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How immigration can help foster innovation in business

[Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates receives a hug from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) at the Global Citizen Concert to End AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in Montreal, Quebec, Canada September 17, 2016. / REUTERS/Geoff Robins/POOL]
[Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates receives a hug from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) at the Global Citizen Concert to End AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in Montreal, Quebec, Canada September 17, 2016. / REUTERS/Geoff Robins/POOL]

In essence, immigration is innovation. It’s looking for a better way, a new path, chasing opportunity. And, as Bill Gates pointed out at the Emerging Cascadia Innovation Conference last week, it’s also good for business.

“I think Canada’s very well positioned. It’s got good, strong universities, good policies – certainly more enlightened immigration policies than most countries have, which is a real asset,” said the Microsoft co-founder to attendees at the conference, which was set up to bolster the technology and business links between British Columbia and Washington.

Gate’s sentiment mirrored Canada’s Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains earlier comments that while boosting domestic talent and education through training is key, supporting immigration, and by proxy, immigrant entrepreneurs, through grants and funding is also a vital part of growing the economy.

“Those kinds of investments attract the best and brightest to come to Canada, and then if we create an environment for them to grow their company, succeed and we provide a good quality of life, there’s a good chance we’ll be able to retain them,” he told reporters. “When individuals start up companies and grow companies, then they employ Canadians. That’s the idea. We want to create an innovation culture.”

Part of that innovation is driven by the cross-pollination that can occur where newcomer entrepreneurs are starting businesses out of incubators or accelerators alongside equally innovative startups. In fact, immigrants are far more likely to start businesses – 19.6 per cent of immigrants are unincorporated self-employed persons according to StatsCan – than their Canadian-born peers at 16.1 per cent.

[Syrian chocolatier opens factory in Antigonish / CBC]
[Syrian chocolatier opens factory in Antigonish. Trudeau recently shared the story of Tareq Hadhad and his family’s success since their arrival in Canada from Syria at the United Nations. / CBC]

“A lot of immigrants are shut out of certain jobs in Canada because the skills aren’t recognized easily and that drives entrepreneurial activity,” explains Andreas Schotter, assistant professor of International Business and Global Strategy and the academic director of Ivey Business School’s Masters of Science program at Western University.

While Gates and Minister Bains have glowing praise for the policies, Schotter – himself an immigrant having come as a student from Germany in 2005 and become a Canadian citizen in 2011 – says we’re missing the mark by not structuring our immigration policy around skill sets.

“I live here for a reason and it’s a great country – I believe in the value of Canada,” he says. “But I do think we need to do a better job in making it easier for skilled people to come to Canada.”

He points out that while newcomers are starting their own businesses, the immigration is not really conducive to these business owners scaling those companies up, especially in more complex value-adding industries where they’re competing with homegrown firms for highly skilled talent.

“If you have difficulties hiring locally and then you have also difficulties in bringing potential friends or someone from their (home country) who can fill that skill gap, your activity is quite limited,” he says adding that transferring skilled immigrants into our talent pool is key to innovation.

Schotter says he feels Canada lost a bit of an opportunity after 9/11 when the U.S. tightened its borders. Canada, he explains, could have streamlined its rules to make it easier for firms to bring in talent from elsewhere.

A recent column by John Stackhouse, former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief and current senior vice president to the Office of the CEO at RBC, highlighted the role of diversity in driving innovation.

“Many of the world’s innovation hubs are places to which talented immigrants flock – think Hong Kong or New York or London – where differences in background, choice and perspective come together to create excellence,” he wrote. “The qualities that define immigrants – risk-taking, openness to new ideas and manners, an ability to build something from scratch – are also at the heart of innovation.”

Like Stackhouse, Schotter also points to countries like Singapore or Hong Kong as prime examples of skill-based immigration policies. And maybe that’s it, coming up with policies focused on these regions.

“But again – Hong Kong, Singapore… these are city states,” he says. “Maybe Canada needs to look at that more, we are kind of a cluster of city states in a way.”

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