Indians' dreams are Silicon Valley reality

 Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella 

I met Rashi Agrawal at the "Data Mining" class at San Jose State University. She’s 25, from Mumbai and a graduate student.  She says for her generation of Indian engineers, Silicon Valley is "like Hollywood."  Since her arrival in the Valley, Agrawal has gone to a hackathon at LinkedIn and met Mark Zuckerberg.

"This is what we engineers dream of! I know it sounds very geeky, but that’s the truth," she says.

Akshay Wattal, a 24-year-old from Delhi, agrees. "I aspire to be like Mark Zuckerberg. He started something from a dorm room." Akshay says he came to Silicon Valley with the idea of doing the same -- that is, starting up a tech company.

Shashank Garg was listening in.

"Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, I literally worship them," Garg says. He's 25-years old and came to Silicon Valley with big dreams. "I want to be like them, I know at some point in time, I’ll be like them."

If you're a newcomer to Silicon Valley, you might be be forgiven for thinking that Indians were always a force here. Go to any Google event and many of the top executives are of Indian descent. There's also the Valley’s large Indian population, and the recent appointment of Satya Nadella as Microsoft’s CEO. With all this in mind, it’s hard to imagine a time when Indians didn’t dream big, says Venktesh Shukla, a serial entrepreneur and investor who has been involved in starting up about 30 tech companies.

Audacious Goals

"These are very audacious goals," Shukla says.

Shukla says when he moved to the Valley 30 years ago, nobody he knew had dreams like that.

And if they did?

"If they did, they kept it to themselves," Shukla snipped.

Shukla invited me to ride shotgun in his Mercedes for a tour of El Camino Real, which runs from San Francisco right through the heart of the Valley. We drove into Sunnyvale, where El Camino Real bcomes the kind of suburban commercial strip that's made for cars and strip malls. Shukla brought me here to show me just how Indian the Valley has become.

"Every second or third outfit, you'll see an Indian grocery store or an Indian sweet store or an Indian style beauty salon," he says pointing to the shops lining the road.

Shukla says none of this was here when he moved to the Valley in the early 1980s because there weren’t very many Indians here. Of course, that's changed. He points beyond the strip malls and tells me, "There are a huge number of apartment complexes in this area and 80-90 percent of some of these complexes are young Indians.

"Many of those young Indians are starting up tech companies. Today, nearly 15 percent of the startups in Silicon Valley have at least one Indian-born founder."

Shukla says in his day that was unthinkable. Back then, he said the Indians he knew took "safe" jobs. Some were researchers at UC Berkeley, and a lot of Indians he knew also worked for engineering firms in San Francisco.

"It was not part of the DNA to work for a small startup. That is risky and you might lose your job, and along with that, your line in the green card queue," Shukla says. "People carried the memory of scarcity and economic difficulty in India."

Shukla’s started out playing it safe too. He got his MBA from MIT and worked at stable tech companies to establish himself. But then, like a lot of his contemporaries, he got restless and wanted to do a startup. And that’s when, he says, like most Indians, he hit a glass ceiling.

"At that time, if you were an Indian running a company, you tended not to get funded," Shukla says. "And the VC would hint, or tell you directly, that you need to get a regular CEO."

What does "regular CEO" mean?

"A successful white executive," he answers.

Engineering "CEO Material"

Even in the last tech boom, you didn't see a lot of Indians in leadership roles in Silicon Valley. The perception was that Indians were low-level engineers and "weren’t CEO material," said Vivek Wadhwa, a former tech entrepreneur and a visiting scholar at Stanford University Law School.  

By"CEO-material," he means, someone who can wow investors, be a leader, and innovate.

"So how did people who have foreign accents, who are educated in different schools, come to a place that’s as fiercely competitive as Silicon Valley and make it big here?" Wadhwa asks.  

The answer is they formed their own networks.

In the 1990s, a small group of Indian entrepreneurs, who succeeded in spite of the odds, very methodically studied how the mostly white, male-dominated networks in Silicon Valley operated. And then, they created their own.

The first of those networks was called The Indus Enterpreneurs (TiE). Its members mentored, advised, and invested in the first big wave of Indian-led startups. And that helped radically reshape the complexion of Silicon Valley's upper eschelon.

Did you hear the one about the Indian and the startup?

Back in the car, Shukla, who’s the current president of TiE, says the shift has been so dramatic that now the inside joke among Indians is that a company can't get funded unless it has one Indian co-founder. 

And it’s not just companies being dominated by Indians. Shukla says most of the top venture capital firms have at least one Indian partner, who can tap into the Indian network.

And, he says, Indian entrepreneurs are starting to become hot commodities too.

"There's another VC here who told me this story [about how] he was trying to hire someone in India for a startup," Shukla says.  

He says the engineer was interested, but he was getting married and his future father-in-law wasn’t keen on the idea.

"And so he had to organize a party where he invited the future father-in-law and his family to tell them why it is good for this guy to work in a startup," Shukla said.  

The VC convinced the engineer, and the extended family, and so another Indian-led startup was born in Silicon Valley.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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