Financial Lessons from Immigrants: Save and Grow

Virginia's Indian community thrives by encouraging its young people to get good educations and start small businesses.

The prosperity and phenomenal growth of Northern Virginia’s Indian community boils down to three e’s: entrepreneurship, education and English. But Sudhakar Shenoy says he would add one more element. Shenoy, a pioneer of the community, emigrated in the 1970s to further his education and is now chief executive of IMC, a computer services company. “Fear is a great motivator,” he says.

Fear of failure, that is. Indian immigrants are generally well educated and fluent in English. Many owe their entry into the United States to immigration rules that give preference to highly skilled workers. For Shenoy’s generation of émigrés, those ingredients assured that America “got the best and the brightest,” he says. “The chances of success were very high.”

Shenoy arrived with $5 in his pocket and in debt, having borrowed money for his plane ticket. He says the Indian government gave him $8 before he left; he spent $3 and used the remaining money for a bus ticket from New York City to Philadelphia, where he stayed with a friend until he could enroll in graduate school with an assistantship that earned him a stipend. His father had warned him that he’d have to live on his own earnings because, at the time, the Indian government didn’t allow citizens to send money overseas.

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

Shenoy earned a graduate degree in electrical engineering and an MBA from the University of Connecticut, where he taught for five years. In 1981 he followed the path of many Indian immigrants and started his own company, IMC. Entrepreneurship is woven into Indian culture, says Shenoy, who is the grandson of entrepreneurs with interests in farming, steel and textiles. “As kids, we always thought of having our own businesses,” he says.

In starting IMC, Shenoy relied on another quality common to many first-generation Indian Americans: thrift. He stuck to a monthly household budget of $611, which included a $410 mortgage payment for the home where he lived with his wife, Bina, and two children. Bina took a job as a bank teller and brought home $615 a month. The couple’s savings of $2,000 went toward renting a small office and buying some used furniture. Shenoy’s “calculated gamble” paid off. In six months he had 15 employees. The company now employs 450.

The Indian community in Northern Virginia has rapidly expanded in the past 15 years. In prosperous Fairfax and Loudoun counties, outside Washington, D.C., the Indian population has grown from about 27,000 in 2000 to 64,000 today. Many live in the booming Dulles Corridor, a thriving computing and telecom region.

The population growth is also the result of chain migration, a phenomenon in which immigrants settle near others of the same culture. Nayantara Sheoran moved from India to the U.S. in 1999 and is now a doctoral student in cultural studies at George Mason University, in Fairfax County. She says the appeal to Indians “is to be able to raise their children in what they consider to be a more Indian culture.” That includes everything from access to Indian food and Hindu temples to preserving traditional values, such as respect for elders.

But it would be a mistake to think of the Indian community as insular. “They don’t tend to stay behind ethnic walls,” says Eileen Curtis, president of the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce, but rather they travel freely in business and social circles. That, she says, has helped Indians become a “vibrant engine of entrepreneurial growth.”

Although entrepreneurs are by definition competitive, cooperation is also a hallmark of the Indian business community. Shenoy co-founded the Washington, D.C., chapter of Indus Entrepreneurs, a nonprofit that aids young business owners through networking and education. He has taught a course at George Mason called “From Geeks to Gazillionaires,” which helps entrepreneurs learn key skills.

The current president of Indus Entrepreneurs is Dolly Oberoi. Like Shenoy, she came to the U.S. for grad school and founded a high-tech firm in Northern Virginia. In building C2 Technologies, a company with $55 million in sales, she learned lessons that she passes on to others. “Do they know about the Small Business Administration? Do they know venture capitalists? We ollectively feel that the next generation shouldn’t face the same challenges we did.”

Bob Frick
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance