New Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella a source of pride

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Since it became apparent last week that Satya Nadella was in line to become only the third chief executive of Microsoft Corp., the Indian community in Silicon Valley has been bubbling over with pride.

That his ascension would generate such excitement might seem surprising. Indians have become a force in Silicon Valley, where about 15 percent of tech startups have Indian founders and a handful of notable companies, such as Adobe Systems Inc., have Indian chief executives.

Yet Mr. Nadella's appointment is being hailed as something more. It's another giant leap forward to run one of the world's most important companies. And he'll be stepping into the shoes of Bill Gates to run a company for which Indians have a special affection.

"This is why this is making front page news in India," said Vivek Wadhwa, a former entrepreneur and Stanford researcher who has studied the Indian technology community. "It shows how they've crossed the barriers. They've made it to the mainstream in a big way."

On Tuesday, Microsoft confirmed that Mr. Nadella, 46, would become chief executive, replacing Steve Ballmer, who had succeeded Mr. Gates. In addition, Mr. Gates is becoming a product adviser to Mr. Nadella and stepping down as chairman, replaced by John Thompson.

"Satya Nadella is Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates his wingman," read the headline across the top of the Times of India website.

Upon taking the helm at Microsoft, Mr. Nadella instantly becomes one of the most influential Indian business leaders in the word. He joins the ranks of such other notable names as Indra Nooyi, who is chair and chief executive of PepsiCo, and Ajaypal Singh Banga, chief executive of MasterCard. But with $78 billion in revenue last year, Microsoft had more sales than both of those companies combined.

Across the U.S., Indian Americans have taken leadership roles in politics, finance and government. Nowhere in the U.S., though, have Indians made a bigger impact than in Silicon Valley. Although Microsoft is based in Redmond, Wash., Mr. Nadella's appointment is still seen as a kind of capstone to the remarkable rise of this community.

"It's just one more symbolic thing that validates that our world is becoming much more global and is crossing boundaries," said Padmasree Warrior, chief technology officer of Cisco Systems. "It suggests that it's execution and results that matter in the end, regardless of where you come from."

Mr. Nadella was born in Hyderabad, whose nickname is the City of Pearls, in southeastern India. In a biography on the Microsoft website, Mr. Nadella said playing cricket was a "passion."

"I think playing cricket taught me more about working in teams and leadership that has stayed with me throughout my career," he said.

Mr. Nadella attended what was then Mangalore University, a strong school, but not considered on par with the nation's elite Indian Institutes of Technology. He moved to the U.S. to briefly take a job at Sun Microsystems before taking a sales job at Microsoft in 1992.

Sanjay Parthasarathy, another Microsoft executive, met Mr. Nadella and persuaded him to join a product team, where he would be making things instead of selling them, a move that probably set him on the course that would lead to the corporate boardroom.

Mr. Parthasarathy, who retired from Microsoft several years ago and now runs a startup called Indix, recalls that in the early 1990s the two friends were among just a handful of Indians at the company.

"We were both pretty hard-driving," he said. "But Nadella, he would get on a plane to Chicago every Friday for two or three years to get his MBA. I'm a pretty demanding manager. But he was putting himself through so much more."

But that kind of will, many Indians say, was necessary to prove themselves in an era in which they were initially stereotyped as good engineers but not good executives.

Over the years, though, Indians helped one another scale those walls. They built extensive immigrant networks, particularly in Silicon Valley, where they invested in one another's companies, hired friends and provided support and mentorship, Mr.Wadhwa said.

Mrinal Desai said he's found fresh inspiration from Nadella's appointment.

Mr. Desai grew up in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, and moved to the Silicon Valley in 1999 after several years of struggling to get a visa. He eventually got a job at LinkedIn, and now is chief executive and co-founder of a startup called Addappt.

"For most of us who are immigrants, America is always the promised land where there are no limits but yourself," Mr. Desai said. "When you see such big corporations being led by Indians, it's just incredible."


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