Biggest innovators in US tech are well-educated immigrants

Stop for a moment and think about the traditional image of a US innovator. He’s probably a brilliant college drop-out who doesn’t want to be constrained by the system so he sets out and does his own thing, changing the world and making lots of money in the process. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, they all kind of fit the profile, and that’s the kind of image most often promoted. However, according to a new study, that’s not really the case: instead, the biggest innovators are well-educated immigrants.

Mexican immigrants march for more rights in Northern California’s largest city, San Jose (2006). Photo by z2amiller.

More than one-third – or 35.5 percent – of U.S. innovators through STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) were born outside the country, claims a report from Washington think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). The median age of these innovators is 47, debunking another common belief about American innovators.

“The idea that these guys just drop out of college and do amazing things in their 20s – that’s really not the norm,” says ITIF President and report co-author Robert Atkinson in an interview, citing that nearly 60 percent had a Ph.D. in one of the four fields.

There’s another recurring common trait between tech innovators: education. As mentioned above, 60% of all innovators have a PhD, and almost all of them have higher studies (80%).

“People may think technological innovation is driven by precocious college dropouts at startup companies, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg,” Adams Nager, ITIF economic policy analyst and the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “In reality, America’s innovators are far more likely to be immigrants with advanced degrees who have paid their dues through years of work in large companies.”

This study comes on the back of a very heated anti-immigration discussion in the US and in Western Europe. Especially in the US, Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have demonized immigrants as one of the biggest problems in the country, but this study goes to show that this is not nearly the case. Immigrants are a key component of the driving force that represents the American dream: innovation and entrepreneurship.

The study also highlighted some worrying differences in the demographics of innovators. Women represented a mere 11.7 percent of US innovators and US-born minorities only made up 8 percent. Blacks made up just 0.5 percent of US-born innovators. It’s no surprise that Silicon Valley has a diversity gap, but it’s shocking just how big this gap is.

You can read the entire study here.


3 thoughts on “Biggest innovators in US tech are well-educated immigrants

  1. Ishmael

    Nice article, but Republicans do not oppose “immigration” — they oppose _illegal_ immigration. Sad that a science newsletter refuses to state the facts.

  2. PR

    What’s even more sad, Ishmael, is that a science article can’t reason with basic math. ~1/3 are immigrants (which is just fine btw!). That means 2/3rds are US citizens. Your headline has been falsified!

  3. Brian

    Read the study, that’s not what it mean at all.

    It’s their definition of major or significant innovation that seems vague.

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