When Jack Dorsey announced he was stepping down as Twitter CEO and being replaced by the company's CTO, Parag Agrawal, earlier this month, tech industry observers may have felt a sense of déjà vu. Dorsey is far from the first swashbuckling founder to be replaced with an apparently mild-mannered Indian-born engineer in recent years.
First, in 2014, Satya Nadella took over from Bill Gates's successor, Steve Ballmer, at Microsoft and immediately set about transforming the company's legendarily competitive culture. Then, in 2015, Sundar Pichai took the helm at Google parent company Alphabet. Now Agrawal, another Indian engineer, is taking over for a charismatic but sometimes divisive founder. Indian executives are also leading slightly less high-profile tech companies like IBM and Adobe.
This isn't too shocking. Immigrants in general are hugely overrepresented in entrepreneurship, and India in particular provides a huge amount of engineering talent to American companies. But it still feels like Indians are doing especially well at ascending to the top of some of America's biggest tech companies. Are there any other factors than simple demographics in play?
According to Vivek Wadhwa, the answer is yes. Another Indian-born tech industry legend, Wadhwa founded two tech companies before pivoting to become an author, pundit, and academic. He now teaches at Harvard and Carnegie Mellon. In Fortune recently, Wadhwa offered three reasons he feels India is particularly good at producing CEO talent.
In America, we like to moan and complain about how useless the government is (often for good reason), but Wadhwa points out that citizens of developing nations like India have it much worse when it comes to their governments.
"In a land of more than a billion people, most of whom are hampered by rampant corruption, weak infrastructure, and limited opportunities, it takes a lot to simply survive, let alone to get ahead. Indians learn to be resilient, battle endless obstacles, and make the most of what they have," he writes. "In India, you learn to work around the problems that an unjust state and society create for you."
All that means that, if you make it across the world and into the employment of a top tech company, you've almost certainly already developed extreme resilience and entrepreneurialism, both qualities that will set you up well to rise in that company.
Comfort with diversity
Indians are human and certainly subject to biases of their own, but Wadhwa points out that "there are six major religions in India, and the Indian constitution recognizes 22 regional languages. Every region in the country has its own customs and character, and people accept differences in attitudes and beliefs, especially in the context of business."
Experience of dealing with diverse backgrounds and mindsets comes baked in with being Indian.
Ask any immigrant (including myself): Moving to a new country is humbling. You often don't know the local customs or how to get things done, which means you are constantly confronted with your own limitations and mistakes.
Plus, chances are excellent that the identity markers you used as shortcuts to present yourself at home will be largely meaningless in your new country. You can't lean on your hometown, your favorite band, or being the buddy of so-and-so to express who you are or open doors for you. All you have is your own words and behavior to establish your character and trustworthiness.
This process of overcoming these obstacles has a tendency to leave you more open-minded, less snobbish, and, if the initial difficulties don't break you, better at recognizing your biases and limitations and growing from them. All of which are traits that serve a future CEO well.
Is it only India that produces citizens rich in these qualities? Of course not. But combine these advantages with the sheer number of talented strivers coming out of a country of some 1.38 billion and it's suddenly less surprising that so many of America's marquee tech companies are led by Indian-born executives.