Jason Kenney, Canada's Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, has a look for wannabe entrepreneurs struggling to get their green cards or extend their H-1B visas in the United States: Come hither.
And he's not shy about his government's intent to poach skilled talent from its neighbour - Canada has put up a billboard on a highway connecting San Francisco with Silicon Valley, urging H-1B visa holders facing problems to "pivot to Canada". It's an apt location considering California's Silicon Valley is among the biggest catchment areas in the US for tech workers on H-1B visas, many of them from India.
Kenney is driving the message home with a visit on Saturday to TiEcon 2013, the annual convention of The Indus Entrepreneurs or TiE, which began as a networking forum for entrepreneurs of Indian origin but has now grown into a mainstream, worldwide organisation. TiEcon 2013 is taking place in Santa Clara on May 17 and 18.
The Canadian government has a booth at the convention this year, and Kenney is pitching the country's new Start-Up Visa programme at the event. Canada launched the programme in April, offering immediate permanent residency and a subsequent path to citizenship to qualifying entrepreneurs who have attracted investments for their start-up ventures from designated Canadian venture capital funds and angel investors.
In an interview to Business Standard from Vancouver, Kenney said, "We'd rather they start their businesses in Toronto or Vancouver than in Silicon Valley or in Bangalore. We see these people as among the best and brightest, and our immigration reforms are creating a much faster moving and more proactive immigration system that seeks proactively to reach around the world and attract the best and brightest."
The limited availability of green cards and long delays in processing them, coupled with the huge numbers of applicants who are often H-1B visa holders, has created a bottleneck in the US immigration system. Often, entrepreneurs have no choice but to leave the US if they don't get their green cards in time. Canada is positioning itself as an appealing alternative.
"We became aware of this large pool of highly educated and innovative temporary residents in the United States, typically on H-1 visas who wanted to stay but couldn't… Our message to them is if you're interested eventually in staying in North America on a permanent basis, please think of immigrating to Canada, perhaps through our start-up visa program," said Kenney.
Though the Canadian government maintains it does not target immigrants based on the countries they come from, the pitch to H-1B visa holders and Kenney's stop at TiEcon are strong signals to the Indian community.
India is already one of the top three source countries of immigrants to Canada. Kenney also noted the profile of Indian immigrants has been changing in recent years, and praised the "tremendous work ethic and entrepreneurial instinct" among recent arrivals. "Initially, Indian migration to Canada tended to heavily come from family sponsorship from northern India. But increasingly in recent years we've seen more and more skilled workers coming from other parts of the country including southern India," he said. Canada will open a consulate and immigration office in Bangalore in September.
The minister also pointed to the success of Indian immigrants in Canada's corporate leadership ranks. "Many of them are reaching high levels of corporate leadership in Canada, many people of South Asian origin, especially Indian origin. So, that's another point, that some of these bright young Indian nationals who are on H-1 visas in the US, that by moving to Canada they're going to find an environment that's very hospitable for people of Indian origin."
The new Start-Up Visa is the latest effort by Canada to attract skilled entrepreneurs, after it closed two earlier programs aimed at investors upon finding they undervalued Canadian residency and were also being misused by immigration consultants. The new plan was drawn up after inputs from Canada's venture capital community, and is a five-year pilot programme.
That needs to change, says Mukesh Gupta, Chair of the TiE Institute in Toronto, and Advisor at the University of Toronto's India Innovation Institute. Gupta, who notes TiE Toronto was among the earliest groups to lobby for a start-up visa, though it was not consulted in the development of the programme, says Canada needs to move beyond pilot programmes to lasting policies instead.
Welcoming the new visa as a good step, Gupta said it was equally important to provide a fertile ecosystem to entrepreneurs. "While it is easy to attract entrepreneurs, but if they are not supported by the entrepreneurial ecosystem we will not be able to yield the best results possible. Governments must engage with organisations such as TiE to provide that nurturing to entrepreneurs, and this is the sole purpose of TiE," Gupta said.
Apart from TiEcon 2013, Kenney will visit other venues and events in Silicon Valley to pitch the Start-Up Visa and to promote Canada as a place for investment in the tech sector. He acknowledged the United States had longstanding advantages over Canada and other countries in attracting talented immigrants due to the "enormous power of the American brand". But, he added, "What we hope to do is to say that may all be well and good but don't just be seduced by the big American brand. If you're looking for lower taxes, a more stable fiscal environment, a stronger economy with an infinitely more flexible immigration system, then please look to Canada."
The Start-Up Visa was launched on April 1, and Kenney says he would be satisfied if it got just a few hundred applications this year. His priority right now is to spread the word, from the Bay Area to Bangalore and beyond.