More than 100 Chicago tech execs sign letter urging immigration reform

State's GOP delegation told of need for foreign engineers, scientists

Todd O'Hara

Todd O'Hara helped circulate the letter: "Once I immersed myself in the tech community, it became clear that some of the brightest and best minds in the community were from abroad. ... And after we educate them, we tell them they can’t stay here. We can’t reap the benefits of our own intellectual property.” (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune 2013)

More than 100 Chicago technology executives have sent a letter to the state's Republican congressional delegation calling on them to pass immigration reform, citing a need for foreign engineers and scientists and the positive impact those immigrants have on the U.S. economy.

Todd O'Hara, 31, a derivatives trader who founded startup Toodalu, which was acquired last year, circulated the letter on behalf of FWD.us, a bipartisan political advocacy group co-founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other prominent Silicon Valley leaders.

"To be very honest, this was not an issue that was on my radar until I got in the tech community," O'Hara said. "I'm a Caucasian guy from Minnesota. I'm not directly affected by immigration reform. But once I immersed myself in the tech community, it became clear that some of the brightest and best minds in the community were from abroad. ... And after we educate them, we tell them they can't stay here. We can't reap the benefits of our own intellectual property."

There is a chronic shortage of computer engineers, software designers and other tech professionals. More foreigners with expertise and visas, as well as paths to citizenship, would help fill the need. And basic economics says that if the supply of talent increases, then the price of acquiring that talent falls.

The FWD team warned O'Hara that gathering the necessary signatures "could take a couple of months." O'Hara said he replied that it would take only days. He was right.

"They would open up the email and reply, 'Yes,' and basically it was that quick," he said. "No one said, 'No.' Maybe a name or two never got back to us. And probably that name or two will, I'm sure, read this article, and give us a call, saying, 'Ah, so sorry.'"

Among the signatories: 1871 CEO Howard Tullman; Motorola Solutions CEO Greg Brown; Shradha Agarwal, chief strategy officer of ContextMedia; Craig Ulliott, chief technology officer of Belly; Eric Lunt, CTO of BrightTag; and Katy Lynch of SocialKaty.

From Asia to Chicago

Prominent banker William Strong will return to Chicago from Asia in May and become chairman of Longford Capital, a Chicago startup that helps cover plaintiffs' legal costs in exchange for a cut of the profits.

Strong, 61, is retiring after 21 years at Morgan Stanley, where he most recently was co-CEO of the Wall Street bank's operations in Asia and served on the bank's global management committee. Prior to that, Strong was based in Chicago, working as vice chairman of investment banking and head of the Midwest region for Morgan Stanley.

Strong said a family member's medical issue led him to consider returning to the United States. He will remain a senior adviser at Morgan Stanley while spending "the vast majority" of his time on Longford, he said.

Longford raised nearly $37.5 million to invest in lawsuits as of a July regulatory filing. Strong declined to confirm that figure. But he did say he became an investor in Longford early last year, long before he considered joining them.

"I became more and more intrigued by this new asset class that is uncorrelated with anything else," Strong said.

Longford's managing directors, brothers Timothy Farrell and William Farrell Jr. and Michael Nicolas, will no doubt rely on Strong to help them raise more capital. Chicago-based competitor Gerchen Keller Capital has raised more than $300 million as of January.

The nascent industry, which is far more established in the U.K. and Australia, has many critics here who argue it will spawn frivolous, never-ending lawsuits, while Strong argued it gives small companies with legitimate claims a chance to win.

Coaxed from the coasts

Attracting talent and money from the coasts has always been a challenge for Midwest startups and investment firms.

Former Silicon Valley venture capitalist Mark Kvamme has recently done it, launching Drive Capital in Columbus, Ohio, with $250 million. The firm has invested in two Chicago startups: $12 million in Channel IQ, which collects data on the prices of products sold online, and another company, which Kvamme declined to disclose.

Kvamme, 53, moved to Columbus in 2011 to lead and privatize economic development efforts for Ohio Gov. John Kasich. After Kvamme departed, a $50 million investment in Drive by Ohio State University brought accusations of conflict of interest, denied by the university. In Illinois, Kvamme's calling card isn't his political connections, it's his rare Silicon Valley pedigree.

Kvamme — whose father was something of a Silicon Valley pioneer — taught himself how to program and started at Apple in 1980 in the engineering department, helping build the Apple IIe and IIc. He started his first company in 1984 and went on to be a partner at venture capital firm Sequoia Capital for 12 years.

Still, friends told him he was crazy when he said he was sticking around the Midwest after leaving JobsOhio.

"We had a lot of (investors) say we were crazy too," Kvamme said in an interview while in town for the Forbes Reinventing America Summit. "You're going to invest where? If you and (Drive Capital co-founder) Chris (Olsen) want to start a firm in Silicon Valley, here's your check. But you want to be in the Midwest? Nothing happens in the Midwest. Every single (investor) we had to fly out. We basically did this thing, where they'd fly into Cincinnati. They'd see the Cincinnati scene. We'd drive to Columbus. See the Columbus scene. And we'd drive to Cleveland. ... Every single one who came invested."

To begin scouting for deals and talent, Kvamme said Drive Capital is organizing a "university roadshow," driving "a motor home" from Ohio State to Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Michigan. And Kvamme's advice to others trying to lure job candidates from the coasts is to have them fly in with his or her spouse and children, "and just have them go look at the houses they can buy."

"The last guy we brought in, it was actually a blizzardy, cold, bad day," Kvamme said. "And the guy goes, 'You mean I don't have to live in a two-bedroom, one-bath house for more than $1 million?'"

Melissa Harris can be reached at mmharris@tribune.com or 312-222-4582. Twitter @chiconfidential. Newsletter tinyletter.com/MelissaHarris

ct-confidential-immigratino-reform-harris-0401-biz-20140401
Advertisement

PHOTO GALLERIES

TOP VIDEO

CONNECT WITH US


2013 YEAR IN REVIEW
Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Google Plus
  • RSS Feeds
  • Mobile Alerts and Apps