Prof. Rajeev Srinivasan
There is a self-image among Indians that we are good technical people; consisting of engineers, doctors, nurses and other such skilled laborers. This is reflected even in the images of Indians on American television (an Indian lady doctor and an Indian physicist appear in television shows in America). But in fact, Indians shine the world-over as entrepreneurs and businessmen.
There is a telling statistic in Silicon Valley, as articulated by Annalee Saxenian of the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied entrepreneurs in high-technology companies. Apparently more than 50% of all of them have been immigrants, almost equally split between ethnic Indians and ethnic Chinese. And they have created new businesses worth billions of dollars, and employ people in great numbers.
The issue whether immigrants contribute more than what they extract from their host country in the form of benefits is a question over which there have been many arguments. There is currently a controversy about this topic in the US, and many, mostly from the high technology industry, argue that the US would be foolish to force its well-educated (especially Asian) immigrants to return to their home countries.
The Chinese have a well-deserved reputation for being clever small entrepreneurs. Overseas Chinese in Hong Kong, almost all of Southeast Asia, and now Canada and the US have been instrumental in building up FDI (foreign direct investment) into their home country.
Indians have also been able to direct much FDI into India, but they have taken a slightly different path from the Chinese. Despite the many startups they have created lately in the high-tech world, they are more likely to be employees of large companies rather than entrepreneurs. This may traditionally have been because of the fact that most Indian immigrants into the US have been highly skilled university educated people, whereas the original Chinese immigrants into the country were laborers building the railroads.
But the Indians have been adept at building up small businesses too. Especially in the United Kingdom, a large number of small mom-and-pop corner stores are run by Indians. In the US, at one time, it appeared as though every newsstand in New York was run by an Indian, much as the vegetable stands were run by Koreans.
Similarly, Indians in East Africa and earlier in Burma were so successful as small businessmen and financiers that they earned the wrath of the locals – which is why they were ejected forcibly from both countries (under Idi Amin from the former and during British rule from the latter). There are also Indian Diaspora settlements in Indonesia, Thailand, etc. where they specialize in such areas as textiles.
There are some remarkable success stories about Indian businessmen. One is that of the Gujaratis who now dominate the hotel business in the US. Some large fraction of all hotel rooms in the US (I think about 30%) is owned and run by Gujaratis, many of whom were harassed and ejected from Uganda and other parts of East Africa. Despite arriving penniless in the West, many of them have thrived.
Similarly, Gujaratis also dominate the global diamond business, which was once a preserve of Jews. They have trusted networks that acquire rough diamonds in Africa, get them cut in Surat, and then sell them in Antwerp or New York.
Another example is the well-known story of Tirupur’s textile industry. It was built up from scratch by a small group of people, who used the social capital of their caste networks to support and finance each other. It has grown into a multi-billion-dollar cluster.
Malayalis are no mean small businessmen either. The story about Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, being greeted by a Malayali chaiwallah is not so far from the truth. Small Malayali enterprises are ubiquitous.
Many of our people are self-taught businessmen, who have acquired the basics of finance, accounting, marketing, human relations, etc. on the way as they created and grew their companies. But there is no reason why young people should not be exposed to these concepts as part of their education. For every young person, it is important to have some exposure to business.
Traditionally in India, it is only engineers and commerce graduates who have pursued business studies. But in the west, you find youngsters with all sorts of qualifications going in for their MBAs: doctors going in for hospital management, athletes for sport management, fine arts graduates for media management, and many others planning to become entrepreneurs.
Prof. Rajeev Srinivasan, Director, Asian School of Business