That Silicon Valley is awash in Indian technical geniuses

surprises no one who knows where they went to college.

By Alexander Salkever

Ivory Tower, SalonCom, via News Plus

Monday, December 6, 1999

View illustration by Jeff Crosby here:

One warm day in May 1984, Venky Harinarayan sat down to

take the entrance exam to the school of his dreams.

Although he had ranked first in his high school class and

had studied for nearly a year to prepare for this test,

as soon as he opened his exam book, he began to sweat.

All the years as a curve-busting computer whiz kid seemed

to lead up to this moment.

He only needed to score 50 out of 100 points to guarantee

his admission. But suddenly this seemingly lax criterion

appeared all but impossible. His eyes sifted through a

litany of seemingly impregnable questions -- about

Bernoulli's principle, Doppler's effect, Lorentz's

forces, ionic equilibria and combinatronics -- things

that would never appear on an SAT in a million years.

Nothing in his life had prepared him for this.

"It was extremely stressful. You just looked at the thing

and not a single question made sense to me. I thought,

'Boy, I'm going to flunk this thing,'" recalls


But like every other fear-wracked student taking the exam

across India, Venky knew his future rested on this

grueling 3-part mental torture course. He knew he had to

beat out tens of thousands of other eager high school

students -- a regiment of valedictorians, salutatorians

and district math champions in a country of nearly 1

billion souls. And he knew this examination was his best

chance to escape India -- in all its poverty and

stratified caste system.

Despite feeling at a complete loss, he managed to

navigate his way through the arcana. And six hours later,

he had nailed a spot in arguably the most competitive,

influential undergraduate school in the world, the Indian

Institute of Technology. Not only did Venky pass the

exam, he placed an astounding 40th in the country. With

this ranking, he got a coveted spot as a computer science

major at the IIT campus in Madras.

Flash forward to the summer of 1998 when

purchased an e-commerce software company named Junglee

for $180 million. That day, Venky Harinarayan, along with

four other Junglee co-founders (also IIT graduates),

became an overnight multi-millionaire.

The trajectory of Harinarayan's career has certainly been

dramatic, but not exactly unheard of. Like so many

expatriate Indians educated at IIT, Harinarayan has

ridden his sheepskin to high-tech fame and fortune. In

fact, per capita, IIT has probably produced more

millionaires than any other undergraduate institution. A

glimpse at how Harinarayan's classmates have fared shows

just what his diploma means in the high-tech world.

"Out of 25 people (in the computer science major), I

think 13 of them are in Microsoft right now. Four of them

went in 1988 when Microsoft came to IIT to recruit. Three

of them are at Qualcomm [a telecommunications firm whose

stock has risen 1200 percent this year alone]," says

Harinarayan, currently an executive at He

then adds modestly, "I have done reasonably well."

Source -

Has Nehru's brain child created Indian brain drain?

AnnaLee Saxenian

is a University of California at Berkeley professor in

the department of city and regional planning who studies

Silicon Valley. She says Indians, most of whom graduated

from IIT, founded about 10 percent of the start-ups in

Silicon Valley between 1995 and 1998. IIT grads also make

up a surprising proportion of the world's best

programmers, as well as some of the most sought-after

executives. In his book "The New New Thing," Michael

Lewis tracked the dominant role of IIT graduates in

Healtheon, a high-powered start-up venture run by

Netscape founder and Silicon Valley legend Jim Clark. IIT

graduates turn up in boardrooms of companies like

CitiGroup, U.S. Airways, Novell and in managing director

positions at top Wall Street investment banks.

"You find IIT graduates all over the place. Sometimes you

get a feeling that it's someone from IIT by default and

that all you have to do is ask what IIT they are from.

Their success rate, if you chart it, looks like a hockey

stick," says Yogesh Sharma, the editor of Silicon Valley

India magazine.

Pavan Nigam, IIT graduate and chief technology officer of

Healtheon, agrees: "Anybody who makes it into an IIT, you

are now set for life. You might end up in the bottom five

percent of your class but you are still set for life."

How have IIT graduates come to represent such an economic

and entrepreneurial juggernaut? Educated in English and

ready to travel at the drop of a hat, IIT grads embody

all the ideals of the new economy: They are flexible and

brilliant technological knowledge workers who easily

cross borders and cultures to pursue their

entrepreneurial and employment dreams.

Founded in the 1940s, IIT was the brainchild of India's

first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who sought to

create a techno-elite to build dams, highways and bridges

for the freshly minted nation. Modeled as a bigger,

publicly-funded Massachusetts Institute of Technology,

the IIT system consists of six campuses located in

Kharagpur, Kanpur, Delhi, Bombay (renamed Mumbai), Madras

(renamed Chennai) and Guwahati.

About 2,000 undergraduates enroll each year, as well as a

handful of graduate students. The Indian government

subsidizes 75 percent of the approximately $3,000

expended on each student's tuition, room and board.

Before 1993, IIT students paid less than $200 per year

for room, board and tuition. Declining subsidies since

then have translated into steadily rising tuition. But an

IIT degree remains a world-class educational bargain.

Yet the very success of IIT's educational system has bred

controversy. As more and more IIT grads leave their

homeland for the United States, the brain drain out of

India has turned to a virtual hemorrhage. Radicals in

India have suggested the government should privatize the

IIT system rather than continue to subsidize the

education of fair-weather patriots. Other critics claim

the IIT system does little to engender a sense of

responsibility that might sway wealthy grads to do more

than send fat checks back to India.

"The IIT education makes you a very technically literate

person," says Supratik Chakraborty, an IIT Kharagpur

graduate. "But there is this other part of education --

how you contribute to your society. It's not always in

terms of money but in terms of services or participation

in the community at large."

But the IIT system churns out engineers and not priests

or social workers. And most IIT grads revel in their

quest for cash. "To me, creating wealth is a noble

activity. I don't consider this to be a trivial or cheap

thing to do," says Kanwal Rekhi, an IIT Bombay graduate

who sold his company ExceLan to software giant Novell for

$200 million and now often backs companies started by

younger IIT graduates. Rekhi's refrain represents a kind

of mantra among IIT grads who have begun to give India

the economic power (and, by extension, political power)

that eluded decades of carefully planned development.

Yet only the top 1 percent of applicants have the chance

to experience an IIT education. Such odds make the most

prestigious U.S. school pale in comparison. Harvard, for

instance, has a 13-percent acceptance rate. And unlike

American colleges, admission to IIT almost solely depends

on three brutal exams covering physics, chemistry and

mathematics. Most questions on those exams would

thoroughly flummox the vast majority of U.S. college

students, let alone top-notch U.S. high school students.

"I still have a copy of the mathematics exam. But I

couldn't explain the math questions in English," says

Ramesh Parameswaran, a graduate of IIT Bombay who went on

to work at Microsoft and then co-founded an Internet

business called

To prepare for this braincrusher, some applicants start

studying two years in advance when they are 14 or 15

years old. They may log three, four, five or even 10

hours per day, seven days a week, to hone their skills.

Some wait to take the exam until after they have

graduated from high school and have time to study. But

the majority study for high school graduation and the IIT

exam simultaneously, giving new meaning to the term sleep

deprivation. "I spent a year doing that, studying, for

both end of high school and IIT. I don't much remember

doing anything else that year," says Parameswaran.

Source -


Competitive but cooperative: sharing a single book

between 24 students

Behind this insanity lie justifiable hopes and fears. No

other school in India can hold a candle to the IITs. And

for many smart young Indians -- both low and high caste -

- who lack the influence often required to gain

acceptance to other campuses in the nepotism-ridden

public university system, the IITs represent their best

shot at an affordable college education. "I am a Brahmin.

In the state were I lived there was reverse

discrimination," explains V. "Seenu" Srinavasan, a

professor at Stanford University's graduate school of

business and a 1966 IIT Madras graduate. "Even though I

was No. 1 in my college, as a Brahmin I could not get

into any of the engineering schools in my state."

Of course, the IIT admission exam favors middle-class and

affluent city dwellers, who have access to good high

schools and time to study. To address these inequalities,

the government reserves just over 20 percent of the IIT

places for "scheduled castes" and "scheduled tribes." But

this does nothing to help women, who make up less than 5

percent of the IIT students.

Still, such government meddling irks many IIT graduates,

who sweated blood to get in and view affirmative action

as more harmful than helpful. Others feel that IIT has

successfully undermined an inherently unjust social

system. "With women in India, it is a general problem but

I think the IITs should make it their own," says

Harinarayan. "But IITs are not completely dominated by

people from the cities. The system really does work

incredibly well in many cases. There are people from

remote villages that will show up and they blow your mind

with how smart they are."

IIT freshmen arrive to find campuses sparse by Western

standards but plush for India. The campuses boast green

hills, ponds and open spaces -- an archipelago of

privileged semi-rural redoubts on highly prized real

estate in one of the world's most crowded nations. Big

American computer companies, their logos displayed

prominently on campus buildings, endow professorships,

allowing the well-funded faculty to concentrate their

attentions on small groups of students. Recently,

affluent IIT alumni have begun to send generous donations

to their alma mater, allowing for facilities far superior

to those of most Indian universities. Famous musicians

and celebrities often perform for free at IIT campuses,

giving students a sense that they have become members of

a privileged class. "Apart from the opportunities one

gets at the IIT, the very feeling of belonging to an

exclusive club is exciting," says Avneesh Sud, 21, a

final year engineering student at IIT Delhi. "You work

hard for two years and when you finally make it, you are

the king of the world!" he says, borrowing a line from

the popular movie "Titanic."

But the cozy environs can only provide so much comfort to

incoming students who have always sailed along confident

in their brilliance. "You walk into an IIT and you expect

to be No. 1 or No. 2," says Raj Mashruwala, a 1975 IIT

Bombay graduate and current vice president of TIBCO

Software. "But everyone else there was also No. 1 or 2 in

their region. And very soon you realize that you are no

longer the smartest person in the world."

IIT's curriculum also creates a humbling effect. Along

with general engineering courses and a smattering of

social sciences, the first two years include mandatory

courses in carpentry and metal shop, in which students

are subjected to lessons in rigor and frustration.

Harinarayan remembers one particularly onerous project in

which he had to file down two centimeters off a piece of

metal by hand over a period of weeks. "It took a long

time and was hard work," he says. "But that was great for


Yet despite the concentration of so many hyper-

competitive scholars, the culture never descends to the

cutthroat paranoia of, say, American pre-meds. The dorms

themselves function like miniature high-tech companies.

Team problem-solving and study sessions are interspersed

between all night bridge binges, drinking outings and

midnight firecracker raids. At times, this teamwork and

camaraderie emerges out of necessity. On one unusual

occasion, Harinarayan and his 24 computer science

classmates had to share a single textbook for a class.

"We used to have a system where everyone would have two

hours with the book. If you got the 3 a.m.-to-5 a.m.

slot, you would have to get up then," he recalls.

IIT students carry approximately 50 percent more courses

than the typical U.S. undergrad, gaining a mastery over

their subject matter that often makes graduate school in

the United States a breeze. "My first year at Berkeley

when I was doing my master's, that was the easiest year I

had ever had in my life," recalls Mashruwala. "I either

knew it or I could sit at home and do the whole subject

in one-quarter the time of everyone else."

Such rigorous training also makes IIT grads especially

appealing to high-tech companies like Microsoft, Intel

and Cisco, who send recruiters across the Pacific on

yearly trips. Between American companies and American

grad schools, IIT grads have become a major force of

immigration. In recent years, 40 percent to 50 percent of

IIT grads have elected to come to the United States to

pursue graduate degrees, according to Mashruwala. About

20,000 IITans live in the United States right now, almost

20 percent of the total IIT grad population since the

system's inception. Most never return to India.

IIT grads had begun filtering into U.S. industry and

academia by the early 1970s, but they didn't crack the

executive ceiling until 1982 when IIT graduate Vinod

Khosla helped bootstrap Sun Microsystems -- making Khosla

an entrepreneurial poster boy for IIT grads. Since then,

more than 1,000 Indian entrepreneurs have started

companies in Silicon Valley, creating hundreds, if not

thousands, of multi-millionaire IITan entrepreneurs with

companies worth more than $40 billion. Mashruwala

estimates the average net worth of the 60 classmates he

keeps in touch with in this country at between $6 million

and $7 million.

Not surprisingly, the money men have noticed the green

hue of the IIT imprimatur. "People are writing blank

checks" says Mashruwala. "I have a guy who runs what used

to be a conservative investment fund who is weekly

calling me and asking me, 'Could you find me a deal or a

place to invest my money through your networks?'" Several

Silicon Valley venture capitalists who preferred to

remain unnamed say any startup involving an IIT graduate

has an advantage in attracting funding.

Where does this leave India, a still-impoverished nation

that continues to subsidize these new American

entrepreneurs? The brain drain troubles many Indians who

see the government-subsidized education at IIT building

U.S. companies and the U.S. economy but not contributing

to India. IIT graduates tell of some Indians who have

expressed feelings of betrayal at their brethren who used

the system to escape and didn't look back.

"It has mostly been a one-way street. I don't think the

return to India was commensurate with the investment,"

says Chakraborty, who has made a rare decision to return

to IIT Bombay as a professor this year.

Despite money donated by IIT graduates to charities in

India or to their alumni associations, the ultimate

payoff to India may come circuitously from the West

itself in the form of rising salaries at computer

companies in India and in the border-less business world

engendered by the Internet. A rash of start-ups in India

has given IIT grads the option of staying home and still

striking it Internet-rich. Several Indian companies

already trade publicly on the NASDAQ exchange. As more

and more Western companies establish Indian subsidiaries,

the flood of IIT graduates to the West may begin to ebb.

What cannot be overstated is the historical influence

that IIT and its expatriate alumni will exert on India. A

group of IIT graduates is spearheading a drive to

establish a world-class business school in India, on par

with anything in the West. And IIT grads who live in the

United States now get audiences with top politicians in

India who a decade ago would have spurned them as

capitalist colonial tools. "They are building major trade

relationships which will help India more than if they had

stayed in India," says Mashruwala. "Twenty years from

now, the IITs will be recognized as the one single entity

that generated the single most amount of wealth in India.

They will be recognized as the wisest decision."

Beyond India, the IIT clan now looks to cast an even

wider web. Alumni organizations in the United States and

abroad have begun to double as networking units for

getting IIT business ventures staffed and funded. In the

United States, many influential graduates talk of

fulfilling their civic obligations by getting involved in

politics to help shape a society they have claimed for

their own. In the distant future, historians of Silicon

Valley will undoubtedly dedicate significant ink to the

exploits of IIT grads -- who grabbed the intellectual

brass ring, got filthy rich and created their own legacy

of can-do capitalism.

Source -

About the writer

Alex Salkever is a surfer and writer living in Honolulu.

Sound off

Send us a Letter to the Editor