Coming To Amrika

  • Share
  • Read Later

The spectacular success of Indians in the U.S. smashes old stereotypes and adds a dash of spice to the American melting pot

When Manoj Night Shyamalan was growing up in suburban Philadelphia, his parents--both immigrants from India, both physicians--didn't hesitate to pile on the pressure. There was simply an assumption that I'd come in first in my class, he recalls. He was also expected to follow them into medicine. When he announced his decision to study film at New York University, they were horrified. Put yourself in their shoes, Shyamalan says. Your son is doing well in school, and suddenly he wants to get a degree that means nothing to them. But few individuals with such an all-American ambition have been rewarded so quickly. In 1997, Disney paid him $2.5 million for the screenplay of The Sixth Sense and let him direct as well. Released last year, the ghost tale has earned more than $325 million and yielded six Academy Award nominations. Shyamalan's parents are greatly relieved. If it hadn't grossed $100 million, he laughs, I don't know what they would have done.

But now Shyamalan, 29, carries an even greater burden of expectation: rooting for him to win the best-director Oscar on March 26 will be 722,000 Indian immigrants and guest workers scattered across the United States for whom he has become a symbol of the success they hope to achieve.

These days they have plenty of other role models. Two decades ago, Indians in the U.S. were usually found in scrubs in emergency rooms or changing sheets in family-owned motels. Today they are out of the mop closet and climbing onto top rungs in just about every industry. Indians are managing Fortune 500 companies (including United Airlines and U.S. Airways), or, as consultants and securities analysts, telling others how to do so. (Calcutta-born Rajat Gupta, head of consulting giant McKinsey & Co., does both.) Wall Street has its share, so too the media. And Silicon Valley is awash with subcontinental surnames. Venture capital fund Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of the Valley's biggest, says 40% of its portfolio consists of companies founded or managed by persons of Indian origin. Meanwhile, the born-in-America second generation is making waves in publishing and the arts and getting invited to the Oscars. Atul Gawande, 29, has written speeches for Bill Clinton as a White House aide, earned a masters degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford University and is currently a surgical resident at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. He's also a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. I had this little extra thing, says Gawande of his upbringing as an Indian in largely white Athens, Ohio, that gave me a leg up.

Touring India, Pakistan and Bangladesh this week, President Clinton will see the font of what has become one of the most successful immigrant groups in U.S. history. He will also see the conditions they fled--rampant corruption, state-controlled economies, meager employment opportunities--which he will doubtless point out from his traveling bully pulpit. But the strengths that Indian migrants brought with them, such as education and a command of English, and the factors that made them leave their homeland tell only half the story. Equally important is what those thousands of ambitious, uprooted souls found upon reaching America--or Amrika, as they like to call it: an economic system open to anyone from anywhere. Indians now 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 leading semiconductor manufacturer Cirrus Logic Corp. (1998 revenues: $1.15 billion), who is now running an incubator company for Internet startups. I am what defines America.

Other immigrant groups have felt the same welcoming embrace, but none has experienced the warp speed with which Indians--and to a lesser extent people from the other countries of the subcontinent--have gotten ahead in America. Brij Kapoor arrived in 1965 as an aircraft engineer and claims to be the first Indian to buy a house in Atlanta; the city is now home to more than 40,000 people of Indian descent. Kapoor hit the law books and started his own practice, cleverly concentrating on immigration cases. Of his four children, one is a lawyer, another an Air Force captain, the third is a computer engineer and the youngest, at 15, is thinking about legal studies. Says Kapoor: Indians are head and shoulders above any other ethnic group--the most successful in the United States.

How did indians, in such a short time, reach such a critical mass in America's professions and industry? One seemingly obvious factor--a large head count--can, in fact, be ruled out. The subcontinent may seem like a Niagra Falls of potential immigrants, a notion reinforced by the endless lines surrounding U.S. consulates from Karachi to Dhaka. But if anything, the number of Indian transplants has been comparatively modest. According to the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., the U.S. currently has 26.3 million immigrants. India's contribution is only 722,000, far behind Mexico's 7.1 million or the 1.3 million from the Philippines (but ahead of Pakistan's 200,000). There are nearly as many Indians in the U.S. as there are immigrants from the tiny Dominican Republic. Some 15,000 to 20,000 Indians receive student visas from the U.S. each year, and many manage to land jobs after graduation and stay on. But Japan gets three times that number, South Korea double. The only category in which India really leads the numbers is for H1B visas, granted to workers with speciality occupations. Indians take up about 20% of all the H1B visas issued each year, by far the largest proportion.

Other numbers tell an even more amazing story. Only 6% of Indian immigrants live below the poverty line, compared with 31% of Mexicans and 8% of transplants from Britain. When it comes to welfare and food stamps, Indians are the most self-sufficient in the entire immigrant pool. Fewer than 1% use public assistance; the figure for the next most self-reliant group, Filipinos, is nearly 4%. Indians have had greater success in a shorter amount of time than any other ethnic group in America, says Rakesh Gangwal, the Calcutta-born chief executive of U.S. Airways, the country's sixth-biggest carrier. And we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg. I may be ceo of a big corporation, but give it another 10 years and I'll probably be lost in the shuffle.

It wasn't always this easy. Amar Bose, perhaps the best known Indian-American in the U.S. thanks to the stereo speakers he designs, was born in 1930 in Philadelphia to an immigrant businessman father and U.S.-born mother. He recalls the bad old days of discrimination. The big problem was color, pure and simple, he says. There wasn't a restaurant in Philadelphia where I could be served. In those days you couldn't even rent a house. The first big change came in 1965, when 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, the defense establishment, universities. Doctors were needed for President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society medical programs.

The immigrants often took jobs Americans turned down because the pay was low or the location remote. There would be an opening for a surgeon in Champagne, Illinois, says Fareed Zakaria, the Bombay-born academic who now edits New York's prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, and an Indian would take it. A few years later, another wave of Indians came from Uganda, Kenya and other African nations that were descending into chaos. They had been traders or owners of small stores; in America many found opportunity taking over small motels, often in the deep south. Both groups tended to be widely scattered; frequently an Indian family would be the only people of color in a neighborhood, even a whole community. There was a lot of penetration into the society, says Zakaria. That speeded up assimilation. Immigration laws were again changed in 1986, inviting a lower stratum of migrants, who became taxi drivers or newsstand vendors. The Silicon Valley boom started in the '80s, mushroomed in the '90s thanks to H1B visas for skilled workers, and today it shows no sign of declining.

But while the Indian-American tapestry has many strands, certain shades predominate. A high proportion are trained professionals or people seeking higher education, which isn't true of migrants from Mexico or the Caribbean. Research by the Center for Immigrant Studies shows that only 3% of Indian arrivals lack a high school education, and 75% of those working are college graduates. (For immigrants from China, the figure is only 55%.) Says Rajini Srikanth, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Massachussets and editor of A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America, a collection of socio-cultural essays about Indian immigrants: What we got were people who already came blessed with all kinds of valuable baggage.

Another asset for Indian immigrants was either on the ground or coming soon on a jumbo jet: support from other family members. Vijay Goradia, who migrated from Bombay in 1977 and now has a private petrochemical business in Houston, Texas with more than $600 million in revenues last year, says he could afford to be courageous in his career because two brothers had preceded him to the States and served as his safety net. It gives you the spirit to be free, to take chances, he says. Hasmukh Rama came in 1969 with $2 in his pocket--but also a place in the M.B.A. program at Cincinnati's Xavier University. He waited tables at a Howard Johnson's restaurant and, in 1973, bought a hotel in Pomona, California. He couldn't afford much staff, so his wife and brother helped run the place. Rama now owns or operates more than 20 hotels scattered across five states--no problem for a man who has five Mercedes and two BMWs. Only in America, he laughs.

Education is a traditional talisman for immigrants in America, but usually as an aspiration for the second generation. In the case of Indian immigrants, it was often education that got them out of India in the first place--and a large number consider American education a bit wanting. Ravi Malhotra, an assistant treasurer at the Bank of New York, came to the U.S. after studying at New Delhi's Indian Institute of Technology, one of five government-funded engineering colleges. In comparison to an iit, says Malhotra, 41, you can almost go through classes here with your eyes shut. I still don't understand how this country is so far ahead. U.S. Airways' Gangwal, who has a nine-year-old daughter in a Virginia school, is similarly unimpressed: I see what a typical fifth-grader is learning, and I think it is a bit of an embarrassment.

Such attitudes have only strengthened the notion that academic success is the best weapon for immigrants and their children to get ahead. I always knew that if I fell short of a Ph.D. or an M.B.A., boy, I had better have a good explanation, says writer Gawande. Om Malik, 33, moved to New York from New Delhi via London seven years ago and worked for Forbes magazine before recently signing on with a venture capital firm in San Francisco. The common thread running through the Indian community is that this is the promised land, he says, and that if you work hard, you are going to make it. That is tattooed on our heads. Failure is not an option.

There's another unique aspect to the Indian-American community. Immigration is normally equated with entrepreneurship: foreigners filling tiny niches that American-born people wouldn't spot, often catering to their own communities. But people from the subcontinent have tended to aim for mainstream jobs, either in the professions or in corporations, a hangover from British colonial times when 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 speak English, unlike migrants from China, say, or South Korea. The figures bear out the trend: only 14% of Indian immigrants have gone into business for themselves, about the same level as Russians and Cubans. By contrast, 33% of Koreans in America are self-employed. Once, subcontinentals would go into business only under duress. Safi Qureshey, born in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, studied electrical engineering in Texas in the early 1970s before driving his Volkswagen Beetle to California to find a job. Landing a job with a computer manufacturer, Qureshey eventually found there was a glass ceiling for subcontinental workers. If you were a foreign engineer, you were seen as a good technical resource, he recalls. But it was hard to get into management, marketing or sales. He broke the mold by opening his own business with two partners from Hong Kong. Working out of a garage in 1980, they founded AST Research, which grew into a computer manufacturer with $2.5 billion in annual revenue before being sold in 1997 to South Korea's Samsung group for $170 million.

By all accounts, that glass ceiling dissolved at some point in the 1990s: subcontinental immigrants now have a chance at top slots across the American economy. And if East Coast Indians continue to fight for corporate seats and front page bylines, their cousins on the West Coast are discovering the joys of entrepreneurship. Parents brainwash you that, with an education, you can do anything, says Pavan Nigam, chief technology officer for Healtheon/WebMD, an ambitious online healthcare company in Atlanta. And this is as true as it gets here in Silicon Valley. His father sold plugs and wires from a street stall in the north Indian city of Kanpur. Nigam migrated and worked for Intel and then Silicon Graphics, where his development team created the software used in Jurassic Park. Then he co-founded Healtheon. When it went public a year ago, he became a member of the super-rich. There is no other place in the world today, says Nigam, where an Indian heritage is such a big competitive asset. According to a study by AnnaLee Saxenian, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of California at Berkeley, about one-third of the engineers in Silicon Valley are of Indian descent, while 7% of its high-tech firms are led by an Indian ceo. Some success stories 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 New Economy millionaires of Indian descent is now in the thousands. Massachusetts' Gururaj Deshpande, co-founder of a number of network technology companies, is worth between $4 billion and $6 billion. Says Krish Prabhu, ceo of French telecom giant Alcatel's U.S. operations: Indians have succeeded in the high-tech field, and don't face that glass ceiling now. They have a proven track record.

Bigger changes loom with the second generation: the kids are sure to have ingrained Indian values but a worldview completely at odds with their parents'. Older Indian immigrants, says Anantha Babbili, professor of journalism at Texas Christian University, tend to be what he calls 9-to-5 Americans. Says Babbili: We step into the world of American culture at work. But when we retreat home, we step into the world of India: Indian music, movies, temples and incense. Not so the new generation, who, he says, want to be 24-hour Americans. Dilip Massand, co-founder of, an Internet site for the second generation which 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. For the second generation, success in certain industries, or at certain levels, isn't enough. We haven't yet broken into the mainstream of American culture, says Gawande. You don't see the Indian movie star or rock-and-roll wizard.

Given the group's spectacular achievements so far, it's hard not to imagine that horizon getting closer. But with Clinton touring the subcontinent, another question arises: What would have happened if these driven Indians had stayed at home? Probably nothing, according to Foreign Affairs' Zakaria: The problem isn't that talented people have left India, he says. The problem is that the many, many more talented people still there have no opportunity to fully express their talent.

A parallel issue is whether those successful Indian-Americans can go back to kick-start opportunities at home, in the way that a reverse brain drain of technical talent helped build Taiwan's computer industry in the 1980s and 1990s. It won't be easy in current Indian conditions. 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 ran into difficulties. He did his duty straightening out the firm--it makes electric cables--but was disgusted by the local business culture: the complacency, corruption and lack of vision. What I really missed, he recalls, was a clean conscience.

But he has now started his own business, growing roses for export, and he senses that 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. It has been an amazing journey: Indians have traveled halfway around the globe to enrich both themselves and their adopted land. With a little bit of luck, they may turn out to be one of their homeland's greatest future assets.

Reported by David Nordan/Atlanta, Chandrika Narayan/Dallas, Jacqueline Savaiano/Los Angeles, William Dowell and Romesh Ratnesar/New York and Barry Hillenbrand/Washington