Unpacking the Gift of Global Talent with HBS Professor William Kerr

Ryo Takahashi, Contributor

Immigration issues have been at the center of political debate, with the US seemingly becoming more insular and dialing back from the Obama-era policy of limited deportations to Trump’s “zero tolerance regime,” which threatens anyone in the US unlawfully with deportation. In the US, home to an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants, immigration has become an increasingly polarized topic in the media.

However, in stark contrast to the increasingly negative perceptions towards immigration, there is a widening gap between the popular debate and the positive economic impact of migrants. In short, in the US and abroad, curtailing the flow of global talent will come at the cost of growth.

Taking the US as an example, migrants are founders of roughly 30% of all businesses, even though they make up just 14% of the population. According to a Partnership for a New American Society, more than half of US “unicorns” (startups valued at more than $1 billion) were founded by immigrants, as well as 40% of Fortune 500 companies if both immigrants and their children are included. Today, these companies founded by immigrants or their children employ over 10 million people worldwide, and they include household names such as Apple, Google, AT&T, Budweiser, eBay, GE, and McDonalds.

Professor William Kerr of the Harvard Business School, whose new book The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy & Society (release date: October 2), weighs in on the high-skilled immigration aspects of these debates:

“Over the past forty years, high-skilled immigration and the economics of talent clusters have combined to dramatically transform America and the world. What I want to do in the book is describe the power of global talent flows and why they matter so much to our businesses and our economy,” he says.

Inspired by his international work in the 1990s before entering academia—one project of which included flying back and forth between Seoul and Silicon Valley to bring a global telecom venture to life—Kerr has conducted leading research on high-skilled immigration and its business and economic consequences. The results quantify the degree to which the US has disproportionately enjoyed the “gift” of migrating global talent and consider why.

“I was interviewed by an immigration-focused podcast yesterday and asked: ‘Please fill in the blank: Only in America ____.’” Kerr says. “My answer was that only in America can you deploy this amount of global talent at such a scale and with such diversity of opportunity. We have Seattle, Miami, and everything in between.”

Kerr’s research suggests that America has been the beneficiary of global talent, with high-skilled workers making contributions ranging from academia to establishing global enterprises.

“It’s hard to define ‘talent’,” Kerr says, “The book instead looks at many groups ranging from Nobel Prize winners to inventors to current college students studying in our classrooms. The beneficial flow to the US can be staggering—107 people have migrated to the US and conducted Nobel Prize winning work, compared to 4 Americans that left to do their research elsewhere. The US has also grabbed over 50% of inventors who have migrated internationally.”

However, the landscape of global talent flows is changing, and the continuation of such lopsided benefits for America is not guaranteed. For instance, the EU is opening its borders and China is increasingly becoming more open towards embracing inflows of global talent.

“The important ‘ingredients’ that a place needs to have to lure global talent in are (i) scale of opportunity and (ii) diversity to make people feel welcome and productive. At a country level or a city level, global talent is dynamic and will continue to reposition itself. Berlin, Shanghai, and Hong Kong are popular talent clusters. For any large organization to remain competitive, they need to access these talent centers and be at the cutting edge,” Kerr says.

The positive economic benefits of global talent migration are clear. Yet the forces against migration are becoming increasingly entrenched since the benefits are not felt evenly.  

“The economic insecurity and fear that many people in this country face has manifested itself in backlash against financial integration, trade, and frankly integration with people,” says Kerr.

Yet curbing global talent, as opposed to welcoming it, would be misguided. The US would be ceding one of its main sources of competitiveness that has kept the country innovative and growing. Kerr argues that a set of reforms can yield a better system and share the gains more widely.

“There’s nothing in this book that is a starry-eyed view of migration,” Kerr says, “The debate often seems to be between those who believe migration can do no harm versus  those who believe nothing good happens. But, neither is right. The United States has received an enormous gift in global talent flows, but some people have been hurt. If we were to improve our systems, I think we can share that a bit more.”

In a world of an increasingly competitive war for global talent, devising smart policies that attract and retain the best and brightest global talent would be wise for organizations and countries alike.

Ryo Takahashi (MBA ’20) originally from Japan, is a management consultant and writer. Prior to Harvard Business School, he worked as a Project Manager at the World Economic Forum (WEF) and was a Senior Associate at McKinsey & Company. Prior to these roles he worked at The Economist and The Japan Times. His writing has appeared in TIME Magazine, The Economist, The Japan Times, and the World Economic Forum, among other outlets. He received his B.A. in Economics (with Distinction) from The University of Tokyo and was also a Rotary Scholar to the London School of Economics (LSE), where he studied Mathematics.