Analysis: The unprecedented rise of the Indian-American CEO in corporate America

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President Donald Trump with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (center) and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at the White House in 2017. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.

After five decades of immigration to the US, an extraordinary number of Indians have reached the summit of influence in their professional fields— and the corporate world is no exception. In 2021, Indian-American CEOs collectively employed more than 3.6 million people worldwide and account for $1 trillion in revenue and $5 trillion in market capitalization.

Just in the last six months, four Indian Americans have been appointed CEOs of major companies, including Lal Karsanbhai at Emerson, C S Venkatakrishnan at Barclays, Sanjeev Lamba at Linde, and Parag Agrawal at Twitter who, at age of 37, is the youngest CEO amongst top 500 US publicly listed companies. Just the sheer breadth of industries that have Indian American CEOs today is a reflection of how broadly the leadership potential of the Indian American community is being recognized.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies remotely before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten

The Indian-American population has grown significantly in the past fifty years and is now known as the most affluent and educated ethnic group in the US. Historically, Indians in the US worked in medicine, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-related jobs. Some, like the Patel community from Gujarat, took to the hotel industry and, over time, grew to dominate it. Others became entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley after the digital revolution of the 1980s.

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The evolution of Indian-Americans in all professions took a good decade before one started to see a rise up the ranks in academia (medicine, science, and engineering in particular) and as entrepreneurs (start-ups, small businesses, restaurants, and motel owners). The rise in business leaders in other industries took longer, mostly moving from technical roles to broader responsibilities.

Former President Barack Obama once quipped in reference to Indian-Americans, “Whenever I’m asked about Indians taking away our jobs, I want to say, you know what? They’ve just created 50,000 jobs.”

While India earned the reputation of being the “back-office of the world”—a reference to its highly skilled workforce, engaged in outsourced activities on the payroll of global firms—President Obama’s impassioned endorsement pointed out the unprecedented rise of Indian CEOs in America’s leading corporations and their rapid growth.

Pattern started in 1994

Rajat Gupta’s appointment as managing director of McKinsey & Company in 1994 marked the first Indian-born CEO taking the helm of a multinational corporation. In 1997, Ramani Ayer became the first Indian CEO to head a Fortune 500 financial firm, The Hartford. In the latter half of the 1990s, Indian-Americans reached top executive positions at US Airways Group, Quest Labs, and, my appointment to lead Rohm and Haas.

Indra K. Nooyi (PRNewsfoto/PepsiCo, Inc.)

By the 2000s, Indian-Americans had become the stars of Americas’ corporate sky. Indra Nooyi was appointed CEO of PepsiCo in 2006; before that Sunil Kumar was named ISP CEO in 1999; Vikram Pandit became CEO of Citigroup in 2007; Francisco D’Souza was named President and CEO of Cognizant Technology Solutions in 2007, Shantanu Narayen took over as CEO of Adobe Systems in 2007; Sanjay Jha was appointed co-CEO of Motorola in 2008; Deven Sharma was announced as President of Standard & Poor’s in 2010; Ajay Banga was named President and CEO of Mastercard in 2010; and Rakesh Sachdev became Sigma-Aldrich CEO in 2012. In the past decade, even more Indians took the CEO helm, including Vasant “Vas” Narasimhan at Novartis and Niraj S Shah at Wayfair, making the Indian- American executive at the forefront of America’s economic progress and job creation.

Parag Agrawal newly appointed CEO of Twitter Inc. Photo: Linkedin.com @parag-agrawal

The rise of the software and technology industry brought up many Indian chief executives as well. Hyderabad-born Satya Nadella walked into the big Microsoft-CEO shoes once worn by Bill Gates. Sundar Pichai now leads Alphabet, the parent company of Microsoft’s rival Google, where three of its 13-member management team executives are Indian.

Arvind Krishna made worldwide headlines when he was named CEO of IBM in 2020. Other notable tech CEOs from the diaspora include Sanjay Mehrotra of Micron, George Kurian of NetApp, Nikesh Arora of Palo Alto Networks, Sandeep Mathrani of The We Company, and Dinesh C Paliwal of Harman International Industries.

The pattern continued in companies like Cisco, where Padmasree Warrior was CTO; Intel, where Vinod Dham invented the famous Intel Pentium processor; and Ajay Bhatt, who became the chief client platform architect. Bhatt had also co-invented USB along with several significant standards in graphics and computer architecture, holding 31 US patents. It is not surprising, then, that the distinction of becoming the first chief technology officer of United States went to an Indian-American, Aneesh Paul Chopra, who served from 2009-2012.

Commitment to education

All Indians believe in the power of higher education. Their lifelong commitment to learning is a singular aspect that sets them apart from many native-born Americans.

By the time immigrants of the 1960s and 1970s arrived for their first day of work in corporate America, they would have already completed years of intense study. Each student would have already competed for a spot at a preeminent Indian university, finished their undergraduate studies, and matriculated from at least one graduate degree program in the US before gaining employment with an American company. (And, of course, all these degrees don’t reflect the street-smarts acquired by years of traveling hundreds of miles from home to college and then thousands of miles to America for school.)

Many Indians living in the US today were beneficiaries of the visa programs for students or high-skilled professionals that allowed them to stay and work in America. And most young diaspora members arrived at US universities to continue their medical or engineering education.

Though it was uncommon for early Indian immigrants to pursue business degrees in the US, a notable trailblazer had actually set a precedent in 1964: Dr Amar Gopal Bose founded the company which is today the most famous audio manufacturer in the world. At a time when stethoscopes and seminars were preferred over profits and products, the Indian-origin founder of Bose Corporation stood out from the crowd. A former professor at MIT, Bose created his eponymous company with initial funding from angel investors. It currently employs more than 10,000 people with revenue exceeding $3 billion annually.

It’s not surprising that Indian CEOs have both a broad and deep perspective into innovation-driven businesses that are driving the global economy today. India’s IITs and commitment to technological knowhow have helped the nation produce many sophisticated CEO minds who may lead a business, medical, academic, or manufacturing organization, but started their education by studying engineering.

Indian-Americans are now regularly featured as top innovators in the technology segment, especially, those under the 35-year-old age bracket. Sonia Vallabh, Maithilee Kunda, Dinesh Bharadia, and Jagdish Chaturvedi are the four Indian-American innovators under 35 on the MIT Technology Review list.

Rallying to be a stronger voice

We first-generation executives grew up in India in a multicultural environment of different races, religions, and social settings. The heritage, culture, social norms, ethical values, and belief systems are all associated with the Indian subcontinent. It is an amalgamation of several cultures and has been influenced by a history that dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization.

As Ajay Banga, president and CEO, Mastercard, says: “It is inspiring to see so many leaders of Indian heritage playing a significant role in business and in society. Our culture and our values are a common starting point. But it’s what we do with the opportunities presented to us that makes the difference.”

Today, new cross-industry organizations aim to rally Indian-Americans to become a stronger voice by connecting professionals across generations and industries. Founded in 2012, Indiaspora has united Indian leaders from diverse backgrounds and inspired them to bring about positive social change. In 2020, the nonprofit released its first-ever list honoring executives of the Indian diaspora who lead global corporations. A compilation such as this quantifies and underscores the power and influence of Indians in the boardroom.

There’s no doubt we will see a growing number of Indians leading companies in America and around the world. And we hope that more of these leaders will be women. And given my decades of experience in corporate governance, I believe Indian-Americans are poised to become an even greater force in the executive suite in the years to come.

(The author, chairman of APTIV PLC, was formerly chairman and CEO of Rohm and Haas. Excerpted and adapted from his chapter “Success Drivers of Indian American CEOs” in the book “Kamala Harris and the Rise of Indian Americans” published by Wisdom Tree)

Used with permission from South Asia Monitor

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