When Rachna Singh returned to her native India in early 2011 to start up Hachi Labs, after a seven-year career in Silicon Valley, she was staggered – and not by Bangalore’s horrendous traffic jams, infuriatingly frequent power shutdowns or shoddy roads, all of which she had come to expect. Instead Singh was stunned by a seeming cultural aversion toward entrepreneurship.
Hundreds of Bay Area returnees are getting off the plane in Bangalore to plunge straight into entrepreneurship, however, giving India an unprecedented innovation boost. This is a major shift from a few years ago, when returnees preferred safe-landing in multinational jobs and living in expensive, California-style gated communities. At the same time new batches of returnees have to deal with an entrepreneurial deficit alongside several other challenges. Things are changing certainly, but the new returnees are finding it prudent not to sever their umbilical cord with Silicon Valley.
In Bangalore the antipathy toward entrepreneurshipmanifests in many ways, Singh has found. As she started building a start-up team for Hachi, a ”meta connector” that mines social and other networks to find the smartest way to reach out to anybody, she encountered her first challenge. Skilled young candidates were not hard to find but, unlike their Silicon Valleycounterparts, they were unimpressed by offers of equity. These risk-averse engineers wanted market-value salaries, even though in India entry-level salaries are still only a fourth of what freshly minted engineers get paid in the United States.
To pass muster as a serious employer, Hachi had to allow parents of young prospective hires to physically inspect the startup’s office and meet the boss. Topping it all, Singh’s own family could not understand why she was in India launching a start-up. In a culture in which failing is taboo, they questioned her for giving up ”a fairy-tale life in the Silicon Valley, where I drove a fabulous car and lived in a sexy home.”
Singh’s experience as a Silicon Valley returnee echoes those of her fellow journeymen. Many Indians are forsaking their adopted land for fresh prospects. Drawn to the allure of India’s sizable talent pool, its low costs and a ready test market for all kinds of products and services, many are making the voyage homeward to plunge headlong into entrepreneurship. As they start getting their enterprises off the ground, however, they find that – unlike in Silicon Valley – the odds are stacked against risk-takers.
Still, many find plenty of positives to doing business in Bangalore. On the personal front, for example, returned professionals say that the ”social aspects” are immeasurably better, whether being on call for aging, ailing parents, reconnecting with family and friends or allowing their young children to experience the culture of their ancestors.
In the past five years, striking changes in the city are mimicking Silicon Valley’s early days. Talented professionals no longer feel compelled to go westward to seek a challenging career. That has dramatically improved the skill pool in India’s own technology hub, turning it into an underpinning of innovation.
Meanwhile, after years of blazing economic growth, the domestic market is evolving from merely cost-conscious to value-conscious consumers, making it a ready test bed for global products and services. All of this is a powerful magnet for returnees disembarking in Bangalore.
Roopa Hungund returned in early 2011, after spending 14 years with multinationals such as Cisco and Oracle in the Bay Area. Within a year of arriving, Hungund had founded an e-commerce start-up based on an idea that evolved during her Valley years: CostPrize is a geography-specific, context-sensitive deal-aggregator portal that gives customers deep discounts and cash-back offers. She describes India as still-virgin territory, unlike the crowded markets targeted by entrepreneursin the West.
Bangalore lacks the sense of urgency that pervades Silicon Valley, recent returnee Anshuman Bapna says. Bapna graduated from Stanford University’s business school and worked for Deloitte and for Google before returning to India in 2009 to set up MyGola, a travel Web site that focuses on the global market. MyGola has received funding from two Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Many Bangalore startups covet funding by Valley VCs because it opens up new networks and brings fresh expertise.
It may not be immediately apparent, but the influx of returnees represents a windfall for Bangalore’s entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem. Going back and forth in an ultra-networked world, returnees are slowly spreading the Valley’s vigor and creative processes in Bangalore.
Bapna, for instance, has found it much easier to stand out as an employer with his work culture transported from the Valley. His start-up has a spacious, open workspace, paintings on the walls, free food, yoga classes, a foosball table and open vacation policies.
”All this may be standard stuff in the Valley,” he says, ”but continues to amaze folks who walk into our office for interviews.”
Many returnees see their homecoming not as a one-way ticket but as the inauguration of a more fluid situation whereby they can go back and forth, working the two disparate situations to their advantage. Bapna bristles at the term ”returnees,” in fact, and expects to shuttle back and forth every year.
In treading two worlds, he and other returnee entrepreneurs are rearranging the global innovation order a little at a time. They are soaking in the culture and comforts of home and family while partaking in the abundant and inexpensive skills of India’s young work force, even using its vast markets as a testing ground. On the other hand, they continue to have robust connections with Silicon Valley, returning there frequently to inhale its entrepreneurial air.