Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

‘Ours is part of the American story’: 5 South Asian tech leaders get real about pain, privilege and power

If South Asians’ presence in the global tech ecosystem is a given, then these professionals’ perspectives illuminate just how varied our stories are — and what that means for everyone else.

(Clockwise from top left) Khuram Zaman, Seema Iyer, Sameer Ahirrao, Anil Karmel and Smitha Gopal.

(Courtesy photos, composite image by Technical.ly)

How do you make succinct judgments about a region with nearly 2 billion people — let alone the millions who left that region over hundreds of years and built lives in new lands?

Short answer: It’s impossible, but that hasn’t stopped racists from trying it all the same. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to write this article about South Asian immigrants and their US-born children — myself included — if Great Britain and other imperial powers hadn’t already subjected over 100 ethnolinguistic communities, often sharing little more than maybe a religion and some hint of “brown” skin, to a colonial system that wrought trillions of dollars from their labor and lands before hastily departing as their “divide and conquer” tactics festered into unprecedented mass migration and violence.

This history and cultural diversity aren’t readily apparent to people whose main interactions with the South Asian diaspora — the term I’ll use here, while acknowledging that it’s as incomplete and divisive as other terms I could’ve used — are limited to the workplace or pop culture. But they’re especially crucial to the tech sector, where South Asian workers (especially those with roots in India, the largest and wealthiest South Asian country) have been a constant presence for at least two decades.

Our diaspora’s impact on the US tech economy cannot be overstated, even if it’s hard to measure. But figures like these offer some illustration:

  • People from India make up a quarter of all tech workers with at least a bachelor’s degree in two Silicon Valley counties — more than any other individual country of origin
  • Asians, including South Asians, hold 40.5% of technical roles at Silicon Valley’s top 20 companies
  • Indian men lead some of the country’s top tech giants, with prominent examples including CEOs Parag Agrawal of Twitter, Satya Nadella of Microsoft, Sundar Pichai of Alphabet/Google and Arvind Krishna of IBM

This success, however impressive, risks amplifying damaging model minority illusions and absolving tech companies of any accountability to other communities of color — after all, if their melanin quotient is higher than other industries, aren’t these still-largely-white institutions at least trying to not be discriminatory?

Advertisement

Perceptions of our preponderance in tech also threaten to simplify our communities’ true diversity, not to mention the ways racism, sexism and other forms of oppression — especially casteism — impact our professional experiences.

There’s no easy way to paint a complete picture of our place in America’s racial hierarchy. But, as debates about equity and inclusion continue to complicate the tech world’s meritocratic image, we need to try.

That’s why, ahead of Pakistan’s and India’s 75th Independence Days (Aug. 14 and 15, respectively), I contacted other South Asians in Baltimore and DC’s tech ecosystems to ask about their experiences and views. The five who answered via email are not the most representative cross-section, as they’re largely US-raised, of Indian and Hindu backgrounds and well beyond entry-level positions. But the themes that arose throughout their responses illustrate how we might better understand our peculiar place in tech — and what that means for everyone.

Immigration and acculturation

While South Asians built stateside communities well before the Civil Rights Movement, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and later legislation creating H-1B visas and other immigration reforms especially enabled our communities’ moves into the tech sector.

Seema Iyer, whose parents came from Mumbai (then Bombay) the same year the aforementioned immigration bill passed, said that the era in which South Asians’ families emigrated often impacts the ways they understand their position. For the head of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance-Jacob France Institute, growing up in 1970s suburban Philadelphia involved feeling solitary and not privileged.

“For my family that came before 1965, there was much more solidarity between Black Americans and Indian immigrants,” she said. “After 1965, there was a lack of knowledge of the real struggles prior to the Civil Rights victories of that time. Many of us benefitted by default and [through] lack of knowledge. But if you grew up in the ’70s as the only Brown kid around, I don’t think we thought of ourselves as privileged. We certainly weren’t the majority race at all, and back then, we kind of ‘hid’ our culture since it was so unknown.”

"If you grew up in the '70s as the only Brown kid around, I don’t think we thought of ourselves as privileged. We certainly weren’t the majority race at all, and back then, we kind of ‘hid’ our culture since it was so unknown."
Seema Iyer

Iyer, like other interviewees, felt some parental pressure to enter well-paying white-collar professions. Sameer Ahirrao, who runs the data security company Ardent Privacy out of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s bwtech@UMBC research park, faced similar expectations while growing up in Nashik, some 118 miles north of Mumbai. While he emigrated in adulthood, he still experienced isolation like Iyer’s.

“I worked in the federal space for many years, where Indian security professionals were rare and, even with a great track record, it was not at all easy for me to get a seat at the table for promotions,” he recounted, noting a seeming trend in which Asian technologists are seen as great workers who couldn’t possibly be excellent managers.

This dynamic reflects one of the model minority myth’s many wrinkles: that Asians, no matter how much they conform to American-borne ideals of hard work and success, still aren’t seen as worthy of advancement like their white counterparts.

Suffering in shades

Another problem with ascribing model minority qualities to South Asian tech workers is that it erases the nuances in their experiences with discrimination.

Iyer, for instance, recounted microaggressions from white women, “especially from the [Baby] Boomer generation.”

“I have literally seen older White women trip over themselves to make sure they are not managed in the workplace by an Asian woman!” she said.

Smitha Gopal, the CEO of Federal Hill, Baltimore-based health IT company Rendia, said that she was lucky to not face as much anti-careerist sexism from her own family as many South Asian women do: “My family has always valued education and the expectation was that women work.” But racism still impacted her career in ways that echo model minority-type assumptions.

“I cannot tell you how many people have ‘complimented’ my math skills, spoken with admiration about their children’s Indian classmates or talked about the winners of the Spelling Bee,” she said. “I think the sense is, ‘I’ve met an Indian before, let me tell you all about it!’ And the speaker has no idea how White-centered and harmful that perspective is.”

Whiteness-centered delusions can easily gloss over how the system does not benefit South Asians. Ahirrao pointed out that Indians struggle to obtain green cards, with US Citizenship and Immigration Services subjecting them to century-plus backlogs.

"I think the sense is, ‘I've met an Indian before, let me tell you all about it!’ And the speaker has no idea how White-centered and harmful that perspective is."
Smitha Gopal

The myth also belies the harm that South Asian tech workers perpetuate against one another. California’s caste discrimination lawsuit against Cisco and Google’s recent cancellation of an anti-casteism activist’s lecture illuminated what many South Asians in tech already knew about this particular form of discrimination in an industry where Indians — not those from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or other South Asian nations with less-developed tech pipelines — preponderate.

Khuram Zaman, the CEO of DC-headquartered digital agency Fifth Tribe and a Georgetown University educator (and, notably, the only respondent who identifies with Pakistan), said that tech companies should create protocol to better address these kinds of discrimination.

“Caste and sectarian discrimination is something that HR within tech communities probably needs to be more educated about,” he said. “What makes that challenging is that even within these ethnic and religious minorities, there are dominant sub-communities which can both experience discrimination and, at the same time, also discriminate against minorities within that community. That level of nuance is probably unfamiliar within most tech companies.”

There’s another complication to this issue: the embrace of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his vision for a strong country that weaves economic progress with Hindu nationalism, throughout both the Indian diaspora and the tech sector that depends on it. His popularity has not been hampered, and may even be bolstered, by his and his supporters’ outright embrace of Islamophobic, misogynistic and anti-Dalit policies and violence.

Zaman, who has been mapping the Hindu far-right’s social media presence, was “surprised by how much content gets out that’s pretty egregious and violates terms of use with calls to violence against minorities in India.”

“Tech platforms probably lack the nuance to track some of these conflicts, so making them aware of how this ecosystem is unfolding is a good first step,” he added.

Solidarity and safeguards

For all the bad it does, model minority designations put South Asians in many rooms that Black, Indigenous and Latinx technologists can’t access as easily. Zaman acknowledged the debt that South Asians owe to Black and Latinx communities whose struggles allowed more of us to succeed here — even as many internalized racism against those groups.

"Even within these ethnic and religious minorities, there are dominant sub-communities which can both experience discrimination and, at the same time, also discriminate against minorities within that community."
Khuram Zaman

Respondents recognized that their comparatively elevated position gives them some sense of responsibility to uplift DEI priorities, as well as help others without that power.

“South Asians’ unique position in the technology ecosystem provides us the ability to lead by example, opening the door to both acknowledge the hurt and pain experienced by those who have been marginalized and simultaneously providing opportunities for said groups to thrive in our companies,” said CEO Anil Karmel of Tysons, Virginia-headquartered compliance tech startup RegScale. Karmel, the US-born son of immigrants from the southern Indian state of Kerala, noted that the majority of his staff “is comprised of underrepresented communities and genders.”

Ahirrao stated that Ardent Privacy has signed DEI pledges and promoted LGBTQ community initiatives at a recent conference. But while he and Zaman conscientiously try to support other South Asians through mentorship and networking opportunities, Gopal admitted feeling like “it’s more important to focus on increasing diversity in tech vs. supporting other [South Asians] specifically.”

“The value we can provide is in helping our White allies check their own perspective,” Gopal added. “DEI work needs to focus on eliminating White supremacy, not on bringing a few folks of color to the table.”

As for how to participate in these conversations, Iyer referenced a 2021 POLITICO article about Asian Americans’ political power to argue that South Asians must proactively tell our stories in coalition with others.

“We have to stop being ‘invisible’ or thinking that our issues are not worth putting out there or that we should ‘wait our turn’ — ours is part of the American story,” she said.

_

Are you a technologist, entrepreneur or other member of the South Asian and tech communities in our markets who wants to share their stories? Let us know by emailing sameer@technical.ly.

-30-
Subscribe to our Newsletters
Technically Media
Connect with companies from the Technical.ly community
New call-to-action

Advertisement