Indian americanThey have funny accents, wear strange outfits, and eat really spicy food, and some wear turbans.  Indian-Americans constitute less than 1% of the U.S. population.  Yet you will find them at the helm of great companies such as Pepsico and Mastercard; as presidents and deans of America’s most prestigious colleges; at the pinnacles of journalism; dominating fields such as technology, scientific research, and medicine; and thriving in industries such as hospitality, transportation, and real estate.  They have also achieved extraordinary success in government: the governors of two of America’s most conservative states are of Indian origin, as are White House senior advisors and the U.S. Surgeon General.

Even though the prosperity isn’t evenly distributed and some segments of the Indian community face severe social and economic problems, it is notable that the median annual income of U.S. households headed by an Indian immigrant is $103,000—twice the U.S. median.

How could a recent immigrant group achieve such incredible success—and what can we learn from it?

First, you need to understand the background of this group; it is highly educated and entrepreneurial.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 76 percent of Indian immigrants aged 25 or more have a bachelor’s or higher degree, and the vast majority are proficient at English.  Though some come from poor families, most of the Indians who make it to America are from the middle or upper class; the students who qualify for admission to U.S. universities are the cream of the crop; the workers who get hired by U.S. companies are highly skilled.  Only ambitious risk-takers willingly leave friends and families behind to shoot for success in foreign lands; they are entrepreneurial in nature.

Immigrants who come to America face discrimination just as foreigners in any country do.  Americans are generally tolerant and open-minded, but racism is an ugly human trait.  People with a dark skin or a foreign accent are always at a disadvantage in America.  This means that they have to work harder and think smarter.  Indian immigrants were typically at the top of the social ladder in the communities that they left behind but find themselves on the lowest rung in the U.S.  This is a very uncomfortable experience and provides incredible motivation to do whatever it takes to succeed, as I can tell you from personal experience.

I too am an Indian immigrant, and I remember when I first came to the U.S. as a child in the ’60s.  My classmates asked me whether I charmed snakes; parents pointed to me and told their children to think about starving Indians before wasting the food on their plates.  This was very hurtful, but it motivated me to do whatever it took to show everyone that I was as good as my classmates were.  Later in life, when I returned to the U.S. after living abroad, I experienced similar discrimination and disparagement from venture capitalists in North Carolina.  One told me that the reason he wouldn’t fund my company was that “your people don’t make good CEOs”.  My blood still boils when I think about this, but it made me stronger and better.  And it’s why I go out of my way to help other groups who have been discriminated against, especially African-Americans, Hispanics, and women.

And the success of Indian shows another side of this country.

The greatness of America is that a person who achieves success commands the highest level of respect regardless of his or her background, race, and religion.  This is the American Dream: an ethos of freedom that provides anyone who achieves success through hard work with the opportunity for prosperity and equality.  There are no absolute barriers to upward social mobility in America; that is why immigrants thrive and why America leads the world.

One of the biggest problems in India—and one that holds it back—is that people are divided by region, religion, and caste.  They may be Gujaratis, Punjabis, or Bengalis; Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs in India, but when they come to America, they are all considered to be Indians—as are people from other parts of South Asia, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan.  To Americans, we are all the same.

So when South Asians come to the U.S., they learn very quickly to put their differences aside.  They begin to understand that the key to an individual’s—and a community’s—success is to network, learn, and help each other.  That is why they join groups such as The Indus Entrepreneurs, the South Asian Journalists Association, South Asian Americans Leading Together, and the South Asian Bar Association: to help each other—and, in the process, to uplift their communities.  This too is how Indians become the dominant immigrant company founding group in Silicon Valley.  My research team at Stanford and Duke had documented that, as of 2014, nearly 16% of the startups in Silicon Valley had an Indian founder.  The secret of their success lay in learning and mastering the Valley’s rules of engagement: networking, exchanging ideas, and mentoring.

The lessons that disadvantaged groups can learn from Indian immigrants are to help each other and “pay it forward”.  America shows the world that providing all people with equal opportunity makes a bigger economic pie; that diversity fuels innovation and economic growth.

Link to article on Washington Post’s website

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  • Ellwood Davis

    Most Indian’s discriminate against qualified African Americans, and favor their own.

  • Well Wisher

    The future of STEM field in US doesnt look promising if the US doesnt handle offshoring of the jobs properly. Read through this blog for a very good analysis on the future of STEM field – http://futureofstem.blogspot.com

  • Well Wisher

    Why is there no customs duty on IT services imported into the United States ?
    Customs Duty is a tariff or tax imposed on goods when transported across international borders. The purpose of Customs Duty is to protect each country’s economy, residents, jobs, environment, etc., by controlling the flow of goods, especially restrictive and prohibited goods, into and out of the country.
    Now the question is why is there no customs duty imposed on IT services/software products imported into the United States of America. All countries protect their industries and economies by imposing customs duty. For eg, India imposes a customs duty of more than 100% to import passenger cars manufactured abroad. So if the cost of a passenger car manufactured in USA is $25,000, it’s cost in india is $50,000. The idea is to encourage the citizens/businesses of India to buy vehicles manufactured in India to avoid the customs duty.
    In the absence of these customs duties, the IT product or service companies based out of United States are impacted adversely and lose business to countries like India, China, Brazil where these services are available at one tenth the cost. Here is the detailed analysis based on an example. Lets assume that an insurance giant in USA would like to implement a major IT project. Upon analysis it is found that the effort required to implement this project is 1000 man weeks or 40,000 man hours. The insurance company doesn’t have sufficient resources to execute the project therefore it decides to procure the services of consulting companies to execute this project. Upon receiving the request for proposal, various consulting companies respond. Here is the profile of some of the companies who responded to execute this project along with the quoted fee –
    Company A – 100% US based work force. The average cost of each resource per hour for executing this project is $80. This company quotes a price of $3,200,000.
    Company B – 50% US based work force and 50% offshore work force. The average cost of each US resource per hour for executing this project is $80 and the average cost of each offshore (India/China/Brazil) resource for executing this project is $10. This company quotes a price of $1,800,000 (20,000X80+20,000X10)
    Company C – 25% US based work force and 75% offshore work force. The average cost of each US resource per hour for executing this project is $80 and the average cost of each offshore (India/China/Brazil) resource for executing this project is $10. This company quotes a price of $1,100,000 (10,000X80+30,000X10)
    Company D – 10% US based work force and 90% offshore work force. The average cost of each US resource per hour for executing this project is $80 and the average cost of each offshore (India/China/Brazil) resource for executing this project is $10. This company quotes a price of $680,000 (4,000X80+36,000X10)
    As you can see that now insurance company can save $2,520,000 by selecting company D over Company A and has no financial advantage to award the work to Company A. Company A will find it impossible to complete with Company B, C and D without cutting down its US based work force and offshoring the work. There by, resulting in loss of job opportunities for US based work force. This is what is happening today and resulting in job losses in the united states.
    To protect US economy US Customs and Border Protection must impose import duties based on the amount of services being imported. Lets see how the game changes if the CBP imposes duty tax of 200%, 400% and 600% on Company B, Company C and Company D.
    Company A – 100% US based work force. The average cost of each resource per hour for executing this project is $80. This company quotes a price of $3,200,000. Potential customs duty revenue to the government – $0.
    Company B – 50% US based work force and 50% offshore work force. The average cost of each US resource per hour for executing this project is $80 and the average cost of each offshore (India/China/Brazil) resource for executing this project is $30 ($10 cost, $20 custom duty). This company quotes a price of $2,200,000 (20,000X80+20,000X30). Potential customs duty revenue to the government – $400,000.
    Company C – 25% US based work force and 75% offshore work force. The average cost of each US resource per hour for executing this project is $80 and the average cost of each offshore (India/China/Brazil) resource for executing this project is $50 ($10 cost, $40 custom duty). This company quotes a price of $2,300,000 (10,000X80+30,000X50). Potential customs duty revenue to the government – $1,200,000.
    Company D – 10% US based work force and 90% offshore work force. The average cost of each US resource per hour for executing this project is $80 and the average cost of each offshore (India/China/Brazil) resource for executing this project is $70 ($10 cost, $60 custom duty). This company quotes a price of $2,840,000 (4,000X80+36,000X70). Revenue to the government – $2,160,000.
    As you can see now Company A can compete with Company B,C D by reducing its costs from $80 to $66 per hour there by bringing its price quote to $2,600,000 (40,000X65) and giving more job opportunities to residents of the United States. Note how customs duty resulted in a level playing field by rewarding those supporting domestic industry and penalizing those supporting offshore industries.

  • Very interesting piece, but aren’t both Governors (one if half Indian anyway) born in the U.S.? They are not, in any event, immigrants if they went to the U.S. as children accompanying their parents; I use an adult decision to immigrate as the defining delineation, they are the ones with the funny accents and love of spicy food (well, not always). The comment about immigrants being at the pinnacle of journalism is surprising, the rest not, Silicon Valley is full of very high IQ people (from the IITs). I am interested in interviewing you, Mr Wadhwa, for a project of mine (about subcontinental immigrants to the West); it can be a short interview if you wish. I am the Chief Editor of Savvy Street (www.thesavvystreet.com). Please write back to me at vk2@optusnet.com.au if you are interested, or suggest an email contact for you.