Clockwise from top left: Rahul Jalali (Union Pacific Railroad), Archana Rao (Atlassian), Raghu Sagi (Inspire Brands), and Sandeep Dadlani (Mars)
From snacks to software, and from restaurants to railroads, corporate tech leaders who came from India are blazing impressive trails in the U.S.
After a 24-year career at Walmart, Rahul Jalali swapped the retailer’s aisles for the rails of Union Pacific (UP) in November 2020, becoming CIO of a business whose transportation network extends across 23 states. UP, which made almost $22 billion in revenue last year, isn’t a technology company, but it sees tech as a powerful engine of growth and wanted a leader who was both tech-savvy and laser-focused on creating great experiences for customers.
Since joining the railroad, Jalali, who is one of the honorees on our 2022 Forbes CIO Next list, has launched an ambitious project to create a new technology foundation for the business that uses software known as application programming interfaces to create tight connections between its systems and those of other companies. The initiative, which is nearing completion, will improve on-time deliveries and make it easier for shippers to see where their freight is on UP’s network.
Jalali’s experience at Walmart, which spends heavily on tech in its ongoing battle with Amazon, has informed his work at UP, which celebrates its 160th anniversary this year. But he also credits his upbringing in India, where he studied engineering and computer science at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Pirla, with helping him forge an effective leadership style. “College loans and scholarships were non-existent when I was going through the admission process in India. What you got was through pure hard work and some luck to go with it. It brought out the best of the IQ mindset…along with [the] ability to be respectful, humble [and] community focused.”
That combination has served plenty of Indian-born corporate tech executives well. Much has been written about the number of CEOs in the U.S.—from Satya Nadella at Microsoft to Raj Subramaniam, the soon-to-be-boss of FedEx—who have Indian origins. But there’s a similar, and perhaps even more widespread, phenomenon that’s taking place in the office of the CIO.
Quite a few of the executives recognized as outstanding technology leaders on our list this year are from India and a similar number appeared on last year’s inaugural one. The 2022 honorees include Archana Rao, the CIO of software company Atlassian, Sandeep Dadlani, the global chief digital officer of food and petcare giant Mars, and Raghu Sagi, the CIO of Inspire Brands, owner of Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin’. Like Jalali, Sagi says that his Indian heritage still has a big influence on his leadership style, even though he’s been in the U.S. for almost 30 years. Among the factors he points to are the education he received, which he says taught him critical thinking skills and the need to keep expanding his knowledge.
Learning at scale
Higher education institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology are excellent training grounds for talented tech workers and a big reason behind the success of the country’s tech consulting and outsourcing giants such as Tata Consultancy, Wipro and Infosys. America has great universities too, but while it can match India on quality, it loses hands down on quantity: A study published in a journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2019, estimated that India was producing almost 220,000 computer science graduates a year compared with America’s 65,000.
John Chambers, the former executive chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems and founder and CEO of J2Ventures, points out that in addition to India’s massive tech talent pool, the fact that the country has a strong democratic tradition and English is widely spoken also facilitate the flow of talent to the U.S. “When you have that number of graduates and that open a relationship between our two countries…there are going to be huge opportunities for the India diaspora,” says Chambers, who is also chairman of the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening ties between the two nations.
Those ties help bring plenty of smart young technologists to the U.S., but what is it that helps get them all the way up to the CIO office? One top recruiter, who asked for anonymity because of client sensitivities, says that more than half of his candidates for CIO roles and their direct reports are of Indian origin. He says that the intense competition for places and grades in the Indian educational system gives them an innate drive to succeed. When they are building their careers, he adds, they also tend to be more flexible than some U.S. candidates about relocating for a role.
An ability to mentally move fast is also crucial to success in today’s world of corporate technology, where projects can easily be thrown into chaos by a sudden shift in market conditions. Bhavani Amirthalingam, the chief digital information officer of Ameren and an honoree on last year’s inaugural list for her work on a 4,500-mile broadband network designed to support the power grid of the future, says growing up in India helps prepare managers for sudden disruption. “It’s just a lot more chaotic in terms of how busy life is, so you learn to find the calm in the chaos.”
All of the honorees on the 2022 Forbes CIO Next list have helped their companies navigate the chaos triggered by the pandemic and are now fully focused on growth. At Inspire Brands, Sagi is using AI and machine learning to drive new revenue from its 48 million rewards members. At Atlassian, Rao is using software to automate as many mundane tasks as possible, freeing up employees’ time to focus on higher value work, and at privately owned Mars Dadlani is seeing the benefits of his plan to use AI to optimize pricing and promotions—a strategy that’s delivered over half a billion dollars in terms of improved margins since 2018.
Will the pipeline that brought these and other top tech leaders to the U.S. keep delivering? It’s a question worth posing because India is changing fast and developing a thriving ecosystem of startups that could tempt bright technologists to stay home, while the U.S. is becoming tougher on immigration.
Chambers, who notes that around 60% of the startups he has backed as an investor have at least one founder who is part of the Indian diaspora, is optimistic the inflow will continue. But Jayshree Ullal, the CEO of Arista Networks, which sells cloud-networking technology, fears more restrictive immigration policies in the U.S. could cause problems. “We must change this archaic stance to welcome the brightest minds into the country from all over the world,” she says.
Ullal, who is of Indian origin, believes that one reason the U.S. benefits so much from India-born and raised executives is that they are deeply committed to building great companies and less interested in promoting themselves. At UP, CIO Jalali definitely has his sights set on the long term. “If any contribution from me as curator of a great legacy helps Union Pacific stay in business for another 160 years,” he says, “it will be mission accomplished.”
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