The Palace is a place where deals go down, where players see and are seen. The powerful and the connected gather to network over goat curry and garlic naan in this Indian restaurant off a busy intersection in Norcross, Georgia.
Tonight, 100 folks are here for a gathering of the Georgia Indo-American Chamber of Commerce. Some are entrepreneurs on their second or third business. They are MBAs and PhDs, engineers and executives — educated and rabidly ambitious children and grandchildren of illiterate mothers and poor working fathers in India.
Many Americans see India as a sort of evil empire, an economic black hole sucking up tech jobs. In Georgia's Fulton County, it's more complex than that. In the last two decades, an estimated 200 technology companies with Indian ties have settled here — including local outposts of outsourcing giants Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys — spinning off hundreds of other local businesses.
C.N. (Madhu) Madhusudan came to Atlanta in 1991 to open a one-person office for NIIT, an Indian company that creates software for the likes of IBM and Microsoft. "When we started, we didn't have any background. It was a journey of discovery. A lot of people called me Columbus," he says. Today, Madhusudan is president of NIIT, which has 60 employees in Atlanta and 300 across the United States.
"Many of these people came to Atlanta with nothing but a degree, a gleam in their eye, and a shirt on their back," says Dr. Anupam Srivastava, codirector of the South Asia Program at the University of Georgia in Athens. "They've accomplished what no other ethnic group in the U.S. has done in a generation."
Atlanta's booming Indian community is an artifact not of policy but of airline scheduling. In 1991, Delta Air Lines bought Pan Am's Asian routes and directed flights from Bombay to its Atlanta hub. Jagdish Sheth, professor of marketing at Emory University, says that helped introduce Indians to the American South, where they settled in small towns whose hospitality and deep family ties resonated with Indian values.
In the 1990s, according to census data, Atlanta's Indo-American population climbed 231% — faster than in any other metropolitan area in the United States. Today, it boasts at least four active professional groups, not including the Asian-American Hotel Owners Association, which represents 60% of American hotel rooms. One in 10 students at Emory University is Indian, higher than the number of African-Americans. There is a glossy, upscale magazine for Indo-Atlantans and at least two Indian dating services.
Narsi Narasimhan, founder of the Indian Professionals Network, estimates that Atlanta's Indian IT businesses generate at least $200 million a year in revenues. Indeed, Indian companies helped fuel the tech boom here, which is why the government would love to have more. Fulton County is planning to open a marketing office in Bangalore, and "we'd like to see Atlanta become known for its curry as much as its peaches," says county commissioner Robb Pitts.
Manju Kodhary, the matronly cook who opened the Palace in 1998, is working on that. Worried that repeat customers will tire of her food, she's creating new fusion versions of Indian dishes. "We never really know what we're going to be eating," says Narasimhan, who has another meeting here tomorrow. "But it's always good."