Reverse brain drain: Accelerated by COVID-19

Ankit Goyal, Healthcare and Lifesciences Leader India, Heidrick & Struggles finds that leadership hiring is attracting ‘returnee Indians’ in healthcare companies due to growing opportunities in India, and more recently, the impact of the pandemic

Reverse brain drain is when people move in reverse, from a more developed country to a lesser developed country but one that is developing rapidly. These migrants may have accumulated savings and developed skills overseas that can be used in their home country.

India today has one of the world’s largest and most successful diasporas, with millions of expatriate Indians and people of Indian origin living across a wide range of countries, seeking more economic opportunity and material comforts. Over the last two decades, the next generation of people of Indian-origin have come to represent a highly skilled (doctors, scientists, engineers, professionals, and entrepreneurs) group of locals in every country they live in. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, over 13.6 million Indian nationals were living abroad as of February 2020.

The Indian leadership talent is fairly distributed across the globe. Below are few of the hotspots for NRI (non-resident Indians) senior executives across the globe. In addition to traditional hotspots like the US and UK, new hubs are developing in Southeast Asia, China, and the Middle East.

Reasons for reverse brain drain in India

However, throughout 2020, returnees have been hitting the reverse gear, due to growing opportunities in India, and more recently, the impact of the pandemic.

  • India, a magnet for global healthcare investment, innovation and growth: Over the last few years, India’s healthcare and life sciences sector has been rapidly developing with increasing investments and a competitive edge in vaccines, generics among others. People have realised that India has more opportunities for professional development, wealth prospects and increasing quality to life. For instance, global in-house centres (GICs) are in many ways the future of global business. Their evolution over the past two decades shows that multinational companies (MNCs) have come to rely heavily on GICs, particularly in India, and not just for outsourced business functions with an eye on cost savings. Several enterprises have built global competencies and roles based in India and moved up the value chain to set up global centres of excellence in India.
  • Turn entrepreneur: There is a lot of potential demand in India as it is a developing country where needs must be met. The population is huge and diverse, so there is a potential of high customer base. Private equity and venture capital have played the role of a lucrative springboard in providing growth capital for Indian businesses. In just the last few years, these two alternative investment channels have moved from a $10 billion opportunity to almost $50 billion in 2019. In fact, according to industry experts, PE/VC investments accounted for a remarkable two per cent increase in Indian GDP and a bigger boost to the overall economy
  • Returning to run family-owned businesses: With second and third-generation entrepreneurs returning to run family businesses, companies are profiting from the experience they gained from working and studying abroad.
  • Social and economic issues: Many countries are facing economic problems such as lack of job opportunities and increasing income inequality, immigration issues which are resulting in closing doors for Indian nationals. Indians with US degrees look at opportunities back home as America tightens immigration rules. The H1-B Visas are numerically limited with nearly 85,000 migrants each year in the US, out of which Indians get a significant H1-B visa approval. With Joe Biden being President-elect, it’s still unlikely to get easier.
  • Other reasons include social and cultural life, living closer to parents, giving back to their motherland and retirement. People living away from their home countries feel somewhat ‘stuck in limbo, neither here nor there’. This feeling is quite understandable, given that for many, life in the host country is perceived as ‘temporary’. But, as time passes ‘home’ in the native country becomes more distant. The main concern is that while being temporarily abroad, the lives of one’s peers, relatives and friends back home move on too: families get established, careers progress and house mortgages get paid. And, though equipped with new skills, experiences and prospects, now of repatriation the recent traveller finds him/herself in a situation where a job needs to be found, new accommodation arranged, and social ties renewed.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic impact: The pandemic has disrupted the lives of overseas Indians massively; there are increasing painful stories of the salaried class – layoffs across sectors, salary cuts and delayed increments have led to senior leaders thinking of coming back to India. It’s important to note that returning NRIs are those who stayed away from India for 8-20 years and are keen on working in India after they return. The retiring NRIs who lived abroad for over 20 years are typically settled with family. Hence, they are not very keen on returning.

Pros and cons of returnee talent (leadership level)



Understanding of both worlds

Language and fitting in/acceptance from local team

Cultural familiarity

Less easily ‘forgiven’ for cultural faux pas than ‘expat’

Ability to influence global relationships and organisational buy-in

Managing expectations and career progression

Global perspective and leveraging their work experience

Higher designations and greater responsibilities

Educated overseas, understanding of MNC norms and standards

CTC tends to be lower than foreign expats moving to India with relatively higher stickiness

What does this mean for healthcare and life sciences companies?

India’s healthcare and life sciences sector has not managed to capitalise well on this unique and capable asset by actively attracting its human capital staying overseas. It is of utmost importance to understand their motivation and opportunities. Also, aligning their compensation expectations and tax composition, expected benefits and consideration for a smooth transition as they return to India are critical to address.

Largely, the returnee Indian workforce wants to move back to India’s metros due to better connectivity and quality of life, education opportunities for children among others. The home state is not seen as an important criterion in deciding the move back to India indicating flexibility and high mobility.

Roles and opportunities that would fit and attract returnee Indians

Most senior leaders prefer to work for an MNC or a large Indian organisation with global vision as they would wish to leverage their global exposure and contribute to the company’s growth in India. Some of the roles where these talents add value and fit well are

  • Business functions and P&L leadership roles
  • Consultancy and advisory
  • Investment professionals or investor
  • Social impact sector
  • Functional leaders with emerging market remit
  • Product Innovation
  • Global manufacturing

The right talent is difficult to find and move. Companies will need to move beyond their traditional recruiting methods and networks to reach these candidates. A partnership with a global well-networked search firm with access to such talents would help organisations to persuade such talent.

Ankit GoyalCOVID-19 impactexpatriate IndiansHealthcareHeidrick & StrugglesIndian leadership talentleadership hiringLifesciencespharma hiringpharma jobspharma talentReverse brain drain
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  • Nimesh Thakar

    Thanks for the Sharing Details!!

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  • Saket

    A handful of facts and especially liked “Roles and opportunities that would fit and attract returnee Indians”. In my opinion, the traditional process of recruiting needs to be changed, and HR interviews should focus more on finding leaders for the organization.