The Arrival of the Immigrant Entrepreneur

By Daniel Wilmoth, PhD

Alexander, known as Aleck to his family, was born in Scotland in 1847 and later immigrated to Canada. His father taught speaking skills to the deaf.

In 1871, Aleck began working on speech with deaf students in Boston, and he continued his efforts with the deaf throughout his life. His most famous consultation was with Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind but became a celebrated speaker and author. She dedicated her autobiography to him.

Aleck also experimented with the electronic transmission of sound. He believed that different tones could be used to send multiple telegraph messages simultaneously over a single wire. In the end, work on a prototype led to the discovery of the potential for transmitting the complex sounds necessary for speech.

In 1876, Aleck, remembered today as Alexander Graham Bell, patented the resulting invention, the telephone. The Bell Telephone Company was founded a year later and eventually became AT&T. In 1984, when it was divided into several different companies to address the concerns of regulators, AT&T was the largest company in the world, with over a million employees and $70 billion in annual revenue.

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Immigrant entrepreneurs like Alexander Graham Bell have founded many other prominent businesses, including Tesla, General Electric, and Google. Over the last 20 years, the role of immigrant entrepreneurs has grown. As the figure below illustrates, the percentage of the self-employed who were born abroad more than doubled between 1994 and 2015, rising from 8.6 percent to 19.5 percent.


Percentage of the self-employed who were born abroad, 1994-2015

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Source: Calculations by the author using data from the Current Population Survey by the US Census Bureau.


A new report from the Office of Advocacy, The Arrival of the Immigrant Entrepreneur, explains why the percentage of the self-employed who were born abroad has grown. The report shows that the growth was caused by three changes—an increase in the size of the population born abroad, an increase in self-employment among those born abroad, and a decrease in self-employment overall.

The new report is the third in a series on trends in entrepreneurship.  New businesses are key sources of jobs and innovation, and entrepreneurship is closely related to economic growth.  The previous report in the series addressed entrepreneurship among seniors.  The next report will explain the increase in self-employment among immigrants.

Immigrants like Alexander Graham Bell have founded many successful businesses. The future founders of other successful businesses are likely now among the immigrant population in the United States. Several resources for them and other aspiring entrepreneurs are available from the Small Business Administration at www.sba.gov/MadeItInAmerica

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