Hours after US President Donald Trump announced a ban on foreign work visas – which has upended the lives of scores of US-based Indians and cast a shadow over their future in the country – Rahul Ganjoo took to social media in an attempt to offer some hope to Indian-Americans.
“Anyone in the US exploring a move back to India in view of the H-1B ban, please feel [free] to reach out,” he wrote on Twitter. “Happy to help in any way I can.”
Ganjoo, the vice-president of product at Zomato, is well aware of the anxieties and uncertainties that accompany this transition, one he himself made about half a decade ago.
“I have seen first hand how people can become slaves to their visa status, and several Indians don’t have an up-to-date picture of the opportunities that exist here,” he said. “We’re now solving deep tech problems in so many verticals, it’s important for people to understand what their options are. I want to let those exploring a move back know that it’s not the end of the world.”
For Amrit Acharya, who spent three years in the United States and whose return to India was triggered by not being selected in the H-1B lottery, the biggest learning from that experience was that “uncertainty can be good sometimes”.
The co-founder and CEO of Zetwerk, a business-to-business marketplace for manufacturing items, said what worked for him and his wife – who he was engaged to at the time – was taking things one step at a time. They asked themselves: ‘What is that one thing that we want to optimise for and what is a non-negotiable for us,’ and took it from there.
“Once we had that clarity, we flew back to India overnight with just two suitcases and decided that we want to see this through,” he said.
‘Reverse culture shock’
But it wasn’t an altogether smooth transition.
The traffic and pollution took some time to get used to, he said. “We were staying in an Oyo for six months because we didn’t know where we would end up. Job hunting, apartment hunting, buying the right furniture again – all of these seemed like mammoth tasks,” he said. “Every small thing seemed difficult here. There was a lot of reverse culture shock.”
Looking back, he admits what helped them was finally deciding that they could no longer compare their lives to what they were like in the US. They also began focusing on the positives: being close to their families, the local food, the ability to travel more and getting to attend the weddings of their close friends.
“It still took us a year to really get into that mindset, but today we’re in a much better place.”
A crucial piece of advice for those contemplating an exit from the United States, according to Hemant Mohapatra, would be to make up your mind. “You can’t keep trying both worlds and see which one sticks first, that wouldn’t work,” said Mohapatra, who returned to India in 2018 after spending 15 years abroad.
“Know what the parameters are that you’re optimising for. If it is salary, know that that’s what matters to you. If it’s family life, and you don’t care about salary as much, focus on that. Look for those two-three things that matter, and ignore the rest.”
‘Come home and build’
Mohapatra, a partner at Lightspeed Venture, himself struggled with this decision, mainly because he says things were going well for him in the United States. “I was making good money, I had a good career and I had great friends there,” he said. “I was fine. But it felt like being fine wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted a new challenge.”
Among the factors that triggered his return, he said, was the answer to an important question: Where do I want to die? “There was no confusion about that question,” Mohapatra wrote in a Medium post titled ‘Returning to India: A decision framework’ meant to “help immigrants decide when it is the right time to head home!”
Mohapatra recently organised webinars titled ‘Come Home and Build’ to help answer some questions playing on the minds of Indians who are thinking about exiting the United States and to give them a flavour of what the quality of life in India is overall.
For him, he shared, it has been a highly positive experience. While he was worried about the day-to-day drudgery, Mohapatra admits he has fortunately not experienced any of that. Living in Bengaluru, pollution is not a problem for him. Neither is the commute since he lives relatively close to his place of work.
“Everything is online now,” he said. “I keep joking about this, but when I moved back, the only app I had to uninstall from my phone was Lyft. Uber and Netflix worked just fine. Amazon was already there, and when I logged into my India account, it was business as usual.”
While there admittedly was a pay cut, Mohapatra said being in India has actually helped him save more and “now startups here are paying pretty good salaries”.
“We’re solving some very fundamental problems here. If that challenge is interesting for you, and if it makes sense for you, make up your mind, come home and build,” he said.
Ganjoo agrees. While the pandemic had dealt a blow to the economy and triggered a rise in unemployment in India, he said there are opportunities for engineers and product managers still.
“Everybody I know in Indian startups is hiring in these positions. That’s the same for Zomato, we’re hiring across the board in tech,” Ganjoo said. “This will also lead Indian companies to be product-driven, to be tech first and to solve problems through tech and not through human interventions.”
However, there admittedly are trade-offs and frustrations, according to Hena Mehta, who made the return to India in 2014 after spending a decade in the United States. “But when you move back voluntarily, you also tend to look at these challenges and frustrations a bit differently.”
The company that she was working for at the time, Goldman Sachs in New York City, had already started her Green Card process, but Mehta said she got tired of immigration policies dictating where she worked and when she could travel back to her home and see her parents.
Her exit from America, however, wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. It was over a year in the making. “I spoke to a few people who had moved back. I had a pros and cons list,” said Mehta, the founder and CEO Basis, which is geared towards helping women with personalised financial advice.
While the challenges of traffic and pollution weren’t as glaring for Mehta, she admits getting a bit thrown off by the work culture in India and the lack of separation between personal and professional lives.
Mehta recalled one incident while she was interviewing for a role with a startup. “I was negotiating compensation and the comment that was made was: ‘Why do you need the money? You live with your parents. Just accept this basic amount you’re getting.’ Comments like that threw me off.”
There were times she wondered whether she had made the right decision, for example when she was forced to think closely about her attire for work. “In the US, you would wear dresses to work. Here, I couldn’t,” she said. “Now I don’t wear skirts or dresses to work anymore. It’s always jeans or pants.”
While looking back these might seem like trivial issues, at the time Mehta said she was worried about questions like “how do I behave? How do I present myself?”
Her advice would be to try and find like-minded people to work with. “On some level, that eases the transition,” she said. “Doing that would be far easier now since so many people have returned from abroad and started companies.”
According to Ganjoo, while it will never be an “easy decision” to return to India, it’s important that once you have it, you cut the cord.
“Don’t be in two boats. You’ll have some hiccups along the way, but give it time,” he said. “Don’t look at tickets back to San Francisco at the first power cut.”