Business

How Indians defied gravity and achieved success in Silicon Valley

NOTE: GrowthBeat -- VentureBeat's provocative new marketing-tech event -- is a week away! We've gathered the best and brightest to explore the data, apps, and science of successful marketing. Get the full scoop here, and grab your tickets while they last.

If you visited Silicon Valley in the ’50s and ’60s, the only Indians you would meet would be a few low-level engineers who came to the U.S. to study and ended up staying.  Indians were stereotyped as beggars and snake charmers, and finding them in leadership positions in the technology industry was unimaginable.

Then in the ’70s and ’80s, waves of IIT graduates migrated to the Valley. (IIT’s are India’s top engineering colleges.) It was a time in India, under a socialist government, that people with capitalist ambitions felt stifled. One by one they mastered the Valley’s unwritten rules of engagement and shattered its glass ceiling. Engineers such as Vinod Dham started creating breakthrough technologies such as the Pentium chip, and entrepreneurs such as Kanwal Rekhi and Vinod Khosla co-founded companies like Excelan and Sun Microsystems. They also started helping each other and formed their own entrepreneurial networks.

In 1999, UC-Berkeley School of Information dean AnnaLee Saxenian discovered that Indian-born entrepreneurs had founded 7% of all Silicon Valley startups between 1980 and 1998. By forming their own networks and mentoring each other, they had changed the perception of Indian technologists. They showed America that they could indeed be CEOs.

Nearly eight years after Saxenian published her findings, Professor Vivek Wadhwa partnered with her and Professor F. Daniel Siciliano of Stanford Law School to update and expand the research. The results were astonishing. Twenty five percent of the nation’s startups and 52% of those in Silicon Valley were founded by immigrants. Indian immigrants were the leading company founding group. They founded 13.4% of Silicon Valley’s startups and 6.5% of those nationwide. This was particularly surprising, because Indian immigrants comprised much less than 1% of U.S. population at the time.


I worked with Professor Wadhwa at Stanford University to once again update this research. Kauffman Foundation just published our report, titled Then and Now: America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs. We learned that because of flaws in the U.S. immigration system, immigrant entrepreneurship has dropped. Skilled immigrants are trapped in limbo and cannot get the visas necessary to start companies. As a result, they are becoming more and more frustrated and returning to their home countries to start companies. The decline in the proportion of immigrant-founded startups reflects this trend.  Nationwide, the proportion has dropped from 25.3% to 24.3%, and the decline is even greater in Silicon Valley — from 52.4% to 43.9%. This is very bad news for America — the country needs startups now more than ever to revive its economy.

But the biggest surprise — or should I say shock — is that Indians are dominating immigrant entrepreneurship. Nationwide, Indians founded 8% of all technology and engineering startups and yet still comprise less than 1% of the U.S. population. Our research has shown that Indians now outnumber the next seven immigrant groups combined and start 33.2% of all immigrant-founded startups in the U.S.  The proportion of all immigrant-founded companies has fallen in Silicon Valley, but Indians have resisted this downward trend. In fact, the proportion of all Silicon Valley companies founded by Indians has slightly increased from 13.4% to 14% since 2007.


When we reviewed the initial survey results, we thought something must be wrong. The Indian numbers could not have increased so dramatically. We took an additional sample of 160 Silicon Valley companies to retest our findings — but the results stayed the same. Indians are achieving extraordinary success in Silicon Valley.
And it’s not just Silicon Valley. We found that Indians start more companies than any other immigrant group in California (26%), Massachusetts (28%), Texas (17%), Florida (17%), New York (27%), and New Jersey (57%). This is amazing, especially since Indians only represent between 0.7% and 3.4% of the populations of these states. Indians also lead all immigrant groups in the number of companies founded in the following industries: biosciences (35%), computers/communications (28%), innovation/manufacturing-related services (29%), semiconductors (32%), software 33%), environmental (39%), and defense/aerospace (29).

It’s remarkable that Indians have achieved such high levels of success in spite of U.S. immigration policies. Skilled immigrants of all nationalities are experiencing visa difficulties and hardships that hamper their efforts to start new businesses. Imagine what all of these immigrants could do if America provided the visas necessary to start companies and share the American Dream.

Neesha Bapat is Lead Researcher for the ”America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs – Then and Now” project at the Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University.  This this article represents the views of the author and not necessarily those of Singularity University. 

[Top image credit: Stuart Jenner/Shutterstock]


We're studying digital marketing compensation: how much companies pay CMOs, CDOs, VPs of marketing, and more, with ChiefDigitalOfficer. Help us out by filling out the survey, and we'll share the results with you.
0 comments