By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Poonam Kapani Khosla steered her clients into the $1.3 million Chantilly model home, skipping trophy features like the Sub-Zero refrigerator. All talk was about having enough space to accommodate dozens of family members for dinners and extra bedrooms for the stream of relatives arriving from India to settle in the United States.
The real estate agent grasped the transformation occurring in the Washington region. The once-small Indian immigrant population, which for decades expanded at a slow but steady rate, has ballooned over the past decade. Immigrants from India are settling here faster than any group except Salvadorans.
Many Indians were among the recent wave of high-tech professionals who entered on temporary permits for skilled workers. When their spouses, children and siblings followed, their numbers soared, especially in Fairfax and Montgomery counties.
Backed by these growing numbers, Indians have been seeking a bigger voice in politics and business, through groups like the Indian American Leadership Initiative, which aims to put more Indian Americans into elective office, and TiE-DC, a networking club that helps connect Indian executives in the region with new businesses, funding and deals.
Hidden behind the $87,369 median income for Washington area Indian households -- higher than the median income for whites, other Asians, blacks and Hispanics, according to new Census Bureau figures -- there are some problems. Hundreds of thousands of South Asians are in this country illegally, largely by overstaying tourist or student visas, said Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow, a District-based advocacy group. Their opportunities are more limited.
But the agendas of TiE-DC and IALI reflect the population's extraordinarily high achievements. About eight in 10 have college degrees, a higher proportion than for whites and other Asians. About seven in 10 are in professional and managerial jobs. And there are more than 8,300 Indian-owned businesses in the region.
Like many other immigrant groups, Indians often view starting a business as the quickest way to amass wealth. Khosla has launched restaurants, real estate firms and a tech company. The latter failed, but she said the others have earned her significant money. "I stopped counting the number of homes I've sold to Indians." she said.By the Numbers
Khosla's uncle, Mohan Kapani, came to the United States in 1965 as a graduate student and moved to the Washington area in 1974 to work for IBM. He became part of a small, tight-knit cadre of educated professionals in the Washington area, employed by international organizations such as the World Bank or large technology companies willing to sponsor work permits and green cards. Over the next decade, University Boulevard in Langley Park evolved into the region's hub for Indian life, with a mix of vegetarian restaurants, travel agencies and retail stores, like Patel Brothers groceries and India Sari Palace.
According to the 2005 Census Bureau figures, the numbers have grown to 107,000 Indians in the Washington area, about 80 percent of whom are immigrants. This makes them second only to the 165,412 Salvadorans here, according to the Census. Many in the Indian community put their numbers even higher, saying the Census figures do not reflect illegal immigrants and others who do not respond to Census takers. The Salvadoran Embassy, citing similar reasons, puts the number of Salvadorans in this area at 500,000.
Many settled in top-performing school districts, especially Montgomery County, where 31,822 Indians reside, and Fairfax County, with 35,326. At Floris Elementary in Herndon, for instance, nearly four in 10 students are of Asian descent and the largest group of Asian students is Indian, said Lawrence Bussey, an education specialist with Fairfax County schools.
Merchants like Patel Brothers followed the migration, opening shops in Fairfax, Rockville, Hyattsville and Baltimore. Patel Brothers plans to open a sixth store, in Ashburn in Loudoun County, where the Indian population has grown nearly fourfold over the past five years. It is seeking a seventh location in Fredricksburg, according to Pankaj Sheth, owner of the chain.
Many new Hindu and Jain temples and Sikh gurdwaras have also appeared across the region, especially around subdivisions in Chantilly, Fairfax Station, Rockville and Hyattsville.
Hinduism is the largest religion in India, with an estimated 800 million among its 1 billion people. At Sri Siva Vishnu in Lanham, the region's largest Hindu temple, members are connected through an electronic newsletter sent to about 18,000 families.
Jainism originated in the 6th century B.C. as a small minority religion with an emphasis on non-violence, equality and spiritual independence. Sikhism, with about 25 million followers worldwide, stresses equality, and its followers identify themselves with five physical emblems, including a turban to protect their unshorn hair. In the past decade, four Sikh gurdwaras have opened in Burke, Gainesville, Herndon, Sterling -- catering to the fast-growing number of Indian Sikhs in Northern Virginia. Members of the Singh Sabha Gurdwara bought land on Braddock Road in Fairfax and meet in trailers as they wait for construction to be completed on a new building on the site.
"The Sikh population in Washington was very small just a few years ago, but now our numbers are among the largest of Indians," said Manbir Singh Kathuria, president of Singh Sabha Gurdwara.Links in a Long Chain
Soon after receiving his citizenship, Mohan Kapani applied to bring his five siblings and their families here. "I wanted to give my siblings the same opportunities I had here," said Kapani, 74, who started Fairfax-based Computer Based Systems, a data center management company, after retiring from IBM. He sold it six years ago for $26 million.
Kapani was eventually able to bring his two brothers, three sisters and their families here. Their children went back to India to marry and brought their spouses to the United States. Today about 150 members of his family reside in Northern Virginia.
Last year, 26,962 Indians were issued family-sponsored visas to immigrate to the United States, according to the State Department. Indians sponsored more family members than Koreans, Vietnamese, Salvadorans and any African groups, a key factor behind the rapid growth of the Indian community.
Immigrants sponsored by relatives instead of by large companies often have a more difficult time finding good jobs. Rajesh Kapani was 21 when his uncle brought his family here in 1976. While his father, Rajinder Kapani, was hired as a computer engineer for Fairfax County, Rajesh couldn't find a job in his profession, mechanical engineering. The best he could do was a $2.50 an hour job at a circuit board manufacturing plant in Fairfax County.
"I was, of course, not happy with that. I didn't expect for that when we came," said Rajinder Kapani, 73, sitting recently in the living room of the $2 million Chantilly home he shares with his daughter, Khosla, her husband and their two teenage girls, who attend Flint Hill, a private school in Oakton.
Rajesh worked for years at the circuit board factory and at a post office branch near his family's apartment in Falls Church. But when he married and brought his wife, Renu, from India, he decided he had to earn more money. In 1988, he opened a franchise of Mail Services Etc., using $40,000 in savings and money borrowed from his family. "It was clear that owning a business was the only way to really grow financially," Rajesh said.
Two years ago, after selling the mail business, Rajesh and Renu bought a Subway sandwich franchise at Potomac Mills Mall. On a recent afternoon, Renu stood in a black apron and Subway hat, speaking Hindi to three employees from Nepal. They are recent immigrants who have come to work for the Kapanis to learn how to run their own sandwich store.
"It's like a chain. I am just one link in the middle and there will be many more to come," 50-year-old Rajesh said.The Entrepreneurial Spirit
Khosla, 43, said the entrepreneurial instinct is not something that was cultivated in India. When she wanted to leave her first job as an Interior Department accountant, "my mother cried," Khosla said. "In India, a government job is held in very high esteem and people stay for life."
But she saw her father work for 30 years for Fairfax County as a computer systems engineer and retire with only a pension, while business owners she knew were quickly amassing wealth. "Being in the U.S., there are so many opportunities you would not have thought of in India," she said.
Khosla said she was one of the first Indian realtors in Northern Virginia. She became a top producer by developing a reputation as someone who would teach new immigrants about mortgages and the legal proceedings of buying a home. While working in real estate, she also opened four Indian restaurants -- Cafe Taj in McLean, Aroma in the District, Kebab Masala in Alexandria and Taj Bar & Grill in Fairfax.
Her restaurants employed dozens of South Asians as cooks and waiters. In the late 1990s, Khosla sold the restaurants and started a high-tech firm. She opened Digital Inc., which trained people to become Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers. At the firm's peak, Khosla had 80 employees, including about 30 from India on H-1B visas. When the company closed in 2003 after the tech bubble burst, Khosla lost more than $2 million.
She promptly returned to selling real estate, tapping into her vast Rolodex of Indian clients. Last year, she had raised enough money through commissions to open three real estate-related companies with her husband, Rick, and her father.
Despite the housing market's slowdown, she says she has plenty of new clients. She has hired a South Korean sales agent, who has brought in a number of Korean clients. But about 90 percent of her business still comes from potential home buyers of South Asian descent, because Indians keep moving to the area.
"Indians have the capital to buy," she said, "and families are only getting bigger."