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What makes NRIs so successful

December 10, 2013 10:42 IST

What makes NRIs so successful

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Arnab Sarkar

Many of my NRI friends agree that America’s Immigration & Naturalisation Service, because of its immigration criteria, has created a highly selective and narrow population of NRIs in terms of capability.

An NRI for 45 years, I visit India once or twice a year - sometimes on business, sometimes to attend conferences, sometimes to teach but mostly to visit family, friends and travel around the country of our birth.

Quite frequently I encounter the question, “why do NRIs (Non Resident Indians) seem so successful?” After all, the media publicise data about NRIs being the richest minority in the United States; NRIs there are very innovative, with one of the highest number of patents per capita. Stories about successful NRI entrepreneurs, professionals, educators, authors, journalists and such are ever-present in the media.

Reactions to this question range from that of my mother, who, with her 90-plus years of wisdom always says, “of course not — your brothers are just as successful in India” to the other extreme of “you guys are lucky you escaped; how can you succeed in a nation where the government creates obstacles, infrastructure is so primitive and opportunities so limited?”
In any case, there seems to be no consensus about the reasons for this perceived NRI success.

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Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff

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What makes NRIs so successful

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So after my last trip in April 2013, when I went back home to Los Angeles, California, I decided to poll NRIs and Americans we interact with in daily life. My hope was that their long lives as NRIs or interacting with NRIs on a daily basis might actually shed some light on this question.

In the rest of the article I mix some thoughts on this subject I had collected over the years with those I obtained recently.

My first surprise was talking to a friend, Tom, a MIT PhD, now a professor of Princeton University.

We worked together for a few years and Tom and I were drinking together one time late at night in some conference in Europe. Over his drink he turned to me and said, “did you know that if two Indians signed up for a graduate course in MIT, we dropped the course?”

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Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff

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What makes NRIs so successful

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When asked why, he said, “MIT norm was that only one in ten gets an A in a course and you Indians just eat peanuts and study, how can we possibly compete?”

A little offended, I asked him to explain himself and he said, “(unlike you Indians) we have to find our wives, so we have to date and you know how time consuming that is?

Then we have to work (our parents won’t give us money to date) and have no money to spend on dates, while you Indians just tell your parents to arrange for your brides.”

I didn’t have the heart to ask him what about us, the NRIs who dated and had atypical “love marriages”. But this answer of arranged marriages being the reason for NRI success, I knew, would not satisfy any sophisticated Indian audience.

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Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff
Tags: NRI , MIT

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What makes NRIs so successful

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Recently, I asked Sunil, an NRI colleague of mine at IIT Gandhinagar, about his thoughts on this subject. His passionate response reflects the reason for the success of immigrants and refugees throughout history. He said, “because we worked like dogs, at least twice as hard as our American counterparts”, and then he added, “why wouldn’t we be more successful?”

There is no denying this and it reminded me of Suresh, a friend, who in Washington DC in the early 1970s was doing his MS in Electrical Engineering, while simultaneously studying for his MBA in a university across town — and to pay for the MBA he was working as a night clerk five days a week in a high-rise residential complex.

No wonder Suresh is successful. But it still does not answer why Indians seem more successful than other ethnic groups. 

I do wonder whether Suresh or we would have done the same in India if we didn't have the emotional and financial insecurity as immigrants. But the image of us being just “sloggers” did not sit well and I had to search deeper.

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Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff

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What makes NRIs so successful

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Many of my NRI friends agree with the notion that The US’ Immigration & Naturalisation Service (INS), because of its immigration criteria, has created a highly selective and narrow population of NRIs in terms of capability and education, which is bound to be more successful than the general population.

I doubt that NRI or Indian friends of mine would be willing to give the INS the credit for the success of NRIs in USA. Therefore, relevant or not, we the NRIs cannot utter such blasphemy. 

Another friend pointed to our education in the English language and our familiarity with Western culture as reasons for our superior performance relative to other immigrants.

This surely gave us a leg up as far as competing with immigrants from non-English speaking countries. But we can’t really give the British (of all people) credit for success of NRIs — can we? 

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Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff

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More seriously, I would be remiss as an NRI, if I did not share my personal experience on the topic. I strongly believe that our immersion abroad in an environment which was essentially devoid of the imperial “boss knows best” management style so prevalent in India, helped us be more creative.

Decisions in organisations we worked for were more often made by “those who had knowledge” instead of being made by “those who had power” — and this allowed us to make superior decisions.

Team building primarily done by screening in talent, instead of screening out people based on character traits, style and connections, gave us more opportunity. Finally, instead of working in teams of “solo thinkers”, having an opportunity to work in environments where everyone worked as a team made work joyful and productive. If we are more successful, the above are likely to be the most important reasons for that. 

In any case, solace for all comes from the well documented fact that success generally comes to those for whom not being successful is not an option, and even though amongst immigrants this characteristic may be more prevalent, in no way does it exclude Indians in India — and there is no shortage of examples to prove it.  

The writer is at IIT Gandhinagar. Names have been changed to protect privacy. 


Photographs: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff

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