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Rahm Emanuel, universities partner to lure tech entrepreneurs

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | Maria Cardona / Sun-Times

President Donald Trump has talked about cutting back a visa program that technology companies use to hire scientists, technicians and engineers, in short supply among U.S. citizens, as part of his drive to put America first.

But until he does, Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to take full advantage of the H-1B program to encourage talented foreign-born entrepreneurs to grow their technology companies in Chicago.

On Wednesday, City Hall plans to announce that it’s forging a partnership with five Chicago-based universities to create what it calls Global Entrepreneur in Residence programs.

A similar partnership with the University of Massachusetts’ campuses in Boston and Lowell has been used to sponsor 23 local entrepreneurs whose companies have created 416 jobs and generated $185 million in private investment since 2014, according to City Hall.

Global Entrepreneur in Residence programs also have been created at the City University of New York and the University of Colorado at Boulder. The University of Missouri at St.Louis, the University of Alaska in Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University are in the process of creating similar programs.

Chicago’s version will include Northwestern; Loyola; DePaul; Columbia College Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology. All five will independently draft application requirements and decide who gets admitted to the program.

During Year One, those participating universities would together sponsor “10 to 20 visa slots,” but only for those entrepreneurs starting companies with potential to create a “minimum of 70 jobs over three years.”

To qualify for the visa program, entrepreneurs would have to affiliate with the participating universities.

“Early stage” entrepreneurs must hold part-time jobs at the university while growing their startups on the side.

Established entrepreneurs will “physically house” their companies at the university “as an affiliate of their center for entrepreneurship or comparable business/innovation hub.”

Emanuel has spent nearly 6 years trying to promote Chicago as the Silicon Valley of the Midwest.

That’s why he created ThinkChicago, which has already given 1,300 high-performing technology and engineering students the unique opportunity to explore Chicago and connect with local technology companies during Lollapalooza and Chicago Ideas Week.

The mayor has also taken ThinkChicago on the road to recruit top-tier students on their own campuses, including Stanford University.

But the ambitious effort has been hampered by what City Hall calls the “limited visa options” open to immigrant entrepreneurs.

Those who enter the H-1B visa lottery have only a 36 percent chance of being accepted.

A recent study by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that Illinois misses out on $645 million annually in wage income and taxes by not retaining foreign-born students after graduation.

Top mayoral aides emphasize that, unlike private companies, universities do not use the visas to displace American workers. They use them to foster entrepreneurship and, therefore, create jobs.

They noted that Trump has talked about reforming the lottery system to stop companies that receive the majority of visas from gaming the system by outsourcing jobs.

“In today’s global economy, we need to welcome talent and support the entrepreneurial spirit that has made us the greatest economic power in the world,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a press release.

“While Washington continues closing itself off to diversity-driven ideas and innovation, in Chicago we are expanding our status as a welcoming city with this program, which both attracts and retains the highly-skilled entrepreneurial talent that spurs innovation, crates jobs and drives the economic growth of our city,” he said.