Silicon Valley expats spur innovation in India

A new diaspora of tech workers takes off in search of opportunity, writes Sean Randolph, Asia Sentinel.

Throughout history, diasporas have reflected economic or political disruptions, ultimately enriching the receiving countries. Silicon Valley’s dynamic churn is the latest example, as many Chinese and Indian migrants are returning home, ready to lay a new foundation for innovation and growth.

For some Chinese, immigration to the United States reflected despair in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre; for others, it represented economic opportunity at a time of economic stagnation. Indians left for similar reasons, though less political: India’s economy offered little future for the talented and ambitious, while opportunities abroad promised a better life. Seeking jobs and education, many of the best and brightest came to Silicon Valley.

Powerful push-pull dynamics made California a draw. Its universities offered world-class educations. Programs in engineering and computer science drew Indians in particular. This coincided with the run-up to the dot-com boom and was accelerated by the Y2K scare, which generated massive demand for programmers to fix the problem. The gap was filled by importing engineers, primarily from India.

By 1986, nearly 60 percent of Indian Institute of Technology engineering graduates were migrating overseas, mostly to Silicon Valley. Research by Berkeley’s AnnaLee Saxenian found that by 1990 a third of the Bay Area’s science and engineering workforce was foreign born. One fourth of its engineers – 28,000 – were Indian, more than half with advanced degrees. By 1998, as the tech boom neared its peak, 774 of the 11,443 tech firms started since 1980 had Indian CEOs. From 1995 to 2005, 15 percent of Silicon Valley startups were launched by Indians – the largest number for any immigrant group.