The rise of Asian American leaders in tech

04:09 - Source: CNN
Who is Sundar Pichai, Google's New CEO?

Story highlights

Sundar Pichai, who was born in India and immigrated to the United States, has been named as Google's new CEO

Jeff Yang: Immigrants are crucial to the success of the tech world, but GOP presidential candidates criticize immigrants

Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway” and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He is the co-author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” and editor of the graphic novel anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN  — 

When Google announced this week that it is reorganizing itself under a new parent company called Alphabet, reactions were fast and furious, ranging from shock at the unexpected move to amusement at the quizzically goofy name to praise for the strategic clarity the change might bring to a company whose founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have been notoriously prone to distraction.

But perhaps the most interesting outcome from the shakeup is the promotion of Sundar Pichai as Google’s new CEO, a move that, based on Pichai’s swift ascent at the company, had been more a matter of “when,” not “if.”

Jeff Yang

Page and Brin will oversee Alphabet, giving Pichai complete latitude in running Google, currently the sixth largest tech company in the world, and arguably the one most omnipresent in our digital lives.

Pichai, born in Chennai, India, and a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, is just the latest in a growing number of other top tech CEOs who share a common ancestry in India and status as immigrants to the United States.

This list includes Satya Nadella, who in 2011 took the reins of the world’s fifth largest tech company, Microsoft; Sanjay Mehrotra, co-founder and CEO of memory chip mammoth SanDisk; and Shantanu Narayen, CEO of graphics software giant Adobe.

Their rise has challenged the long-held (and always false) notion that Asian-Americans have the ability to execute but not to lead — that cultural deficits, language gaps or lack of self-confidence are an insurmountable handicap for Asians, especially immigrant Asians, seeking to break into the C-suite.

That this shattering of the glass ceiling has occurred first and foremost in technology isn’t entirely surprising: Though the tech world has a long way to go to address other diversity concerns (namely, the painfully low percentage of women, blacks and Hispanics both in rank-and-file engineering roles and in leadership positions), the industry has been at the forefront of the fight to reform U.S. immigration policy, correctly seeing human resources as the critical front in staying competitive.

The logic is simple: If you see individuals with talent, skills and ambition as your most critical asset, why wouldn’t you try to corner the market on these assets?

It’s not a coincidence that America has built its staggering lead in global technology over the past half century, during which historical boundaries on immigration have been lowered, creating new opportunities for strivers from around the world — literally, in the case of Asia — to come to America, learn, grow, settle and contribute.

And yet, the only beats on immigration sounded in the recent first debate of Republican candidates for the presidency were sour and fearful. Candidates, led by billionaire GOP front-runner Donald Trump, talked about walls and deportation, depicting immigrants as a source of crime, plague and instability rather than a force for change, innovation and future opportunity.

Though the focus of their remarks was primarily on Mexico, the atmosphere of xenophobic mistrust they’ve cultivated has no geographical boundaries, especially when placed alongside their foreign policy stances. Theirs is a reality in which the United States stands largely alone, a fortress island facing a sea of enemies and rivals, current or emerging, in Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

The sensibility they’ve cultivated among their supporters is one in which Americans should instinctively neither trust nor welcome those whose origins extend beyond our borders, and should even question the inherent loyalties of those whose names, features, heritages and faiths differ from the ones they cling to as this country’s norms.

But in this year of the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that liberalized immigration to the United States, the notion that our nation can compete or even survive without the societal lifeblood of new peoples who come here seeking to contribute to and benefit from the American idea is more ludicrous than ever.

Countries with restrictive immigration policies — such as Japan and South Korea, home to the United States’ largest competitors in the technology space — are seeing their population age dramatically, and will face a demographic catastrophe in the span of just a few generations.

The era of open-door America is half a century old, and that half-century has allowed us to unleash the greatest array of technological marvels the world has ever seen. After all, if America hadn’t welcomed 6-year-old Moscow-born Sergey Brin and his immigrant parents in 1979, there would never have been a Google.

The search giant is just one of the 25% of all tech start-ups with immigrant founders — a list that also includes icons of Silicon Valley such as eBay, Yahoo, YouTube, PayPal, Tesla and Sun Microsystems.

The tech world understands how crucial immigrants have been to its avalanche of productivity and innovation. It’s a shame — and ultimately, a threat to our future — that so many of the individuals who seek to become president of this nation do not.

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