Smart, talented immigrants have shaped the entrepreneurial spirit and vitality of Silicon Valley for decades. But lately, with economies growing in China, India and elsewhere while the local tech scene remains stagnant, skilled immigrants are returning to their home countries in search of better opportunities.
And recruiters like Jack Perkins, of Mountain View, are helping them get there.
"The word is that India is booming, and there are more product development opportunities there," said Perkins, a principal at local boutique search firm Oryx.
These days, he said, Indian companies are on the lookout for "Silicon Valley DNA," which helps give them a "global perspective to move beyond the India-centric marketplace."
In the past, India was "really big on the services side, and back-office type of work and IT implementation and quality and testing," he said. "But now there's a critical mass of new product development for global (technology) products, taking place in India, and that requires a different type of engineer. So that's the market I'm addressing."
For example, Perkins is currently looking to fill a vice president of engineering position at a company in Mumbai: "They want the candidate to come from here because they need, as they put it, a real game changer," he said.
The trend bothers some industry watchers, who say an exodus of highly qualified individuals could have serious implications for the economic health of Silicon Valley.
"We have a lot to worry about," said Vivek Wadhwa, a researcher at Duke University and currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley.
"Now if you speak to anyone, meet any random Indian or Chinese, everybody knows somebody that has gone back home," he said. "It's a severe problem because we're losing critical talent."
Wadhwa's research focuses on the effects of globalization on engineering, and specifically on highly skilled immigrant entrepreneurs. Over the next five years, he estimates, 100,000 Indian and Chinese immigrants working in technology and engineering will return to their home countries in search of better professional opportunities. He believes tens of thousands of them will be leaving Silicon Valley.
"More than half of the startups during the dot-com boom were from immigrants," he said. "That's a major blow to Silicon Valley's vitality. There's nothing good about this for Silicon Valley."
In research conducted last year, Wadhwa's team at Duke surveyed 1,203 Indians and Chinese who had returned to their home country after working or going to school in America. The survey yielded a 90 percent response rate.
They found that 68.7 percent of Indians and 84 percent of Chinese believed their home countries provided better career opportunities. Almost half of Indians, and over 60 percent of Chinese, said financial compensation was a factor in returning. (Perkins said he wouldn't disclose for free the difference between typical salaries here and in South Asia.)
"It started with the economy," Wadhwa said, "but it was happening anyway."
Even up-and-comers educated here seem to be following the larger drift.
"I'm thinking about sticking around for a couple of years, two or three but probably not more than that," said Ayush Khanna, a graduate student in the School of Information at UC Berkeley, adding that he chose the Berkeley program specifically for its proximity to Silicon Valley.
"I would say the primary motivation for me to stay would be the fact that I'd like to experience working in Silicon Valley to see what that's like," he said. A second reason to stay, he said, would be to pay back his student loans.
Khanna said he was surprised, when he moved to the U.S. from Mumbai last August, to find that the job opportunities here were not so different from those back home. While it used to be that "so-called elite" jobs, like research and development, were only available in America, the emerging South Asian economy has opened up similar opportunities back home, he said.
Wadhwa noted that aside from seeking better professional opportunities, many immigrants miss their families, or have trouble adapting to American culture.
In his research, a majority of Indian respondents said the emotional growth of their children was better in India, and 42.5 percent believed their home countries provided better education for children. And a vast majority cited closeness to family and friends in their home country, as well as care for aging parents, as other considerations in leaving the U.S.
"I'd definitely be making much better money here compared to there," Khanna said. "But the thing is there's also the small fact that I am from there, and that I have friends and family there, and there's not a huge difference in the quality of work that I get to do."
'People go willingly'
Perkins said the current brain drain will not cause the "death" of Silicon Valley, but described it as "one of the many headwinds" it faces.
"We can't assume that people who come here on an H-1B visa will do anything and everything to stay when there are very attractive opportunities back in the home country," he said.
Asked whether his work didn't hurt America's economy, Perkins replied, "The money I'm paid comes here, that's a good thing."
"I'm going with the flow," he added. "I'm in the Indian export business, and people go willingly."
Wadhwa agreed, describing the work of headhunters like Perkins as "a booming business right now because everyone wants to go. That's the future, unfortunately."