When Indian immigrant Sameer Penakalapati started Avani Technology Solutions in 2010, the Rochester-based business had two employees and revenues of $300,000. Since then, the company, which provides information technology services, has soared. It now has $50 million in annual revenue and 520 American employees in eight cities across the country.
Penakalapati says he could grow his company even faster — if he could only find enough skilled applicants. “I could double the size of my company in one to two years if I had all the qualified employees I need,” he says.
The problem, he says, is that United States doesn’t grant enough work visas to high-skilled immigrants in the technology sector. In 2014, 51.5 percent of computer and information science PhDs went to students on temporary visas. But immigration policy makes it difficult for those students to remain in the country after graduation, so employers like Penakalapati lose the talent they need to keep their businesses growing.
Unless the United States makes efforts to retain high-skill workers, Penakalapati says, two things will happen. “First, innovation will slow down — companies won’t be able to deliver. Second, the people who have these skills will demand a lot more money, causing product costs to rise. Someone who is willing to work for $100,000 now wants $200,000, so you can’t afford half of the people,” Penakalapati says. “You slow down the work, but it costs you much more.”
Penakalapati was educated in India and has a master’s degree in engineering from the prestigious Birla Institute of Technology and Science. He subsequently worked for IBM India before moving to the United States with his wife in 1999. “It was easier then,” he says. “If you had good skills, there were lots of opportunities to stay in this country.”
From 1999 to 2002, the couple traveled to six different U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Chicago, while Penakalapati worked on different consulting assignments. “I did this on purpose. I wanted to get exposure to many clients and businesses, so I could learn as much as possible and build a network,” he says.
I could double the size of my company in one to two years if I had all the qualified employees I need.
In 2002, Penakalapati accepted a position as a project manager for Kodak in Rochester, and in 2010 he told his wife he was ready to start his own company. Naturally, she was cautious. “She was staying home with our two children, and like any spouse she was worried about giving up the paycheck and spending money to build the business,” he says. “I told her, ‘If I don’t do it now, I’ll regret it my whole life.’ ”
Today Aviani’s Rochester headquarters has about 50 employees — about half were born in the United States — who earn between $50,000 and $100,000 per year. In 2014, Penakalapati purchased a business park and spent close to $1 million on renovations. The company also spends $1 million per year on support services, which combined create an estimated 20 or so additional jobs in the city.
Penakalapati also invests heavily in the community, recently partnering with a technology-focused magnet school for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who have shown proficiency in math. A friend had introduced the children to him and said “If you do well, you can work for him.”
“I went back to the principal and said, ‘I think these kids are good, but they lack presentation skills. The way they talk and dress — nobody would actually give them a job, even an internship,’ ” recalls Penakalapati.
He has since paid for 22 students to attend a Dale Carnegie Foundation course in communication and presentation. “I was there on the first day of the program and on the last day,” he says. “I was pleasantly surprised to see the transformation. These kids can go on and find computer programing jobs that will pay $40,000 or $50,000. It will change their lives and the lives of their parents.”
These students will also be bringing essential skills to the U.S. economy, skills that will help companies like Avani find more qualified employees. But Penakalapati stresses that this alone is not enough. For American businesses to reach their potential and remain competitive in the global economy, the United States must attract skilled workers — people like Penakalapati — from around the world.