Seeing Silicon | Going beyond the Indus - Hindustan Times

Seeing Silicon | Going beyond the Indus

Jun 23, 2024 08:30 AM IST

It started as a network for the Indian diaspora in Silicon Valley but The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) of today have global ambitions

Excited chatter releases itself as the crowd exits Jensen Huang’s talk at the TieCon 2024, one of the largest conferences for entrepreneurs of the Indian diaspora. Half an hour earlier, Huang the serving CEO of the most valuable tech company in the world and the reining AI kingpin of Silicon Valley, was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award on stage.

Silicon Valley; specifically, the North First Street area of San Jose, looking southbound down Interstate 880 towards downtown San Jose.(Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
Silicon Valley; specifically, the North First Street area of San Jose, looking southbound down Interstate 880 towards downtown San Jose.(Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons)

It was a feat for the organising committee of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), a nonprofit network of entrepreneurs, to have brought him on stage. “An AI-themed conference is not possible without NVIDIA,” said Anita Manwani, president of TiE Silicon Valley, adding that she and her team had chased Huang’s office for four months before he agreed to come.

In a way, getting Huang’s attention – one of the most wanted tech celebrities in the world today – shows the growing global ambitions of TiE’s network. The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) started in 1992 as a loose network of founders, entrepreneurs and corporate executives with roots in the Indus region – mostly Indian diaspora. All of them volunteered to help each other out in education, mentorship, networking, and funding opportunities to tap into the flourishing tech scene in Silicon Valley.

At the coffee station, I spent some time chatting with Arjun Malhotra who was involved in founding TiE Bay Area. Malhotra was also one of the six co-founders of HCL Technologies way back in the 1980s and moved to the Bay Area in the 1990s as an Indian entrepreneur.

“There was a mindset at that time, that no one can do anything in India,” he says, “that’s dramatically changed in the last two decades.” One of the reasons he attributes this change to is the network that TiE helped build – to help early startups and businesses run by the Indian tech community in the Bay Area and equally be relevant for Indian entrepreneurs.

But a couple of decades later, this became slightly irrelevant as the Indian community in the Bay Area grew exponentially. “Around 2010-2011, the community felt like it was in crisis. We were losing young people and most of us were getting older,” recalls Malhotra. This changed a few years later after TiE started to focus more on founders globally. A fresh infusion of young blood - people like Manwani – also brought TiE back to becoming relevant for the needs of an ever-changing technology ecosystem.

Manwani, who joined TiE five years ago and was elected president of the Silicon Valley chapter in 2023, feels the biggest change is that the focus of the network has moved from Indian-origin people to building a community around the world for entrepreneurs.

“Young entrepreneurs are looking for networks beyond social networks. They come to TiE to connect to investors, build their brand, find talent and seek advice from other experienced entrepreneurs,” says Manwani, adding that other than the conference, TiE also organises bespoke programmes and workshops year-round for founders, VCs and academia. This has come about, especially in the last 18 months, where the type of engagement has moved from bigger events to immersive, more focused cohorts and workshops.

Even at TieCon 2024, though there were panels and talks open to the general public, there were more focused workshops and boot camps catering to the specific needs of founders at different stages of their lives.

A hands-on workshop to help develop an app using Google’s AI models, a VC Connect workshop for budding entrepreneurs, to a mentorship workshop for those wanting to scale their company. This didn’t sit well with some older members as each of these tracks had a different fee, but Manwani takes the criticism in her stride.

“Our aim is the next generation of entrepreneurs, and we want to help them get connected to investors, build their brand, find talent, get validation on their proof of concept and take on mentors from our pool of experienced entrepreneurs,” she says. It’s this focus that has helped them build 61 chapters across 13 countries with 10000 paid members globally. Out of this, 5000 members are with the Silicon Valley chapter, which did over 40 bespoke engagements in 2023.

The change is reflected in the annual awards that TiE gives at its conference, called TiE50. At the TiE50 awards, the startups came from the United States, India, Canada, Singapore and Japan. Though 60% founders were of South Asian origin, 40% weren’t.

In the atrium where registration is in full swing, I bump into Sundi Natarajan, an investor who was a trustee in the TiE Global Board in 2022. He’s flown from Washington for this event and has been involved in TiE and TieCon for 19 years.

“It’s the world’s largest non-profit focused on entrepreneurs,” he says, “We give founders access to network and handhold them to the first proof of concept.” Natarajan himself has invested in more than 30 startups and hopes to find one more in the fifty that are getting the TiE50 award. “The focus on TiE’s efforts in India has changed to Tier 2 and 3 cities where innovation is thriving,” he tells me, adding that he’s also looking at companies in different Indian cities as potential places to invest: Coimbatore, Surat, Vadodora, Udaipur, and Jaipur among others.

Throughout the day at the conference, I met a lot of angel investors like Natarajan – people who took help from the TiE network, made their fortunes and wanted to now invest in the new crop of founders and their startups. Kumar Ganapathy, a serial entrepreneur who focuses on investing in social enterprises in India is at the event looking for his next big thing. He has noticed a reverse trend among Indian founders, something that I have been observing in the Valley as well. Founders are confident setting up their business in India and then moving to the US for market exposure. Kind of a reverse brain drain.

At the atrium, I meet Jasmeet Singh, a venture capitalist from Toronto who is there to look for startups in the ‘physical AI’ space – something that Huang mentioned in his talk earlier in the morning. “I am in the industry that combines AI with robotics and IoT but never termed it,” he says, “Now I’m using the term ‘physical AI’ thanks to Huang’s talk and educating everyone about it.”

As I walked through the conference and the exhibitions, talking to people there – a lot of them women, which is refreshing to see in a tech conference – I noticed three distinct waves of Indian immigrants at the event.

There are people like Malhotra, who started out in the Valley in the 1990s, built their businesses and fortunes and are now helping through their network and mentorship. There are people like Manwani who run stable businesses and are now helping the startup community by volunteering. And then there are young founders like Kevisatu Sanyu who runs a digital education startup in Nagaland and is here to get an award and meet potential mentors and funders. This intergenerational committed community and network is one of TiE’s strong points and keeps it going decade after decade.

Shweta Taneja is an author and journalist based in the Bay Area. Her fortnightly column will reflect on how emerging tech and science is reshaping society in Silicon Valley and beyond. Find her online with @shwetawrites. The views expressed are personal.

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