OVERSEAS INDIANS MAKE IT BIG They are the richest foreign-born group in the U.S., own 60% of all small retail stores in Britain, and account for a tenth of Hong Kong's exports.
By Rahul Jacob REPORTER ASSOCIATE Meenakshi Ganguly

(FORTUNE Magazine) – HOW FAR did they fly? Five-and-a-half thousand as the crow. Or: from Indianness to Englishness, an immeasurable distance. Or, not very far at all, because they rose from one great city and fell to another. -- Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses*

In the space of two weeks in the spring of 1974, Sucheta Kapuria married the man her parents had chosen for her and migrated to Britain. Her husband, Anil, fell ill on the plane and was hospitalized, leaving her to find an apartment near Birmingham. ''The landlords would hear my Indian accent,'' she recalls, ''and immediately say the place was rented.'' Many homes later, Kapuria, 44, lives in San Jose, California, where she and Anil own a $30-million-a-year computer components company. Nurtured, as many immigrants are, by both prejudice and opportunity, Kapuria says today, ''I became a new person.'' Migration is a form of rebirth for individuals. But it can also be the same for economies. At a time when support for immigration is less than enthusiastic in the U.S. and Europe, the success of overseas Indians is a reminder of the economic vitality immigrants bring to countries that admit them. In the U.S., for instance, nearly half of all Indians are professionals. In Britain, they own about 60% of all independent retail outlets. Indians in Hong Kong account for less than 1% of the population but are responsible for 10% of exports. And, as management at multinationals inevitably becomes more multiracial, Indians are clambering up corporate ladders. A number of Indian business families have operations all over the world, including profitable niches in countries like Lebanon and Uganda that blue-chip behemoths often avoid. DOES THIS add up to something more than an intriguing question for an International Trivial Pursuit? Absolutely, says Joel Kotkin, a fellow at Pepperdine University's business school and author of the recent book Tribes. He argues that in today's global economy, companies can gain a competitive edge by harnessing the international strengths of Indian immigrants. Says Kotkin: ''The Indians are the supreme cosmopolitans. What group is better poised than the overseas Indians for the emergence of the Third World in the 21st century?'' The more than ten million overseas Indians represent one of the world's most diverse diasporas. In the U.S. alone, one million Indians add up to a sizable presence everywhere from Silicon Valley to Wall Street. They own major shares of the country's motel industry and its wholesale market for inexpensive diamonds. They account for about 4% of America's doctors. At McKinsey & Co., about 2% of the consulting staff worldwide is Indian. Indians dominate a list compiled earlier this year by the London tabloid Today of the 20 wealthiest family names in Britain. ''Forget about keeping up with the Joneses,'' the paper advised readers. The new target should be the Varsanis. There are 600,000 Indians in Saudi Arabia and 35,000 in Germany. According to Kewalram Sital, a Hong Kong businessman who makes a hobby of tracking the whereabouts of his countrymen, there are even 4,000 Sindhis -- the most nomadic of Indian communities and its brassiest businessmen -- in the Canary Islands off the northern coast of Africa. Indians will seemingly go anywhere for business. The richest Indian family, the secretive Hindujas, typifies this global sweep: The clan built the foundation of its $2.1 billion fortune in Iran and now has offices in 50 cities around the world. Boasts Gopichand Hinduja, the second of four brothers who manage their various enterprises from London, Geneva, and Bombay: ''I don't think you could name any business other than alcohol and meat that we would not be in.'' It isn't just big business that takes Indians far afield. Bezal Jesudason, a native of sultry Madras, runs a seven-room inn in Resolute Bay, Canada, for travelers on their way to the North Pole, 1,050 miles away. He is unfazed by the -60 degrees F. temperatures (not counting wind chill) in winter. ''You just have to dress right,'' he says. Then there is Ram Charan, a consultant to companies like Citicorp and General Electric, who literally has no home. Based in the U.S., he has been going from one hotel room to another for 16 years. Reforms in U.S. immigration law since 1965 -- especially changes in the national quota system -- have brought a flood of ambitious, well-educated Indians to the U.S. During the 1980s, Indian immigration rose 126%, faster than that of any group except the Vietnamese. Says Cho Ramaswamy, editor of a satirical Tamil-language biweekly in Madras, partly in jest: ''In private, every Indian nurses an ambition to be a Non-Resident-Indian. Things seem so much better in the West.'' Often they are. According to the 1990 U.S. census, * first-generation Indians have a median family annual income of $52,908, the highest of any foreign-born group. The number of Indians entering U.S. colleges has been growing too, from 5,491 in 1980 to 16,280 last year. Many Indian engineers come to study at U.S. graduate schools. Says Ranganath Nayak, an author of a book on innovation, a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from MIT, and one of the ten most senior executives at the consulting firm Arthur D. Little: ''The biggest factor is that Indians come very well educated. These are people who would do well in any society with reasonable freedom of opportunity. It would be a surprise if they weren't successful.'' Adds Vinod Khosla, who cofounded the computer giant Sun Microsystems, retired at 30 -- as planned when he was still in college in India -- and now works for a venture capital firm on the West Coast: ''The process of moving from a country like India -- giving up the support of a close family, competing for scholarships, scrounging your way through college -- self- selects the right characteristics for success.'' Khosla's story, though remarkable, is hardly an isolated example. Among Silicon Valley's more recent millionaires is fast-talking Umang Gupta, 44, an Indian Institute of Technology graduate with an MBA from Kent State University, who took his Menlo Park, California, software company public in February. He's now worth $45 million, in part because he saw the shift from mainframes to PC networks long before former employer IBM did. Says Gupta: ''This is the base camp for a new mountain. I didn't go public just to cash in.'' Other Indian engineers are becoming senior R&D managers at large public companies. Vinod Dham, since January a vice president at Intel with responsibility for 400 engineers, is currently managing the group responsible for the powerful Pentium chip. Now the U.S. is getting competition for such brainpower from Singapore, which is systematically recruiting Indian computer professionals from both India and the U.S. as part of a grand plan to increase dramatically its high-tech capabilities by the year 2000. Engineering expertise and business acumen can lead Indians to the most unlikely places. Growing up poor in a small village without running water or electricity, Niranjan Shah could not have imagined that he would be invited to breakfast at the White House. Today, as head of a consulting engineering and construction management firm in Chicago and a major Democratic Party fund raiser, he can't be sure how many times he has been a guest at the White House without checking his calendar (six visits so far). Shah studied engineering on a full scholarship from the University of Mississippi. TURN OFF nearly any major American highway and you are likely to encounter Indian hospitality, for a price -- a good one, actually. About 40% of all U.S. motels are owned by Indians, who are the dominant ethnic group in what's known as the small-lodgings business, establishments with 50 rooms or fewer. They are also often franchisees for larger chains like Days Inn and Holiday Inn. A few operate on an even bigger scale. H.P. Rama recently opened a 170-room hotel in Orlando, Florida, and bought, in partnership with B.U. Patel, the 440-room Clarion Hotel in San Francisco. You almost expect immigrants to do well in small businesses and engineering labs, where they need only be seen and not heard and where old-boy networks don't count for much. But Indians have also prospered in corporate America. There are senior Indian executives at Citicorp, Ford Motor, and Novell. They are well represented on Wall Street too, in investment banking and research. How have Indians woven this tapestry of success across so many continents? The advantage of taking over the commercial outposts of the old British empire is one explanation. Facility with English is another. India has more people who understand English than any country but the U.S. American magazines, books, films, and -- most recently -- TV shows are everywhere. Sonny Mehta, who heads three divisions at publisher Random House, began his affair with American fiction as a boy in India. He bought his first U.S. novel, The Catcher in the Rye, from a New Delhi street vendor. When he was 14, Vinod Khosla read about the birth of Intel in second-hand, dusty, and dog-eared American engineering magazines and began to dream about starting his own company. Thirteen years later he cofounded Sun Microsystems. Hard work is another explanation. Khosla took no vacation for four or five years (he can't remember exactly) and usually worked through Thanksgiving and Christmas. Frugality plays a role too. At a time when Hollywood spends an average of $29 million to make a film, Ismail Merchant kept the budget for Howards End at $8.6 million. The film will probably gross $90 million. Merchant and director James Ivory cheerfully fly economy. Says Merchant, in a tiny Manhattan office furnished with chairs that look as if they have seen service in the pair's 34 productions: ''There is a certain paraphernalia of business that has been established. I don't believe in that bullshit.'' Simply being Indian can be an advantage. Victor Menezes, who heads Citicorp's consumer banking in Europe, thinks that growing up in the sometimes strife-torn hodgepodge of religions, cultures, and languages that is urban India provides the right ''cultural antenna'' for managing today's increasingly diverse work force. ''You are forced to embrace diversity at a very early age; otherwise you don't make it out of the playground alive,'' says Menezes, one of India's 21 million Christians. ''I never worried about being a minority in school in India. I don't think of myself as one today.'' Both Menezes and Sonny Mehta, a Sikh, are impatient with the notion of immigration and assimilation when applied to them. Says Mehta: ''I see myself as a transient, not an immigrant.'' It is a useful distinction; as business becomes more cosmopolitan, executives may well switch countries in search of more challenging opportunities the way they switch jobs today. Menezes has been in Brussels for more than four years, during which time he has traveled frequently. (When does such a nomad assimilate? On the flight over or on the way home?)

Is it even possible to learn to be typically American or English or Canadian in the metropolitan mishmash that is New York, London, or Toronto? First in London and now in New York, Mehta's keen critical and commercial instincts have redrawn the boundaries of fiction. Coming from outside the mainstream has helped him expand markets for writers like Colombian-born Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude) and Sri Lanka-born Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient). INDIANS abroad form tight-knit communities that are both supportive and competitive. A recent dinner in London hosted by flamboyant Asian Business publisher C.B. Patel is typical. In one corner, Naresh Patel, whose businesses include London's upscale Europa Foods grocery stores, is in a huddle with G.K. Noon, who supplies frozen Indian dishes to supermarkets in Britain. Later a visitor from Los Angeles begins to sing a Gujarati folk song of the 1940s that became one of the rallying cries in the fight for independence from Britain. The rest of the room joins in. Afterward there is a flurry of business card swapping. The scene is reenacted less colorfully at a shoulder-to-shoulder lunch in Hong Kong attended mostly by Sindhis in the import-export business. On another afternoon there are plenty of Indian businessmen at various tables on the veranda overlooking the Singapore Cricket Club's idyllic playing fields, sandwiched between the Parliament building and the harbor. In Britain, weddings of the Lohana community from the western state of Gujarat usually attract a minimum of 1,500 guests. What this means in business terms, says Shantoo Ruparell, a Gujarati solicitor in London, is a pooling of resources when banks turn down an Indian's request for a loan. As in many immigrant groups, families stick together. Family ties provide a core of loyal managers for private Indian companies. And talk about close! Not only do the six Harilela brothers, whose Hong Kong company owns real estate and hotels across Asia, work together, but their six families plus that of a married sister also live together in an enormous mansion in Kowloon. The household is so large that it employs 35 Filipina maids, three chefs, and a former hotel manager. Gopichand, the second of the billionaire Hinduja brothers, who works in London, phones his brothers in Geneva and Bombay ''at least a couple of times a day,'' and then interrupts an interview because ''I must speak to my brother before he goes to bed.'' Family closeness can smooth the succession issue, providing a seamless transfer between generations. Despite greater demands on his time as the new chairman of the London Metal Exchange, Raj Bagri knows that his son Apurv, 34, who lives at home, will keep him informed of everything that's important at the Bagris' metals trading and manufacturing company. Says Apurv: ''Of course, we disagree sometimes. What I've learned is that he's right 8 1/2 times out of ten. When I started, that used to be ten out of ten.'' So far, so good, as immigrants' dreams go, but what of prejudice? ''Well, what of it?'' is usually the answer. Says Pravin Mehta, a diamond dealer in New York City, with a laugh: ''Price is the only prejudice I've faced.'' No strangers to an elaborate class and caste system, Indians are also quite adept at sizing up the social landscape, aligning themselves with the local Brahmins -- and often regarding everyone else with contempt. More constructively, though, like all successful outsiders, many Indians see prejudice as a challenge rather than a cross to bear. Manubhai Madhvani, worth some $83 million today, controlled about 10% of Uganda's GDP before his < businesses were expropriated by the regime of dictator Idi Amin in 1972. Madhvani, who was a Ugandan citizen at the time, was flung into jail for three weeks before being allowed to leave for London. Today, struggling to rebuild an economy reduced to rubble, the Ugandan government wants Asians to return. The Madhvanis have been given back their huge sugar mill, and the government has taken a 30% stake. Looking back, the soft-spoken Madhvani says the family made a strategic mistake being so heavily weighted in Uganda and that they ought to have spread the equity among the local population. He gives the impression that it might have been his fault. ASK Chandrika Tandon, a McKinsey consultant until 1990, what her fledgling consulting firm does and she replies in consultantspeak, ''We release value.'' Tandon Capital Associates, which includes five other former McKinsey consultants, restructures financial institutions. Tandon does this by taking, say, a bank apart and breaking every transaction into thousands of pieces because, as she puts it, ''a lot of the waste happens deep in the bowels of the institution.'' One New Jersey bank has seen its stock rise some 350% since Tandon finished nitpicking there. In a sense, releasing value is precisely what immigrants do. They find niches of opportunity between the thousands of different parts that make up economies or coax more out of businesses -- like motels and corner stores -- that less patient entrepreneurs have disdained. Others lead the charge in sunrise industries. Salman Rushdie, the Bombay-born writer still in hiding in Britain under an Iranian death sentence because of alleged blasphemy in The Satanic Verses, thinks immigrants have a special need to make something of themselves. They seek to create identities because they have been cast into a new world bereft of any sense of place. The aggregate is more difficult to quantify than Tandon's contribution, but it's clear that this zeal helps build better economies -- and richer lives for all who inhabit them.

FOOTNOTE: *Reprinted with the permission of Penguin U.S.A.