Industry must speak up for immigration

OPINION: British entrepreneur and refugee Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia defends the UK's tradition of hospitality.

by Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2018

As a proud British refugee, I believe that immigration will be critical to the UK's success outside of the EU. It will inject innovation, energy and ambition into Britain. Businesses need to speak loudly and proudly about the role immigrants and refugees play in our economy. It's our responsibility to do this for the sake of our country, and we need to start right now. 

Immigration has been critical to the success of my businesses over the years. As many other entrepreneurs will recognise, immigrants are dynamic, enterprising and loyal; they want to contribute to society and work hard for the companies that give them a chance.

The vast majority of immigrants do come to the UK not out of choice, but through necessity. Many have left behind their families and homes, recognising the economic realities of being unable to support themselves and their loved ones in their home countries. Others have escaped persecution. I know from experience exactly what this feels like. I arrived in Britain with my family as a boy of 13, and spent around a year in temporary shared accommodation. We fled the regime of Idi Amin in Uganda, expelled for our Indian ethnicity and in fear for our lives. 

Speaking personally, I knew I'd been given a second chance; many thousands of others were sadly not so lucky. I am eternally grateful for the hospitality and generosity that has been extended to me by Britain as a refugee, and like so many other refugees before and since, I have seized the opportunity to give back and build a successful company. I know that is how many other immigrants feel too.

These experiences often mean immigrants have the will, determination and spirit to face challenges and overcome obstacles. They are natural problem solvers; they embrace change and are determined to make something of themselves. They also offer a whole new approach to businesses, providing new and different ways to see problems, bringing new insights and fresh energy.  

Today, 17% of the UK workforce are immigrants and they are bringing this energy to key parts of our economy from hospitality to agriculture. But perhaps most important of all, they bring diversity, a key factor in business success. People from different backgrounds think differently, and that's exactly what we need right now. 

So, it is not surprising that many immigrants go into business and enterprise themselves, setting up their own companies, injecting new ideas into the economy, and creating jobs. In fact, 1 in 7 businesses in the UK are founded by immigrants, usually small businesses that play a critical role in supporting local economies with employment. On top of that 15.4% of immigrants call themselves 'early-stage entrepreneurs'.

But I think that immigrants play an even more important role in innovation – creating whole new industries. If you look at some of the most successful high-tech companies in the UK today, their founding teams often contain at least one person who is a first- or second-generation immigrant. To take an example, one of the founders of Google Deep Mind, Mustafa Suleyman, is the son of a Syrian-born taxi driver.

In fact, it's safe to say that immigrants are playing a role in driving the high-tech industrial revolution worldwide. According to research from Partnership for a New American Economy, more than 75% of patents at the top 10 patent-producing US universities had at least one foreign-born inventor. As an immigrant who started a business from scratch by borrowing money from my father, I am not only proud of the fact Euro Car Parts now employs more than 10,000 people, but that we recently opened one of the largest and most technologically advanced distribution centres here in the UK.

Celebrating the role of immigrants in innovation, entrepreneurship and business has never been so important. As the UK takes its first tentative steps outside of the EU, it is vital that we have an engine of growth, preferably one that is driven by new technology. We need to attract the greatest talent from around the world and should not be afraid to say it. 

Our links to the rest of the world have never been so important. Many people have said that Brexit is an opportunity for the country to increase our engagement with the rest of the world and ramp up trade. 

If we open the doors to people here at home, that will create more goodwill abroad. It also helps build links between our economies. I have made no secret of the fact that I would like to return to India at some point in the future, and when I do, I hope to continue to play a role in deepening the links between the two countries. I hope to become an outspoken supporter of the UK and its economy in India. I will be urging people to invest here.

At this critical point in the history of the UK, it is important that business becomes a loud voice in supporting immigrants and refugees. If we can do this, everyone benefits, right now, and in the future.

Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia is Executive Chairman of Euro Car Parts, founder of Dominvs Group, and a Distinguished Friend of the Migration Museum. He is also Executive Chairman of LKQ Corporation's businesses in the UK, Ireland and India.

Image credit: Zoltan Major/Shutterstock

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