In the past, India’s best and brightest routinely looked to the U.S. and other Western countries for jobs following graduation. Today, however, the “brain drain” seems to be reversing: According to placement figures at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Bangalore, 75% of this year’s graduating class opted for jobs in India. In this opinion piece, Bangalore-based writer Shoba Narayan offers her understanding of this trend following interviews with graduating students and IIM faculty. Previously in India Knowledge at Wharton, Narayan chronicled her own family’s decision to return to India after living in the U.S. for 20 years (“Return to India”).
Madras, India. 1986. The sidewalk outside the American consulate was most active at dawn. That was when bellboys from the nearby Prince Hotel darted out with steaming cups of coffee for a long line of sleeping bodies, all of whom had camped out overnight with one single-minded goal: to get a U.S. visa.
When the embassy guard opened the gate at 8 a.m., everyone sat up, eyes wide; hands clutching files, papers, passports, bank statements, visa forms, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, mutual fund proxies, archival photographs — anything to convince the stern, spectacled immigration officer behind the counter that we were upstanding citizens worthy of admission into America. We didn’t really care what subject we were going to study, at which university, or what job we would take after college. The whole point, as Sourav Mukherji says, was that “you basically went abroad no matter what, and then figured it out.”
That was then. Youthful, T-shirt clad Mukherji is the placement director at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore, and he has a ringside view of how the times have changed. Nowadays, his students are more discerning about the jobs they take. Going abroad is viewed as a choice, not a given. “I have students walking in and saying, ‘I got this job offer from a foreign firm, but the job wasn’t really interesting so I’ve decided to go with an Indian firm,'” says Mukherji. “Going abroad is not the be-all and end-all for these graduates.”
The numbers substantiate his views. Out of the 256 students in IIM Bangalore’s graduating class, only 65 opted for international locations; 75% of the class opted for jobs in India, and four students opted out of the placement process altogether to pursue entrepreneurial dreams. Finance and banking followed by consulting are the most sought after careers, with 40% of the students opting for jobs in finance and 37% in consulting.
These numbers reflect a national trend. At IIM Ahmedabad, many students turned down jobs in prominent companies abroad to stay and work in India, according to Piyush Kumar Sinha, chairperson of placement at the Institute. One reason is India’s emergence as a “hot” global economy; another has to do with changing student priorities. As Seema Bansal, a principal with The Boston Consulting Group, said in an editorial in the business daily Mint, five years ago, the typical place that graduates saw themselves a decade into their careers would be in the top management of a leading company. Now, more and more graduates want to run non-government organizations (NGOs), be entrepreneurs, enter politics and change society. Bansal, who has interviewed more than 300 students across multiple Indian campuses, feels that India as a nation ought to nurture this idealism and passion that seems evident among today’s graduates. And this is especially true in Bangalore, a city that thrives on ideas and idealism.
IIM Bangalore — or IIM-B, as it is called — is a leafy, verdant campus an hour outside the bustle of Bangalore. I drove to IIM-B one morning to meet the students and take their pulse. Having read tons of news reports about the burgeoning economic opportunities in India, the reverse migration of the Indian Diaspora and the country’s double-digit GDP growth, I was prepared for the students to be optimistic about India. What I wasn’t prepared for was the way these 20-year-olds viewed studying and working abroad with a nonchalance that would have stunned my generation.
Pradeep Shekhawat graduated from IIT Bombay and is just finishing his MBA at IIM-B. He worked with Capital One in Washington, D.C., for three years before enrolling in business school. After graduating, he does not want to go back to the U.S., at least for the time being. “Most of the industries in the U.S. are fairly mature, so consulting jobs have to do with incremental things like increasing efficiency,” he says. “In India, it is all about growth. Here is where the excitement is for a consultant.”
Shekhawat, a tall man with an easy smile and the measured tones of an engineer (they are mostly all engineers at IIM-B), has accepted an offer with The Boston Consulting Group and intends to work in their Delhi office. He would like to move to another part of the world, perhaps Europe, in three to five years, but in the short-term, “India is where it is all happening.”
Not in every field, though. The financial markets, everyone agrees, are far more advanced in the West. It will take India at least 10 years to catch up. And that’s the optimistic view. Ergo, most students who want to work in finance make the trek West to get job experience and satisfaction.
Rachana Kedilaya graduated from IIT Bombay with a bachelor’s degree in metallurgy and material science and has accepted a job offer with Lehman Brothers in London as an associate. Kedilaya is interested in the capital markets, “which means that I have to work in the West, at least initially.” She wants to keep the India option open, however: She is already working with some Indian private equity firms on a couple of projects so that she can return to India to work in that industry “in a few years.” In the meantime, she wants to trek to the Mount Everest base camp for the summer.
More women (roughly 50% of the IIM-B class) chose foreign postings mostly because they gravitate towards finance. Nidhi Gupta, for instance, echoes Kedilaya’s sentiments. Her plan is to work at HSBC in London, where she has accepted a job offer in the capital markets side for a few years. She thinks that she will learn a lot from the exposure. “But eventually, I want to come back to India and start something on my own.”
Students who leave India fall into three camps: those who leave saying that they will come back in a few years; those (like me) who aren’t sure where they will end up; and those who simply want to get out never to return. No one really vocalizes it in this way, of course. When I left India, returning or not returning was not in my scheme of things. My parents were more worried about the next step — how to get me married off — and I was equally worried about the next step — how to extend my annual scholarship to cover two more years of my education. It was only after a decade that I actually could pause and reflect on what I wanted instead of how to achieve the next step.
The generation that came after me gained in confidence, but they, too, viewed the West as the land of opportunity. It was only after the Millennium, when the Indian economy began gaining momentum, that a shift in thinking occurred. A lot has happened in the past eight years, both in terms of macro economics and public perception. One tangible change is that the so-called “brain drain” is slowly turning into a brain-gain. Students don’t automatically decide to go abroad no matter what; those who do talk about returning in a few years. As Shekhawat says, “Everyone talks about returning in a few years when they leave India. The difference is that a greater percentage of people are actually acting on their words and coming back.”
Living abroad is a gift when you are young. You get to live away from the collective thinking that permeates Indian culture and figure out who you are; you get to move away from what another student, Ashwin Jain, calls the “yaari-dosti” culture of India and do your own thing.
Yaari-dosti culture is perhaps best explained this way: In India, if your friends invite you out for a movie and you don’t want to go because you’ve already seen it, they will feel insulted and pressure you to join them — “Come on, yaar. Give us some company.” In the U.S., if your friend invites you to a movie and you say that you’ve seen it, he’ll likely say, “Okay,” and carry on. Your presence or absence does not make or break the friendship.
This group-think in India is both its strength and weakness. On the one hand, it preserves an individual’s web of relationships; yet on the other, it prevents individualism. Jain, a laid back, soft-spoken man, enjoys the individualism of America. He is joining Merrill Lynch in New York as an Associate. He is going for the exposure, he says. “Any money I make is a bonus.”
I ask Jain what his dream is. During my conversation with him, I can tell that he is thoughtful, bright and ambitious. I expect him to tell me that he wants to be CEO of Merrill Lynch. Instead, he says, “Don’t tell my recruiters this, but I want to start my own adventure travel company.” He wants to lead treks, raft the Brahmaputra River, walk through glaciers; the whole works. Then he repeats what the rest have been saying: “I figure I’ll go abroad for a few years, save some money and then, take some risks.”
Along the spectrum, these graduates fall right in between the Stanford undergraduate who drops out of school to start his own company and the Indian government servant who works all his life in one job so he can get a government pension. Today’s Indian graduates are risk-takers, but they want some security, although not as much as their parents. As Rajeev Gowda, professor of economics and social sciences at IIM-B says, “More than half the class are children of government servants, but there is a dramatic transformation in terms of their horizons and possibilities.”
Gowda, a Wharton graduate, returned from the U.S. to pursue a political career. Today, he straddles two worlds. He gets down and dirty with the unions, the farm workers and the rallies and then he — seamlessly, it seems — blends into the rarified realms of academia. He rues the herd mentality of his students and says that many of them are not sure of who they are or what they want. “But there is also a growing self-confidence in terms of their aspiring to be entrepreneurs much sooner than, say, my generation,” he says.
Missing Good Chai
Part of the reason why this aspiration is possible is the borderless economy. As thousands of Asian entrepreneurs have proved in the recent past, there is money to be made in China, India, Taiwan and Korea. If wealth is what you desire, the thinking goes, you don’t have to go abroad for that. The slowdown of the U.S. economy bolsters this argument somewhat.
Frequent trips abroad allay what Sidharth Gupta calls “the fascination for the Western lifestyle.” Many of these students have either spent time abroad during internships or know that they can go abroad for projects if they so desire. Their confidence is also a function of them graduating from a top-tier school in India. A student in a smaller city who does not have as many options as these graduates would still have the same fascination for the West that I did some 20 years ago. Gupta, on the other hand, is anything but fascinated. He did his first year internship with McKinsey in London but is very clear that he wants to find a job in India. “Location is important to me; family is important; and I see opportunities exploding in India,” says Gupta.
“At the end of the day, McKinsey has these ‘Ambassador’ programs where you can do a temporary stint in say, Texas, if you want,” he adds. Apparently, a lot of students gravitate towards consulting jobs because they are India-based positions. In that sense, they offer the best of both worlds: You have the professional satisfaction of working for a multinational in an Indian environment. “In the past, you had to choose one or the other: family or work,” says Gupta. “You either had to leave your family to get a good job, or take up a mediocre position to stay close to home. Nowadays, there are no sacrifices. I can have both.”
When he is abroad, Shekhawat says, he misses ‘Nukkad’ tea — good chai from a hole-in-the-wall dhaba. The taste of home. Kedilaya agrees. “What’s with the tea and milk in separate containers? When I was in London, I was like, ‘I want it all mixed together, Indian-style. What am I paying you for?'”
The students all mention the little things about India, about Bangalore, about their beautiful campus that they will miss. “There is a whole subset of my students who simply refuse to leave India and there are a few who won’t even leave Bangalore,” says Gowda.
Gautam Gurnani is ready to leave. Of the group of students I spoke with, Gurnani reminds me of myself when I was much younger. He likes the M&A job that Goldman Sachs has offered him in London and he is going to see where that leads. His plans and goals are fluid. He doesn’t much care for New York but he is open to doing a stint there. His family is open to him settling abroad, but even that is not a given. “Let’s see how it pans out,” he says airily. “In banking, it is good to start internationally and then come back to a developing market like India.”
I wonder if he has thought through the next phase of his life — about the agony and ecstasy of it; about the choices and sacrifices. But then, why should he? I didn’t when I was his age. And that was the fun of it. For a young person in his twenties, going abroad is a great trip. Arguably, in today’s world, going to work for an NGO in Bangladesh is an equally great trip. Why spoil it with planning?
Ashwin Jain has thought it through. He has seen his cousins grow up abroad; he has heard stories about prom night: the drinking, the sex, the whole nine yards. “It’s scary,” he says. “And that’s definitely a factor for me to move back to raise my kids here.”
Kedilaya shakes her head when she hears the word “kids.” That’s too far in the future for her, she says. Her focus is her immediate goals: Capital markets, being associate, then vice president, and partner. Then CEO of the company, I ask? “Why not?” she replies. “The mood is buoyant around here.” She sounds like a financial analyst already.
If I could pinpoint the one big difference between my generation and today’s Indian graduates, it would be this: The latter have entrepreneurial aspirations and realize that they can create wealth, make it big — call it what you will — right here in India.
“There is an ecosystem here which views everything between graduation and entrepreneurship as instrumental, and this includes going abroad,” says Gowda.
Siddarth Pathak is part of this ecosystem. He graduated from IIT Delhi and never got into the “game of going abroad,” as he says. He did his first year internship in AT Kearney’s Gurgaon office, and once he graduates, he plans to find a job based in Mumbai or Delhi. “I can go abroad whenever I want, but the entrepreneurial opportunities are all right here in India,” he says.
I know, perhaps better than most, how dreams can change over the course of years. When I left India as a young student, I had no desire or intention to return. Then, the long arm of tradition brought me “back home” after 20 years abroad.
The students I met at IIM Bangalore are achingly enthusiastic about what life holds in store for them, their enthusiasm unsullied by life’s hard knocks or monkey wrenches. Perhaps this is because they view India as a safety net that they can always fall back on, instead of something they want to escape from. Unlike my generation, this one can go back home again. And it wants to.