The appointment of Satya Nadella as CEO of Microsoft has been greeted with joy within the Indian American community and in his native country. I find Nadella's story, however, not especially illustrative of the "success" of Indians in America; there are plenty of prior examples, and there will be others in the future, as there have been for immigrant communities from the Jews to the Irish. That part of the story is a non-story.
A better illustration of the assimilation of Indian Americans may be their pro rata participation in major large-scale white collar crimes, as so brilliantly outlined by my Penn classmate, Anita Raghavan. Thereby showing that Indian Americans are just as good or bad as the rest of America -- what could be more illustrative of assimilation than that?
In this essay, I want to focus on a less-observed aspect of the Nadella appointment and tie it back to "getting global". I believe his story is about America, for it provides yet another clue as to why America's business culture lends itself to renewal and cross-pollination.
America's welcoming of immigrant talent is at a level, and of a variety, that is simply astounding in the history of the world.
It is not immediately evident that the United States is a giant anomaly in this respect. Other countries have done a decent job of importing educated professionals -- Japan, Australia, and the U.K all come to mind. But what no other country has done is establish such a track record of providing first-generation immigrants a pathway to becoming the chief executives of large, often iconic, companies. Nooyi at Pepsi; Pandit at Citigroup; Kent at Coca-Cola; the list is a very long one. And not in the second generation; in the first generation.
These are individuals who didn't grow up within the American culture. They showed up here as adults, usually for a higher education and with little money, made their way through the visa system to their employer, and with perseverance and hard work and lots of luck, have risen to the top despite not being steeped in the same television shows, high school rituals, country club environments, church or synagogue gatherings, chest-thumping patriotism, and all else that goes with being a native-born person in any nation.
I believe that many political leaders want to find ways to create meritocratic and global business cultures -- but you need to glance at the C-suites of their iconic businesses to understand the issues.
Let's take Infosys. This most global of Indian-headquartered companies, deriving the preponderance of its revenues from the West, has 27 named executives on its web page for senior management. 25 are Indian. Its board of directors has 13 members. 11 are Indian.
I feel badly picking on Infosys, because the company is one of India's few true role models for first generation entrepreneurship, and is laudable in many, many respects. But Indian information technology companies need to be called out for being "un-global" in their senior ranks, given the language of business in India is English which is the global lingua franca (unlike, say, Korea or Japan where the language barrier is an important contributor to insularity).
Part of the point here for me, given what I do for a living, is to wonder what chance startups in many of these countries have of building global businesses, when their role models look like this?
For the United States, the real positive is this: the country remains the shining beacon, the city on the hill, because it attracts the "best" immigrants -- the most driven, the most educated, the most creative, the most innovative, because they are drawn to a culture that they feel will unhesitatingly reward ambition and achievement. They become Americans, within that first generation.
Satya Nadella was trained and mentored by American executives who looked past -- in fact, ignored -- the passport of his country of origin. Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, who know a thing or two and have jointly run Microsoft for 40 years, have turned over their company to an immigrant.
This blog is about "getting global", and so the point here for entrepreneurs is that getting global isn't just about markets and customer needs or even the people you hire -- it is also about the people you are prepared to promote and nurture.
So my main reaction to Satya Nadella becoming the CEO of a legendary technology company is: only in America. Until that changes, American companies have a significant competitive advantage in the global battle for globally mobile talent.