Illustration: Rahul Awasthi
Illustration: Rahul Awasthi

US President Donald Trump’s decision to suspend coveted work permits till December has set off early conversations among Indian executives at US-based companies about heading back, at a time when the US economy is in the doldrums and jobless claims have touched a record high amid the Covid-19 pandemic that has roiled the globe.

To be sure, the thinking is at a nascent stage, as several factors, including Trump’s performance in elections later this year, could play a big role in whether these executives will in fact decide to consider the growing opportunities in Asia’s third largest economy.

“Since last night, received 2 emails from friends at companies like Google about returning to India. This feels different. People are sick of the uncertainty; ban was a personal betrayal. Indian startups pay well (some roles are at Bay Area salaries) and do VERY exciting work,” tweeted Hemant Mohapatra, an investor at Lightspeed Venture Partners, which has backed startups like Snapchat, Oyo, Byju’s, among others.

Mohapatra moved back to India in 2018 to join Lightspeed after stints at Silicon Valley VC fund Andreessen Horowitz and at Google.Mohapatra’s reaction followed Trump’s latest Executive Order, with multiple stakeholders, including venture capital investors, entrepreneurs and technology executives describing it as an election gimmick, given that the embattled President is facing a tough re-election battle and has to cater to his largely anti-immigrant electoral base.

Read: H-1B visa suspension: What startup and tech executives said

“The fear has been mounting for the last couple of years, but now, it’s time to go home, more so because the uncertainty of the pandemic makes you want to be closer to aged parents, and overall responsibility towards family and home,” an engineer who works at Amazon’s Seattle office said.

Although technology companies are fighting to get such executives to hold on to their jobs, it is just not worth the risk anymore, he said, adding at least four of his peers at Uber, Airbnb, Google and LinkedIn have had these conversations in a closed setting and evaluated joining startups in India.

Engineers and skilled workers from India have traditionally been the largest recipients of the H1-B visa program, which allows them to work in the United States. An estimated 85,000 H1-B visas are issued annually, with Indian nationals receiving about 70% of them. About 68% of the 275,000 H-1B visa applications received for the next fiscal year beginning October 1, have been from Indian nationals, followed by China with 13.2%.

Read: Donald Trump’s H-1B visa suspension: An explainer

Trump’s order is the best opportunity for home-grown engineers to look for exciting work in India, which, over the last decade-and-a-half, has emerged as one of the most vibrant startup ecosystems globally, industry players said.

Pine Labs’ CEO Amrish Rau said on Twitter that Trump might just be the catalyst for a second wave in Indian technology, following efforts by Infosys’ NR Narayana Murthy and Nandan Nilekani, TCS’ S Ramadorai and Wipro’s Azim Premji, who are generally regarded as catalysts for the first wave of Indian software companies who captured the US outsourcing market.

Anshuman Das, managing partner at Longhouse Consulting, however, told ET that the executives should wait till November. “If Trump wins, there will be reverse immigration. Right now, people are flirting with the idea and building backup options,” he said.

Others, too, are of the opinion that a reverse brain drain to India is unlikely, at least in the short-to-medium term, as the country does not yet provide the technology, regulatory and work-life infrastructure of the United States.

A few years ago, some of India’s top startups, including Flipkart, Ola, Swiggy and Snapdeal, had onboarded some of the best and brightest talents that Silicon Valley had to offer.

Flipkart brought on board former Google and Motorola executive Punit Soni in 2015 as its product head and Peeyush Ranjan as its technology chief. Rival ecommerce company Snapdeal had poached Anand Chandrasekaran as its chief product officer.

Yet, Soni and Chandrasekaran did not last more than 12 months, while Ranjan stayed for less than two years at the Bengaluru-headquartered company.

All three have since then moved back to the US.

“But, I also view this as a silver lining for India to get this talent which will help build great products in the country. Over the last few years, startups have also matured and it is the right time for the country to build-out attractive policies to get this talent pool back,” Das of Longhouse Consulting said.




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