For start-up jobs, graduates taking American degrees to India
By Olga Khazan,
Brett Bivens is a sports fanatic from Michigan who graduated from college last year, found a good banking job in Chicago and had a bright future in finance. That’s why his family was taken aback when, a few weeks ago, he told them he accepted a job at a little-known start-up—in India.
After a year in corporate banking, Bivens was looking for a job at a small, fast-growing organization where he could make a big and lasting contribution. He also wanted his work to be sports-related, which further narrowed his search. Then he stumbled on what seemed like the perfect opportunity.
The job was for a company called Krossover Intelligence, which allows high school and college coaches to upload game footage and receive detailed statistical analyses 24 hours later. Bivens’ job would be to oversee operations in Bangalore, where many of the company’s developers are based.
“It was kind of shocking that each bullet point on the job listing was exactly what I wanted to do,” he said. “The kicker was that it was in India.”
Bivens is part of a growing faction of graduates from American universities who depart for emerging economies soon after getting their degrees.
India in particular has become a magnet for graduates of American business schools who seek a start-up experience, a lower cost of living and a global element for their resumes, said Kunal Bahl, the founder of Snapdeal, a leading Indian e-commerce site.
“There’s a sense of excitement people see in India,” Bahl said. “There are tons fast-growing companies there that are run by young people. And there’s a great deal of openness to that among non-Indians.”
Most of them want a slice of India’s booming economy, which grew 9.7 percent last year, compared with 2.8 percent in the United States. E-commerce and other online start-ups are flourishing there, often by replicating the success of American companies. Venture capital investment in Asia has tripled since 2006, and India has the second-largest mobile market in the world after China. (Snapdeal adds a new user every four seconds, Bahl notes.)
The boom has brought with it a market for U.S.-trained product managers, operations specialists and the like. The Indian job site Shine.com is holding job fairs in New Jersey and California, and a few months ago, Bahl was recruiting for his company at top U.S. business schools. He said he received about 2,000 resumes within three weeks, and about a third of them were from people with American names.
Adding sought-after skills
Bahl, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, believes moving to an emerging market is a smart tactical move for recent business-school grads who want to put a global spin on their resumes and make themselves more attractive to hot U.S.-based companies in the future.
“Someone coming out of an MBA might be looking for a product management role at a fast-growing company, but there are a finite number of those companies in the U.S.,” he said.
For California native Valerie Wagoner, India was the end-goal, not the stepping stone. A Stanford graduate with an interest in both entrepreneurship and emerging markets, she came to Bangalore in 2008 to work for a mobile payments company. After two years, she co-founded her own start-up, a mobile-phone marketing firm called ZipDial.
“It’s definitely a growing market for mobile, and there are a lot of interesting business opportunities that come out of that,” she said. “Plus, they speak English here.”
In addition to speaking the same language, Indian start-ups also share a culture with their American counterparts. Start-up offices in Bangalore look like they could be in Silicon Valley, with jeans-wearing 20-somethings busy writing new computer code, Bahl said.
“There is a lot of cross-cultural exposure between the U.S. and India,” Bahl said. “You’re not the first white person someone’s meeting.”
Home field advantage
Granted, globe-trotting Americans like Bivens and Wagoner are still relatively rare. The majority of those who turn to India and other fast-growing economies for business opportunities are natives of those countries who, like Bahl, came to the United States for the degree, but didn’t stay for the job market.
The difference is that a decade ago, more foreign students attempted to stay in this country after graduating, but now they are increasingly taking their freshly-minted U.S. degrees back home. Shari Loessberg, a professor of global entrepreneurship in the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said about half her Indian students wish to return home after graduating, and nearly all of the Chinese and Brazilian students do.
In surveying Indian and Chinese workers who had returned to their homelands after obtaining American degrees, the Kauffman Foundation found that “72 percent of Indian and 81 percent of Chinese returnees said that the opportunities to start their own businesses were better or much better in their home countries.” More than half of the businesses started by Indian returnees were in the information technology sector, and most had between two and 50 employees.
Wagoner said that while there are a fair number of non-Indian Americans who come there to work for start-ups or to intern, the majority of American graduates who start businesses there are ethnically Indian. Just as Americans bring beneficial skills to the Indian start-up scene, she said, natives generally have an easier time actually running companies.
“Broadly generalizing, communication skills, writing, presentation—those are all things that are emphasized more in U.S. education than in Indian education,” she said. “But a foreigner cannot get everything done in business here that an Indian person can get done.”
Finding help abroad.
Vasu Kulkarni, Krossover’s 25-year-old founder, grew up in India but went to college at the University of Pennsylvania. He started Krossover in 2008, when fundraising was an uphill battle and American developers were both rare and expensive.
“Everyone and their mother seems to be doing a start-up these days, and the good developers have been snapped up by the Facebooks and Googles of the world,” he said. “The talent pool has definitely shrunk.”
Leveraging his Indian background, Kulkarni found a team of developers in Bangalore whose efforts would cost a fraction of what their American equivalents would. The nearly 12-hour time difference also allows Krossover’s programmers to write code during New York’s night time so that features can be developed faster.
But there was, in fact, one big cultural problem: The Indian workers aren’t familiar with the American sports that Krossover analyzes.
“When they had a question about something at 2 a.m. our time, we thought it might be useful to have an American guy who has played these sports on the ground there,” Kulkarni said.
When he listed the job opening, Bivens was the first person to respond. Kulkarni knew right away he had found his American guy.
“We needed someone who’s young and loves sports—and someone who’s adventurous enough to pack their bags and move across the world,” Kulkarni said. “I never got the sense that he was worried or thinking twice.”
Life in India
Bivens arrived in Bangalore in early December and is staying in a hotel while he gets acquainted with the city that will be his home for the next year or two. He said he’s enjoying living a typical start-up life, complete with long hours, a frantic pace and a fun, collaborative environment. He keeps in regular contact with Krossover’s New York office.
“Everyone there has been so supportive,” he said. “They totally understand that it’s tough to jump into a new culture.”
Of course, life in India isn’t without its quirks. Bivens was most surprised by Bangalore’s nightmarish traffic—another casualty of the city’s exponential growth. And while the city is modern and relatively cosmopolitan, it does face occasional power outages and water shortages.
A recent Tweet from Wagoner reads: “In [a] 10-min span, kid living next door just got mugged & I found a rat living in the vent for my stove. India is not for the feint of heart.”
“There are some things that we take for granted in the U.S.,” Wagoner said. “I don’t tell everyone to come over—they have to really want it. But if they do, it’s an amazing experience.”