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Ventures, nationalism, and talent without borders

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

A venture executive/board advisor sent me this article over the weekend and asked me if I agreed with the main premise, essentially that expatriate communities in places such as Singapore are feeling significantly exposed and less welcome in the current economic climate. While some of these stories reflect an unfortunate but hopefully temporary experience for a number ex-patriate candidates across various markets, I suspect that emotive stories such as these are geared more to generate near term clicks than productive debate, especially in the economically stressful and emotionally charged environment that we all currently find ourselves in.


The long horizon trends that I find more broadly concerning are global in scope and not the exclusive domain of any particular state or nation. Increasingly restrictive controls on borders and talent migration that have become a default policy feature in most advanced economies. Nationalist narratives in recent years have fueled policy changes in Australia (457 visa changes), the UK (Brexit), and the US (H1B changes) to name a few. They allow politicians to conveniently "paper-over" more serious, long-term structural problems in these economies and are completely counter to the systems and policies that allowed the US tech venture scene to evolve and thrive over the last 40 years as they managed to draw in and retain the brightest of minds from all over the planet. The vast majority of engineers in Silicon Valley were not born in the US and the majority of current tech unicorns were also founded by immigrants.


I tested this thinking with a number of international executives and entrepreneurs that I met in Europe last year, summarised here in this very short video blog from a slightly rainy (but very beautiful) Copenhagen: 

I agree that local, similarly capable talent in every jurisdiction should be exhausted before imported talent is supported. Not just in depressed markets but always. Unfortunately, in terms of the new strategic skills that are rapidly emerging (e.g. AI, ML & automation, data science, IoT, cybersecurity, blockchain, cloud transformation) demand so drastically outstrips the supply of experience that no single jurisdiction has close to enough experts and leaders in these categories to meet their needs locally. There are going to be clear economic winners and losers decided by this imbalance.


The current pandemic is hyper-concentrating the downside of these policies at the worst possible time. Most agree that our collective future will be significantly impacted by technologies such as AI and autonomy over the coming decades. In fact, the consequences may be far greater than just economic if Reuters commentary on the progress of Russia and China in the AI "arms race" is any guide.


“Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind... It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.” - Vladmir Putin (source: RT)


In July McKinsey referred to "The great acceleration" in this recent article which describes the growing gap between high and low performing companies and sectors that have been radically increased year to date in 2020.

"...online delivery’s volume increased by the same amount in eight weeks as it had over the entire previous decade. Telemedicine experienced a tenfold growth in subscribers in just 15 days." source: McKinsey article, The great acceleration, July 14th 2020

In most jurisdictions, foreign talent is not a “cost out” proposition. Quite the opposite in fact. Cost-saving is what offshoring has attempted to achieve for decades, and I’m not enamored with the efficacy of that with regards to supporting innovation. We are all in an increasingly aggressive global competition for talent and IP.


An example: We were recently working with a senior executive data and AI practitioner who completed an exhaustive three-month process and was found to be by far the outstanding finalist candidate (they were already working for another organization in the prospective employer's destination market) but was not able to be offered by a large global firm because the employer could not garner government agency support for a new visa. They could have trained, mentored, and led a new generation of local talent in that country. They will now seek opportunities elsewhere, of which they have many. Elite candidates such as this have universally rare skills that every firm, from enterprise to startup venture are increasingly desperate to attract adding compliance hurdles at this level does no economy any favors.

Perhaps the next leap brought on by the current acceleration is the potential acceptance of "borderless leaders" as well as teams.


We recently placed a US-based CEO for a predominantly Australian based company in esports technology. Prior to the pandemic, this would not have been a consideration for the board or even perhaps even the CEO themselves. In the end, the willingness of both parties to be geographically flexible meant that the talent pool was massively expanded, and produced a stellar result. This story and theme were recently explored in excellent detail via the Company Director magazine article "Talent Quest" by Adam Courtenay.


In these times more than ever candidates, investors, and organizations have no choice but to follow their opportunities to the most open, supportive, and reliable markets. For experienced operators and practitioners in this sector, availability and quality of talent supersede affordability. Local candidates with these skills will continue to have their choice of work (everywhere), but markets without enough local capability and experience may run out of runway and appeal for the investors and multinational entrepreneurs from the very industries on which their governments are seeking to secure their economic futures.

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