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Hello World | Parag Agrawal’s elevation as Twitter chief is yet another reminder for India to fix the brain drain

India is hungry for top talent and needs to work on a policy that will make it easier for them to stay or come back after studying overseas.

December 01, 2021 / 02:36 PM IST
An alumnus of IIT Bombay, Parag Agrawal is the new CEO of Twitter.

An alumnus of IIT Bombay, Parag Agrawal is the new CEO of Twitter.

Note to readers: Hello world is a program developers run to check if a newly installed programming language is working alright. Startups and tech companies are continuously launching new software to run the real world. This column will attempt to be the "Hello World" for the real world.

A few months ago, I was on a video call with Parag Agrawal, then the chief technology officer at Twitter. At the time I had no idea he’d become the chief executive officer of Twitter very soon. My questions were about how the company plans to fight misinformation and Parag’s answers were thoughtful.

hello world logoOn Tuesday, when Jack Dorsey named Agrawal the new Twitter chief, the old ‘another Indian CEO’ running a major American company story started doing the rounds again. Agrawal joins the likes of Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, Shantanu Narayen, and several others who lead top tech companies in the United States. 

“Google, Microsoft, Adobe, IBM, Palo Alto Networks, and now Twitter run by CEOs who grew up in India. Wonderful to watch the amazing success of Indians in the technology world and a good reminder of the opportunity America offers to immigrants. (Congrats, @paraga!),” Patrick Collison, the founder, and CEO of Stripe tweeted. 

To this, entrepreneur Elon Musk replied: "USA benefits greatly from Indian talent!" True that. The US economy has greatly benefited from immigrants who make up nearly a third of the workforce in industries such as technology. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, the labour force participation rate of foreign-born adults was 65.7 percent at about 27.2 million.

The Joe Biden administration has taken a talent-friendly US immigration policy. Its immigration bill wants to make it easier for STEM students to stay and work in the United States. The bill has proposed a path for international students to become permanent residents after graduation.

Parag, like many others, had moved to the valley years ago after a stellar academic track record in India. He got 77th rank in the IIT joint entrance exams, one of the world’s most competitive examinations, and studied computer science at IIT Bombay. After stints at Microsoft, Yahoo, and AT&T Labs, he joined Twitter in 2011 as a software engineer. Very soon, he became the company’s chief technology officer. 

There is much to rejoice in Parag’s success. But again, there is also something critical to be said about the whole affair. As Kunal Shah on Twitter said: “While we all celebrate how Indians are become (sic) global tech CEOs and bask in this reflected glory, we as Indians need to ask what is making our best leave the country and what will reverse this trend in years to come. A country with its best talent leaving will not win big.”

This to me, should be the biggest takeaway for us. Regular readers of this column will remember how I’d pointed out in January 2021, that a concentrated effort to woo and bring the brightest Indian students overseas back to the country is the need of the hour. India has many things going for it right now. This is a good time to sit up and create a program to retain and bring some of our brightest students back to India. Not by issuing diktats or making it hard for them to go abroad, but by making it more conducive for them to pursue their goals here in India. 

China did this a few decades ago. To reverse the brain drain, it launched the ‘Thousand Talents Plan’ in 2008. It paid academics under the program better, funded their research, and threw in perks such as housing and lavish bonuses. Through the program, China brought back nearly 7,000 top scientists to China. 

With more than 100 startup unicorns, a growing economy, innovation at scale in areas such as finance, India is hungry for top talent and needs to work on a policy that will make it easier for them to stay or come back after studying overseas.

Jayadevan PK
Jayadevan PK is a storyteller who focuses on business and technology. His first book, Xiaomi: How a Startup Disrupted the Market and Created a Cult Following, was published by Harper Collins in April 2021.
first published: Dec 1, 2021 02:30 pm