My father’s an Indian diplomat, but I was born in Sweden where he met my mom, the daughter of an Indonesian diplomat. Because of my parents’ situation, I’ve been around the world more than once. When my dad was posted to Uganda, I was sent to an English-speaking missionary boarding school in the Himalayas where 80 percent of my class—kids like me whose parents were somewhere in Asia—were going to England or to the U.S. for college. I had decided fairly early on that I’d be going to the U.S. to become an engineer, but the real reason I chose Massachusetts Institute of Technology was its urban location.
At MIT, many of the students are Asian, and a lot of them start companies because the primary dynamic for immigrant enterprise stems from what they’re studying when they come to this country, and at what time. The Asian immigrants who became entrepreneurs in the 1990s were in school in the 1970s and 1980s, studying computer science, engineering, materials science and physics—all subjects that lead to the fields that are growth industries today.
AN EMPHASIS ON EDUCATION
The inherent advantage of Asian culture, in fact, is its emphasis on higher education. There’s a prevailing assumption that you’ll go to school, keep on in school and get a higher degree than your father did. In biology and chemistry and physics and some of these technologies like optical networking, biochemistry, and genetic engineering, you have to be a Ph.D., because it’s so highly technical.
That’s not the typical entrepreneurial route, though, and that wasn’t what I did. I got a political science degree and ended up in business, primarily because most of my work experience right after school was in start-ups. The one where I gained my formative experience was very successful, and immediately after that, I started my own company. That was what everyone around me was doing. There were a lot of organizations that supported certain minorities in business, and had various programs for financing and that sort of thing, so Joe and I felt tat we had an advantage in our field.
A CULTURAL ADVANTAGE
I can’t really say we encountered any prejudice that damaged our business. But, we were operating at a time and in an environment where youth was more of an issue than race. We were selling to very large companies like MCI, and we were seeing older white guys in male-dominated senior management. The technology pitches were all done by young guys like me, with long hair, 27-28 years old. In technology, the youth issue actually becomes less important because some executives expect that an Indian guy, an Asian guy will be boy-wonder geniuses. They think, “Wow, these young whizzes must know some magic!” There’s favorable prejudice—it’s almost positive to look different.
Another reason for the success of Indians in this country is that they speak English to begin with. In addition, they have the technical skills. The flip side is that if you’re in a technical field, language matters less. The problem is that if you’re going to become a senior manager, you’re not going to be able to manage unless you have the language skills. Some immigrants are completely conversant in the things that they design and build, but not in sales and marketing or positioning or being able to talk to clients and partners. So, I certainly think that in this country, not being able to speak English is a huge handicap. Language is one of the fundamental issues in terms of being able to assimilate.
So much opinion is formed around where the company comes from, as well, and MIT opens a huge number of doors. It gets instant recognition in the technology field, when the name is used on resumes and in proposals to clients—there are times when we played it heavily. Also, we were operating in a cosmopolitan environment. Say we were taking out an early-stage bank loan—well, we were in Harvard Square, and when we walked into the bank, the guy didn’t seem to care that I wasn’t a WASP.
AN OUTSIDER’S PERSPECTIVE
Another huge advantage that an immigrant brings to this country is that when you look at a problem or an issue or a market, you look at it with an outsider’s perspective. And if you have a model from another country, obviously, you see things that could work differently. Or, you think, “Oh, that’s an interesting opportunity, why don’t we go and do that?” or, “What’s so difficult about this?” That’s one of the most important skill sets that an outsider brings, as an entrepreneur—not assuming that the way things are is the way they have to be. Coming from another country is one of the ways you get that outlook.
FLEXIBILITY AND ADAPTABILITY
The issues that a young, early-stage entrepreneur has to face change so dramatically from day to day that one of the biggest skill sets you need is range and flexibility. One minute you’re thinking about rent, the next minute it’s how to structure a compensation package, or how to raise money, or how to sell your product—they’re not very similar skills. To thrive in this country, immigrants have to develop that flexibility. As entrepreneurs, we can apply it.
Yet another minefield that entrepreneurs have to navigate is having all sorts of clients—purely technical customers and early adopters who want to do the most sophisticated things in the world, and at the other end of the spectrum, conservative folks who just want something that works and that won’t get them fired. When your company is very small, it’s more efficient to have one type of client and make sure you can make them happy. But as you grow, that changes. The bigger challenges of growth involve understanding where your constituency lies next—and sometimes that changes every quarter. We have to understand what options we have, from many points of view.
THE VALUE OF SUPPORT
If you’re really thinking of being an entrepreneur, it almost doesn’t matter what you choose. You’ll end up in a field close to what you know or in the area of your general expertise, because that’s where you’re going to have people to draw on, your friends and colleagues. That’s the right starting point.
Until recently, Asian groups in technology weren’t as organized as they are today. When Joe and I started our company, we didn’t tap the Asian network much. We didn’t take any institutional money for five years. We did get a couple of loans from our respective dads—we borrowed $50,000 each, that we later turned into stock. But otherwise, we managed to turn the company on service revenue alone. Then we started building products, in 1995. At that point, our first funding came from Softbank, our only venture-capital investor. Later on, it was all institutional investments. You can’t afford to ignore any potential source of help, and I think that if we had had ethnic networks in those days, we would have used them.
If that type of funding is available, you have a different choice to make, which is to ask: Is there value added? Are you better off within your community or is it completely irrelevant, is money just money? There are entrepreneurs’ organizations for Indians, now, that are becoming fairly powerful in the U.S. These people are very well connected because they’re a business networking organization, not just a money network. Such groups can be quite useful, especially in certain fields where you might have direct access to executives in your market space. That could be a huge advantage for networking, money-raising, getting advice and mentoring.
AN ACCOMPLISHMENT OF SCALE
Entrepreneurs who have been entrepreneurs in other countries already, before coming to the U.S., are like kids in a candy store. They can’t believe the scale of markets. That’s why, in the U.S., there’s not a huge necessity to be global to build your business in the beginning.
Still, it helps to be global in selling, and this is an area where immigrants can excel. I know four languages, my mom speaks seven and my friends in Europe speak at least four. If you’re an American and you travel in the rest of the world and don’t speak any language other than English, you have the inverse of the non-English-speaking immigrant’s handicap. As it happened, our first customers were in Japan, on the West Coast and in Europe. Now we’re a thousand-person company, with offices in a dozen countries all over the world.
Selling to high-end clients at very large companies like Ford and Pfizer is very different from selling to early adopters of the product. Once your company becomes more established, technology is no longer the key selling point, even for a business like ours. Now you’re trying to sell to managers who are solving complex business problems–increasing efficiency or making money for their customers or changing their distribution channels. As ATG grows, I find myself traveling as much as I did when I was a kid. And, as the immigrant CEO of an American entrepreneurial, high-tech company with an international business, I seem to be turning into a new kind of diplomat.
Jeet Singh wrote this for Entreworld.org, a resource for entrepreneurs of all backgrounds.