Satish “Sam” Kumar came to the United States to earn a master’s degree in engineering. He stayed, first getting a job at an electronics company in Phoenix. After three years, he decided that working for corporate America wasn’t for him — and he started a company in Denver.
Nearly two decades later, the Indian-born CEO of Microtech-tel said he expects profits of $10 million during the next quarter.
Kumar isn’t alone. More than 21 percent of the engineering and technology firms created in Colorado during the past 10 years were formed by immigrants — people often excluded from the debate about immigration and globalization.
“I would not have been successful in India,” Kumar said. “I left because the infrastructure was very weak, and I did not like the corruption there. I came over here because there were much more opportunities. America is so competitive — the best of the best want to provide services and products here. You have to compete with them. But we’ve succeeded.”
Kumar’s voice data and communications business has 2,500 customers, and has offices in Denver and Colorado Springs.
“We’ve been successful because we have kept it small,” he said. “And we believe in customer service and being competitive with everyone. We know we can compete and win.”
A study by Duke University and the University of California at Berkley shows similar results to Kumar’s experiences. The goal of the research was to document the economic and intellectual contributions of immigrant technologists and engineers.
“The focus of the immigration debate is on the plight of millions of unskilled immigrants who have entered the U.S. illegally,” the study says. “Overlooked in the debate are the hundreds of thousands of skilled immigrants who annually enter the country legally.”
Results show that from 1995 to 2005, 25.3 percent of new companies nationwide had at least one foreign-born founder. Nationwide, these companies produced $52 billion in sales, and employed 450,000 workers.
Matzas Bren, a professor in Regis University’s MBA program, said the active role of immigrants in business has often been overlooked. He said foreign-born business owners bring more than just a U.S. earned education to their start-up companies.
“From a cultural perspective, immigrants have different strengths,” he said. “Particularly the Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs. They believe in commerce, have strong families and keep their companies within the family. And they’ve been very, very successful.”
According to the study, “America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs,” almost 80 percent of immigrant-founded companies were in software and innovation-related services, and were most highly represented in the semiconductor, computer, communication and software fields.
“We estimate that foreign nationals residing in the U.S. were named as inventors or co-inventors of 24.2 percent of international patent applications filed from the U.S. in 2006,” the study said. “The trend has been dramatic … international patent applications increased from 7.3 percent in 1998.”
The study also shows that the largest group of non-citizen inventors was Chinese, followed by Indians, Canadians and British. Chinese and Indian immigrants constitute less than 1 percent of the U.S population, according to the study.
Some of the immigrants come only for an education, Bren said.
“India’s ex-patriot investments equal 10 percent of that nation’s total investment,” he said. “They come here, are very successful and then go back to invest in their home country. The trend is there, definitely in India, and to a lesser extent in China.”
Immigrants to the United States are “very driven,” Bren said. “In terms of education and salaries, they usually end up in management. They bring a lot of drive, a lot of ambition. Studies show that people from Asian-Pacific countries have some of the highest median family incomes; that definitely shows their success.”
While Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs tend to focus on engineering and technology sectors, immigrants from other nations also provide strengths to keep the country competitive in a global marketplace.
“We can’t forget that some immigrants also contribute to the economy in other ways besides high-tech companies,” Bren said. “They also own restaurants; they provide farm labor. It’s difficult to quantify those kinds of efforts — how much more expensive things could be without this kind of labor.”
Ken Barela, co-owner of Calli Development Services and president of the Colorado Springs Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said foreign-born business owners seem to work twice as hard to establish their position in the United States.
“My business partner is from Mexico,” he said. “He is a licensed architect and general contractor, has a master’s degree. He’s the example of how hard working and conscientious immigrants seem to be.”
Barela said that foreign-born business owners also form businesses to fill niches in the service and products industries that are unfilled in the community.
Bren said that many of the entrepreneurs find the business climate in the United States to be very favorable to creating new businesses and new inventions.
“Generally, the U.S. provides the environment for a lot of imagination, a very dynamic economy,” he said. “Many of these immigrants come from places where you can’t find that. Our economy favors risk-taking; we’re open and tolerant of failure. We have a broad capital market that can stimulate folks, open a whole new world to them.”
Purnima Voria, founder and CEO of the National Indian Chamber of Commerce in Denver said many of her members are thriving in the creative business atmosphere of the United States.
“We started a year and a half ago, and now we have 47 corporate members,” she said. “This research shows that immigrants have become a significant driving force in the creation of new businesses and intellectual property in the U.S. — and that their contributions have increased over the past decade. The key to maintaining U.S. competitiveness in a global economy is to understand America’s strengths and to effectively leverage these. Skilled immigrants are one of America’s greatest advantages.”