Rahul Roy-Chowdhury spent nearly two decades in the U.S. before joining Google as its product manager for Google News. His particular mandate is to broaden Google News’ reach in India, and his company’s sent him back to capitalize on India’s strangely voracious appetite for news.
It’s one of the few countries in which newspaper circulation is actually increasing. That’s partly because rising incomes and education levels have stoked literacy, Roy-Chowdhury says, but it also has to do with the slow spread of Internet access. Of course, Google is planning for the day when every Indian can surf the Web for news, and it’s clear that when they can, they’ll still want what they like now: local news.
“If you leaf through almost any newspaper here, the sequence of sections is telling,” he says. “Generally, city and state news is given pride of place, followed by some national news and generally a small amount of international coverage.”
Roy-Chowdhury has to ensure that Google News not only provides that local coverage, but ultimately does so in the country’s different languages. India has 22 major languages. The country’s middle class, now about as big as the entire U.S. population, can speak English, but many still prefer to read and shop in their native tongues. “If we’re able to do it successfully, we can reach many orders of magnitude more people than we could otherwise,” he says. “I love the idea of potentially being able to make a difference at that scale.”
Who could have known, 17 years ago, that he would return to India as the representative of a mammoth high-tech company. Back then, India was still mired in sluggish growth, the product of decades of excessive government meddling in the economy. “Right as I was getting ready to leave for the U.S., India's balance of payments weaknesses suddenly caused a crisis,” he remembers. “India moved to a floating exchange rate, which immediately caused a severe devaluation of the rupee. I remember my father being quite upset, as my education in the US suddenly became 50 percent more expensive than it had been a month before!” Later on, India liberalized the economy, setting off the ongoing boom, which is particularly robust in high-tech industry.
He studied first mathematics, at Hamilton College, then computer science, at Columbia University. A stint at the New York offices of the investment bank Lazard Frères got him interested in business, which he pursued by getting an MBA at Stanford University, followed by a job at Solidcore, a Cupertino, California startup in that provides IT maintenance services. In 2007, Google gobbled him up.
Roy-Chowdhury now lives a stone’s throw from the center of Bangalore, which is the beating heart of India’s tech economy. There he sees the corporate offices of Intel, Microsoft, and a host of other tech multinationals, alongside malls packed with contemporary styles and name-brand fast food. It makes him feel right at home, because that is where he is.