For years, Loudoun has been one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S., but what’s not so well-known is who is moving here.
One demographic in particular is leading Loudoun’s growth and has its eyes set on the local IT industry, and on public education and infrastructure.
The U.S. Census Bureau found that in 2014, about one-quarter of Loudoun’s population was foreign born, and 20 percent of that foreign population came from one county – India.
As recently as 1990, Loudoun had fewer than 400 Indian-born residents. The number rose to about 2,300 in 2000 and in the latest census to almost 20,000. County officials speculate that the number is already much higher.
The boom started around the same time Loudoun’s high tech industry expanded and has been a key driver of the growing Indian population, especially as more data centers and high tech startups emerge.
The growth of the local IT industry was one of the biggest factors in Harsha Sarjapur’s immigration. He moved to Northern Virginia in 2000, while working for iCode Inc., a software company.
Sarjapur was educated at Bangalore University in India where he earned a Bachelor of Science in electronics. He has been instrumental in the technological sector of many start-ups and now works as a consultant, helping businesses get the technological support they need, and lives in Ashburn with his wife and two children.
While he was made his home in Loudoun, Indian culture and customs remain important to Sarjapur.
He is the founder of the Loudoun County Indian Community, a Facebook-based group that helps connect members of Loudoun’s Indian population. The group shares information and ideas, discusses topics pertaining to the community and publicizes events and performances, including Indian music and dance festivals.
The page has been successful and is gaining members quickly. Started last year, it now has about 1,700 members.
For Ekta Singhal, another member of the local Indian community, education is key. Singhal is the founder of the NOVA Enrichment Academy, a boutique educational center in Ashburn that focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) learning.
“At first I was disappointed by the lack of STEM education in Loudoun County,” Singhal said. “But instead of complaining about it, I’m trying to help solve it myself.”
At NOVA Enrichment, students come to classes once a week after school and work on various projects, including robotics.
“As an example, our students developed an underwater robot named ‘Steve,’” Singhal said. “We are trying to bring the latest technologies around the world to our students.”
Singhal too has a strong background in the tech industry and received her undergraduate education in New Delhi. She moved to the U.S. in 1999 when she accepted a position in IBM’s global services production and later became a lead software engineer.
Her parents were not happy with her decision at first and told her “engineering is not a woman’s field.”
For Singhal, that became a challenge she wanted to meet, and educating women and girls in STEM became personal. She has started a class just for girls that focuses on robotics, and features a more feminine looking robot.
“It has eyelashes and other feminine features.” Singhal said. “Children are more interested in things that they like and relate to.”
Singhal said education is highly important in the Indian community, and Loudoun fits the bill in that department. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014, 92 percent of Loudoun citizens at least held a high school diploma or equivalent and 58 percent had achieved at least a bachelor’s degree.
County Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) agrees that members of Loudoun’s Indian community have brought great assets to the county. His district includes some of the fastest growing areas of the County, and most diverse.
Letourneau sees all of this as a good thing for Loudoun County. “I have observed a strong entrepreneurial spirit which has brought success, as well high academic standards and some incredibly talented (Indian) students,” he said.
But while Loudoun has provided much opportunity for Indian residents, there are still challenges they face every day, particularly with accessibly to houses of worship.
“We need better infrastructure like parking lots, closer locations and a better network of roads to support this growth,” Sarjapur said. “The county needs to better plan zoning for such religious institutions and we would like to see facilities made available for all religious activities.”
The Indian population has also struggled with anti-Hindu backlash in the past few years. Since 2014, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office has been investigating cases of anti-Hindu graffiti on public grounds and community signs in Ashburn that include disparaging and offensive language.
“I feel if people understood Indian culture and Hinduism, there would be an even better connection between foreign and native born peoples.” Sarjapur said.
He suggests that efforts to bring together the entire Loudoun community are beneficial to the community as a whole. “I am very supportive of more inter-faith places of worship,” Sarjapur said. “If we prayed together this will lead to more understanding of our faith.”
Sarjapur also said that when children of different cultures learn together, they also learn about each other.
Enrollment at many eastern and southern Loudoun County public schools is increasingly foreign-born, and particularly Indian. Letourneau cites Rosa Lee Carter elementary school as a prime example, and calls it “the epicenter of Loudoun’s Indian population.” At Carter and several other schools in the South Riding and Loudoun Valley Estates areas of the County, Indian students are quickly becoming a plurality of those enrolled, and may over time become an outright majority, according to Letourneau.
Demographic trends are not without controversy. As an example, early this year the Loudoun County School Board debated whether to shift boundaries that would lead to a high concentration of lower-income, mostly minority students at two public schools, which would have led to less diversity in the majority of public schools.
“Having children in school from different background benefits everyone,” Sarjapur said. “This helps bring the community together and enlightens everyone’s eyes to each other’s culture and heritage.”
A different, less divisive plan was later adopted in March.
“We want diversity, that is what America is.” Singhal said. “The more diversity we can give to our children, the better they are because they personally see the world through their educators and their friends.”
County officials agree that many more Indians are likely to make their homes in Loudoun as the local IT industry continues to boom and public education and transportation remain high priorities. Their participation in local government and politics is also transforming the county.
Letourneau cites his Indian-American appointees to the County’s Crime Commission, Community Services Board and Board of Equalization, along with more Indian candidates for public office, as examples of the Indian community’s growing interest in policy matters.
Interest in local recreation is also high, and a request for a cricket field has been added to the County’s plan for the Hanson Regional Park complex on Evergreen Mills Road west of Brambleton.
“Loudoun’s diversity – whether it be our geography or our population – is an incredible strength and something to be proud of,” said Letourneau.