In a recent column, I ascribed our phenomenal infotech success to the opportunities globalisation has opened to Indians with brains and English language skills. Yet that cannot be the full story. People from other ex-British colonies are just as brainy, literate and English-savvy as Indians and should between them produce as many hi-tech stars than India. Why don’t they?
One reason is that Indians have proved exceptionally good at networking in the US. What matters everywhere, but especially in Silicon Valley is your ability to penetrate and build social networks. You need to devote huge amounts of time not just to improving your business plan but to socialising with other business folk who matter, building bonds of trust and familiarity, creating acquaintances and friends who will also act as your business gurus and business partners.
In the brave new world of infotech, young people from all regions are working 12 hours a day to produce brilliant new ideas backed by business plans.
They need money from venture capitalists and orders from clients to convert their ideas into businesses. Only a small fraction succeed. These are no brighter than the others, but are better networkers and that makes all the difference. Indians in the US have a comparative advantage in networking.
Networking is all-important, says Reggie Aggarwal, CEO of Cevent.com and co-founder of the Indian CEO High Tech Council in Washington DC. His council admits only chief executive officers, chief operating officers and chief financial officers of companies with revenue exceeding $ 10 million. It started as a South Asian group and soon had a membership of over 200. But, says Aggarwal, he soon realised that a South Asian club could yield only limited networking benefits. So the Council threw open its doors to whites and others.
Membership has now exploded to 2,100, of whom only 15 per cent are now South Asians. It is the biggest CEO group in the whole US, says Aggarwal. It is linked with groups in Silicon Valley following the same strategy.
This is a totally new development. Indians have been migrating for centuries to various places, but have rarely formed united community networks–divisions of caste, language and religion come in the way. Many overseas Sikhs and Muslims hate the Hindus, and try to sabotage rather than promote pan-Indian interests.
In some smaller countries like Malaysia and Trinidad, Indians are more homogeneous and pull together. But only in the US have Indian networks graduated beyond an ethnic group into an elite network encompassing all communities including the dominant local ones.
CEOs have little spare time. So in socialising, they want to mix business and pleasure. They want to join groups of people who matter, imparting their knowledge to the group and gaining knowledge from peers in the group. Agarwal says that the 2,100 members of the his Council represent 2,100 gurus, whom any Council member has access to. Knowledge is more valuable than money in infotech, says Agarwal, and gurus impart knowledge. Many successful CEOs want to give something back to society, have set aside a few hours per week for guiding newcomers. They cannot spare time for everyone. But if they click with a few youngsters they come across in Council meetings, a guru-chela relationship can quickly follow.
The networks include financiers and businessmen wanting to place orders. No financier is comfortable with an abstract business plan. He also wants to click personally with the youngster proposing the plan. The more you are part of networks, more likely you are to click with financiers and businessmen placing orders. You will have common friends and acquaintances, attend the same social events, and so have a better chance of building a personal chemistry.
Indians in the US started as chelas in networks, and have now become gurus too as they climb the infotech ladder. Back in the early 1980s they faced racial prejudice. Whites wondered if they could speak even English properly. Soon they demonstrated their great talent, and rose. Yet their progress was limited: a glass ceiling prevented them from getting to the top.
To break the glass ceiling, many Indians in Silicon Valley left their employers to start their own companies. The rise of venture capital helped them take off. Soon hundreds of Indian companies sprouted and did very well. In less than a decade, Indians came to be seen as exceptionally bright, innovative and hard working. They joined the ranks of the American elite.
Aggarwal relates that when he was at college, his supervisor suggested hechange his first name from Rajiv to Reggie, to give potential employers a feeling of comfort. But, he says, with the change in image brought about by Silicon Valley, the same supervisor today would probably advise him to abandon Reggie and insist on being called Rajiv. Indian names have a special cachet today.
Why do Indians superior social and networking skills? The answer goes back to the small but skilled cadre of professionals who came to the US in the last five decades, described derisively as the brain drain. Their children grew up in the US combining the cultural advantages of America and India. They went to the best American colleges, were fully at ease with American whites and culture.
Aggarwal himself is a second generation American. By the 1990s, much larger numbers of the Indian elite migrated to the US, a group far more self-confident in the 1990s than in the 1950s or 1960s, fully conversant with both the western and Indian cultural idiom.
Aggarwal says that he is as likely to click with a South Asian after two lunches as with a white after 20 lunches. So, as they have scaled the Silicon valley ladder, Indians have become more and more powerful in networking.
They can click with the old white elite and also (very quickly) with the new Asian elite.
In sum, let nobody think of the success of Indians in Silicon Valley as just a technological feat. It is also a major social feat.