India's stars rise as dot-coms sink

Despite the dot-com gloom, Silicon Valley is still hungry for skills. Stephen Phillips in San Francisco reports

Despite the dot-com gloom, Silicon Valley is still hungry for skills. Stephen Phillips in San Francisco reports

Thousands of San Francisco commuters were left fuming last month after pranksters struck on the Golden Gate Bridge. Traffic backed up for miles on the only route into the city from the north coast after motorists stopped to gawp at a Volkswagen Beetle twisting in the wind, suspended by slender nylon twine lashed to the famous span. Police eventually put an end to the spectacle - apparently staged by engineering students - cutting the dangling Bug down because of the risk it posed to vessels plying the busy shipping lane beneath.

The image of a counter-culture icon being consigned to a watery grave in the frigid Pacific mirrors the sinking fortunes of many of the area's teeming Internet companies. An 'e' daubed on the Beetle's red chassis was presumably short for 'engineering' but might as well have stood for 'e-business' as a slew of dot-bombs, many of which co-opted the trendy, counter-culture style epitomised by the Bug, take an early bath.

Palo Alto's tallied 2,100 lay-offs from local Internet companies in January. Taking an axe to costs to buy more time for those elusive profits to materialise claimed many scalps, while others were casualties of myriad bankruptcies after sales boosts from the traditionally brisk Christmas retail season failed to staunch the flow of red ink.

But while 'pink slip' (the US equivalent of the P45) parties have become big on the Bay Area social circuit, as out-of-work dot-commers look to exchange redundancy notices for business cards at specially organised networking events, not everyone is feeling the pinch.

Take the Indian community - by no means a here-today-gone-tomorrow phenomenon. The estimated 200,000 IT workers from the subcontinent who call the Bay Area home rank as America's most successful immigrant group, having created companies whose stock market valuation totals hundreds of billions of dollars. Indian engineers pocketed almost half of the 115,000 H1B visas doled out last year to overseas workers plugging US skills gaps.

The rise of the Silicon Raj is partly a numbers game - with a population of more than 800,000,000, India has the largest national pool of English-speaking labour in the world. But it owes more to an educational system that majors on science and technology with a rigour that surpasses the best US institutions.

At the centre of India's colonisation of the Net economy are graduates of the six Indian Institutes of Technology. For the 3% of applicants accepted onto the gruelling courses, an IIT degree represents a passport to riches.

Indian engineers form especially large contingents at Silicon Valley titans, Oracle (which puts time and space aside for Hindu prayer meetings) and Cisco. Back-office positions reflect the beginnings of the Indian influx in the early 1970s, when local recruiters first cottoned on to the utility of tech-savvy Indian engineers as code-crunching dromedaries but deemed them lacking in the slick presentation skills needed front-of-house. This executive ceiling was shattered in 1982, when IIT poster boy Vinod Khosla co-founded Sun Microsystems, paving the way for the likes of KB Chandrashekar and BV Jagadeesh to found Santa Clara-based Website hosting firm, Exodus.

Nowadays, Indians are part of the Silicon Valley fabric. Fremont's opulent Vineyard Hills suburb has been christened 'Indian Hill' after the concentration of immigrants living there, while Sunnyvale's Gandhi Street is a row of Indian restaurants, shops and grocery stores.

Meanwhile, the Santa Clara Marriott plays host to IndUS Entrepreneurs, a high-powered networking forum for Indian business luminaries dedicated to forging the next generation of Silicon Valley moguls. Curry-loving Brits headed for California should take note. Inspired by its guests, the hotel serves the meanest palakh paneer in the West.

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