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The Matter of The Spectacular Spectators

Feature Article The Matter of The Spectacular Spectators
SEP 28, 2023 LISTEN

The Underdog v. The Underdogs
When I chanced upon this news, I didn’t know exactly how to feel. A few weeks ago, Google employees were on their group CEO’s case for taking home close to $226 million in compensation in just one year—last year (2022). To receive this much money, all the while laying off close to 12,000 employees and slashing down compensations due to the remaining retained staff, all in the bid at a post-Covid revenue optimisation—many of these aggrieved employees thought this hypocritical of their CEO. This so-called hypocrisy was heightened by the fact that during that same period, CEOs like Tim Cook of Apple and Eric Yuan of Zoom were willingly taking 40% and 98% pay cuts respectively.

But I tell you, I still don’t know how to feel about this rallying against Google’s group CEO, Pichai Sundararajan—for ease of pronunciation, known to America and much of the rest of the world as Sundar Pichai. Because here’s the thing: Sundar is, as you may have guessed, from India—a developing country. Sundar is an immigrant from the so-called third world, making it big in the so-called first world—the so-called first of the first world, the United States of America… Between him (the Indian emigrant) and the employees of Google—the fired and retained both—many of whom are Caucasian, I am not sure I know who specifically the true underdog is. And it is only human for us to want to root for the underdog, is it not? But here we have two contending underdogs. It makes perfect sense for us not to know how to feel in such a circumstance—even if the other underdog in question is the world’s third highest paid CEO.

Matters become even more nuanced when viewed from a nationalistic angle.

Big Names
On the one hand, the country of India should be proud, not just of Sundar, but the many of his kind she has been able to spawn on the international plane. Men and women like Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft), Parag Agrawal (recent past CEO of Twitter), Neal Mohan (CEO of YouTube), Shantanu Narayen (CEO of Adobe), Arvind Krishna (CEO of IBM), Sanjay Mehrotra (co-founder of SanDisk and CEO of Micron Technology, one of the world’s leading computer memory and storage device manufacturing companies), Nikesh Arora (CEO of Palo Alto Networks), Jayshree Ullal (CEO of Arista Networks), Rajeev Suri (past CEO of Nokia), Amanpal Bhutani (CEO of GoDaddy), Sanjay Jha (former CEO of Motorola), Anjali Sud (CEO of Vimeo, the video hosting and sharing platform), Sabeer Bhatia (Co-founder of Hotmail), Ajay Bhatt (inventor of, among many others, the USB). The list is very long. And this is just those featured in the tech space.

Indians have and are leading the way, not only in tech, but across diverse sectors. There are names like Ajaypal Banga (past CEO and Executive Chairman of Mastercard and newly-elected President of the World Bank)) and his brother Vindi Banga (Chairman of UK Government Investments Limited (UKGI) and past President of Unilever, Global Foods division). There are also people like Indra Nooyi (famed former CEO and Board Chair of Pepsi (PepsiCo)), Laxman Narasimhan (CEO of Starbucks), Vasant Narasimhan (CEO of Novartis, the global pharmaceutical company), Leena Nair (CEO of Chanel, the billion-dollar fashion brand), Srikant Datar (incumbent Dean of Harvard Business School), Punit Renjen (Global CEO of Deloitte) and, should we resort to nit-picking, we can even add Rishi Sunak (Prime Minister of UK)—being of Indian descent as he is. The list is indeed long. And quite frankly, I am growing tired typing them out, and I know for certain, you, yourself, are getting tired reading them. So, let’s end it here.

I must say, the world, it has noticed… The fact that Indians have, for some time now, been producing brilliant minds, and leaders of powerful multinational companies and institutions on the global plane as much as Samoans have been producing wrestlers on this same plane, has not at all been lost on the world.

In the year 2011, ‘Time Magazine’ ran an article titled, ‘India’s Leading Export: CEOs’. It may have been a promotional piece done on the Banga brothers—Vindi and Ajay—who were then incumbent Executive Board Member of Unilever and CEO of MasterCard respectively. The article may have oversold it—the fact that there was some form of takeover of the global institutional and corporate world by Indians. The ‘Harvard Business Review’, was to, three years later, building on a 2013 report published by ‘Fortune Global 500’, take this very view—i.e., that it was perhaps too early to confer on India this title as one of the world’s leading exporter of CEOs. But even as far back as these early 2000s, one could not overlook the fact that the people of ‘Times Magazine’ really did have a lot of grounds to stand on in this assertion that one of India’s leading exports, apart from Bollywood movies, was in fact its high-quality human resource capital—human resource capital that tended to find their ways to the very top positions in whatever corporations or organisations they found themselves in.

I mean, aside from the Banga brothers, there was also Indra Nooyi, who, as already mentioned, was then CEO of PepsiCo. There was also Vikram Pandit, who was then CEO of Citigroup (one of the world’s leading investment banks); Nitin Nohria, who was then Dean of the Harvard Business School; Ajit Jain was then Vice Chairman and shareholder of the Warren Buffet investment conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway; and Ajit’s cousin, Anshu Jain, was, at the time, CEO and Chairman of Deutsche Bank, etc. In fact, it was during that same year (2014)—that year that this ‘Harvard Business Review’ retort of an article was written—that Satya Nadella was famously appointed CEO and Chairman of Microsoft, adding to the stock of the big Indian names on the world stage. Indeed, the Times piece may have been a bit of a hyperbole, but it really, as the Harvard Business Review itself was quick to admit, had some foundation.

But 10 years on, the narrative of the Indian global leader and CEO has become almost too loud a fact to ignore. Everywhere you turn, you see the Indian, there, at the helm of global affairs—powerful men and women commanding businesses and organisations at the world’s centre stage, the developed world.

And these names mentioned, you may have noticed, are only those of the topmost men and women in the respective corporations and organisations. I am sorry but time will not allow us to delve into the other Indian names—those who are second and third in command, those brilliant minds, those inventors of the myriad global corporations and organisations... Big Indian names spread across every nook and cranny, all levels of leadership of institutions and multinational businesses like Intel, Microsoft, IBM, Google, Apple, AT&T, Facebook, Adobe, Silicon Valley, etc.

A Dream Exported
In the year 2013, it was estimated that approximately 25% of Silicon Valley start-ups were led by Indians. This is particularly impressive looking at the fact that Indians at the time, made up less than 1% of USA's population. According to another report, the annual income of the Indian diaspora, during that same period, was about one-third of the entire country of India’s GDP (a large chunk of it coming from Silicon Valley, the self-acclaimed tech capital of the world). At a certain point in those years, a company like Microsoft had over one-third of its workforce being Indian. And this number has continued on, on an upward trajectory. So much so that the subsequent appointment of an Indian as CEO of this large multinational giant, Microsoft, came as no surprise. You know what else comes as no surprise? The fact that Indians are presently the highest-earning migrant group in the US.

When one finds nationals of a certain country, outside of their natural habitat, and into an entirely foreign nation, yet flourishing famously in that host nation—at such profound rate, on such profound levels, on the global stage—one cannot help but fantasise about how great this home nation of theirs itself must be. When you hear names like Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. emanating from this country called the United States of America, you cannot help but fantasise about the greatness of this country. For a nation to produce such brilliant minds and successful individuals—individuals whose names and offspring of organisations and inventions spread across all corners of the world—such a nation must, of course, be a great, prosperous one! And you will find yourself proven right in this mental calculation—the USA is indeed a great and prosperous nation. It has a national prosperity matching that of its big names—its successful citizenry.

So then, if Indians are making it this big in the world, then India itself must be a very big country—a very prosperous and powerful country, no? Well, that’s where you and I have a problem.

The Problem
You and I don’t have a problem. What I meant to say was that regarding the bigness of India as corresponding to the bigness of its citizens on the international plane, we find our expectations on a complete tangent with reality. Because India is still a poor country. I always cringe at the attachment of the adjective ‘poor’ to countries—as is most often done to our very own. But what option do we have? Some things are just facts, aren’t they? And the plain fact is that India is, by all earthly standards, a comparatively poor country. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, in fact.

As of the year 2018, two-thirds of Indians lived in poverty, and over 30%, in extreme poverty. According to the UNDP 2020 population data, India houses the largest number of poor people worldwide (standing at 228.9 million). Trailing behind at a not-too-close second is Nigeria (with approximately 96.7 million poor people). This recorded large instances of poverty is to be expected of developing countries like these, having the added ‘disadvantage’ of a large population. So, unsurprisingly, we have India (the second most populous nation in Asia and the world at large) and Nigeria (the most populous nation in Africa) leading the way in poverty—in absolute numbers.

In total, more than 800 million Indians are considered poor. They suffer the very harsh brunt of their country’s endemic unemployment, endemic diseases, malnutrition, child labour, child marriages, high infant mortality rate, lack of education, often-times lack of electricity, rapid urbanisation—rapid urbanisation driven by push factors of the rural centres, and then rapid emigrations driven by the push factors of the country as a whole. Indian cities are infamously congested—there are slums and there are mega slums everywhere you turn in cities like Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, etc.

According to the UN, India has seen some growth over the years. The country was said to have lifted an impressive 415 million people from poverty within a span of 15 years—from somewhere around the year 2006 to 2021. The country has recorded a consistent 10% growth in its GDP for years, and is presently one of the largest economies in the world—with a GDP of about $3.2 trillion. But these numbers, it seems, speak more to the sheer size (both in population and landmass, thus output) more so than it does, the actual prosperity of the nation—especially when compared on the global plane.

Because, from all indications, the country has not been able to exponentially trickle down these numbers to its vast population. For the longest time, only a small percentage of the Indian population have benefitted from this economic upshoot. As already noted, the vast majority of Indians still live in abject poverty—poverty that not only threatens the present but the future too… Cancerous poverty—one that kills potential; that dims dreams; that makes fools of persons, rendering their every dream, their belief in self, easily nonsensical. In India, you find just as you would in this country of ours, Ghana, human beings coexisting peacefully with their own waste—dumping grounds posing as human habitats. Look closely and you will see yet another Sundar Pichai, in these Indian mega slums, wasting away. Look closely and you will find yet another Indra Nooyi, in these mega slums, rotting away. You will find the Indian child engaged in labour befitting adults—sacrificing now, education that has the potential of unearthing their fullest potential in the future, for immediate labour.

But India has recorded consistent growth, you say? That’s all well and good. But here is the thing: citizens are increasingly growing tired of their leaders requiring praise for mediocrity...

Children Can Embarrass Us
Somewhere in the world there is a parent who has written off one particular child of theirs as ‘good-for-nothing’. In a perfect world, a parent could throw away their ‘good-for-nothing’ ward, no? Imagine if this supposed ‘perfect world’ was to happen for a parent, and they in fact found a dumping ground in which to drop their child. Imagine this parent’s shock if they found this same child of theirs, found and claimed by another parent, and in this new parent’s care, doing marvellously… For one to find their child, only truly at their best when out of their own care…

If this is ever to happen to a parent, such a parent will have earned the singular right to intense introspection—of questioning their parenting prowess. ‘Who am I that my child can never be at their very best when under my care?’ ‘Who am I that my child should find the attainment of their best selves, not with me, but with another?’

Still, India has recorded consistent growth, you say? That’s all well and good. But citizens are increasingly growing tired of their leaders requiring praise for mediocrity, especially looking at the matter of the utilisation of the country’s human resource capital as detailed here—i.e., the fact that due to the country’s endemic economic hardship and prevailing market conditions, the Indian is easily rendered wasted potential—mediocre at best—in their own home nation. But, these same Indians, when they find themselves in developed countries like the UK, USA, etc., they end up being spectacular! Indeed, Indians have every right to ask questions…

Here, The Spectators
Indians have every right to ask questions. Looking at the powerful names mentioned in this article alone, looking at the immense successes, wealth, and prestige attained by fellow Indians outside this home nation of theirs, Indians back home, indeed, have every right to ask questions.

It is very important to note that these few men and women mentioned in this article are all millionaires at least—billionaires for the most part. These men and women are all first-generation Indians—persons who spent their formative years through to their tertiary years in their home country of India, and migrated to the developed world for their postgraduate studies and subsequent work. This is to say that these men and women are, by all standards, Indian-made. They are Indian to their very core. Whatever it is they now are, found its very foundation in their home nation of India. So, India must be great, mustn’t it? For a country to be able to consistently mould persons of such calibre—persons having such profound work ethic, expertise, philosophy, and temperament that they make it big on the highly competitive international plane, this country must be one great and prosperous nation, mustn’t it?

“Growing up in India is an extraordinary preparation for management,” said the late, famed Indian entrepreneur and author, C.K. Prahalad, of his home country. “From birth certificates to death certificates, from school admissions to getting jobs, from infrastructural inadequacies to insufficient capacities, growing up in India equips Indians to be ‘natural managers’”, R. Gopalakrishnan, former Executive Director of Tata & Sons, said of his country too. In fact, many have tried attributing this same ‘Indian/global leadership’ phenomenon to certain inherent characteristics of the nation—its multiculturality, its competitive environment (I mean, not to treat this loosely, but the average Indian has on their heads, about 1.4 billion fellow citizens to compete with). All these factors (and the many more not cited in this article) are all well and good—they can be quite the recipe for churning out great leaders. But the question still remains: why are Indians consistently finding their most successes, the best versions of themselves (the attainment of their fullest potentials) outside their home nation of India?

It really seems like the country of India can cook a good dish but finds a hard time eating its own dish. It seems that this country can nurture the potential but has not put in place the right soil that allows for the fullest flourishing of these same potentials—and their consequent utility to the nation itself. For an entire nation—the second most populous country in the world—to render itself a mere spectator, watching on, cheering on, as its citizens consistently attain otherworldly success, not within its own national borders, but outside it… That is a bittersweet experience, isn’t it? For a nation to resign itself to being cheerleaders on the global stage—never actual players… That’s truly quite the bittersweet situation. A country that can nurture potential but cannot utilise this same potential for national prosperity. That’s really a very tragic position for a nation to put itself in.

I tell you, Indians have every right to ask these important questions—questions like:

What situation have we managed to create for ourselves in this country of ours…? This situation where we constantly push away our bright minds… This situation where our bright minds constantly find themselves unable to unearth their fullest potentials within our own borders… This situation where our human resource capital must constantly exit this nation of ours before their truest potentials are met?

How do we resolve this mess?
Fellow Ghanaians, our country, Ghana, is not too different from India on this front.

Speak to you next time.
[Side note: I know you tried, but please keep resisting the temptation of whipping out your calculators with the intention of doing some mathematics on your own income, holding it up against Sundar Pichai’s, in fruitless comparison...]

[Published in the Business & Financial Times (B&FT) - 4th July 2023]

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