Hindu Vivek Kendra
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The Golden Diaspora

The Golden Diaspora

Author: Anthony Spaeth
Publication: www.time.com
Date: June 19, 2000

Indian immigrants to the U.S. are one of the newest  elements of the American melting pot--and the most  spectacular success story

When Manoj Night Shyamalan was growing up in suburban  Philadelphia in the 1980s, his parents--both  immigrants from India, both physicians--piled on the  pressure. "There was simply an assumption that I'd  come first in my class," he recalls. He was also  expected to follow his parents into medicine. When he  told them he would instead study moviemaking at New  York University, they were horrified. Now they feel a  lot better. In 1997, five years after his graduation,  Walt Disney Studios paid Shyamalan $2.5 million for  the screenplay of the Bruce Willis thriller The Sixth  Sense and let the young writer direct the movie as  well. The ghost tale has earned more than $680 million worldwide since its release last year and garnered six  Academy Award nominations. "If it hadn't grossed $100  million," he laughs, "I don't know what my parents  would have done."

Shyamalan, 29, did not win an Oscar on March 26, but  he has carved out another leading role for himself, as  one of America's premier success symbols for 722,000  Indian immigrants and guest workers scattered across  the country. And he is only one among many. Today  South Asian immigrants are climbing the top rungs in  just about every industry.

Indians are running FORTUNE 500 companies (Rono Dutta  is president of United Airlines, and Rakesh Gangwal is  president and CEO of U.S. Airways) or, as consultants  and securities analysts, telling others how to do so.  (Calcutta-born Rajat Gupta, managing director of  consulting giant McKinsey & Co., does both.) But above  all, they are bringing their own entrepreneurial  stamp to America's high-tech frontiers. Venture- capital fund Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of  Silicon Valley's biggest VC firms, says 40% of its  portfolio consists of companies founded or managed by  people of Indian origin. Indians have one of the  highest per capita incomes of any immigrant group in  the U.S. "It is a credit to this country that someone  from a distant land can become an American," says  Suhas Patil, founder and chairman emeritus of  semiconductor manufacturer Cirrus Logic (1999  revenues: $564 million), who is now running an  incubator company called Tufan, Inc. for Internet  start-ups. "I am what defines America."

The Indian success story is a triumph of quality over  quantity.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies in  Washington, an independent think tank, the U.S. is  home to about 26.3 million immigrants, defined as  people living in the U.S. who are foreign born and  have permission to stay permanently. India's 722,000  is less than the number from the Dominican Republic.

Some 15,000 to 20,000 Indians get student visas to the  U.S. each year, and many manage to land jobs after  graduation and stay on. But Japan gets three times  that number, and South Korea double. The only category  in which India really leads immigration statistics is  the number of people granted H1B visas for "workers  with speciality occupations." Indians take about 20%  of all H1B visas issued each year, by far the largest  proportion.

Other numbers tell an even more intriguing success  story. Only 6% of Indian immigrants live below the  poverty line, vs. 31% of Mexicans and 8% of immigrants  from Britain. Fewer than 1% use public assistance.   While there has long been a trickle of immigration  from South Asia, the big change came in 1965 when U.S.  immigration statutes were liberalized to attract  scientists and engineers to work in an American  economy revved up by the Vietnam War. They fanned out  to aircraft companies, NASA, military contractors and  universities. Doctors were needed for President Lyndon  Johnson's Great Society medical programs, and they  were given preference too. Fewer than 2,000 people  immigrated to the U.S. from India in the decade of the  1950s; in the '60s, 27,189 arrived; by the '80s, the  number had jumped to a quarter-million. The immigrants  often took jobs Americans had turned down because the  pay was low or the location remote. "There would be an  opening for a surgeon in Champagne, Ill.," says Fareed  Zakaria, a Bombay-born academic who is managing editor  of the prestigious quarterly Foreign Affairs, "and an  Indian would take it."

Then came the Silicon Valley boom, which shows no sign  of letting up. As a result of all these circumstances,  the Indian diaspora in the U.S. tends to be the  intellectual and commercial elite.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, only  3% of Indian arrivals lack a high school education,  and 75% of working Indians are college graduates. (For  immigrants from China, the figure is 55%.) Says Rajini  Srikanth, a professor of Asian-American studies at the  University of Massachusetts: "What we got were people  who already came blessed with all kinds of valuable  baggage." In many cases, the Indian schools that  newcomers had attended were as good as or better than  many of their U.S. counterparts.

Strong family ties also have helped. Vijay Goradia,  who emigrated from Bombay in 1977 and now has a  private petrochemical business in Houston with more  than $600 million in revenues last year, says he could  afford to take the entrepreneurial plunge because two  brothers had preceded him to the U.S. and served as  his safety net. "It gives you the spirit to be free,  to take chances," he says.

Yet at the same time, people from the subcontinent  have tended to aim more than other first-generation  arrivals for mainstream jobs, either in the   professions or in corporations. Some of that is a  hangover from British colonial experience, where a job  in the civil service was the ultimate badge of  accomplishment and security--a sentiment still strong  on the subcontinent. More positively, Indian  immigrants say they fit into corporate America because  they already speak English.

According to AnnaLee Saxenian, an associate professor  of city and regional planning at the University of  California, Berkeley, about one-third of the engineers  in Silicon Valley are of Indian descent, while 7% of  valley high-tech firms are led by Indian ceos. Some  successes are well known, such as Vinod Khosla, co- founder of Sun Microsystems, and Sabeer Bhatia, who  founded HotMail and sold it to Microsoft for $400  million. The number of Indian American New Economy  millionaires is in the thousands. Massachusetts'  Gururaj Deshpande, co-founder of a number of  network-technology companies, is worth between $4  billion and $6 billion.

Bigger changes loom with the second generation: the  kids are sure to have ingrained Indian values but a  world view completely at odds with their parents'.  Dilip Massand, co-founder of http://Masala.com, an  Internet site for the second generation that he hopes  to build into a "virtual diaspora," was raised from  the age of six months in the New York City borough of  Queens.

Massand remembers going to makeshift Hindu shrines in  people's basements. "The Catholics had beautiful  churches, and the Jews had elaborate synagogues," he  recalls. "I remember asking myself why our gods lived  in a basement."

It remains to be seen whether those successful Indian  Americans can go back to kick-start opportunities in  their native land, in the way that a "reverse brain  drain" of technical talent helped build Taiwan's  computer industry in the 1980s and '90s. K.S.  Ramakrishna, raised in the southern state of  Karnataka, got an M.B.A. from Ohio's Case Western  Reserve University in 1990 but was forced to return  home when his family business near Bangalore ran into  difficulties. He straightened out the firm--it makes  electric cables--but was disgusted by the local  business culture: the complacency, corruption and lack  of vision.

But Ramakrishna persevered. He started his own   business, growing roses for export, and senses that  further opportunities abound. "For me to start up a  business in America, I'd have to come up with some  brilliant idea," he says. "Here it's so simple: you  find an idea abroad, modify it for Indian conditions,  and you make money." The crowning achievement of the  Indian diaspora may be that its members bring that  same entrepreneurial spark back to life in their  homeland.

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