India’s the Land of Hope for Some NRIs

March 14th, 2010

At 27, Atma Shivalanka’s portfolio reads like a lead character from some Hollywood potboiler. A management graduate from London School of Economics, he served the British Army for five years; born and raised in London, he is a trained boxer, loves half-marathons and is learning Yoga.

So, what brings him to Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, and pursue one-year post-graduation programme in management? “India has huge opportunities in the oil and gas sector and my aim is to become one of the major service providers here, in the coming years,” says Mr Shivalanka, who founded Avatar Oil Field Services, offering geo-physical solutions to the country’s major oil and gas extraction companies. “It feels great to be back and be able to eat my favourite food here,” he says.

Mr Shivalanka’s ideas are not just gas. A growing number of entrepreneurs, born and brought up in foreign land, are flying down to be a part of a rising India to tap exciting business opportunities here. That they can relate to their Indian roots adds a certain emotional value to their decision too. Mr Shivalanka and his breed of entrepreneurs aim at transforming the way business is done in the country, especially in rural areas.

That’s what a team of researchers at Duke, Harvard and Berkeley universities found in a poll of 1,203 returnees to India and China about a year ago. According to the study, most of these people returned in their prime: the average age of the Indian returnees was 30. They were well educated: Among Indians, 66% held a masters and 12% PhDs. These degrees were mostly in management, technology and science. Most thought that they had better prospects in their home country; even if salaries were comparatively lower, their lifestyles would be better and they could live with family.

The head of the team, Vivek Wadhwa of Harvard University, recently warned America of a reverse brain drain never seen in the history of the country. Mr Wadhwa pointed out that more than 52% of Silicon Valley’s startups during the recent tech boom were started by foreign-born entrepreneurs. “It is very possible that some of the smart Indians who sat in the room with me holding their hand up on Columbus Day will start the next Google or Apple.

Many of them will build companies which employ thousands. But the jobs will be in Hyderbad or Pune, not Silicon Valley.”

Increasingly, the second or third-generation of NRIs are being pulled towards India’s growth story. Armed with technology-driven degrees, hands-on experience, this young breed of foreign-bred entrepreneurs is raring to bring a large difference to the land of their origin. The global recession has also cautioned many aspirant ‘techies’ to look for ‘home-grown’ opportunities, according to several fund managers. “The young lot brings in a lot of passion, energy and technological mindset to start a fresh venture. Also, there is an emotional and social connect in coming back home,” says Sachin Maheshwari of VC fund Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

Rikin Gandhi, 28, has no less illustrious a portfolio than Mr Shivalanka. Born in New Jersey, USA, to Gujarati parents, he studied engineering in aeronautical from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, and joined software behemoth Oracle in California. He was also selected to join the US Air Force as a pilot but, instead, he flew home to give wings to his dreams and founded Digital Green, an NGO that makes agri-based videos to help farmers enhance crop yield. “We are encouraging a large number of farmers to see and practise the novel ways of farming to increase their earnings,” says Mr Gandhi, who instead of prattling away in American accent, is trying to brush up his Kannada so that he can interact with farmers better. From initial 20 villages in Kanakpura when he founded Digital Green, his video content has been able to penetrate 1,200 villages across India in two years. “Though we have stayed out of India, we know this is the right time to be here,” says Saureen Shah, who takes care of software division at Digital Green.