Film Studies major Dexter Sterling Simpson, ’21, dreams of entering the documentary industry after graduation. To test the waters, he moved to New York City for two quarters last year to pursue an internship with a professional documentary house. One recent highlight of his documentary experience, though, occurred while working as a research assistant with Stanford sociologist and the William J. Perry Professor of Contemporary Korea Gi-Wook Shin.
The research assistant job, available through the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC), which Shin directs, provided Simpson with the opportunity to produce a film that documents how high-skilled migrants to the United States, including several Stanford scholars, continue to make significant contributions to their home countries and create mutually beneficial ties — or “brain linkages” — between the United States and their home countries. The documentary, called Brain Bridges and now available on APARC’s YouTube channel, showcases research that is part of Shin’s multiyear project studying global talent flows, brain hubs, and socioeconomic development in Asia.
“I started working on the project last summer and then continued remotely from New York before remote work became the new norm in the time of COVID-19,” says Simpson. “Surprisingly enough, the pandemic seemed to speed things up for us rather than slow them down. I would meet regularly with Professor Shin and the research team via Zoom to exchange updates and notes on my work. Several weeks ago, we held an outdoor, socially distanced interview shoot to close the film. It has been a unique challenge to work around the abrupt life changes caused by the pandemic, but it is deeply rewarding to emerge with a finished product that, I hope, is inspiring and informative.”
The film traces the stories of several Stanford scholars and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who demonstrate that the migration of high-skilled professionals is not a zero-sum game in which the host country (in this case, the United States) receives a net inflow of human capital from the home country. “Rather than simply enhancing the competitiveness of the host country at the home country’s expense — a phenomenon commonly referred to as ‘brain drain’ for the home country and ‘brain gain’ for the host country — what we find is that brain drain offers opportunities for brain circulation and brain linkage, that is, home-host interactions that create a win-win, positive-sum situation for both sides,” explains Shin.
The story of Indo-American entrepreneur and venture investor Kanwal Rekhi is a case in point. When Rekhi came to the United States from India for graduate studies, he encountered prejudice in American society and criticism of his “unpatriotic” move in his home country. Undaunted, he advanced through the engineering ranks in several technology companies and in 1982, cofounded the computer networking company Excelan in Silicon Valley. Five years later, he became the first Indo-American entrepreneur to list a venture-backed company on the NASDAQ.
From a human capital perspective, Rekhi’s journey is a case of brain drain for India. Following his success, however, he became an advocate for border-bridging entrepreneurs, pushed Indian legislators to reform venture regulations, and cofounded The Indus Entrepreneur (TiE), a nonprofit with a mission to foster entrepreneurship globally. His efforts in Silicon Valley and India helped create a whole new generation of entrepreneurs and a tangible impact on the economies in both countries.
“In considering brain linkage, we must shift from a view that regards labor primarily as human capital to a new model of labor as social capital,” notes Shin. “When educated professionals permanently leave their home countries, it is true that those countries lose the totality of education, skills, and experience embodied by these individuals. But when they stay engaged with the home countries, both home and host countries gain from the productive capacity embodied in the ties and networks linking many individuals and organizations.”
Simpson’s documentary film follows the transnational brain bridging stories of several other accomplished academics and industry leaders in Silicon Valley, including Hongbin Li, the James Liang Director of the China Program at the Stanford King Center on Global Development and a Senior Fellow of Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research; Kyle Loh, assistant professor of developmental biology who heads the Loh laboratory at the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine; Arogyaswami Paulraj, professor emeritus at Stanford’s Department of Electrical Engineering; Sievlan Len, Stanford graduate student in international policy studies; Gen Isayama, general partner and CEO at venture capital fund World Innovation Lab; Asha Jadeja, an entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist; Young Song, CEO of desktop virtualization company NComputing; Mariko Yang, cofounder of STEAM education organization SKY Labo; and Eugene Zhang, a founding partner of early-stage venture capital fund TSVC.
The documentary film brings to life the powerful lesson from the research by Shin and his colleagues: that transnational social capital and ties spanning geographic and cultural distance remain vital to today’s global market economy, even more so in a time of political tensions at home and abroad.