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Copyright 2000 Newsday, Inc.
Newsday (New York)

September 18, 2000, Monday ALL EDITIONS


LENGTH: 1083 words




THE DOZEN businesspeople gathered for the morning meeting in a Plainview office building were sipping coffee and orange juice, but they had largely ignored the pastries. The upma was much more popular.

It makes sense that the traditional Indian breakfast dish would have more takers, considering that only three of the attendees were white. The rest were Indians, an ethnic group that has grown quickly in recent years on Long Island and in other regions that have thriving high-tech industries. While no one can quantify the economic impact of the Indian population on Long Island's still nascent computer industry, a glance at the accompanying list of Newsday's top 25 minority-owned firms on the Island shows executives of Indian descent are running seven of them, and four are in the computer industry. That number is even more impressive in the context of census figures from 1990, when Indians represented less than 1 percent of the Nassau/Suffolk population. And the Indian subcontinent is well-represented in publicly traded companies as well, most notably by Sanjay Kumar, a native of Sri Lanka who is chief executive of Computer Associates International Inc.

In the more mature high-tech economy of Silicon Valley, the contributions of Indian immigrants have been widely noted. Fortune magazine reported in May that it has created companies accounting for $ 235 billion in market value, leading the magazine to declare that "Bay Area Indian immigrants represent America's most successful immigrant group."

Just as Long Island's high-tech community would like to emulate Silicon Valley's success, local Indian entrepreneurs are looking west for inspiration.

The recent Plainview meeting had been called by Raj Mehta, chief executive of Infosys International, which offers computer consulting and training and sets up computer networks. The group gathered at the company's headquarters to plan a seminar, tentatively scheduled for next spring, on outsourcing software work to India.

With a dire need for computer engineers (most high-tech chief executives here cite recruiting as their No. 1 challenge), Mehta and his colleagues hope to increase ties between Long Island and their native country.

"It's good for Long Island," Mehta said. "Everybody needs workers, and people don't know what to do, where to go." He says the nation's top software companies are tapping into India's resources.

"All of the giants are already doing stuff there and they are creating tons of revenue," he said of companies here and elsewhere that are recruiting heavily in Asia and reaping benefits.

Mehta is already taking advantage of Indian talent: about 60 percent of his employees are Indians. Similarly, Anil Kapoor, president of software consultancy Svam International Inc. in Great Neck, said a majority of his employees are from India. And when they need freelancers for a special project, they can find them much more quickly in Bombay than in Babylon.

"If I get a project and I need to hire 100 people ... it will be much easier to go out and get them" in India, Mehta said.

In some cases, the workers are brought to the United States on special work visas, while others are hired and remain in India, and others are just hired as freelancers.

As the list of minority-owned businesses shows, the success of Indians on Long Island is not limited to the computer industry. But Indian immigrants stand out, along with other natives of the Indian subcontinent, in the tech sector partly because of the school systems in those countries.

Imran Anwar, a native of Pakistan who is chief executive of EverTrac, a subsidiary of Islandia-based Computer Associates, said that when today's executives were growing up in the developing economies of Southeast Asia, they had very few avenues to pursue if they wanted a top education and a shot at a good job.

"Twenty years ago, your only two choices were medicine or engineering," he said. The best schools, however, are highly rated, and often compared to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

When they arrived in this country, Indian entrepreneurs faced many of the obstacles that challenge minority businesspeople. And they overcame the challenges with solutions straight out of a management textbook.

Lacking a network of business contacts, Mehta relied on persistence.

"To get clients was unbelievably difficult at first," he said. "As a minority-owned firm, I took advantage" of government programs aimed at giving preference to minorities.

He said that every two weeks he called an Army general in charge of information technology at a New Jersey base, but never got his calls returned. He started calling weekly, then daily.

"I got to know the secretary; she laughed when I called," he said. " Finally one day he came on the phone." Mehta got a small contract out of that conversation, and quickly leveraged it to get other business by announcing that he was a contractor for the U.S. Army. The military job led to more work for the Army, and now he's got work with the Navy.

"Now DOE, that's my next target," he said, referring to the Department of Energy.

Asked in separate interviews about a frequently cited problem -difficulty in obtaining capital-Indian entrepreneurs had the same response.

"I've never gone to a bank looking for a loan," said Kapoor. He explained that he started his business in his bedroom, "then graduated to my basement." Svam now has 100 employees.

Mehta, too, resisted debt for years, and understands why banks are sometimes reluctant to lend to startup companies. "You need a track record. Banks are there to do business-they are not a charitable organization."

Chandra Bhansali, who with his wife, Sharada, runs Micro Vision in Hauppauge, a maker of accounting software and other products, says, "Indians by nature are very cautious and we just don't like to borrow."

Now, following the pattern that has helped Indians in Silicon Valley, the most successful Long Islanders are helping those who follow. In recent months Mehta, who sits on the boards of four private companies, has begun to counsel Indian entrepreneurs seeking venture capital.

"All of these people have just an idea," he said. "They don't know what to do, there are so many steps ... I wanted to pass my experience to other people."