Silicon Valley whiz-kids help NZ woo skilled migrants

WELLINGTON • When American Matthew Monahan first visited New Zealand, the Silicon Valley software developer was struck by a sense of possibility.

Seven years later, the 33-year-old is helping New Zealand's government lure other foreign entrepreneurs to the bottom of the world. It's not a tough sell: the strong economy, relative safety, political stability and famous natural beauty attracted a record 131,000 migrants in the year to June.

"It feels like you can do things in New Zealand you can't do anywhere else," said Mr Monahan, who in 2012 sold the family history website he created with brother Brian for US$100 million (S$136 million) and today owns several properties near capital city Wellington.

The brothers are the driving force behind the Edmund Hillary Fellowship, a partnership with the immigration department that seeks to attract budding entrepreneurs and investors to New Zealand and help them develop their ideas.

Named after the New Zealander who became the first man to climb Mount Everest, the not-for-profit company selects up to 100 candidates a year for a specially designed, three-year visa that provides a path to permanent residence. Among the first recipients announced last month are a crypto-currency entrepreneur and the founder of an education centre for unemployed youth.

The aim is to make New Zealand "a global innovation hub", said fellowship chief executive Yoseph Ayele, a friend of the Monahans who worked at their Silicon Valley software company Inflection. "Being a small country has become a huge advantage, because you can get government, talent, capital and different sectors in the same room and grow something new in a way large bureaucratic places can't."

He said the visa is the most entrepreneur-friendly in the world, and gives New Zealand the chance to produce the next big world-changing innovation. Those making the biggest impact today, like entrepreneurs Sergey Brin, Elon Musk and Richard Branson, could never have started out in New Zealand because they would not have ticked the right boxes, Mr Ayele said.

Still, local media have cast a wary eye over the group, wondering how rich young Americans could be in a position to determine who gets such visas. The programme's first intake comes at a time when New Zealand is being touted as a bolthole for the ultra rich to escape to in an increasingly unsettled world.

Kiwis are divided about the unprecedented influx of foreigners. The government insists New Zealand needs to import labour to meet a skills shortage, but opposition parties say mass immigration is exacerbating a housing crisis and stretching schools, hospitals and roads to breaking point. The debate may have a significant influence on the Sept 23 general election, which polls show is too close to call.

For Mr Matthew Monahan, New Zealand is a place to tackle global problems such as rising immigration, not hide from them.

Embracing talented immigrants, he said, is a good way to start."We want people who are ready to plug into society, who want to make a difference," he said. "The challenges in New Zealand like housing, rising inequality and the environment mirror what's happening in the rest of the world. It's an opportunity for New Zealand to be a leader and figure this stuff out."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2017, with the headline 'Silicon Valley whiz-kids help NZ woo skilled migrants'. Print Edition | Subscribe