America is a nation of immigrants. But it is historically has been a nation of entrepreneurs. Because of geography and U.S. immigration laws it was not possible for Indian immigrants to play a large role as entrepreneurs in the U.S. economy. However, the rise of Indian business people in America, especially since 1990, fits into a long tradition in America.
Early History of Immigrant Entrepreneurs in America
American history is fueled by the story of entrepreneurs. “The history of the United States lies in entrepreneurial ambition,” notes the Babson Entrepreneur Experience Lab. “The first colonies established in the New World sought to take advantage of new access to raw materials, agricultural lands and trade routes. More importantly, immigration to America offered the chance to escape class and persecution and to create opportunities for oneself; it was seen as the ‘land of opportunity.’ In particular, economic growth and entrepreneurial opportunities were found in owning land, various mercantile activities and exploration.”
Entrepreneurs Introducing New Methods and Technologies
Individual entrepreneurs, both native-born and foreign-born, have influenced how Americans communicate from the time of the telegraph up to the modern-day advent of mobile phones. In 1844, Samuel Morse won a federal grant to demonstrate the feasibility of the telegraph, though initially it could only transmit about 1,000 feet. When the federal government showed little interest in expanding the capability of the technology, Morse licensed private companies that within 6 years had built a “comprehensive network between major commercial centers.” According to Gerald Gunderson, author of An Entrepreneurial History of the United States, “Merchants extended their operations over a much wider area as the delays and uncertainty of working in distant markets fell. The telegraph took Americans a long way toward creating a national market by eliminating much of the disadvantage of distance.”
Entrepreneurs have also helped introduce new methods of operating businesses that later became common practice. Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant from Scotland, is famous for producing steel. “Carnegie’s challenge in 1870 was to develop an organization that improved efficiency as rapidly as possible,” explained Gunderson. “This turned not so much on inventing technology to produce steel, as on building an organization whose instinctive, primary focus was to reduce costs. Some of Carnegie’s innovations are so widely employed today they have become standard topics in management textbooks. One was the development of profit centers.”
Indian Entrepreneurs Emerge in America Post-1965
Between 1820 and 1959, only 13,363 Indians immigrated to America. This was due to the long distances but also because of immigration legislation passed in 1924 that severely limited immigration from eastern European, Asian, and African countries.
The 1965 Act eliminated the national origins quotas, opening the door to the immigration of Indians, Chinese and many others. The rise of Indian students in the United States helped lead to more family and employment-based immigrants and, as a result, that helped lead to more immigrant entrepreneurs.
A study I did for the National Venture Capital Association in 2006 examined publicly traded companies that had received venture capital. (See study here.) The study found, India, with 32 companies (22 percent), ranked first as the country of origin for immigrant-founded venture-backed public companies, followed by Israel with 17 companies (12 percent), and Taiwan with 16 companies (11 percent). Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, China, Iran, and two dozen other countries were also among the countries of origin of the immigrant entrepreneurs on the list.
A study just released by the National Foundation for American Policy examining the top privately-held venture-funded companies. It also found India was the leading source country for immigrant entrepreneurs. (See study here.) Today’s Indian entrepreneurs are fitting into an American tradition of influencing society through entrepreneurship that goes back hundreds of years in our country’s history.