Nadella as CEO sparks Indian pride

Since it became apparent last week that Satya Nadella was in line to become only the third chief executive of Microsoft Corp., the Indian community in Silicon Valley has been bubbling over with pride.

That his ascension would generate such excitement might seem surprising at first. Indians have become a force in Silicon Valley, where about 15 percent of tech startups have Indian founders and a handful of notable companies, such as Adobe Systems Inc., have Indian chief executives.

Yet Nadella’s appointment is being hailed by Indians as something more. It’s another giant leap forward to have their own running one of the world’s most important companies. And he’ll be stepping into the shoes of Bill Gates, one of the world’s most famous names, to run a company for which Indians have a special affection.

“This is why this is making front page news in India,” said Vivek Wadhwa, a former entrepreneur and Stanford researcher who has studied the Indian technology community. “It shows how they’ve crossed the barriers. They’ve made it to the mainstream in a big way.”

On Tuesday, Microsoft confirmed that Nadella, 46, would become chief executive, replacing Steve Ballmer, who had succeeded Gates. In addition, Gates is becoming a product advisor to Nadella and stepping down as chairman, replaced by John Thompson.

“Satya Nadella is Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates his wingman,” read the headline across the top of the Times of India website.

Upon taking the helm at Microsoft, Nadella instantly becomes one of the most influential Indian business leaders in the world. He joins the ranks of such other notable names as Indra Nooyi, who is chair and chief executive of PepsiCo, and Ajaypal Singh Banga, chief executive of MasterCard. But with $78 billion in revenue last year, Microsoft had more sales than both of those companies combined.

Across the U.S., Indian Americans have taken leadership roles in politics, finance and government. In Silicon Valley, Ro Khanna, former deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Commerce, is running for the U.S. House of Representatives and has drawn strong support from local tech leaders.

“I congratulate Satya on this exciting news,” Khanna said. “His position exemplifies the incredible contributions that Indian Americans have made toward growing the economy, furthering innovation and creating good paying jobs.”

Nowhere in the U.S., though, have Indians made a bigger impact than in Silicon Valley. Although Microsoft is based in Redmond, Nadella’s appointment is still seen as a kind of capstone to the remarkable rise of this community.

“It’s just one more symbolic thing that validates that our world is becoming much more global and is crossing boundaries,” said Padmasree Warrior, chief technology officer of Cisco Systems. “It suggests that it’s execution and results that matter in the end, regardless of where you come from.”

Nadella was born in Hyderabad, whose nickname is the “City of Pearls,” in southeastern India. In a biography on the Microsoft website, Nadella says playing cricket was a “passion.”

“I think playing cricket taught me more about working in teams and leadership that has stayed with me throughout my career,” he says.

India has famously invested in technology education for decades. But Nadella attended what was then Mangalore University, a strong school, but not considered on par with the nation’s elite Indian Institutes of Technology.

He moved to the U.S. to briefly take a job at Sun Microsystems before taking a sales job at Microsoft in 1992.

Sanjay Parthasarathy, another Microsoft executive, met Nadella and persuaded him to join a product team, where he would be making things instead of selling them, a move that probably set him on the course that would lead to the corporate boardroom.

Parthasarathy, who retired from Microsoft several years ago and now runs a startup called Indix, recalls that in the early 1990s the two friends were among just a handful of Indians at the company. Although they all had tremendous ambition and confidence, Nadella seemed to go a step beyond.

“We were both pretty hard-driving,” he said. “But Nadella, he would get on a plane to Chicago every Friday for two or three years to get his MBA. I’m a pretty demanding manager. But he was putting himself through so much more.”

But that kind of will, many Indians say, was necessary to prove themselves in an era in which they were initially stereotyped as good engineers but not good executives. Wadhwa recalls being told by venture capitalists in the early 1990s they would invest in his company if he found someone else to be the chief executive.

Over the years, though, Indians helped one another scale those walls. They built extensive immigrant networks, particularly in Silicon Valley, where they invested in one another’s companies, hired friends and provided support and mentorship, Wadhwa said.

The excitement over Nadella’s new role isn’t just about the title and that he has climbed another notch higher, industry observers say. It also has a lot to do with the company he will represent.

Although Microsoft’s reputation has taken a hit in the U.S. in recent years as it has struggled to adapt to new technology trends, the company remains much more respected around the world. That’s especially true in India, where in the early 1990s Microsoft became one of the first major technology companies to make significant investments in the country in terms of products and hiring.

In March 1997, Gates made his first visit to the country, and the four-day tour drew headlines across the nation. And his foundation has made India a major focus of its philanthropic work.

“It’s a big deal for the community to have one of our own become the CEO of such an iconic company,” said Kamla Bhatt, an Indian blogger and podcaster in Silicon Valley.

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