02 December 2021 11:01:11 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment. He lives with his wife and son in Texas. Rao has been a columnist for from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well. Twitter: @rajkamalrao

What takes Indians like Parag Agrawal to the top of US companies?

Beyond education, there’s sheer ability and expertise, and the American business model rewards meritocracy.

Parag Agrawal, just 37 years old, this week stepped into Jack Dorsey’s shoes as the CEO of the world’s famous microblog, Twitter. Media comparisons with Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Sundar Pichai of Alphabet were swift and somewhat of a hype. As the size of companies and their reach go, Microsoft, with revenues of $168 billion and over 182,000 employees, and Alphabet, with $182 billion in revenues and over 135,000 employees, dwarf out little Twitter with only $3.75 billion in revenues and 5,500 employees.

But size was never the point. What is it that makes boards of large American companies choose an Indian for the top spot from among dozens of qualified candidates? In Agrawal’s case, the choice was unanimous and supposedly even surprised some long-time Twitter watchers. Agrawal will make a starting salary of $1 million per year with stock options valued at $12.5 million, at current share prices.

Talent hub

The answer is complicated, but not unexpected. The phrase “attracting the best and brightest” has become cliche when debating elements of US Immigration laws, but Congressional intent was always extraordinarily clear when the original H-1B visa law passed. US employers occasionally run into situations when they can’t find competent Americans to fill open jobs within their facilities. Rather than let American commerce suffer — causing hardships to customers, current employees and shareholders — the law provides for companies to bring in qualified individuals from abroad to temporarily work in the US.

But Congress cleverly granted the H-1B (and L-1) visa a unique benefit that changed America forever. Congress allowed visa holders to express “dual intent” to immigrate to America, that is, seamlessly convert a non-immigrant, temporary, work visa, into a permanent resident card and eventually citizenship. Many countries worldwide have since copied this feature to attract bright talent, but America, with its outsized economy, tolerance for diverse populations, and emphasis on rewarding performance has consistently beaten the competition among the world of nations.

Ability and expertise

Agrawal was indeed among the best and brightest to arrive in America in 2005. A graduate of computer science and engineering from IIT Bombay, he was destined for a brilliant career. His stars went up when he continued graduate studies at Stanford University in computer science and completed a doctorate.

One distinguishing feature of most Indian Americans who get the top job is the elite university from which they get their graduate degrees. Pichai has degrees from Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania; Nadella, from the University of Chicago; Indira Nooyi, former Pepsico CEO, from Yale; Dhivya Suryadeva, former GM CFO, from Harvard; Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe, from UC Berkeley. The brand names of such venerable institutions provide corporate boards the confidence that shareholders will happily go along with their picks. When someone famous dies, the obituary invariably contains references to their branded university in the very first paragraph.

But beyond education, there’s sheer ability and expertise. Nadella was Microsoft’s cloud chief long before cloud computing became a household name. When Microsoft released Windows 10, Nadella leveraged his experience to deliver the product to customers’ desktops directly. There were no more messy DVDs and complicated product IDs to safeguard. In one stroke, Nadella eliminated revenue losses from bootlegged software and piracy, while simultaneously making PCs safer. Microsoft’s stock price soared.

Adept communication skills

According to the New York Times , even among students at Stanford, Agrawal stood out for his strong grasp of math and the theory that underpins computer science, said Jennifer Widom, who led the research lab and served as his thesis adviser. “Having both of those skills — math and theory — can take you a long way,” she said in a phone interview. “If you are good at theory, you have the ability to be analytical, to reason, to make decisions.”

Once one masters technical ability, what remains is the more complex task of working with people, a skill that no university can adequately train one for and impart. Customers, fellow employees, financiers, analysts, bosses, vendors, channel partners, and shareholders are all humans first, each with their own ideas, inhibitions, biases, and abilities to judge others. Indian Americans excel at interacting with people because of the way they are raised. The traditional Indian values of respecting others and not displaying arrogance in public are a recipe for success in the corporate world. Leadership, contrary to popular belief, is not about ordering people about, but in coming up with a vision and persuading others to enact it in the larger interests of the enterprise.

Finally, the ability of Indians to communicate in excellent written and verbal English, thanks to the only meaningful contribution that the British Raj ever made, sets Indians apart from their counterparts from China, Japan, and other South Asian countries, who struggle with the ability to convey complex ideas in the default world language of business.

The other factors that drive success such as a hunger to get ahead, the willingness to work long hours, and the desire to immigrate to foreign shores are all prerequisites. But these alone are insufficient. The American business model is to promote the best without regard to any other consideration, such as identity or race, which is so prevalent in politics. Agrawal is just the latest example of the American business model at work.