Ten years ago, few of us would have thought that the leaders of many of the most economically and influential companies in the world were of Indian origin. But today it is a reality.
Sundar Pichai in Google, Satya Nadella at Microsoft or Parag Agrawal (at least while Musk thinks about it) on Twitter are spearheading a prototype manager, the Indian-born CEO, who has become a constant in many other companies.
But, How did we come here? Indian immigration to the United States is a constant that has its roots almost in the very foundations of their nation. In fact, it is an aspect inherited from British colonialism. For centuries, Indian immigrants who came to the UK then did so to the United States.
During the 1950s and 1960s, a new generation of immigrants was formed. In total, the US Census currently records a population of 4.1 million American Indians, 1.4% of the total population. Their roots are above the percentage, which unfortunately is seen in the increasingly frequent cases of Indian citizens who are currently trying to enter the United States through the border with Mexico to contact one of their relatives looking of a better future.
But none of these immigration flows comes largely from the managers we are interested in in this text. The current CEOs of Twitter, Google and Microsoft were born and raised in India, to then go to the United States where he deepened his training as an engineer. They are, so to speak, signed brains of training.
More Indian CEOs than you can imagine
Before them, however, the predecessor must be found in a woman and in a company outside of technology. Indra Nooyi was CEO of PepsiCO from 2006 to 2018setting a precedent in a company that had historically had its arms open to foreign talent and continues to do so (as an example, its current CEO is Spaniard Ramón Laguarta).
But the CEOs of the most famous BigTechs are not the only ones. Here is a list to see how common it has become:
- Shantanu Narayen, Adobe
- Sundar Pichai, Alphabet
- Satya Nadella, Microsoft
- Rajeev Suri, Nokia
- Punishes Renjen, Deloitte
- Vasant Narasimhan, Novartis
- Ajaypal Singh Banga, Mastercard
Between immigration and the power of its institutions
Several elements explain how these profiles have become commonplace. Looking for commonalities, we find one: most were trained in Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT)public institutions of the country but also elite institutions founded in the 1950s and which have become an international reference.
For years, Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) graduates have been treated as the holy grail in all sectors of India, especially in its startup ecosystem. But as the sector matures, this seems to be becoming a problem.
A degree from an elite institute is often a ticket to success in the Indian tech startup sector, but also to further education in the United States.
This ecosystem has also been partly transferred to the migrant population in the United States. Native Americans are among the most educated in the United States; according to Pew Research, 77.5% had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2016 — the highest proportion of any country of origin — compared to 31.6% of native-born Americans. At the graduate level, in recent decades, foreign-born students have filled the void for fewer Americans studying computer science and engineering.
“When (non-IIT-IIM founders) get attention or funding, it’s usually because they already have a successful product or track record. The founders of IIT-IIM tend to attract attention even before this phase,” said Prasanto K Roy, who works with local organizations such as The Indus Entrepreneurs, in a report on these schools of Quartz.
Part of this virtuous circle also has its B side: the first promoters of startups in India, the local funds, generally have in their board of directors former students of these centers, which leads them to favor those whom they recognize as their equals, in a somewhat obscure memory of the caste system so marked by their society. “A chaiwala (a tea seller) can be Prime Minister in India, but he will not receive funding,” explains another expert consulted.
And many other peculiarities
But this good educational base does not seem to be the only one. Mitra Kalita, opinion writer for CNN and also of Indian descent, argued in an article about more cultural viewpoints that could also be behind this reality.
Family work and a culture of gratitude to their educators seem to be part of it.. When Indra Nooyi was named CEO of PepsiCo, her colleagues traveled to her mother’s house in India to congratulate her. It gave Nooyi, who left office in 2018, an idea: write thank you cards to the parents of star Pepsi workers. “I am the product of my upbringing,” he said. “It occurred to me that I had never thanked my executives’ parents for their son’s gift to PepsiCo.”
There also seems to be a certain way of understanding time and the relationship to work that is different. In the West, we tend to be sequential and focus on the binary; there are leisure and work.
“What I try to do is to harmonize what is close to my heart, my deepest interests, with my work”
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft
Indian managers seem to have another perception rooted in the same Hindu way of apprehending time, more synchronous than sequential. Basically, everything happens at the same time, not one thing after another.
This theory coincides with Satya Nadella’s approach when it comes to defining how he sees the balance between life and work. “What I try to do is align what’s close to my heart, my core interests, with my work,” he said in an interview. “I see Microsoft as a platform that allows me to pursue my own passions. And that makes a lot of sense to me, and to me it’s the ultimate form of relaxation.” A way of looking at work which, like its pros and cons, is also part of what makes Indian leaders a constant in Silicon Valley.
I am Bhumi Shah, a highly skilled digital marketer with over 11 years of experience in digital marketing and content writing in the tech industry.