April 2, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Liz Kniss

'We have always campaigned for an increase in the number of H1Bs'
'We have always campaigned for an increase in the number of H1Bs'

Liz Kniss The white American is no longer a dominant presence in Silicon Valley, at least in terms of numbers. So, quite naturally, Liz Kniss, the mayor of Palo Alto in California -- the region that is widely described as the birthplace of the Valley -- was in Bangalore recently to participate in a conference organised by the CII on transforming business for Asia's technology future. Before being elected to political office, Kniss worked for Sun Microsystems.

Having served as elected official for more than 15 years now, Kniss has twice-served as mayor of Palo Alto, and has done much to convert this area and the San Francisco Bay Area into a technology hub. Consequently, Palo Alto became the first city with its own web site and a global presence on the Net. Liz Kniss spoke to M D Riti in an exclusive interview.

How large is the Indian population of Palo Alto?

I represent the whole area of Silicon Valley. There is a very large Indian population there. They are also very influential. A number of the Indian men head their own businesses and/or have made substantial contributions to the Valley. Among them are Vinod Khosla, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, and Suhas Patel, who headed Cyrus Logic. There are a number of companies that have not only been started by Indians but also funded by venture capital from Indians. They have done well in the Valley, and have also treated the Valley in return. Many of them have made a great deal of money too, which is not a bad thing to do.

Bangalore is supposed to be the Silicon Valley of India. But most serious researchers, Indian and American, do not agree with this: they say the dynamism and spirit of entrepreneurship that characterises the Valley is missing here. The IT companies here mostly offer services or support, or implement projects conceptualised overseas.

The software industry of Bangalore mostly seems to do the code-writing that goes into the making of software products overseas. The Valley comprises software, hardware and other-related companies that are very interactive, and that prod each other on, compel each other on competitively towards the next venture. I do not think this happens in Bangalore. But this is just a superficial observation because this is my first visit to Bangalore. Our goal, of course, is to get as many Indian engineers as we can into the Valley.

Is that still true? Are they still welcome? Even with the ongoing IT slowdown? We hear that there may even be a freeze on H1-B visas?

We don't know about the new administration in Washington: that's a whole new animal for us. But in the past, and even now, we have always campaigned for an increase in the number of H1-Bs. That was our goal, even when I worked for Sun Microsystems earlier. That's my goal still as mayor, to get that number up. The Valley does manifest some show of recession, but there is never a lack of opportunity for engineers.

Why are you so much in favour of having more Indian engineers in the Valley? Do they have special qualities you like, are they cheap, or what?

First of all, the best Indian brains go into the engineering field. The Valley always looks for the best brains from everywhere. It is not just a one way process: it's not just Valley companies who come looking for Indian engineers. Indian engineers too seem to like to work for our companies, because now there is a large Indian population there, and they have begun to have their own sub-culture.

Are the Indians really integrating into the community there? Don't Asian ethnic communities tend to ghetto-ise and not really assimilate into other cultures?

It is true. We do see that the large Asian communities in Fremont and Mt Peters tend to spend a lot of time with each other. When the second generation comes, they do not do this. When I was campaigning for office, I was given several functions by the Indian community. I noticed that at those functions, primarily Indians were present. I was told that they support each other, work with each other.

Do you view this as good or bad? Indians there complain that the Americans do not welcome them into their homes and hearts, and so they are forced to look within the Indian community for support. But it is also possibly a vicious circle: if they do not assimilate, how will they really become part of the American mainstream and gain acceptance?

Indians have told me this. But even if the generation that moved to the US does not assimilate, there is no question that the next generation does. When you look at school children, second generation Chinese school children do not blend in the same way as the second generation Indian does.

Can you give me some approximate numbers of what is the percentage of the Indian population in your territory?

I don't know those figures. Our latest census is about to be distributed. And we know that for the first time in the Valley, there will be no majority. Whites dominated for so many years, but not any more. It may emerge as 40 per cent or so whites, and the rest a mix of Asians and Hispanics. I don't know what the break-up within that percentage will be, though. But there is a very strong Asian population. And the Indian population is far more prevalent and predominant than any of the other nationalities. If you look at the very top level of any company, you will find at least one Indian man.

You say Indian man, what about Indian women?

They are there, but I do not hear about Indian women the way I hear about Indian men. At Sun Microsystems, I worked with many Indian men ranked highly in the company, but absolutely no Indian women. Almost every Indian company in the Valley shows a similar pattern of highly ranked Indian men, but very few Indian women. Maybe this will change when the second generation Indians become a major part of the work force.

Do you see Indians emerging as a prominent political support group in your area? As they become larger wealth creators, are they increasing in political clout too?

Not that I would observe as yet. I see the Asian population as the last to become politically active and prominent. The Hispanic population has become very prominent, especially in the San Jose area. But I cannot think of any Indian that I know who is highly ranked politically in our area.

Is it because there is a glass ceiling that prevents that? Or is it that Indians are too happy working and making money, and don't want to involve themselves more in the commercial dynamics of the US?

I hope it is because of the latter reason. I have never seen an Indian candidate running for office in the entire area that I represent. So I tend to think that it is because they concentrate on business, family and connections within the Indian community. They have a whole network of Indian papers, radio stations, and are very active within their own community. But I am yet to see any real evidence of interest in the political world from them.

Is the Indian sub-culture that you say exists in the Valley beginning to have any impact on mainstream American culture or value systems there?

I don't know. I do know that the Indian culture is very strong in itself. The Indian population certainly has a greater presence in the Valley than it did before. There has not yet been a real push by the Indians to become a part of the political arena that I function in yet, though. I think that will come when the second generation, which has no prejudices about anything, and which considers itself part of the American population, comes to the forefront.

Any other insights into the Indian community in the Valley?

Yes, of course. I know so many of the community there very well indeed. They arrive in the Valley without any strings attached, without their family backgrounds following them. They are only seen as software engineers and individuals. Many of them have told me that they could never have succeeded so much in India because of their family backgrounds or upbringing. It's a real neutralising effect for them to come to California, where all opportunities are open, for education and business.

Has Indian venture capital really taken off in the Valley? Do they fund American businesses too or only Indian businesses?

I do not think they only fund the Indians. Khosla for example founded Exodus and other American companies. Many Indians are also angel investors. I hear that they do not limit themselves to the Indian community. I think they are too smart for that.

Do these rich Indians spend money on community upliftment too? Or do they send all their money back home?

They were very generous with me. Whenever I tapped that community, they were delighted. They contributed a lot to my campaign. I know that there were many political candidates that the Indian community has supported.

Do you think the second generation Indian will have the same single-minded passion for his work, or the capability to work hard with a single focus, that the first generation Indian immigrant had, that has made him a successful role model as an entrepreneur?

I think they will certainly not have the single-minded focus that has driven so many Indians. They may not be willing to make the sacrifices that their parents did to grow great businesses. To be honest, I see that single-minded focus more in the Chinese children than the Indian children. That may just be because there are more Chinese in my area than Indians.

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