Inaugural lecture series examines ‘Indians in America’

Devesh Kapur, author of “The Other One Percent: Indians in America”, speaks at the Inaugural India Lecture at the Curry Student Center on Thursday. Photo by Alastair Pike for Northeastern University

By almost every measurable variable, Indian-born immigrants in the United States are “outliers,” said author and University of Pennsylvania professor Devesh Kapur. Compared to other immigrant groups and native U.S. citizens, they’re largely better-educated, higher-paid, and unusually concentrated in certain employment sectors, Kapur said.

“So how did a population from a low-income, developing nation with weak human capital become the most educated and highest income immigrant group in the U.S. in a single generation?” he asked.

That question is what Kapur sought to answer on Thursday at a lecture presented by the D’Amore-McKim School of Business’ Center for Emerging Markets. He’s a good person to tackle the broad, interdisciplinary issue. He wrote a book on it, after all.

The lecture, titled “The Other One Percent: Indians in America,” based on Kapur’s book of the same name, was the first in the center’s new Indian Lecture Series, a series funded by a generous anonymous donation.

Ravi Ramamurti, University Distinguished Professor, speaks at the Inaugural India Lecture at the Curry Student Center on Thursday. Photo by Alastair Pike for Northeastern University

“Indians, and India more generally, are having an enormous impact on emerging markets,” said Hugh Courtney, dean of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. “This is a broad topic that we’re excited to be able to tackle.”

In addition to Kapur, two other leaders spoke at the lecture, which was co-sponsored by Cornell’s Emerging Markets Institute. Santhana Krishnan, president of CIMCON Lighting, Inc., and Venkat Srinivasan, a former Northeastern finance professor and the founder and CEO of Rage Frameworks, Inc., discussed how their own experiences reflected or differed from the models Kapur presented in his book.

The topic was made even more relevant by the world’s political climate, said Ravi Ramamurti, University Distinguished Professor of International Business and Strategy and director of the Center for Emerging Markets. “There’s certainly a lot going on in the world that makes this topic very timely,” Ramamurti said. “And there is perhaps no one who knows more about India and the Indian diaspora than Devesh Kapur.”

Kapur identified three “phases” of Indian immigration to the U.S. since the late 1960s—“Early movers” came first, he said, followed by the family-oriented and the “IT generation.”

Unlike other immigrant groups and even prior Indian immigrant groups, this last generation has immigrated primarily through employment-based visas, Kapur said. He presented other data that show the myriad ways in which this group and the generation before it are outliers among U.S. populations:

  • 80 percent of Indian-born immigrants live in counties that have a median household income that’s significantly higher than the average in those areas
  • Indian-born immigrants are more dispersed across the U.S., compared to immigrants from any other Asian country
  • This group is among the most Democrat-leaning political group of any large immigrant group—which Kapur speculated was due to anxiety over the “evangelical turn” of the Republican Party

“Indians have done very well in the U.S., but why they’ve done well has nothing to do with the fact that they’re Indian,” Kapur concluded. “Had that been the case, India would have done much better and people wouldn’t have left there in the first place.”

Why, then, are there such significant differences between this particular population and other populations in the U.S.?

Kapur concluded that, “ironically, it was India’s own failures that made this successful.” That is, where information technology and engineering sectors have grown steadily in India, they’ve boomed in the U.S.

“Whereas engineers in India are climbing up stairs, these guys stepped into an elevator,” he said. “If you enter a sector and the sector itself booms, you’ll naturally do better.”

Venkat Srinivasan, founder and CEO of Rage Frameworks, speaks at the Inaugural India Lecture at the Curry Student Center on Thursday. Photo by Alastair Pike for Northeastern University

Later, Srinivasan offered a different hypothesis.

The Delhi-born entrepreneur said he recognized in himself and others an inherent “drive to achieve.”

“That may be the coalescing of a number of factors,” Srinivasan said, “but I think it can be traced to the environment of extreme competitiveness in which we grew up. That competitiveness in India drove some of us to figure out how to ‘work the system,’ so to speak.”

So while Srinivasan said his own journey to the U.S. diverged from the typical route presented in Kapur’s book, Krishnan said reading it was like “traversing my own journey again for the last 31 years.”

No matter how it unfolded, though, Krishnan emphasized another uniting characteristic he’s noticed. It’s one to which he himself strives. “Many of us are trying to translate our success to benefit our country of birth,” he said. “Personally, I’m very committed to making a meaningful impact in the places I live and to doing good to where I came from.”