India-born CEOs are taking the U.S. by storm

Satya Nadella in 90 seconds
Satya Nadella in 90 seconds

Google. Microsoft. Pepsi. MasterCard. Adobe. Harmon.

What do these companies have in common? They are all run by India-born CEOs, part of a generation of talented students who left their home country and rose to the top of some of the world's largest corporations.

Sundar Pichai, Google's new CEO, is the latest to enjoy a meteoric rise. In just 11 years at Google (GOOG), he turned Chrome into the world's most popular Web browser, ran the company's Android division and most recently served as product chief.

Pichai's path to CEO mirrors that of other India-born business titans: Many are from modest backgrounds, but studied at India's best technology and management schools before completing graduate degrees in the United States.

Pichai was born to an electrical engineer and a stenographer in the southern Indian city of Chennai. The family shared a two-room apartment, leaving Sundar and his younger brother to sleep in the living room, according to a profile published last year by Bloomberg.

The family didn't get their first telephone until Sundar was 12.

But a passion for technology drove him to study engineering at the Indian Indian Institute of Technology -- one of the best schools in the country. Then, he won a scholarship to Stanford.

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Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft (MSFT), who's just a few years older than Pichai, followed a similar pattern. He attended the Manipal Institute of Technology, then the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Chicago. Adobe (ADBE) CEO Shantanu Narayen studied at Cal Berkeley and Bowling Green.

A few others, including Pepsi (PEP) CEO Indra Nooyi, completed their educations in India. But all were drawn to the U.S., where talented engineers were prized -- especially in Silicon Valley.

"The rise of these people also speaks volumes for meritocracy in the United States," said Som Mittal, a former president of Nasscom, India's main software-trade body. "They were bright and brilliant and they worked their way up."

Analysts say there is another reason why Indians are so successful: Courses at the country's best schools are conducted in English, ensuring the even science and engineering graduates are proficient. That's a huge advantage Indians, especially those of Pachai's generation, have over their peers from other Asian countries.

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Mittal said that India-born managers also demonstrate "sharp adaptive skills" in their work and social environments.

"Whenever we Indians go to a new society, we have to learn a lot in terms of social skills," he said. "This is also one of the areas where Indian executives excel -- adaptive abilities."

But the rise of executives like Pichai, Nadella and Nooyi has also sparked some soul searching in India, where despite their success, literacy rates remain low and many families struggle financially.

"It is a cause for celebration that so many Indians have made it to the very top of some of the world's most valuable companies," The Times of India wrote recently. "At the same time, however, it should make us pause and ask an obvious question -- why is it that they make their mark in the US but not in the land of their birth?"

"Clearly, the conditions here are not ripe for the best entrepreneurial and managerial minds to achieve their full potential. This is where governments need to play the vital role of creating the enabling environment in which they can thrive and create value for themselves and millions of others," the paper added.

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