Google was born with an Indian at its heart.
In 1998 at Stanford University, the internet giant’s two founders, graduate students Sergey Brin and Larry Page, alongside academics Terry Winograd and Rajeev Motwani, developed an algorithm that revolutionised web search and created a multibillion-dollar company.
Even now, Motwani, who taught Google's first ever employee, Craig Silverstein, at university, is talked of in the same hushed tones as new Google CEO, 43-year-old Sundar Pichai. Both men are described as intellectually brilliant and driven, yet also possessing a sense of humility — traits increasingly associated with top Indian execs. And both studied at Indian Institutes of Technology before continuing their postgraduate education in the US.
If you've grown up in India you instinctively know people are different, not superior, just different.
Making the move abroad wasn't easy for Pichai, the son of an engineer in the southern city of Chennai. His plane ticket to America cost more than his father's annual salary and for six months he couldn't afford to phone his future wife whom he had met while studying in India.
By the time he joined Google in 2004, he had worked at both management consultant, McKinsey and microprocessor supplier Applied Materials. Pichai rose to prominence as the architect of Google's phenomenally successful Chrome browser and has long been tipped for a top post.
A paradigm shift
His ascent came as the global tech industry fell out of love with the egocentric, abrasive and often divisive style of many of its CEOs, who used deliberate confrontation to improve quality, competitiveness and productivity between individual employees, teams and rival firms. The current fashion, though, has shifted to a style of management that isn’t so much better at handling confrontation as it is avoiding it in the first place. And it's a sort of emollient style that some of this next generation of Indian executives are seen to possess.
It was one of the reasons why Microsoft made Satya Nadella its its third CEO, replacing Steve Ballmer. He wasn't the only Indian executive in demand. Japanese telecoms multinational SoftBank also brought in Google executive Nikesh Arora as its president. Adobe is run by Shantanu Narayen. Francisco D'Souza heads giant IT consultancy Cognizant. And Sanjay Mehrotra leads computer memory giant SanDisk.
And it isn’t just at global technology companies where Indians are taking the lead. Ivan Menezes is the CEO of Diageo, the world's largest producer of alcoholic spirits. MasterCard's boss is Ajay Banga. And PepsiCo is led by Indra Nooyi, one of the only high profile Indian female leaders to rise to the top recently.
The secret to their success goes far beyond their ability to climb the corporate ladder. Indians now make up around 6% of the Silicon Valley workforce. But, from that 6% come the founders of more than 15% of Silicon Valley start-ups.
That's more than those from Britain, China, Taiwan and Japan combined, according to a 2014 study by Professor Vivek Wadhwa, the Indian-born entrepreneur who holds academic positions in US universities: Singularity, Stanford and Duke. In the US as a whole, the study shows, almost a third of start-ups are launched by Indians, outnumbering the next seven immigrant groups combined.
According to 2010 census data, the most recent figures available, Indian Americans have the highest average annual household income of any group at $86,135 compared with $51,914 for the total US population.
Cream of the crop
So, what makes this group of Indians so phenomenally successful?
Some elements are obvious. Other US immigrants have to learn to speak a new language. But almost all higher education in India is conducted in English, a legacy of the country's colonial past.
The ability to leverage diversity is a strength here in Silicon Valley, where, if you can get more revenue or deliver a better product it doesn't matter what you look like or how you speak.
The current crop of Indian CEOs also represent the cream their generation, according to venture capitalist Venktesh Shukla, who is president of the Silicon Valley branch of networking organisation The Indus Entrepreneurs.
"They mostly came here in the days of socialism in India when opportunities were very limited and United States immigration policy only let in the most highly qualified," he said. "So what you have here is the best of the best."
But it’s not all about academic qualifications.
Shukla also believes that Indian culture can help create a successful management paradigm because he says it's a nation that places high value on both competition and individual humility. Diversity is also ingrained in a country where even in small villages there may be multiple languages spoken, several religions and more than one type of local cuisine.
"If you've grown up in India you instinctively know people are different, not superior, just different. The ability to leverage diversity is a strength here in Silicon Valley where if you can get more revenue or deliver a better product it doesn't matter what you look like or how you speak."
Gurnek Bains, founder and chairman of a global business psychology consultancy YSC and author of Cultural DNA: The Psychology of Globalization added that this ingrained understanding of diversity also comes from the Indian traditions of multiple gods, multiple realities and multiple perspectives.
"It also means they can engage the ambiguity of a fast-changing world in industries such as IT," said Bains, whose company carries out in-depth assessments of business leaders around the world. Bains suggested that Americans are more likely “to think: ‘This is the right way of doing things. It works in America.’ ”
The research, based on content analysis of YSC's assessments of 200 executives from each of the world's regions, also revealed that Indians have a strong will to achieve and, are unusually strong in the intellectual domain, Bains said.
Still, no one is perfect. For all their strengths, there is a major flaw. "Indian executives are the weakest of any country when it comes to teamwork," according to the research Bains said, of an area where Americans and Europeans do well.
The path forward
For now, it seems the best path to the top of the executive or entrepreneurial tree might be rooted in India and finished abroad. And those Indian executives who do best at multinational companies, Bains added, are those who've spent a long time outside their home country developing their teamwork skills.
“Kids all over India are looking at the new CEOs of Microsoft and Google, the two brands they use most, and they're Indian,” said Wadhwa, who first made his name as an Indian-born tech entrepreneur in America. “This is motivating and inspiring those kids to become like them.”
But soon they may not need to travel to the US to emulate their success, Wadhwa continued, as by one measure India becomes the third-largest economy in the world after the US and China.
Unlike their predecessors, today’s young generation may just want to stay put.
“In next three to five years in India, half a billion people are going to be coming online using smartphones. You're going to see a tech revolution there. You're going to see dozens of billion dollar companies coming out of India,” he said. “If I was an entrepreneur I wouldn't come to America. I'd stay in India right now because that's where the opportunities are.”
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