- Many Indian Americans have risen through the ranks to lead several top technology companies in the recent past. But how much of that is because of systemic mentoring or the result of individual hard work and talent?
The election of Kamala Harris as the first woman and first Asian American as Vice President of the U.S. is a story tailor-made for books to be written on her. Moreover, the fact that her mother was Indian has put a spotlight on Indian Americans in general. So, it was not a surprise when I came across the book “Kamala Harris and the Rise of Indian Americans.” Edited by veteran Indian journalist Tarun Basu, the book is a collection of essays by leading Indian Americans and prominent Indians. One chapter of particular relevance and interest to me is “An Accidental Capitalist: How Indian-Americans Made Their Mark In Silicon Valley” by M.R. Rangaswamy. MR, as he is affectionately called by his peers and friends, is a San Francisco-based entrepreneur, investor, philanthropist and founder of Indiaspora.
Having lived and worked in Silicon Valley for so long, it was the first essay I wanted to read, and MR didn’t disappoint. MR narrates three stories simultaneously: First is his rise from the ranks of an engineer to an executive, entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist. He termed his rise as accidental, but that is him being modest about his achievements. Second is the description of the journey of Indian Americans, from arrival in Silicon Valley to success. It happened in phases, and he eloquently describes each of them. Third and woven in between the first two points, which I think a casual reader might miss, is his description of how Silicon Valley transformed from a silicon hub to a global center of technology and innovation.
Reading through the chapter, I was curious to understand the role that mentorship has played in the rise of Indian Americans. There are mentoring programs where managers mentor their reports and prepare them for the next level. However, I was looking more specifically if there are structural mentoring programs within the Indian American community. Vivek Wadhwa, a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law school, had written an article when Satya Nadella became CEO of Microsoft that said that the tide was turning and that many more Indian Americans were rising to the top. He attributed it to Indian Americans helping and mentoring other Indian Americans. MR also talks about mentoring. One of the reasons for success, he identifies, is having good mentors.
Both Vivek and MR give the example of TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs) as the organization bringing Indians together. I checked the TiE website, and it does have a section on mentoring, but in the description, there is nothing specific except that it is getting people together to network. And this is where I have my problems. Networking is not mentoring. For me, networking has a more negative connotation; it sounds like one is lobbying for something.
To find out more about it, I decided to talk to MR. He had a very intersecting take on this issue. He gave the example of us growing up in India; we don’t have any structured mentoring programs because they are unnecessary. Our family setup, including extended families, acts as our mentors. Once we arrive in the U.S., that pillar of support is gone. We are on our own to fend for ourselves. According to him, there are currently no institutionalized mentoring programs. He contends that we are a young community and still growing. We will learn from it and, in due course, have a more formalized structure to support each other.
MR agreed that networking is not mentoring; it is very one-sided. Networking is about how it is going to help you. The need is to build a network. It will be a platform where people join not only to receive but to give as well. Mentoring can be one of the programs of this network.
In Silicon Valley, there is a basic assumption that you need to be a computer geek to do well here. MR’s background is in marketing, so I asked him how he managed to succeed. When he moved to the valley, he explained that the valley had enough technical knowledge but very few who could provide the business know-how. He was that intersection, that anomaly that provided the business knowledge. Having interacted with MR before, I know that he has an excellent grasp of the state of the technology. So, how he managed to pick up all this technical knowledge? It comes with experience, he says. He talks to intelligent people all the time, and it provides him with that knowledge.
We all know that Silicon Valley is powered and run by Indian Americans who work in different capacities — as developers, QA, IT admins, middle managers, etc. So, it was a disappointment not to see more mention of these unsung heroes in MR’s essay. I asked him if the names we hear at the top are more of an exception or the tide has turned. MR believes that Indian Americans have proven themselves as experts in the technical field. It is only a matter of time before they will be known for their management skills as well. American technology companies are no longer recruiting based on old stereotypes that Indians are great IT guys, and that’s it.
In closing, even though the essay by MR attracted my attention, the book is an excellent attempt at providing insight into the rise of Indian Americans across different domains. However, one complaint of the book is that it doesn’t have much coverage of the Indian Americans who are less fortunate. I understand that the book is more about the rise of Indian Americans. Still, it deserved at least a chapter on issues many Indian Americans face, like poverty, immigration, spousal abuse, etc. Issues that every community faces. We are no exception.
Nimish Singh lives in Fremont, California, and has made Silicon Valley his home for the last 27 years. He is an engineering executive in a leading Cybersecurity company. An avid reader and writer, Nimish is actively involved in local theater as a playwright and songwriter.