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Immigrants are the lifeblood of Britain's entrepreneurial spirit – we need them more than ever

Annabel Denham
The visa rules for international students should be returned to what they were - Clara Molden 

Political flip-flopping is so commonplace that it’s a wonder manifestos are ever signed off or legislation passed. It can be terminal – just ask Mitt Romney about health care or Nick Clegg about tuition fees – though sometimes politicians or the parties they represent can get away with it.  

Boris Johnson’s refusal to commit to cutting migration if (when) he is appointed party leader follows a long – and very recent – history of supporting immigrants and championing their contribution to our economy and society. He hasn’t betrayed the spirit of the referendum as Hunt protests: even the most ardent Leavers accept our departure must not represent a raising of the drawbridge to international talent.

For too long, increased caps on fees for international students, onerous regulations for the organisations that can endorse them to stay after graduating, and negative rhetoric have been a feature of our immigration policy. Our Job Creators study, released last week, strengthens the argument for scrapping the immigration target altogether and instead adopting a more open, forward-thinking approach.

Using analysis of SyndicateRoom’s Top 100 list, which identifies those companies which have seen the largest increase in value over the past three years, Job Creators reveals that while just 14 per cent of the UK population are immigrants, half of our fastest-growing businesses have at least one foreign-born co-founder. Nine of the UK’s 14 unicorns (startups with a valuation of $1bn or more) have at least one immigrant co-founder.

These entrepreneurs are transforming how we bank (Monzo, TransferWise) and eat (Gousto, Deliveroo). They are protecting our children in a technological world developing so fast that parents struggle to keep apace (SuperAwesome). They are making an outsized contribution to wealth and job creation.

As Jo Johnson MP writes in the report’s foreword, while successive governments have acknowledged public concern about levels of immigration, they have “failed to make the positive, evidence-based case for embracing foreign-born talent”. Without immigrants, he adds, we would not be such a dynamic nation of manufacturers, exporters, app designers, innovators and disruptors. 

Perhaps immigrants are natural entrepreneurs, equipped with the tenacity and resilience to not only start up a life overseas but start up a business here too. Consider Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia. Born in Uganda, Sukhpal came to the UK as a teenager and spent his first year here in a refugee camp. The business he later started – Euro Car Parts – has grown to 300 sites across the UK and employs 12,000 people. 

Many of the immigrants on our list came to the UK to study. Mats Stigzelius, for example, moved here to study Aerospace Engineering at the University of Manchester. For the past decade the Finnish entrepreneur has been a founding partner of Rainmaking, which has helped to build and scale 720 startups. Rainmaking currently has 250+ team members across the globe. Stigzelius’s latest business, Takumi, has secured over £7m in investment. 

Tom Carrell came to the UK from New Zealand to study medicine. In 2014, after 20 years working for the NHS, he set up medical software business Cydar. He worries that the highly-educated and skilled Eastern European individuals he employs to work in computer vision and software design are unsure about their future here. 

The UK previously allowed international students to remain in the UK for two years after graduation on a post-study work visa. This was scrapped in 2012 by Theresa May, who claimed it “failed to control immigration”. International students were instead required to immediately meet the requirements for another visa route after graduation: many went home.

More than half of the foreign-born founders of US technology and engineering businesses initially came to America to study. Few moved there with the sole purpose of starting a company and they typically founded their first company after working and residing in America for an average of thirteen years. 

As Miguel Martinez, the Spanish co-founder of Signal AI, puts it: “We are training the best people in the world, paying for part of their PhD with taxpayers’ money, then telling them that they have to leave the country the moment they finish.” It is an act of monumental self-sabotage at a time when international enrolments at universities in the US, Australia, Germany and France are all growing faster than in the UK.  

In addition to restoring the Tier 1 Post-Study Work Visa, Job Creators calls for reform of the Tier 1 Investor Visa by lowering the minimum qualifying threshold for investment in UK startups, scale-ups and venture capital funds. It commends the government on its introduction of the Startup and Innovator Visas, which allow accelerators and incubators to sponsor entrepreneurs for visas, but flags that a failure to implement these effectively has left entrepreneurs with limited options for moving to the UK. 

Though unemployment is at its lowest rate in half a century, we still talk of losing jobs to immigrants. Post-Brexit curbs on migration will do economic damage: with the Fourth Industrial Revolution underway, we will need bold individuals willing to strike out alone and create the jobs of the future. The pressure on Boris to follow May’s immigration legacy will only increase as the Brexit deadline approaches. Let’s hope he’s not for turning.

Annabel Denham is Associate Director at The Entrepreneurs Network