The US is still a place for innovation and entrepreneurship, and it is good to see Indian Americans and immigrants contributing to this in a major way, says K V Seshasayee who visited the US after four years and found the gloom had dissipated.
I went to the United States last month after a gap of four years. In that period, so may things have changed there that it was astonishing. We keep reading about major issues like quantitative easing being wound up; President Barack Obama’s fight with the Republicans; shootings in school campuses and so on. However, these do not bring out the changes in the day-to-day lives of Americans: the changes in people's lifestyles, the way lives have become more and more easy, people becoming more individualistic and at the same time more social.
During my four weeks, I was in California for the major period but travelled to the East Coast too -- New York, New Jersey, Maryland as well as Houston, Texas.
First, California. The whole of Bay Area is on a high. People have a lot of confidence, a lot of money and they live lives that combine creativity, wealth and a lifestyle that is the envy of the world, and justifiably so.
Innovation and disruption have always been the hallmark of Silicon Valley. Only now, these qualities are the only ones that drive the people and companies here.
You suddenly come across a Google Car (the one that drives itself) on the highway, and your friend is not very surprised or excited. He says self-driving cars will come into production in two years, and will start dominating in 10 years. You also see many Tesla electric cars on the road, and in college campuses. Moreover, everywhere you go, you see charging stations for electric cars -- in housing complexes, in office car parks. If you drive an electric car in California, you don’t have to worry about charging or range.
These two developments -- electric and self-driving cars -- have been spearheaded by Silicon Valley, and the control and initiative have been snatched from Detroit. The automakers have realised how disruptive these are, and are realising that if they did not join the bandwagon, they will lose their leadership.
The third startling thing is that the stock markets and investors have decided to anoint the new era of electronics and software-led living. The old stalwarts no longer lead -- Exxon, General Motors and others are no longer the stars. Apple and Amazon and Google are. In the next five to 10 years, the top 10 list of Fortune 500 may not have a single traditional company in it. A trillion dollar market cap for a new-age company can happen soon.
These companies and others in Bay Area are also changing lifestyles. You can happily use Uber and ditch your car altogether. It makes sense to catch an Uber taxi to go to San Francisco rather than get onto the traffic and struggle for a parking space or pay through the nose for garage parking.
Today, your home is protected by home automation and security systems, and all are now instantly connected to you by way of your smartphone and tablet. When you want to enter your friend’s condo but don’t have the keys, just punch in the code at the keypad at the entrance, and the system dials his smartphone, where the app recognises the code and remotely opens the gate.
When you go in, your friend is watching Game of Thrones, not on television -- he does not have a cable or satellite connection, but depends purely on his broadband connection, that hooks up the Hulu or Apple TV to the TV screen or to his tablet. Incidentally, out of the eight homes we stayed in, only four had TVs. Of these, only two had cable. All the rest get their entertainment through their devices.
Today, even shopping has changed. You don’t need to go to Wal-Mart, it comes to you. And Google Fresh delivers groceries in four hours flat to your doorstep.
The other thing I noticed in Bay Area is the integration of all races in general life. You see a lot of Afro-Americans in responsible positions. A lot of Hispanic-run companies and businesses. Most important, some of the towns in Bay Area have a majority of Asians.
The WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) are no longer the mainstream, the Asians are. It used to be that Indians and Chinese were reckoned to be good workhorses, not given major executive positions. Today you see a lot of leaders from the Asian community. Of course, Asian startups have grown big, and a major share of new startups are Asian-led. Come to think of it, the major work in the pioneering companies like Google or Apple is done by Sundar, Madhav, Balaji and Kishore and their like. They are genuinely part of the new revolution.
These Indians can look forward to rewarding careers unlike their counterparts in the East Coast, who went into software operations or financial systems with major Wall Street companies. They now seem to be stuck -- revival is slow, and opportunities to change are few. Their domain specialisations do not help them to go over to the West Coast either.
Of course, life is not without difficulties. A new one-bedroom apartment in a good location in San Jose or Santa Clara costs $3,500 (about Rs 2.3 lakh) and up to rent. That is, if you are lucky to find one. A lot of new buildings have come up, but the apartments are grabbed in thousands (literally) by Google and its ilk, who don’t care how much they pay to house their interns. A decent two-bedroom apartment in a good school district can cost $ 1,200,000 (about Rs 7.88 crore) to buy -- as paid by one of my acquaintances last month.
Traffic has become very problematic on all the highways across the Bay, particularly during office times. Even car-pooling does not provide much relief.
All services cost much more than elsewhere in the US. Surprise is, no one seems to be grumbling too much. There is a tremendous drought in California but somehow they are managing. The good factors far outweigh the bad ones, that’s all.
As for the East Coast, life does not seem to have changed. The easing of the economy has reduced or done away with the general gloom that was so evident four-five years back. Lifestyles have changed as in West Coast, but some things have not changed: Bad driving habits in New Jersey, New York City; horrendous traffic and poor parking in Washington, DC, etc.
But you still see that the beating heart of Manhattan is intact. You can go for a jazz concert off Broadway; you can still wander around Central Park. Jersey City seems to have developed rapidly, and offers a genuine alternative to the cramped and costly Manhattan by way of new apartments that are just a ferry ride away from Lower Manhattan.
The bedrock of the US has not changed -- people who are friendly and mostly law-abiding, the institutions that hold up the country, etc. In fact, even passing through airports has become less stressful, and it is a pleasure to visit the museums in DC or Golden Gate Park. Whether it is clam chowder at Fisherman’s wharf or bagels and pretzels in Manhattan or the Redwoods in California, there are certain staples that have not changed, thank God.
Another similarity to India was politics. There is total polarisation in the political scene now, and the great American traditions of debate and idealism are gone. The Republicans behave very much like an Indian party, blindly opposing the Democrats on everything, mostly encouraged by a majority in the House. A lot of times, nothing gets done in the Senate and Congress due to these clashes, and it is sad to see.
But life goes on, and the common man has learnt to ignore politicians altogether. Some of Obama’s achievements in the international arena will be remembered for long outside the US, but the average American is not bothered.
All said, the US is still a place for innovation and entrepreneurship, and it is good to see Indian Americans and immigrants contributing to this in a major way.
I won’t mind going back -- strictly as a visitor, of course!
K V Seshasayee is a global Indian who has visited 24 countries and worked in quite a few.