Indian Origin CEOs Making it Big in the US


What did the friends of an Indian undergrad flying to America for further studies tell him at the airport? CEO later, alligator! Implicit in this gag is the growing idea that any Indian student going to the United States or any other Western country these days has what it takes to achieve the pinnacle of not only academia but also business and corporate life. Stories of Indians or people of Indian origin becoming CEOs of American and global companies are so frequent that business schools and corporate magazines often ask, in the form of research or stories, what it is that makes Indians tick?

Many answers to this question may be presented, but it is first necessary to put this phenomenon in perspective.

It’s not like every Indian who travels west is a brilliant genius with a fire in his belly and the C-suite on his mind. To begin with, not all of them come to study, much less study STEM subjects or attend business schools, which are the two most common routes toward becoming a CEO. Many come not to study but to immigrate, and even among the student and professional population, much work in other industries and go unrecognized. Others are stuck in dead-end employment or are working their way up to mid-level positions, while others simply return to India.

Despite this, there is a small group of Indians who have become global icons for industry, perseverance and eventual success as they reach the pinnacle of the global corporate world, which has long been dominated by western individuals elevated by western businesses. Of course, some of their success — and numbers — have been overstated and mythologized by a hyperbolic rah-rah brigade who frequent WhatsApp university, such as the assertion that Indian CEOs make up 30% of the Fortune 500. Of course, it’s all nonsense. Even if it were 5% (which would equal 25 CEOs and be closer to the truth), it would still be a tremendous achievement for a group that makes up less than 1% of the US population.

Roughly 56 Fortune 500 CEOs (about 11%) are immigrants, according to an analysis done in 2020 by a group of Boardroom Insiders. They came from 28 different countries, but according to the study, India has given America the most chief executives – a total of 10 in the year 2000 class of F500 companies, followed by Italy, the UK, Taiwan, Argentina, and Brazil.

Since then, several more have emerged, most recently Parag Agrawal at Twitter and Raj Subramaniam at FedEx, not to mention others from outside the United States, such as Leena Nair, who was promoted to head the French luxury fashion house, Chanel.

Several others have stepped down or moved in recent years, including Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo and Ajay Banga of Mastercard, both trailblazers, not least because of their gender and religion.

They also cover a wide range of industries and sectors. Despite the popular belief that they are only found in the tech industry (with Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Google’s Sundar Pichai being the most well-known), they can also be found in banking and finance, consulting, medicine and pharmaceuticals, fashion and apparel, logistics and infrastructure, and even retail. Vivek Sankaran, an Indian-American, is presently the CEO of Albertsons, America’s second-largest grocery chain with over 2,500 locations. FedEx, the worldwide courier giant that has never had a CEO other than its founder Fred Smith in its 50-year history, promoted Raj Subramaniam to the corner suite this month, marking one of the community’s most significant milestones.

Women are hopelessly demeaned in the corporate environment, accounting for only 41 of the 500 CEOs in the Fortune 500 as they are in many other fields. But Indian women made an impact even here, going back to Indra Nooyi’s groundbreaking tenure as CEO of PepsiCo, which broke the glass ceiling for other women to follow. Sonia Syngal, an Indian-born Canadian, was chosen president and CEO of GAP in 2020.

Reshma Kewalramani became the first female CEO of a large US biotech company, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, a month later. Recently, Leena Nair, a Keralite who grew up in Nagpur, was recently appointed to head Chanel, the family-owned French design firm.

Of course, not all of them are blessed with success and fortune; some seek it out. Vishal Garg, the CEO of the multibillion-dollar mortgage finance company Better.com, gained the nickname “prophet of Zoom” after firing 900 employees on Christmas Eve over a Zoom call. Other business leaders, including Rajat Gupta of McKinsey, have been sentenced to prison for suspected violations. However, they are the exception rather than the rule. Other than that the Indian CEOs are currently rocking and ruling.

So, what is the magic formula or secret sauce that has propelled so many Indian-born or Indian-origin executives to the top? There is no single answer to the question, which is still being researched in depth.

India, for the most part, sends it’s brightest and best to the west. Numbers count, and India, second only to China, sends the most students to the west (especially to the United States, though Canada is catching up). The main distinction between Indian and Chinese students is that Indians are more familiar with and comfortable with English as a result of their colonial heritage (or at least with Indlish, their version of it). They also feel at ease in an open society with democratic institutions and a discussion and dissent culture. Many of them have gone through one of the most competitive educational systems in the world, as evidenced by the mythology of the IITs, which has an admittance rate of less than 2%. It’s no surprise that several CEOs are IIT graduates, including Google’s Sundar Pichai, IBM’s Arvind Krishna, FedEx’s Subramaniam, and Albertsons’ Sankaran.

But, considering that only 20% of today’s Fortune 500 CEOs arrived to the US as students, and that a whopping 59% come via the professional work visa route, there must be other factors at play, right? Indeed, not only the educational system, but society as a whole, is extremely competitive. In the book The Made-in-India Manager, R Gopalakrishnan, Tata Sons’ executive director, says, “No other nation in the world ‘trains’ so many citizens in such a gladiatorial manner as India does.” In India, a public transport bus never stops at a bus stop, according to Vinod Dham, the Intel executive who led the company’s Pentium project. It’s always packed, so the driver pulls over many yards before or after the stop to unload passengers who are already overflowing. So, in order to board the bus, you must rush 50 metres on either side and possibly grab a toehold on the bus’s footboard. What do you see when you arrive in America? The bus arrives on schedule, virtually empty, and the driver even lowers the footboard to allow you to board. It’s a piece of cake to live. India prepares you to succeed.

All you need to focus on is hard work, thrift and industry. After coming to the west after a lot of struggle, Indians leave no time in moving up the economic and social ladder. If they come as students, many of them have a life that does not extend beyond “Apartment and Department, Adviser and Budweiser.” In other words, they never spend more than they earn, finish their coursework as quickly as possible while spending as little as possible, and are ready to start working. Of course, there are always exceptions, but even second-generation Indians demonstrate this. Indians are desirable students for academics at practically every university in the US, who admire their diligence and attention.

Humility, loyalty, and the ability to reach a consensus are all qualities that can be found in a leader. Indian executives tend to be cooperative, amiable, and less in-your-face because they have risen through adversity and a hard grind for the most part. There are exceptions, such as Vishal Garg, but Satya Nadella is recognised with fundamentally transforming Microsoft’s hard-charging culture, which he inherited from Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. “Today is a very humbling day for me,” Satya Nadella wrote in his first email to Microsoft workers as CEO. He brought a zen-like serenity to the meeting room, never raising his voice or thumping the table, according to a parent of a special-needs child. What was the outcome of his leadership? When he took over in 2014, Microsoft was worth $400 billion, but it is now worth more than $2.2 trillion.

Indians are also known for their incredible loyalty. Both Arvind Krishna and Satya Nadella are three-decade veterans of the same organisation, having joined IBM in 1990 and Microsoft in 1992, respectively. After joining FedEx straight out of college in 1992, Raj Subramaniam has never worked anywhere else.

Indians are also known for their incredible loyalty. Both Arvind Krishna and Satya Nadella are three-decade veterans of the same organisation, having joined IBM in 1990 and Microsoft in 1992, respectively. After joining FedEx straight out of college in 1992, Raj Subramaniam has never worked anywhere else.

Nadella also represented the principles of a strong family and home, which he acquired from his parents. In fact, the majority of Indian-origin CEOs come from middle-class homes with parents who worked in the government – either in the civil service, the public sector, or the army. Their mothers are frequently selfless homemakers who have dedicated their time and energy to establishing values and discipline in their children. Sundar Pichai’s father was an engineer with the British company GEC, Nadella’s father was an IAS Officer, Arvind Krishna’s father retired as a major-general, and Ajay Banga’s father was a lieutenant-general in the Indian Army. They weren’t poor by any means, but they weren’t wealthy or privileged either. They were, however, clearly part of the Indian societal elite who knew and laid the ground for success in the West.

India and America are worlds apart, yet one thing they have in common is the ability to embrace variety and dissent, which has driven numerous Indian leaders to the pinnacle of business achievement. They are both plural, secular, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious cultures that, flaws and all, aspire to be equitable societies, but with significant inequities.

In fact, America’s role to the development of the Indian CEO brand is sometimes overlooked. “The rise of Indian CEOs of US-based companies is a powerful reaffirmation of the United States’ meritocracy and its truly global outlook, particularly in business.” Permitting, not just allowing, the best talent to ascend to the top, regardless of colour, nationality, or foreign accent. In a recent essay on the subject, Forbes magazine noted that “the American Dream of good education, success, wealth, and achievement for all is still alive and a cornerstone of its society,” and that “the American Dream of good education, success, wealth, and achievement for all is still alive and a cornerstone of its society.”

So, for all the education, industry, humility, perseverance, and other good qualities, there are few countries where Indians could have excelled as much as the United States, which is a better and more open meritocracy than many other developed countries; a society that, despite its flaws, provides immigrants with a fair chance at success. Indians, who had been denied such a pleasant environment at home, have seized it with both hands.


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