AOL co-founder and former CEO Steve Case, venture capitalist John Doerr, Netflix founder and chairman Reed Hastings and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg shared their job-creation ideas at a "listening and action session" convened in Palo Alto by the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.
The session drew about 150 local business people to the Stanford Research Park campus of VMware, a virtualization software company that has quadrupled its local workforce in the past four years.
Panelists stressed the job-creating potential of educated immigrants and the job-multiplying effects of companies they launch.
A quarter of venture-backed startups between 1995 and 2005 had at least one immigrant among its founders — accounting for billions in capital valuation and tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs, said White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, also a member of the panel.
Panelists said they welcomed reforms announced by the Obama administration Tuesday to clear visa red tape for so-called "immigrant founders" as well as for "immigrant investors" — people willing to invest at least $1 million and create at least 10 new jobs.
In the "global war for talent," America can't afford to wait for comprehensive immigration reform but must hasten "entrepreneurship reform" to slash barriers for immigrants who will create jobs now, Case said.
Allowing the right immigrants to work here creates jobs, rather than taking them away, said Sandberg, telling of a Spanish-born Facebook executive who has led the firm's internationalization initiatives.
Had the employee not recently "won the lottery" for an H1B visa to remain in the United States, Facebook was prepared to relocate him and his entire team abroad.
"At Facebook we have 86 people held up in the visa process right now," she said. "If we can't keep them here, we'll move them, and all the ancillary jobs, elsewhere."
The "know-no-bounds, risk-taking attitude" of entrepreneurs — combined with great universities and risk capital — is a uniquely American asset, said Doerr, whose venture successes have included Google, Amazon, Intuit, Sun, Compaq, Cypress Macromedia and Symantec.
"They do more than anyone thinks possible with less than anyone thinks possible and they surprise us all the time, whether in technology, neighborhoods, education or social entrepreneurs," Doerr said.
"What looks like risk to me, or perhaps to others, doesn't look like risk to them — it's the obvious new disruptive way to do things.
"We've got to double down on those advantages and use them for growth."
Doerr cited the example of local education entrepreneur Salman Khan, whose online, nonprofit Khan Academy has delivered more than 67 million free lessons to users from around the globe.
While the United States does pretty well in information technology, it's falling behind in biotechnology, Doerr said.
"Those industries were invented here, but now, to get trials done, the regulations are hard. The companies I back are testing in Europe, and the government can do a lot about that."
In green technologies, thanks to the Recovery Act and the U.S. Department of Energy's investment-oriented ARPA-E program, America gets a "C" rather than a "D" or an "F," Doerr said.
Government has a role in developing and growing a sustainable clean-energy market, he said.
"When California says, 'We want 30 percent of our energy to be renewable by 2020,' that creates market demand.
"When the administration gathers automakers and signs them up for a 54.5 mph strategy, that's a huge change as contrasted to the assisted suicide which was basically the legislative strategy in Michigan," Doerr said.
Panelists agreed on the need for major education reforms.
Right now, "we're not investing for the future," Sandberg said. "We graduate only 70 percent of our kids from high school — that's too little. Of those who graduate, only 30 percent can do college-level work."
And less than one-third of America's degrees are in the critical fields of science, technology, engineering and math, as opposed to more than 50 percent in China, she said.
"Engineers are the new currency," Doerr said. "We need them now.
"We've got to find ways to get kids who've decided they want to become engineers to see it through to the end."
Technology will transform education to such an extent that, "20 years from now, we'll look back at someone lecturing to a class and say, 'That's so antiquated," said Hastings.
The Netflix founder and chairman formerly chaired California's State Board of Education and is a major education philanthropist.
Transformation of education will come not from rule-bound school districts but from entrepreneurs around the world, including Khan and others, he said.
"Every student should be learning on their own, at their own pace with their own virtual instructor," Hastings said, citing companies such as Headsprout and DreamBox Learning, in which he has a stake.
"We need every kid in Brazil, in China, in India to get a good education, because that's going to increase the world GDP.
"A hundred years ago, very few people went to high school. If you look at the last couple hundred years, the spread of education has been phenomenal, so I'm pretty uniformly optimistic."
Tuesday's panel was held in partnership with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, TechNet and the National Venture Capital Association. It was moderated by Wired Magazine Editor Chris Anderson.