Modi Coming to Silicon Valley, Asking Entrepreneurs to Reconnect to India
Silicon Valley startup founder Deepak Aatresh starts every day with a touch of his homeland -- south Indian filter coffee. (Beth Willon/KQED)
When Deepak Aatresh was a teenager in Bangalore, India, he watched his father -- a research engineer -- help build an electric car. That was long before Elon Musk and Tesla came along.
It was 1983. Aatresh remembers accompanying his dad on test drives, with news reporters trailing along asking how it worked. The battery-operated car dazzled Aatresh, but it also opened his eyes to how limited India was at the time. His father's electric car never got past the testing stage because, Aatresh said, no one would fund the ambitious project.
"There is something crucial about this: There was no confidence in the system in India that someone there could build something that's useful," said Aatresh, who is the founder of Aditazz, an architectural software startup in Brisbane. "My father constantly lamented that India makes these things, and eventually they just import them."
Seeing such disappointment weigh on his father struck a nerve with Aatresh because he wanted to follow in his footsteps as an electrical engineer. So, four years later, Aatresh left India for the United States to launch his career on his own terms.
He got a master's degree in electrical and computer engineering from Arizona State University. In 1989, Intel recruited him to Santa Clara and into the world of cutting-edge technology.
"I was afflicted with Silicon Valley fever within about 24 hours," said Aatresh. "Everyone rallied around technology with such enthusiasm and an attitude of wanting to win."
This was during a time when waves of graduates from India's top engineering schools were flocking to Silicon Valley, feeling that the social and political climate in their country stifled innovation.
Fast forward to 2015: Aatresh is watching a technology sea change in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has launched initiatives called "Digital India" to increase electronics manufacturing, expand Internet access and use apps to improve government services.
The Silicon Valley-India connection -- and venture capital investments -- are critical if Modi's initiative is to succeed, especially since several of the CEOs of major tech companies are from India and 16 percent of Silicon Valley startups are run by Indian-Americans, said Venkatesan Ashok, consul general of India in San Francisco.
"Silicon Valley has a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship," said Ashok. "And I hope it is a culture that we in India can also imbibe."
And that's why Modi will come to Silicon Valley this weekend -- the first time in 33 years a prime minister of India has visited California. Silicon Valley's Indian immigrants have played a key role in the U.S. tech economy for decades. Now Modi believes they're key to building up manufacturing in places like Bangalore, an Indian tech hub.
"It is high time that the Indian prime minister did visit and meet this exceedingly successful community, which increasingly is wanting to reconnect back with the motherland," said Ashok.
Aatresh is an example of what Ashok is talking about. His 5-year-old company, Aditazz, has been doing projects in various parts of the world, including China and Singapore. Just two months ago, Aatresh opened an office in India and he's working on winning his first contract there -- to design a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient hospital in the southern part of the country.
He believes Indian expatriates are uniquely positioned to do business in their native country.
"We know how to navigate through the opportunities because we know the people, we know the lay of the land, we know the language, if we need to speak it," said Aatresh. "In the end, it's home."
But because he grew up there, Aatresh knows doing business in India won't be easy -- with its difficult infrastructure, transportation, tax codes and court system.
"We feel it's a bureaucratic mess," said Aatresh. "If we ever get into any trouble, we're going to have a lot of challenges."
Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford Law School who has studied Indian-American entrepreneurs who have returned to their native country, agrees.
"India is a very difficult place to work because of corruption, bureaucracy, pollution, noise, you name it," said Wadhwa. "But somehow Indian entrepreneurs have been able to rise above it."
Ashok, the consul general, said innovative thinking is still not encouraged in many parts of India, as it is in Silicon Valley.
"Successful entrepreneurs have learned from failure," said Ashok. "In many ways that's the opposite of what we see in India, because there we have a rather traditional mindset where we're told, 'Don't think outside the box, don't get out of the system, don't do something disruptive.' Here disruptive technology is the keyword."
While startup failures may be accepted in Silicon Valley, that's still not an option for entrepreneurs in India, Ashok said.
"You fail in India, you're seen as a failure and people say, 'This guy is useless,' " said Ashok. "In Silicon Valley, on the other hand, they encourage you to pick yourself up and do better, learn from your mistakes, and rise on to your success."
Modi is hoping to tap into that mindset this weekend -- and court potential investors -- when he's due to visit Facebook in Menlo Park, Mountain View-based Google and Tesla in Fremont. He will also have dinners and lunches with Indian-American startup founders and community leaders.
More than 100 professors signed an open letter protesting India's recent crackdown on groups like Greenpeace. Others want Modi held accountable for his alleged complicity in anti-Muslim riots more than a decade ago. Protests are expected online and in person as he makes the rounds of the major tech campuses and speaks before 19,000 people at the SAP Center in San Jose on Sunday.
Aatresh will be at the SAP Center event and he may even get to meet Modi. He's glad to hear the prime minister will tour Tesla, see all the battery-operated cars and meet CEO Elon Musk.
But it's bittersweet. Could Aatresh's father have given Musk a run for his money, had he been given the chance to develop his battery-operated car in India decades ago?
"If he'd gotten the kind of tax breaks that Elon Musk got and the kind of support from [the Department of Energy], it would have been a great product by now," said Aatresh. "I'm certain of it."
California has the seventh-largest economy in the world, and immigrants have a long history in building that prosperity. Today one out of every three working people in California is an immigrant — a share that has grown in recent decades. Our state is shaped by these workers and entrepreneurs — 6 million people who’ve found a job in the Golden State. In our series “Immigrant Shift,” KQED and The California Report explore the impact they have, the challenges they face and the policies that affect them.