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For Indian Tech Entrepreneurs, Downturn Still Offers Opportunities

The head of The Indus Entrepreneurs, a tech networking group that mentors immigrant talent, says now is a good time to start new companies.

Four companies are formed, each funded with an average $7.5 million, every day of the week in the Silicon Valley in California, according to Vish Mishra, a venture capitalist and president-elect of TiE, a group that mentors immigrant talent for startups.

Mishra is president-elect of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), a technology professional networking group that is sometimes cited by researchers, such as the University of California at Berkeley Professor AnnaLee Saxenian, as one of the secrets of the Silicon Valley's success.

Vish Mishra

Vish Mishra

"I started as a hands-on entrepreneur," said Mishra, who came to the U.S. with a degree in electrical engineering from the Institute of Technology at Banaras Hindu University in India. He got a master's degree in engineering from North Dakota State University, founded Telera, a networking firm sold to Alcatel, and was co-founder with Kanwal Rekhi of Excelan, a networking company acquired by Novell in 1989 for more than $100 million.

Both Rekhi and Mishra, along with other successful Indian entrepreneurs, enjoyed good fortune and wanted to give back to the community. Together they helped found The Indus Entrepreneurs, the group that stages TiECon each year to bring would-be entrepreneurs into contact with potential staff and financiers and to coach members on how to succeed as an embryonic Silicon Valley firm. Rekhi, for example, has invested $17 million of his money in 53 startups.

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, was the lead-off speaker at TieCon 2008 on May 16.

TiE members help newcomers find executive jobs, move from one job to another, and lay plans for their own companies. TiECon 2008 was held May 16 and 17, with about 3,500 of Indian, Malaysian, Singaporean, and others of South Asian descent gathering at the Santa Clara Convention Center to talk about starting their own companies.

Saxenian concluded in studies several years ago that TiE functioned as much as a social integrator of foreign talent into the Silicon Valley startup culture as it did as an economic force. It cuts across corporate boundaries and keeps talent moving around, including maintaining ties with firms and talent back home.

TiE's inital purpose 16 years ago was to circumvent venture capitalists' bias against technically-skilled Indians starting and running their own companies. Indians were considered good at following instructions and writing software, Mishra explained. Now their talents are frequently sought in management roles in start-ups.

Now is a good time to pursue a startup role, despite a shaky stock market and possible recession. "People don't become super smart just because the economy is good," he said. Likewise, "they don't become stupid when the economy is bad." By getting to work on a new product today, it will be ready when the upturn comes, he predicted.

"If you have the talent and skills and good attitude, this country will reward you," he said in an interview just published in The Indian American, a Highland Park, N.J., magazine addressing U.S. residents of Indian descent.

TiE keeps establishing new chapters around the world and casting a wider net. It now has 50 chapters in 11 countries, including India, Australia, Malaysia, and the U.K., instead of being just Silicon Valley based. It's established two chapters in Pakistan. Anyone who pays $100 in dues can join, Mishra said.

But there's no question that the unique opportunities of the Silicon Valley are going to be hard to duplicate elsewhere, he said. "[The valley] is not just about place. It's about state of mind and ability to take risks. It's the most innovative place on the face of the earth," he said.

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