Why a hundred Sundar Pichais leave India to realise tech dreams
It is time we became more accepting of nerdiness, which by nature is eccentric.
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With Sundar Pichai now heading Google and Satya Nadella at the helm of Microsoft, the Indian domination of Silicon Valley is complete. Over the coming days, we will be treated to minute details of Pichai’s life that will seek to give us a deeper glimpse into his genius.
But if there is one word that captures his success, it is emigration. Pichai, like a lot of other brilliant Indians, cracked the IIT and went to Kharagpur after which he did an MBA from Wharton. He then stayed back in the US and rose his way up the IT corporate ladder. With the latest coronation, he has become American royalty.
Contrast his case with that of Rahul Yadav, another brilliant man who started his own company while still at IIT, an idea that was so laden with potential that he dropped out of IIT Bombay and received funding to take it forward.
Unlike Pichai, he went the start-up route back home and did phenomenally well with Housing.com, a genuine innovation in the area of rentals. But soon his jagged personality which would have earned him brownie points in the disruptive climate of Silicon Valley, caught up with him and he was booted out of Housing.
I am not suggesting that Indians who stay back do not succeed. A number of great companies have been started by the IIT-IIM crowd back home. But it is true that the Indian scene is more cautious and less accepting of game-changing innovation than the west. This is generally chalked down to the lack of maturity of our market but as the Infosys story shows, Indians can rule the world from home if they set their eyes on a goal. Only in Infy’s case, it is back-office work.
Nikesh Arora, the head of Softbank, one of the investors in Housing, indicated in an interview to ET that their experience with Yadav has been a cautionary tale. “We are very happy with Ola, Snapdeal and Oyo, but recent events have given us pause. We need to put money where sustainable businesses are,” he said.
This seems to be a case of misplaced priorities. Nearly every major Silicon Valley start-up has started on the back of young and upcoming engineers who have cocked a snook at old conventions. Look at the battery of new-age firms, from Uber to Airbnb. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, made news in the early days for his rough approach. That never stopped investors from drowning him in money. There is a nifty cottage industry in the Valley around Apple founder Steve Jobs and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that paint them as eccentric and even misanthropic. This, if anything, works in their favour and reinforces their legend.
Arora and other investors often bring up the bogey of a tech bubble to defend lower valuations. The 2000 experience is bandied about to indicate how the India story may yet fizzle out. But the truth is the India story will fizzle out not because of a bubble, but because of investors’ chariness in putting money behind truly revolutionary ideas.
Yadav is a loudmouth but he has a point when he says that even with the current boom in start-up cities like Bangalore, real innovation has not been the hallmark of the Indian scene. He had an infamous and drawn-out Facebook spat with Zomato founder Deepinder Goyal about the quality of Indian innovation. Zomato has done wonders formalising the eating out space but Yadav has a point when he says that review and aggregator websites are not NextGen. They merely fulfil a customer need.
Pichai has been made the CEO of Google at a time when the company is looking to expand the horizons of what it means to be an urban resident. From driverless cars to the internet of things, Google is doing cutting-edge stuff that will change how we live in the future.
None of this innovation comes on the back of conventional modes of thinking. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is dubbed a megalomaniac by some due to his interest in hyperloop technology, which is English for reduced-pressure tubes acting as conveyor belts on which passengers can zip between cities. This is on the back of his other venture, SpaceX, which looks to make space travel common.
The truth is India can produce a hundred Sundar Pichais right here if only we became more accepting of nerdiness, which by nature is eccentric. That, and of course better infrastructure, less government interference, and all that. But innovation is like seeds that can sprout in the worst of conditions. Let us not stick to old ideas about what works and where and thus risk aborting this fantastic new process.