Leading the global tech revolution

TIME magazine once carried a report titled “India’s leading export: CEOs”.  The report, which appeared in 2011, was about the “rise and rise” of India-trained business minds. It spoke about top Indian leaders of global firms who succeeded due to “talent and drive” and not necessarily because they were Indians. Those featured in it included Sanjay Jha, who was then the chairman and chief executive of Motorola; Berkshire Hathaway’s Ajit Jain, who was at that time — and still continues to be — one of those tipped as Warren Buffett’s successor in competition with the world’s most successful investor’s own son Gregory Abel; Indra Nooyi, the first woman CEO of PespiCo, who was at the helm of the global soft drinks giant for 12 years; former Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit, who held that position for five years until he resigned in 2012; and Ajaypal Singh Banga, who is CEO of Mastercard.

The report quoted a study of S&P 500 companies, which found more Indian CEOs then than any other nationality except American. Indians led seven companies; Canadians four. Another study by two professors from Wharton and China Europe International Business School in 2009 about C-suite executives in Fortune 500 companies revealed complete domination by Indians, with two mainland Chinese, two North American Chinese and 13 Indians claiming the honour.

Sundar Pichai, CEO, Google

TIME tried to unravel the secret of how Indians were getting all these top jobs. “It could be because today’s generation of Indian managers grew up in a country that provided them with the experience so critical for today’s global boss. Multiculturalism? Check. Complex competitive environment? Check. Resource-constrained developing economy? You got that right. And they grew up speaking English, the global business language,” the magazine said.

The list of India-born CEOs running the world’s biggest companies is growing and includes some higher-profile names, such as Satya Narayana Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, who succeeded Steve Ballmer in 2014; Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google; Anshu Jain, former co-CEO of Deutsche Bank, who quit the bank in 2015 and has since joined New York-based investment banking and brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald as president; and Dinesh Paliwal, president and chief executive officer of Harman, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Samsung Electronics.

Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga

According to statistics published by a top US recruiting agency, 10 of the top Fortune 500 American companies are run by Indian CEOs, of whom seven are working in the field of science and technology. A third of all engineers in Silicon Valley in 2005 were from India and seven per cent of high-tech company CEOs were Indians. Today the numbers are much higher, indicating the increasing Indian clout in Silicon Valley and the US science and technology sectors. Mr Pichai and Mr Nadella are the best-known brand ambassadors of India’s prowess in terms of technological knowledge. 

Mr Nadella has been credited with a major transformation of Microsoft during his three years as CEO, lifting the company from its dire state, which was struggling to navigate the difficult smartphone terrain dominated by the likes of Apple and Google. He found a new role for the company that could maintain its long-standing legacy in the Silicon Valley by engineering a transition to cloud computing. The acquisition of professional social networking site LinkedIn at $26.2 billion is the biggest in the company’s deal history and has boosted the company's asset value. 

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Photo: Dalip Kumar

Mr Pichai’s ascendance is best captured by the power of Android, which has forced compatriot Satya Nadella to change the course of Microsoft into new territories. Mr Pichai, who became Google’s Android chief in 2015, replacing Andy Rubin, had for almost a decade worked on products such as Google Toolbar, Google Gears and Google Pack, and eventually Google Chrome. His success has also been predicated on collaboration with other leading Android players like Samsung and other smartphone giants. One of his signal management achievements is the development of a new goal-setting process for the company under which employees are made to focus on one goal at a time, perhaps typical to the approach he himself followed while developing individual Google products.

File photo of Indra Nooyi, Indian-American PepsiCo CEO

While the domains of Mr Nadella and Mr Pichai are technologies that may already have peaked, there are others like Mr Paliwal, who are in evolving technologies of the future. Mr Paliwal is the president and CEO of Harman, which was acquired by Samsung Electronics in 2017 for $8 billion. He is helping shape the future of mobility through his vision of the “connected car” which promises to combine cutting edge technologies and data, AI and telematics to make futuristic concepts such as self-driving cars and car-home systems integration via the Internet of Things.

Mr Paliwal joined Harman in 2007 and has transformed the company into a customer-centric and innovation-driven technology leader, expanding the business in high-growth emerging markets and positioning the company as the premier tier-I partner to automotive companies around the world. He has been described as the link between Detroit and Silicon Valley. Under him, Harman has made a major push to deliver new features to vehicles via over-the-air updates. The company has signed up 17 automakers to use Harman’s technology and reaches 25 million vehicles.

Dinesh Paliwal, CEO, Harman International

Harman International, which set up shop in India in 2009, has one primary factory in Pune with a total of 10,000 employees across cities and divisions. It has focused more strongly on wearables and in-car systems where its strength lies instead of home theatre that has been a slowing market of late. Mr Paliwal has imparted a global technological edge to operations, steering Harman’s Indian expansion taking into account domestic expertise and burgeoning consumer demand.

“Autonomous for the sake of technology doesn’t mean anything,” says Mr Paliwal. “We can hopefully eliminate human error in driving. Also, we spend three hours a day sitting in a car; we can add one per cent of GDP with more productive use of that time.”

Indian technological visionaries like Mr Nadella, Mr Pichai and Mr Paliwal, among others, are pioneering a technological resurgence that is benefitting both the US and Indian economies. They are leaders of the new industrial revolution that is taking place in the second decade of the twenty-first century.     />

The writer is National President, Indo-American Chamber of Commerce