What did friends of an Indian undergrad flying to America for further studies tell him at the airport? CEO later, alligator! Implicit in this gag is the growing belief that any Indian student heading out to the United States or the western world these days has it in him to reach the pinnacle of not just academia, but also the business and corporate world. Stories of Indians or people of Indian origin going on to become CEOs of American and global companies are making headlines with such frequency that business schools and corporate magazines are routinely asking, in the form of studies or stories, what is it that makes Indians tick?
One may be presented with many answers to this question, but, first, it is important to place this phenomenon in perspective.
It is not as if every Indian who heads out west is some sparkling genius with fire in his belly and a C-suite on his mind. In the first place, not all of them come to study, much less study STEM subjects or go to business schools — the two common routes to CEO-dom. Many come not to study but just to immigrate, and even among the student and professional cohort, many go into other fields and toil away in anonymity. Some others are stuck in dead-end jobs or slave away to reach mid-level positions, and still others simply return home to India.
But even accounting for all this, there is a small sliver of Indians turned Indian-Americans who have become global icons for industry, perseverance, and eventual success as they reach the acme of the global corporate world, for long dominated by western men elevated by western companies. Of course, some of their success — and numbers — have been exaggerated and mythologised by a hyperbolic rah-rah brigade who populate WhatsApp university, such as the one claim that 30 per cent of Fortune 500 have Indian CEOs. Pure bunkum, of course. But even if it were 5 per cent (which would make it 25 CEOs and closer to the truth), it is a remarkable achievement for a cohort that forms only around 1 per cent of the US population.
According to a 2020 analysis by the group Boardroom Insiders, roughly 56 Fortune 500 CEOs (about 11 per cent) are immigrants. They come from 28 different countries, but the study reveals India has given America the most chief executives — a total of 10 in the year 2000 class of F500 companies, followed not-so-closely by Italy (4), the UK (3), Taiwan (3), Argentina (3) and Brazil (3).
Since then, there have been several more, including, most recently, Parag Agrawal at Twitter and Raj Subramaniam at FedEx, not to speak of those beyond America, such as Leena Nair, who was elevated to head the French luxury fashion house Chanel.
Several have also stepped down or moved on in recent years — notably PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, and Mastercard’s Ajay Banga, both trailblazers, not least because of their gender and religion (Banga is a turbaned Sikh).
They also stretch across industries and sectors now. Although the common perception is they are hitting the high spot in the tech industry (with Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Google’s Sundar Pichai the most celebrated), you can see them in banking and finance, consulting, medicine and pharmaceuticals, fashion and apparel, logistics and infrastructure, and even in retail. Albertsons, America’s second-largest grocery major with more than 2,500 outlets, is now headed by Indian-American Vivek Sankaran. Last month, in one of the biggest milestones for the community, FedEx, the global courier major that has never had a CEO beyond its founder Fred Smith in the 50 years of its existence, promoted Raj Subramaniam to the corner suite.
As in many spheres, women are hopelessly underrepresented in the corporate stratosphere, accounting for only 41 of the 500 CEOs in the Fortune 500. But even here, Indian women made a splash — going back to Indra Nooyi’s pioneering stint as CEO of PepsiCo, shattering a glass ceiling for other women to follow. In 2020, India-born Canadian Sonia Syngal was named the president and CEO of apparel brand GAP.
A month later, Reshma Kewalramani became the first female CEO of a large US biotech company, Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Most recently, Leena Nair, a Keralite who grew up in Nagpur, was named to head Chanel, the family-controlled French fashion firm.
Of course, not all of them are infused with success and good press; some court notoriety. Late last year, Vishal Garg, CEO of the multi-billion-dollar mortgage finance company Better.com, earned the nickname “prophet of Zoom” after peremptorily firing 900 employees over a Zoom call on Christmas Eve. Other corporate honchos, notably Rajat Gupta, formerly of McKinsey, have gone to prison for alleged infractions. But they are more the exception than the rule. And right now, Indian CEOs rock — and rule.
So what is the secret sauce or magic formula that has elevated so many India-born or Indian-origin executives to the corner office? There is no one answer to the question that is still being studied in depth, but here are half-a-dozen reasons this writer has formulated after studying this subject for nearly 25 years — from the time he first observed it while writing the book The Horse That Flew: How India’s Silicon Gurus Spread Their Wings (HarperCollins, 2000).
For the most part, India sends its best and brightest to the west. Numbers matter, and the fact is that India sends the highest number of students to the west (particularly to the US, but Canada is now catching up), next only to China. The big difference between Indian and Chinese students is, thanks to its colonial legacy, Indians are a little more familiar and comfortable with English (or at least with Indlish, their version of it). Plus, they are at ease with an open society, democratic institutions, and a culture of debate and dissent. Many of them come through one of the most brutally competitive education system, illustrated by the legend of the IITs, which has an acceptance rate of less than 2 per cent. No surprise then that several CEOs, including Google’s Pichai, IBM’s Arvind Krishna, FedEx’s Subramaniam, and Albertsons’ Sankaran are IIT-ians.
But considering only 20 per cent of today’s Fortune 500 CEOs came to the US as students, and a whopping 59 per cent come via the professional work visa route, there must be other reasons, right? Indeed, it is not just the education system that is highly competitive, but society itself as a whole. “No other nation in the world ‘trains’ so many citizens in such a gladiatorial manner as India does,” R Gopalakrishnan, Tata Sons’ executive director, says in the book The Made-in-India Manager. Vinod Dham, the Intel executive who headed its Pentium project, once explained this to your writer as follows: In India, a public transport bus never stops at a bus stop. It is always full, and therefore the driver stops many yards before or after the stop only to disgorge passengers already overflowing. So, to get on the bus, you are attuned to dash 50 meters on either side, and get perhaps a toe-hold on the footboard of the bus. Then you come to America, and what do you see? Bus comes on time, it is almost empty, the driver even lowers the footboard for you to get in. Life is a piece of cake. India prepares you to succeed.
Hard work, thrift, and industry. Having come to the west after a bruising struggle, Indians waste no time in moving up the social and economic ladder. If they come as students, many of them, to paraphrase what one of them told this correspondent many years ago, have a life that does not extend beyond “Apartment and Department, Adviser and Budweiser”. In other words, they never live beyond their means, wrap up their coursework quickly, spending as little as possible, and are ready to plunge into work. Of course, there are always exceptions, but one can see this even among second-generation Indians. In almost every university in the US, Indians are prized students for professors, who like them for their diligence and focus.
Humility, loyalty, and consensus-building. Because they have come up, for the most part, through adversarial circumstances and a tough grind, Indian executives tend to be consensual, genial, and less in-your-face. Again, there are exceptions like Vishal Garg, but the most famous example is Satya Nadella, who is credited with completely changing Microsoft’s hard-charging culture he inherited from Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. Satya Nadella’s first email as CEO to Microsoft employees started with “Today is a very humbling day for me.” Parent of a special-needs child (who sadly passed away a few weeks ago), he brought a zen-like calm to the conference room, never raising his voice or thumping the table. The result of his leadership? Microsoft has grown from a $400 billion company when he took over in 2014 to more than $2.2 trillion today.
Indians also tend to be incredibly loyal. Arvind Krishna joined IBM in 1990, and Satya Nadella joined Microsoft in 1992, both three-decade veterans in the same company. Raj Subramaniam has never worked anywhere else after he joined FedEx in 1992, straight out of college.
Home and family. Nadella also exemplified the virtues of a strong home and family, values he inherited from his own parents. In fact, most Indian-origin CEOs come from middle-class families, with parents who mostly worked in the government — civil service, public sector, or the army. Their mothers are often selfless homemakers who devoted their time and energy to the success of their children, instilling values and discipline. Nadella’s father was an IAS officer; Arvind Krishna’s father retired as a major-general, and Ajay Banga’s father as a lieutenant-general in the Indian Army; and Sundar Pichai’s father was an engineer with the British conglomerate GEC. They were not poor by any stretch of imagination, but nor were they wealthy and privileged. But they were definitely part of the Indian societal elite who knew the pathway of success to the west, and laid the ground for it.
And finally, India and America: India and America are worlds apart, but what is common to them is part of the secret sauce that has propelled many Indian executives to heights of corporate excellence — the ability to embrace diversity and dissent. They are both plural, secular, multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies, and, warts and imperfections notwithstanding, they strive to be equitable societies albeit with deep inequities.
In fact, America’s role in establishing the Indian CEO brand is often understated. “The rise of Indian CEOs of US-headquartered firms is a strong reaffirmation of the US’s meritocracy and its truly global outlook — especially when it comes to business. Not just allowing, but enabling the best talent to rise to the very top — irrespective of race, nationality or unfamiliar accents. Also, a great reminder of the opportunity the US offers to immigrants, and the fact that the American Dream of good education, success, wealth, and achievement for all, is still alive and a cornerstone of its society,” Forbes magazine noted in a recent essay on the subject.
So, for all the education and industry and humility and perseverance and all the good stuff, there are not many countries where Indians could have excelled as much as in the US, which is a better and more open meritocracy than many other developed countries; a society that, aberrations aside, gives immigrants a fair shot at success. Long denied such a congenial eco-system at home, Indians have seized it with both hands.
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