Why do Indian-Americans succeed?

No matter what your status was in India, in America, you start at the bottom of the social ladder. The best enter corporate America; they help each other; and they display rare values
Twitter CEO, Parag Agrawal (AP) PREMIUM
Twitter CEO, Parag Agrawal (AP)
Updated on Dec 06, 2021 08:06 PM IST
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ByVivek Wadhwa

To Americans, they have funny accents, eat spicy food, and wear strange outfits. Indian-Americans constitute just 1.2% of the population of the United States (US). Yet, you will find them at the helm of leading companies; as presidents and deans of America’s most prestigious colleges; at the pinnacles of journalism; dominating fields such as technology, scientific research and medicine; and thriving in industries such as hospitality, transportation and real estate. The governors of two of America’s most conservative states were of Indian origin — as is the vice president.

How? The answer, as my research at Duke and Harvard showed, is very simple — the group of Indians who migrated to the US, particularly during the economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s, was highly educated and entrepreneurial. According to the US Census Bureau, 76% of Indian immigrants aged 25 or more have a bachelor’s or higher degree, and they are proficient in English. Though some come from poor families, most of the Indians who make it to America are from the middle or upper class; the students who qualify for admission to US universities are the cream of the crop; the workers who get hired by US companies are highly skilled. Only ambitious risk takers willingly leave friends and families behind to shoot for success in foreign lands; they are entrepreneurial in nature.

The tech industry is where Indians really stand out. I too am an Indian immigrant who founded two technology companies and my research showed that Indians like me founded 15.5% of Silicon Valley tech firms, though they constituted only 6% of the Valley’s working population. Indians were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s most innovative tech workers, and were matching them in entrepreneurship.

Indians also did something they did not do at home — help each other regardless of religion, region of birth, or caste. The first few who cracked the glass ceiling had open discussions about the hurdles they had faced. They agreed that the key to uplifting their community, and fostering more entrepreneurship, was to mentor the next generation of entrepreneurs. They formed networking organisations to teach about starting businesses and provided seed funding to one another.

Don’t believe the myth that IITians rule Silicon Valley, however. My research team found that only 15% of Indian immigrant founders of tech and engineering companies were IIT grads. Delhi University graduated twice as many Silicon Valley company founders as did IIT-Delhi and Osmania and Bombay universities both trumped nearly all of the other IITs.

But why would the boards of technology companies such as Microsoft, IBM, Google, Adobe, and now Twitter choose Indian-born engineers over American-born executives who are equally qualified? The answer lies in cultural and family values, humility, upbringing, and struggles.

In a land of more than a billion people, most hampered by rampant corruption, weak infrastructure, and limited opportunities, it takes a lot to simply survive, let alone to get ahead. Indians learn to be resilient, battle endless obstacles, and make the most of what they have. In India, you learn to work around the problems that an unjust State and society create for you.

Entrepreneurship, along with the creativity and resourcefulness required to deal with all the obstacles, is part of life. In the absence of a social safety net, family values and support are everything, and the family takes on a very important role, family members providing all kinds of support and guidance to those in need.

And then there is the humility that comes from moving to new lands. No matter what your status was in India, in America, you start at the bottom of the social ladder. It’s a humbling process; you learn many valuable lessons when starting from scratch and working your way to success.

These are all traits that any board would recognise — and value — especially when the alternatives are arrogant company founders who believe they are entitled to their jobs. This is what I believe has given Indian CEOs the real advantage.

When Satya Nadella took over as CEO of Microsoft, in February 2014, he inherited a toxic culture in a company considered a tech dinosaur. Bill Gates, its founder, had been known for berating employees, and Steve Ballmer, who succeeded Gates, continued the hardball business tactics that partners loathed.

As I explained in my book, From Incremental to Exponential, Nadella transformed the company by changing its culture, from what he called “learn-it-all” curiosity, in contrast to its then “know-it-all” worldview. And he made clear that the old, aggressive behaviour was no longer welcome. Refusing to tolerate anger or yelling in executive meetings, never raising his own voice or showing overt anger toward employees or executives, never writing angry emails, he constantly worked to create a more comfortable environment.

Sundar Pichai, too, inherited a company with cultural problems. Google was known for having a permissive workplace culture, where sexual relationships between top executives and employees generated internal tensions. He created a culture with better values.

Twitter has been known for its extreme arrogance, toxic work culture, and insensitivity to abuses on its platform. Jack Dorsey’s predecessor, Dick Costolo, is someone I personally tangled with when I noted that there was a problem with its chauvinistic culture and all-male board. As many tech CEOs do, his response was to publicly attack me rather than listen to criticism.

I don’t think this is the way that Parag Agrawal, or any other Indian CEO would behave, and this is probably why he has been chosen to lead the company. Humility and respect are abundant in Indian culture — but are in severely short supply in Silicon Valley.

Vivek Wadhwa is the author of From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation

The views expressed are personal

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Tuesday, May 17, 2022