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 Amazon.com
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 Amazon.com. He
then adds modestly, "I have done reasonably well."
Has Nehru's brain child created Indian brain drain?
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
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 XpertSite.com.
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.
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.
About the writer
Alex Salkever is a surfer and writer living in Honolulu.
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