They have funny accents, wear strange outfits, eat really spicy food and some wear turbans. Indian-Americans constitute less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. Yet you will find them at the helm of great companies such as PepsiCo and MasterCard; as presidents and deans of America’s most prestigious colleges; at the pinnacles of journalism; dominating fields such as technology, scientific research and medicine; and thriving in industries such as hospitality, transportation and real estate. They have also achieved extraordinary success in government: the governors of two of America’s most conservative states are of Indian origin, as are White House senior advisors and the U.S. Surgeon General.
Even though the prosperity isn’t evenly distributed and some segments of the Indian community face severe social and economic problems, it is notable that the median annual income of U.S. households headed by an Indian immigrant is $103,000 — twice the U.S. median.
How could a recent immigrant group achieve such incredible success — and what can we learn from it?
First, you need to understand the background of this group; it is highly educated and entrepreneurial. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 76 percent of Indian immigrants aged 25 or more have a bachelor’s or higher degree, and the vast majority are proficient at English. Though some come from poor families, most of the Indians who make it to America are from the middle or upper class; the students who qualify for admission to U.S. universities are the cream of the crop; the workers who get hired by U.S. companies are highly skilled. Only ambitious risk-takers willingly leave friends and families behind to shoot for success in foreign lands; they are entrepreneurial in nature.
Immigrants who come to America face discrimination just as foreigners in any country do. Americans are generally tolerant and open-minded, but racism is an ugly human trait. People with dark skin or a foreign accent are always at a disadvantage in America. This means that they have to work harder and think smarter. Indian immigrants were typically at the top of the social ladder in the communities that they left behind, but find themselves on the lowest rung in the United States. This is a very uncomfortable experience and provides incredible motivation to do whatever it takes to succeed, as I can tell you from personal experience.
I too am an Indian immigrant, and I remember when I first came to the United States as a child in the ’60s. My classmates asked me whether I charmed snakes; parents pointed to me and told their children to think about starving Indians before wasting the food on their plates. This was very hurtful, but it motivated me to do whatever it took to show everyone that I was as good as my classmates were. Later in life, when I returned to the United States after living abroad, I experienced similar discrimination and disparagement from venture capitalists in North Carolina. One told me that the reason he wouldn’t fund my company was that “your people don’t make good CEOs.” My blood still boils when I think about this, but it made me stronger and better. And it’s why I go out of my way to help other groups who have been discriminated against, especially African-Americans, Hispanics and women.
And the success of Indian immigrants shows another side of this country.
The greatness of America is that a person who achieves success commands the highest level of respect regardless of his or her background, race, and religion. This is the American Dream: an ethos of freedom that provides anyone who achieves success through hard work with the opportunity for prosperity and equality. There are no absolute barriers to upward social mobility in America; that is why immigrants thrive and why America leads the world.
One of the biggest problems in India — and one that holds it back — is that people are divided by region, religion and caste. They may be Gujaratis, Punjabis, or Bengalis; Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs in India, but when they come to America, they are all considered to be Indians — as are people from other parts of South Asia, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan. To Americans, we are all the same.
So when South Asians come to the United States, they learn very quickly to put their differences aside. They begin to understand that the key to an individual’s — and a community’s — success is to network, learn, and help each other. That is why they join groups such as The Indus Entrepreneurs, the South Asian Journalists Association, South Asian Americans Leading Together, and the South Asian Bar Association: to help each other — and in the process, to uplift their communities. This too is how Indians become the dominant immigrant company founding group in Silicon Valley. My research team at Stanford and Duke had documented that, as of 2014, nearly 16 percent of the start-ups in Silicon Valley had an Indian founder. The secret of their success lay in learning and mastering the Valley’s rules of engagement: networking, exchanging ideas, and mentoring.
The lessons that disadvantaged groups can learn from Indian immigrants are to help each other and “pay it forward.” America shows the world that providing all people with equal opportunity makes a bigger economic pie; that diversity fuels innovation and economic growth.