What makes Indian expats tick as global leaders

India’s history and pluralism have exposed Indians to people of different languages, religions, and cultures. Adjusting to the “other” is a deeply ingrained practice

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Tue 8 Nov 2022, 7:29 PM

Rishi Sunak’s ascent to the pinnacle of British politics has sparked celebrations across India. But while a brown-skinned devout Hindu leading the United Kingdom is certainly remarkable, Sunak’s rise points to a broader, longer-term phenomenon: the growing prominence of the Indian diaspora across the Western world.

This trend has been evident for some time, especially in the private sector, where Indian-born executives have risen to leadership positions at major US-based multinational corporations. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi are probably the best-known examples, but there are many others. According to S&P Global Ratings, no fewer than 58 Fortune 500 companies are currently run by CEOs of Indian descent. This list does not include Nooyi, who stepped down in 2018, and former Twitter chief Parag Agrawal, who was fired last month by new owner Elon Musk. But it is still long and varied, ranging from technology powerhouses like Adobe (Shantanu Narayen) and IBM (Arvind Krishna) to coffee powerhouses like Starbucks (Laxman Narasimhan).

As Sunak’s promotion demonstrates, the phenomenon has crossed over into politics, too. United States Vice-President Kamala Harris was born to an Indian mother, and Nikki Haley – a former US ambassador to the United Nations and a potential presidential candidate in 2024 – is the daughter of Indian Punjabi Sikh parents. António Costa, whose father was part Indian, has been Portugal’s Prime Minister since 2015. Ireland’s half-Indian former Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is expected to regain the premiership later this year, owing to a rotation agreement. The thorny post-Brexit negotiations between England and Ireland could soon be conducted by two leaders of Indian heritage.

What explains this trend? Why do Indian immigrants and their children often thrive in Western systems designed to benefit Western-born, Western-educated local talent?

One possible explanation is Indians’ familiarity with English, owing to two centuries of British colonial rule. But language alone hardly guarantees success. And in any case, this does not explain Indians’ accomplishments in non-Anglophone European countries. In Germany, for example, 58% of Indian-origin workers hold jobs that require university degrees or equivalent specialist skills.

Another explanation is that Indian immigrants are more motivated. That is true, but Indians seem to outpace other immigrant communities. Of the many nationalities and ethnicities in the US, people of Indian descent have long had the enviable record of earning and maintaining the highest per-capita income.

First-generation Indian emigrants have grown up without taking affluence for granted, overcoming adversities such as limited resources, heavy-handed government regulation, and bureaucratic inertia. Most have either experienced deprivation or witnessed enough of it to try to escape it. They have the “fire in the belly” that many in the West, raised in freer, more affluent environments, may have lost.

Moreover, India’s history and pluralism have exposed Indians to people of different languages, religions, and cultures. Adjusting to the “other” is a deeply ingrained practice. It follows that Indian emigrants would be very comfortable working in multinational corporations. Growing up in a democratic country has equipped Indian-born workers with habits and values such as individual initiative, critical thinking, and free expression, which are typically considered assets in the business world. At the same time, respect for hierarchy enables Indians to be seen as original and creative but “safe,” rather than threatening or revolutionary – a combination that facilitates their acceptance in their new societies and their ascent within firms.

Likewise, India’s encouragement of diversity and discouragement of excess make it easier for Indians to adapt to competitive environments. A cultural emphasis on education and learning, close-knit families, and a strong work ethic also serve Indians well. Most Indians from middle-class backgrounds probably have grown up seeing merit honored and seeking to earn such praise themselves.

While such characteristics are frequently noted among first-generation immigrants, the success of Sunak, Varadkar, and Harris suggest that Indians have passed these traits to their offspring. Sunak, in particular, seems to embody the aspirations and values of many Indians who celebrate him as a poster boy for the “New India.”

- Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is an MP for the Indian National Congress. He is the author, most recently, of Pride, Prejudice and Punditry: The Essential Shashi Tharoor.

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