On Tuesday, I had the honor of testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in my capacity as an immigrant entrepreneur, former H-1B visa holder, and now-U.S. citizen about the immense economic benefit that the H-1B visa program provides to our country; I’ve seen this first hand in my own experience, where I’ve worked hard to build my company and create American jobs. As an ambassador for FWD.us’ Austin, Texas chapter, I know how much our badly broken immigration system requires a permanent legislative solution.
I came to America when I was 15 years old as an exchange student in Pflugerville, Texas. I instantly fell in love with America, and knew I wanted to build my life here. After high school, I won scholarships to the University of Texas and then Harvard Business School. At the age of 26, while at Harvard, I started my own company, Enspire, without outside funding or family help. After 14 years in business, Enspire has over $5 million in revenue, employs more than 30 Americans, and sells leadership development programs and e-learning software to dozens of brand-name organizations such as GE, MIT, and the World Bank. Last year, our educational software was used in over 20 countries. Today, I live in Austin, Texas with my wonderful wife and three beautiful children. And in 2012, I had the incredible privilege of becoming an American citizen.
When I arrived in the U.S. in the 1990s, America allowed me to dream big. My parents never went to college, and as an introverted teenager without connections, I was not able to thrive in my home country of Germany. Studying in the U.S. allowed me to gain the education and confidence to prepare for a career in entrepreneurship. If I had stayed in Europe, I know I would have followed a different and less fulfilling path.
That said, it was extremely difficult for me to remain in the U.S. My family did not have the money to support me in college, and while I had earned scholarships, it was hard to make ends meet given the limited work opportunities available to students on F-1 visas. I was able to stay in the U.S. after I graduated thanks to the study extension visa. Once expired, I applied for an H-1B visa in order to grow my company. Without the H-1B visa program, Enspire and the jobs created for dozens of Texans would not exist today. In 2006, I was able to apply for a permanent green card – and eventually citizenship – based on extraordinary ability. I consider myself lucky that I came to the U.S. when I did, because today, my story would be impossible due to the current cap and restrictions placed on H-1B visas.
While I have found great success in the U.S., my story is far from unique. Immigrants and their children have founded over 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies. Without immigrant entrepreneurs, the U.S. would not be home to companies like Google, eBay, and Yahoo! It is easy to imagine that those companies could have been created overseas, and we would have missed out on their innovation and American jobs. Skilled immigrants also boost our economy by creating new jobs for American workers: studies show that for every 100 H-1B workers, an additional 183 jobs are created for workers born in the U.S.
The truth is that the world is not standing still. When I graduated from high school in the 1990s, there was only one country that allowed people to dream big: the United States. However, there are now vibrant startup communities in cities from London to Berlin and Singapore to Dubai. When faced with the obstacles the U.S. currently presents to talented individuals, I am not surprised when more entrepreneurs decide to establish their companies elsewhere rather than fight to stay here, even after they have earned educations invested in by U.S. taxpayers. That’s what is happening today, and it’s hurting the competitiveness of the country I love.
America is still the land of opportunity for many people like me around the world, but if we don’t fix our broken immigration system now, I know that other countries will step in to fill the void. We cannot become complacent. We should not turn away talented, hard-working individuals who want to put their passions to work here. We must expand opportunities for immigrants to contribute to this great country, so we can continue to be the country that attracted me to come here in the first place – the country that represents freedom, liberty, and opportunity across the world.
Billhardt, a native of Hamburg, Germany, is the founder and chairman of Enspire, a leadership development company he founded in 2001 with the mission to help people develop in their professional career. Billhardt holds an MBA with Honors from Harvard Business School and a dual BA/BBA from the University of Texas, where he is an alumnus of the Plan II and the Business Honors Program.