When Vijay Vashee joined Microsoft in 1982 he was just one of two Indians at the 160-person company. It added several more recruits from India, mostly IITans, over the years. They held low-level technical positions. Vashee became the first Indian to break through Microsoft’s glass ceiling in 1988 when he was named General Manager for Microsoft Project. In 1992 he was asked to head the fledgling PowerPoint Division and helped grow this from $100 million to a billion-dollar business.
About the same time as Vashee, Indians in Silicon Valley began breaking glass ceilings. They all faced the same hurdles: a belief that Indians made great engineers but were not capable of becoming managers — certainly not CEOs. A common perception was that they didn’t know how to delegate authority and could not lead companies.
Fast forward to today when the top two contenders for the Microsoft CEO role are both India-born. No doubt Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai are highly competent and worthy of consideration. Yet they would not have made the list a few years ago because of the negative stereotypes.
This shows how much the technology industry — and America – has changed.
How did this transformation happen? Very simply: Indian Americans started helping Indian Americans — regardless of their caste, religion, and regional heritage as well as all others from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and all others. They decided to give back to the community that they were now part of.
When the first generation of Indians in Silicon Valley succeeded in shattering the glass ceiling, they decided to help others follow their path. They realized that they had all surmounted the same obstacles. And that they could reduce the barriers to entry for others behind them by sharing their experiences and opening some doors.
They had open discussions about the hurdles they had faced. They concluded that the key to uplifting their community, and fostering more entrepreneurship in general, was to teach and mentor the next generation of entrepreneurs. They formed networking organizations such as TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs) to teach others about starting businesses, and to bring people together. These organizations helped to mobilize the information, knowhow, skill, and capital needed to start technology companies. The first generation of successful entrepreneurs — people like Vijay Vashee — served as visible, vocal, role models and mentors to the next. And they provided seed funding to members of their community.
This helped Indians achieve extraordinary success. Research by my team at Duke, UC-Berkeley, and Stanford showed that as of 2005, 52.4% of Silicon Valley’s companies had a chief executive or lead technologist who was foreign-born and Indians founded 25.8% of these companies. This proportion increased to 33.2% in 2012. Indians, who constitute only 6% of Silicon Valley’s working population, start roughly 15% of its companies. That is quite a feat to achieve in the most competitive, entrepreneurial, and innovative place on this planet.
There are important lessons to be learned here for groups that face discrimination. The key to uplifting a community is mentorship and education — not from outside but from within. It starts by members of the community admitting there is a problem and working together to fix it. They need give back to their community and “pay it forward”. Everyone that achieves success must help others behind them. They may not get short term advantage but will definitely gain in the long term as perceptions change and new doors open for the entire community.
That an Indian can lead the world’s top software company is an important milestone for Indian-Americans and for America. But the larger message is for entrepreneurs everywhere: imagine what you can achieve if you put your differences aside and start helping one another.