Recent news that Parag Agrawal will replace founder Jack Dorsey as CEO of Twitter has been met with a lot of applause, especially for Indian Americans. Parag now joins a growing list of Indian Americans who now occupy the biggest positions in America’s top tech companies. Together with Satya Nadella head of Microsoft and Sundar Pichai at Google, Parag Agrawal is a sign of America’s newfound affinity for Indian Americans in what is arguably America’s strongest sector, technology.
While the success of Asian Americans in both academia and technology is a well-known fact, Indian Americans have outperformed other ethnic groups in technology. Research by the University of California at Berkley by Professor AnnaLee Saxenian found that “… of 1999 immigrants accounted for one-third of the scientific and engineering workforce in Silicon Valley, and Indian CEOs were running 7% of its high-technology firms. In 2006, my research team collaborated with Saxenian to update her work and found that the percentage of immigrant-founded startups had increased to 52.4%, with Indian-born executives having founded 15.5% of Silicon Valley tech firms—though they constituted only 6% of the Valley’s working population.
We found that 96% of the immigrant entrepreneurs involved in engineering and technology had completed a bachelor’s degree, and 74% held master’s or PhD degrees. Within that group, Indian founders had been educated in a diverse set of universities; the famed Indian Institutes of Technology, for example, accounted for only 15% of the company founders.”
What’s more astonishing is that most of them were not originally born in America but immigrated, some from the most remote sectors in India.
How and why founders like Bill Gates, Google Bros and now Jack Dorsey have entrusted the futures of their companies to immigrants is still a mystery to many. However, a close look at their humble origins may reveal hidden factors.
Coming from the most remote villages in India might seem like a disadvantage to many and by many accounts it is. Compared to their peers in America, an aspiring engineer from India has to work almost thrice as hard and jump through so many hoops to make it as an engineer in India, let alone America.
But again, this difficulty and uneven field is exactly what propels Indian engineers to the top of America’s biggest tech firms. In contrast to their American peers, engineers from India or from any developing nation for that matter learn to develop a culture of hard work and ingenuity just to get to the positions that their American peers enjoy.
The result is that once these aspiring engineers immigrate to the United States or any developed nation to further their careers, they are better suited for their jobs than American born engineers. They work harder and therefore succeed faster.
What was a disadvantage for Indian born engineers is actually an advantage. This idea of hidden advantages is well fleshed out in Malcolm Gladwell’s iconic book David Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.
In it, Malcolm tells the classic story of the ‘American Dream’ and how immigrants despite their humble beginnings had the cultural advantage that enabled them to succeed in a land that was not favourable for them.
This is also the story of our Indian tech heroes. Take Sundar Pichai for instance, born in Madras, India to a stenographer and an electrical engineer, he obviously was more inclined from birth to the technical. He like many other Indian engineers attended a technical university in India that earned him a degree and a scholarship to Stanford University. There he attained M.S in his field and added an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. It is with these impressive academic qualifications and a determined work ethic that he was able to conquer the tech world to become the CEO of what is essentially the gateway to the World Wide Web, Alphabet’s Google.
This is also the story of Microsoft’s Satya Nadella who also earned himself impressive degrees from Manipal Institute of Technology in Karnataka before going to the US to get an M.S in Computer Science and an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
In both cases, aspiring engineers born in technical families used academics to pursue their dreams in the land of opportunities that is America and rose to become to the top of tech giants.
Satya, Sundar and now Parag are (hopefully) paving the way for other aspiring engineers in developing nations to pursue their dreams in Silicon Valley.