So, who emerged the biggest winner from the Howdy Modi-Trump spectacle at Houston? For diehard bhakts (devotees), Modi catapulted to the political stratosphere by yanking POTUS to a private rally. For Trump’s fanatical Republican followers, he “gotcha” the elusive Indian-American votes, socking it to the Democrats.
But frankly, who were Modi and Trump openly serenading? Of course, they were unabashedly wooing the most potent third force in the giant stadium, namely, the economic, intellectual and electoral firepower of the Indian-American diaspora. They were clearly the biggest winners. And here’s why.
Nearly four million strong, Indian-Americans comprise the second biggest sub-group of Asian immigrants, after Chinese. They are an indelible fixture of the US economy:
- About 72 percent possess a bachelor’s degree or more — compared to 51 percent of other Asian immigrants.
- They hold top jobs in every field from medicine to government.
- Their annual median household income is the highest of any ethnic group in the US — USD 100,000 in 2015, compared to an average of USD 73,000 for all Asian-American groups.
Their contributions are especially key to preserving America’s technological edge. Though Indians comprise 6 percent of Silicon Valley’s workforce, they have founded nearly 15 percent of its start-ups.
Several of America’s biggest tech companies are headed by Indian-Americans, including Satya Nadella at Microsoft, Sundar Pichai of Google, and Adobe’s Shantanu Narayen. And Indian-Americans have helped build a fruitful link between Silicon Valley and Bangalore, with companies sharing research, technological developments, personnel, and capital. Several prominent US tech companies — including Microsoft, Google, and Adobe — house their biggest development centers outside the US in Bangalore.
Indeed, Indian-Americans have proven instrumental in both accelerating India’s growth and strengthening the US-India economic relationship. They send tens of billions of dollars home each year, consistently making India the world’s top remittance recipient, with nearly USD 70 billion every year since 2017.
An increasing number of Indian-Americans are moving back to India, bringing their US-acquired skills and experience with them. Vivek Wadhwa, a US-based entrepreneur who has studied the Indian diaspora, believes the trickle has turned into a flood, with more than 100,000 Indians — many of them scientists and engineers — returning each year.
"“These are highly-skilled people who have taken back billions of dollars’ worth of wealth and the knowledge of western markets with them.”" - Vivek Wadhwa, a US-based entrepreneur who has studied the Indian diaspora
Why Have Indian-Americans Succeeded so Spectacularly?
For all its shortcomings, India’s test-based education system prizes math and science, making them highly respected — and extremely competitive — fields of study, which produce one of the world’s best-trained technical workforces. And thanks to the imperial Brits, Indians arrive in the US not just well-educated, but also extremely proficient in English, the global language of business.
"76 percent of Indian immigrants speak English ‘very well’, as compared to just over half of Chinese immigrants." - Source: Pew’s Asian-American survey
Furthermore, Indians — unlike the Chinese — are familiar with the workings of a capitalist democracy, and adept at navigating the minefields of a raucous, multi-ethnic society defined by competing interests.
“To be successful in foreign countries, you’ve got to walk a mile in the shoes of those people,” Indra Nooyi once explained. “You retain your Indianness, but you also have to adapt to what that country needs. If you remain too isolated, you will never be successful.”
Some argue that it is precisely the experience of growing up in India that enables its immigrants to accomplish so much abroad. Living cheek by jowl with a billion-plus people of different backgrounds and faiths goes a long way toward fostering resilience, tolerance and flexibility — all characteristics associated with success. In fact, India’s unwieldy bureaucracy may provide the ideal training ground for an aspiring entrepreneur, who is unlikely to ever face a more complex or frustrating set of challenges.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Indian-Americans remain less troubled by discrimination as compared to other Asians:
- The 2012 Pew survey found that just 10 percent of Indian Americans considered discrimination a ‘major’ problem, 48 percent ‘minor’, and 38 percent no problem at all.
- For the Chinese, the numbers were 16 percent, 56 percent and 24 percent respectively — higher than the Asian American averages of 13, 48 and 35.
- Still, all those numbers pale in comparison to a similar 2010 Pew study of Hispanics in America, in which 61 percent of respondents called discrimination a ‘major’ problem, 24 percent ‘minor’, and 13 percent not a problem at all.
Their unwavering commitment to family keeps them stable and rooted.
- More than 70 percent of Indian adults in America are married — compared to 59 percent of other Asian Americans, and just over 50 percent of all Americans — most of them to other Indians.
- And they place the highest priority on raising children; 78 percent rated being a good parent as ‘one of the most important things’ in life, compared to 67 percent of all Asian Americans, and 50 percent of the general public.
It’s All About, and Within, a ‘National Family’
Indians who venture to the US are welcomed by an extremely nurturing diaspora network. “One thing Indians did right here that a lot of other groups didn’t do was, once the first class achieved success, they started mentoring and helping each other,” says Wadhwa.
Comprehensive changes to US immigration law in 1965 led to a steady influx of skilled Asian Indians. At first, they held mostly low-level technical jobs, constrained by the common perception that while Indians made great engineers, they weren’t equipped to lead. But as soon as people like Vijay Vashee broke through that glass ceiling —hired in 1982 as Microsoft’s second Indian employee, he was heading up its PowerPoint division within ten years — they made it a priority to help their compatriots.
"“They decided to forget which part of India they were born in and just to focus on the cause. They realised 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.”" - Vivek Wadhwa, US-based entrepreneur
They invested in each other’s companies, sat on each other’s boards, and hired from within the community.
The power of the diaspora network isn’t limited to the rarefied circle of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Over the years, America’s Asian Indian population has broadened to include a variety of blue-collar and lower-level workers in other industries. A whopping 40 percent of America’s motels, for instance, are owned by Indian immigrants, most of whom learn the business from relatives or friends.
For Indians newly arrived in America, the first stop is often a motel — in Wichita or Detroit, Sacramento or Charleston — run by a relative or neighbor from their home village. Before long, they’ve learned the ropes, and are ready to branch out on their own. The rest is history!
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