Smart Immigration Policy a Competitive Advantage, Says South African Immigrant Entrepreneur

Greg Fisher grew up in a small town outside Johannesburg, South Africa, where he had a successful career with Deloitte and started a corporate e-learning company that hit $1 million in annual revenues before he sold it to a large consulting firm. Now, Fisher, who was recently named one of the country’s 40 best young business educators by Poets & Quants, has brought his expertise to Bloomington, Indiana, where he’s a professor of management and entrepreneurship at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “That’s my passion – helping other people to advance and be excellent in business,” Fisher says. “I hope that wherever I am, people are benefiting from me being there and doing what I’ve chosen to do.”

Fisher and his wife first came to the United States while he was earning a PhD in business studies at the University of Washington. Though they had expected to go back to South Africa, the couple wound up staying on when Fisher was hired by Indiana University. Then they hit a snag: American immigration policy required that the couple return to South Africa while the visa documentation was processed. “It was very traumatic at the time, because we didn’t know if we’d be allowed to stay or not,” Fisher says. The real headache started when the couple learned that Fisher’s wife, who was listed as a dependent on his visa, would not be allowed to work in the United States. Back in South Africa, she’d been a qualified lawyer with years of experience with international NGOs. In America, she was prohibited from holding any job until the couple received their green cards. That took 10 years. “There’s been a very high cost for her professionally,” Fisher says.

Such burdens, Fisher says, are part and parcel of the immigrant experience – and a reminder of why immigrants are such valuable members of American society. The people who are willing to take risks and make sacrifices to come to America are the same kinds of people who dream big, start businesses, and are willing work hard to improve their lives, he explains. “The people who emigrate tend to have an entrepreneurial inclination,” he says. “That’s part of what I’ve observed in all the places I’ve done research or taught.”

Fisher is reminded of one of his old schoolmates back in South Africa – a quiet boy who didn’t seem like anything special, but who left school at 17, moved to Canada, and later immigrated to America, to build a new life for himself. The boy’s name? Elon Musk, now CEO of Tesla Motors.

If you provide people with an opportunity to come in and start businesses, you’d really reinforce those competitive advantages.

One of the ironies of Fisher’s own story, he says, is that it was far easier to come to America as a scholar of entrepreneurship than it would have been to come as an actual entrepreneur. It’s relatively simple to get a student visa, he explains, but few equivalent paths exist for entrepreneurs and investors. That leads talented people from countries like South Africa to simply look elsewhere. “I’ve seen many people who’re top quality, and who’d have loved to come to the United States, but didn’t see a reasonable path to doing so,” Fisher says. Many South Africans wind up emigrating to more welcoming countries like the United Kingdom or Australia, and have gone on to become highly successful entrepreneurs and CEOs there, Fisher says. “Those people would have considered the United States as a viable and attractive option, and would have come here and done great things, but there was no obvious path for them,” he says.

What the United States needs, Fisher argues, is a points-based immigration system, like those already in place in Australia and the United Kingdom, to offer easier access to people with desirable skills. “We need a merit-based system to allow high-quality, highly qualified people to come here and make a contribution,” he says. Entrepreneurs around the world already see American cities as world-class business environments, Fisher says, and many talented people would jump at the chance to come and start businesses here. “If you provide people with an opportunity to come in and start businesses, you’d really reinforce those competitive advantages, and allow new ones to emerge,” he says. “Economically, if done well, it would be an immense boon.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…