Promotion of Immigrants to Top Level Positions at Tech Companies is Long Overdue

When tech giant Google announced earlier this month that it would be creating its own parent company named Alphabet Inc., reactions around the world were instantaneous. While the surprise declaration of the corporation’s restructuring was lauded by some industry insiders as bold and innovative, others were skeptical, criticizing Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin for a plan viewed as overambitious and unnecessary. However, reaction to one aspect of the plan has been overwhelmingly positive – the decision to promote a top executive, Sundar Pichai, to CEO of Google. In fact, many insiders are praising the decision to promote Pichai, who was born and educated in Chennai, India, and began rising through the ranks at Google more than eleven years ago, as long overdue. [See The Rise of Asian-American Leaders in Tech, by Jeff Yang, CNN, 14.Aug.2015.]

Pichai represents an ever growing demographic of immigrants at the helm of some of the most thriving companies in the United States. Tech titans Microsoft, Adobe, and SanDisk have all promoted immigrants to high-level executive positions in recent years. Over a quarter of all startups in Silicon Valley are now being founded by immigrants, many of whom were born in India. AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information at UC Berkley, notes in a recent interview with Public Radio International (PRI) that, until the last decade, Indian immigrants generally were only considered for lower- and mid-level “worker bee” positions in the U.S. tech world and not for high-ranking executive promotions. “I think the fact that we have Indians now at the helm of Google and Microsoft is a statement of how Indians have become part of the fabric of tech in the U.S.” [See Sundar Pichai’s Ascension at Google isn’t Proof that Indians Have ‘Made It,’ by Angilee Shah, PRI, 11.Aug.2015.]

So, what has catapulted Indian immigrants from mid-level management throughout the 1990’s to occupying top ranking executive positions at some of the world’s most successful tech conglomerates? Industry insiders cite a unique culture in India that values teamwork, perseverance, and education for producing highly skilled innovators who can think outside the box. Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, an Indian immigrant who co-founded Sun Microsystems, notes in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times that, while India still struggles with economic instability, its top students stay focused on advancing their skills and embrace hardship as a learning experience. “A very strong educational base and technical skills are key to many parts of the tech ecosystem. Strong entrepreneurial skills and work ethic … and growing up and dealing with scarce resources give the Indian community an advantage.” [See Indian Immigrants are Tech’s New Titans, by Paresh Dave, Los Angeles Times, 11.Aug.2015.]

Silicon Valley’s reliance on Indian immigrants was precipitated by several key cultural and political developments. The rise of math, science, and engineering-based education in India after she gained independence from Britain in the 1950’s coincided with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which loosened quota restrictions for immigrants and established a skills-based visa program. The H1B specialty occupation visa was introduced in 1990, just as the tech world was finding a foothold and in need of the highly skilled workers that India was producing. Twenty-five years later, Indian immigrants have become an indispensable part of the U.S. tech industry, and are finally “breaking the glass ceiling” with promotions to top executive positions for which they never would have been considered only a generation ago.

Highly skilled and innovative immigrants from India have been at the core of the U.S. tech industry since its very inception. But until recently, they were relegated to low-profile positions at the thriving companies they helped to build. Now, tech giants such as Google are finally starting to reward the leadership skills and entrepreneurial spirit present in many of their immigrant employees, honed through an elite educational system and a unique culture that embraces challenges and fosters perseverance.


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