrants that are below the median average – have high skilled immigrant labor in key fields such as engineering, biosciences and information technology. In addition to shifting the college labor force, Omaha should be challenging itself to dramatically increase its overall pool of well-educated immigrants.

Graphs courtesy of Tom Chapman

There are three key things that Omaha should be doing right now to make itself a more welcoming place and one other that is specifically tied to entrepreneurship.

First, Omahans (and my guess is most other Silicon Prairie people) should stop asking “where did you go to high school” within three minutes of meeting someone. This sounds like a joke but it is not. Instead, a better question might be “how did you come to Omaha?” This an inclusive way of asking a similar question that does not exclude someone from Central Florida, Central America or Central High School. All residents need to work on changing our behaviors to be more inclusive including little things like how we ask about a person’s past.

Second, Prairie peeps should do more to understand more about the world and other cultures. I know that this sounds like work. And for some, it may be. But, understanding the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) is incredibly important for business in the 21st century because these are very large growing markets. I am going to recommend one book (that I am guessing most have not read) that I found fascinating and made international business interesting – Adventure Capitalist by Jim Rogers. However, I would offer that this should be an on-going comment discussion and mechanism to open Silicon Prairie News’ readers’ eyes to a larger world. The Prairie needs to understand the world to become the critical innovation hub that it can be.

Third, be more inclusive. While immigrants are a good bellwether – they are not the only people that need to be included. Cornstalks is almost always dominated by young, white, male technologists. The Silicon Prairie needs to find more people of color – immigrant or not, of alternative lifestyles – gay or not, and many more females. Right now the momentum generated in Omaha and elsewhere is still not including enough people and enough people with diverse backgrounds. We can do better and seeing more immigrants is likely a clear signal that we are doing better.

The purely entrepreneurial one is that the Silicon Prairie should support Startup Visa. Startup Visa provides a number of key provisions that are good for the Prairie and for getting more immigrant entrepreneurs into the US. [Visit startupvisa.com to understand more about the Startup Visa lobbying effort and bill.] However, a critical reason for this is also that if 1,000 immigrants are allowed to enter the U.S. legally and there is a need for 10,000 – the places that lose are not New York and Silicon Valley – they are Cedar Rapids, Omaha and Sioux Falls. And we lose twice. We lose first when we do not get a new person or family to move to the Prairie. We lose a second time when someone from the Prairie moves to the coast to fill a job left vacant by a tighter employment market. Attracting immigrants in today’s America is a finite pool. This limitation will likely lead to Prairie places getting both fewer immigrants AND losing some of the other “needed” employees to places on the coasts. Thus, Startup Visa and increasing support for highly skilled immigration is also a selfish proposition to increase immigration to this place and to reduce brain drain to fill open jobs elsewhere.

I would offer this blog post by Fred Wilson about Mayor Bloomberg to underscore my thoughts with a politically courageous leader saying what needs to be said: “The Chorus For Immigration Reform Grows Louder“.

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