Satya Nadella: Global CEOs, Indian DNA

Meet the CEO - Satya Nadella with Bill Gates & Steve Ballmer

Meet the CEO – Satya Nadella with Bill Gates & Steve Ballmer


 Microsoft’s New CEO – Satya Nadella


“First commitment as CEO: I won’t wait four years between tweets!” tweeted Satya Nadella, the newly appointed CEO of Microsoft, whose last tweet was back in 2010. There is indeed a hunger out there to learn more about him; he’s tweeted only 27 times since 2009 and yet has a whopping 108,000 followers.

While most of Nadella’s tweets are about Microsoft and Bing, two old tweets give us the desi angle: “Great evening to be watching some good old fashioned test cricket!”  Another tweet will sound like deja vu to most Indian achievers: “I may break my continuous work day record!” Family friend and retired Microsoft executive Vijay Vashee recalls the time Nadella, who’s passionate about cricket,  watched the 20-20 cricket match from midnight to 6 am at and then went straight to a full productive day of work.

Hard work and cricketmania may be stereotypical Indian traits and Nadella certainly has them!

Indians constitute just a miniscule percentage of the US population yet several CEOs of major American global companies happen to be Indian-American. Nadella is just the newest to join this elite club of Indian-American CEOs, which includes Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Ajit Jain of Berkshire Hathaway, Ajay Banga of Mastercard, Shantanu Narayen of Adobe, Anshu Jain of Deutsche, Dinesh Paliwal of Harmon International and Ivan Menezes of Diageo.

So what are the qualities which make Indians such a success in the international business world? Whether they grew up in the ennui of small towns or the bustling anonymity of big cities, they were all driven to excel in a tough job market in India.



Indian family life has always rotated around education, and the role of parents has certainly contributed to the focused nature of Indian achievers. Indra Nooyi traces her success back to her upbringing in India, where she spent the first 23 years of her life. She shared this story with me several years ago: “I remember, at the dinner table every evening my mother would ask the two daughters to give a speech on what they would do if they were the president of India or the prime minister of India. It was never – what are you going to do when you are a mother? What are you going to do when you are a daughter-in-law? And this started at a very early age.”

These high expectations propelled Nooyi to excel in every job she undertook, and to keep learning. She is the architect of Performance with Purpose at PepsiCo, which has over $65 billion in net revenue. She once told aspiring Indian-American executives, “I’m not being arrogant but I know who I am and I will tell you this – I am where I am because I’m Indian.” By talking about her Indian roots with pride, she encourages her young audiences to claim their heritage and see it as a plus point in the corporate world.


satya nadella

satya nadella


Home & the World: Impact of Indian CEOs.

Vivek Wadhwa, noted academic and Fellow at Stanford University, in not surprised at the proliferation of Indian CEOs in the US: “It  is simply a numbers game – if you have enough people in companies working hard the cream will rise to the top, and you’re talking now about the cream of the cream. They have the Indian qualities and values without the Indian  social problems.” As he points out, with the exposure to American openness and opportunities, they have the best of both worlds, and can rise more than they would have in the home country.

Sathya Nadella, who’s lived in the US for 22 years, brings this mix of two cultures to the iconic Microsoft. Vijay Vashee  describes Nadella’s many qualities, calling him “hungry” for new challenges in a changing world.  “He is a great listener, he knows what to throw away and what to focus on and he’s very good at motivating the team in getting that done. ”

Nadella is confident enough in his work to make time for the things which matter, says Vashee, talking of  his “incredible balance.” Like Bill Gates who used to drive his kids to school, this CEO also makes time for his children, taking them back to Hyderabad to bond with their grandparents. He runs, reads voraciously – code, poetry, history – and also cooks up spicy Hyderabad cuisine with his wife Anu.

“Indians are succeeding in America in almost everything – be it universities, the medical profession, finance industry –  it’s an across the board phenomenon,” observes Arvind Panagariya, economist and Professor of Economics at Columbia University:  “Satya is the magnified reflection of that phenomenon.”

Panagariya attributes the success of Indians to a number of causes, including the long-standing educational traditions in India, coupled with the openness and superlative American education which helps them to build on the foundation. Having lived in joint families in a crowded country, Indians also know how to accommodate and adjust.  He adds with a smile, “We also have this special skill- when things are difficult – how to get around the system. It’s called jugaad in Hindi.”

Nooyi once shared an incident which may well be an example of jugaad: When she first came to the U.S., she didn’t know anything about the national passion, baseball, and found that she was left out of many social interactions. With focused determination, she decided to fix it. She bought books on baseball and learnt every statistic about the New York Yankees. The investment paid off  – and made her a lifelong Yankee fan in the bargain!

Even as these CEOs make their global corporations the best they can be, they remain Indian in heart and sentiment, proving the  old cliché – you can take an Indian out of India but you can’t take India out of the Indian.  They may be continents away but Indian CEOs continue to be cheerleaders for their homeland.

( This article was first published in Mail Today )


About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

1 Comment

  1. Jayanthi Sankaran on

    Nicely written article, Lavina. I particularly liked:
    ‘you can take an Indian out of India but you can’t take India out of the Indian’.