SEATTLE (Reuters) - On a cloudless summer day, Manish Prabhu stares out at a converted soccer field thousands of miles from his native India and watches a cricket ball skip past some fielders dressed in white.
It is an unlikely place for a game of cricket, but Prabhu has spent hundreds of afternoons playing with the Microsoft Cricket Club on this bumpy turf near the company’s campus in Redmond, Washington.
“The chance to play so much cricket surprised me,” said Prabhu, a senior program manager at Microsoft Corp.’s (MSFT.O) automotive business. “There is someone in almost every business team at Microsoft that I’ve played cricket with.”
Microsoft’s cricket program — comprising four teams that compete against other local teams — is not just a corporate softball team for the globalization era. It is a valuable tool in keeping the company’s largest minority group happy.
Competing against fast-growing technology companies in India offering jobs with handsome pay raises and quick promotions, Microsoft has to work harder these days to attract and retain the best and brightest Indian engineering talent.
Furthermore, Microsoft like many technology companies is being squeezed by U.S. immigration quotas limiting the number of work visas issued to foreign nationals.
Over the last decade, as Microsoft has nearly quadrupled its workforce, it has hired scores of computer science graduate students from India who have stay on to work in the United States after finishing graduate school here.
Employees of Indian descent estimate they make up about 15 percent of Microsoft’s 35,000 workers in the greater Seattle area. The company does not keep track of such figures, but said it has made adjustments for changes in its workforce demographics.
“Our programs and policies have changed given the diversity that has come into the company,” said Mylene Padolina, a senior diversity consultant at Microsoft.
Veteran “Microsofties” have noticed the changes.
Hired by Microsoft in India in 1995, Sukhvinder Singh Gulati recalls visiting the Redmond campus early in his career and finding only a handful of Indians.
“If you saw an Indian on campus, you would be jumping for joy,” said Gulati, who is a senior lead program manager in Microsoft’s unified communication division. “Today there are thousands and thousands of Indians working at Microsoft.”
“Now people can feel at home at work,” he said. “The friendships you’ve made at work also transfer to friendships outside the work hours. That helps a lot.”
Microsoft celebrated major Indian holidays this year like Republic Day in January and Independence Day in August with on-campus events that included art displays, musical acts and special food.
Last year, Microsoft opened two Indian food stalls that operate inside the company’s cafeterias. It also increased vegetarian options to suit Indian dietary needs.
Particularly noticeable to Microsoft veterans has been the increase of female Indian employees working in Redmond.
Ava Gupta, who joined the company two months ago, said she was surprised to see Indian women regularly come to work wearing a sari, traditional clothing worn in India.
“Outside of the World Bank or the United Nations, how often do you see people in America show up for work in their traditional clothing?” said Gupta, who works as a market researcher. “Here, I feel encouraged to be Indian.”
During the Cricket World Cup in March and April, Microsoft broadcast tournament matches from the Caribbean via closed circuit. Staff could watch the games from any television on campus.
Over 500 employees gathered to watch India’s matches, but most of those fans went home disappointed. The team lost in the first round, dropping matches to Bangladesh and eventual runner-up Sri Lanka.
“I can tell you Microsoft saved a lot of work hours because India got knocked out early,” said Prabhu.
Cricket may be a male-dominated sport in India, but Microsoft’s female Indian employees are leading the way to spark the sport’s growth in the greater Seattle area.
A local women’s cricket league has more than 100 members and around three-quarters of those players are from Microsoft.
It’s giving people like Sangita Jayaraman, a program manager at Microsoft, a chance to cash in on years of being a “couch cricketer.”
“Most of us never really had the opportunity to play cricket back home,” said Jayaraman. “There are probably more women playing cricket here than in all of India.”