Pay It Forward – Lesson From Silicon Valley

wealthymattersWhen Vijay Vashee joined Microsoft in 1982 he was just one of two Indians at the 160-person company. It added several more recruits from India, mostly IITans, over the years. They held low-level technical positions. Vashee became the first Indian to break through Microsoft’s glass ceiling in 1988 when he was named general manager for Microsoft Project. In 1992 he was asked to head the fledgling PowerPoint Division and helped grow this from $100 million to a billion-dollar business.

About the same time as Vashee, Indians in Silicon Valley began breaking glass ceilings. They all faced the same hurdles: a belief that Indians made great engineers but were not capable of becoming managers—certainly not CEOs. A common perception was that they didn’t know how to delegate authority and could not lead companies. Fast forward to today when  the Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is India-born. Sundar Pichai another contender for the job is also Indian American. Yet they would not have made the list a few years ago because of the negative stereotypes. This shows how much the technology industry—and America has changed. How did this transformation happen?

Very simply: Indian Americans started helping Indian Americans—regardless of their caste, religion, and regional heritage. They decided to forget which part of India they were born in and just to focus on the cause. When the first generation of Indians in Silicon Valley succeeded in shattering the glass ceiling, they decided to help others follow their path. They realized that they had all surmounted the same obstacles. They had open discussions about the hurdles they had faced. They formed networking organisations such as TiE to teach others about starting businesses, and to bring people together. The first generation of successful entrepreneurs—people like Vijay Vashee—served as visible, vocal, role models and mentors to the next. And they provided seed funding to members of their community. This helped Indians achieve extraordinary success.

Research  shows that as of 2005, 52.4% of Silicon Valley’s firms had a chief executive or lead technologist who was foreign born and Indians founded 25.8% of these companies. This proportion increased to 33.2% in 2012. Indians, who constitute only 6% of Silicon Valley’s working population, start roughly 15% of its companies. That is quite a feat to achieve in the most competitive, entrepreneurial, and innovative place on this planet.

There is a lesson in all this. The key to uplifting a community is mentorship and education—not from outside but from within. It starts by members of the community admitting there is a problem and working together to fix it. They need give back to their community and “pay it forward”. Everyone that achieves success must help others behind them. They may not win a short-term advantage but will definitely gain in the long term as perceptions change and new doors open for the entire community.

About Keerthika Singaravel

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