Sunday, December 18, 2011

Much is done. Much to do.

Where do I start?  I guess the beginning would be appropriate.

This fall, an opportunity of a lifetime came my way.  Each year, the India Club at London Business School organizes a trek (Yatra Trek) all over India for students and partners.  They needed another trek leader to help with the planning and be there on the ground to support.  So, I thought "why not?".  Best. Decision. Ever.

I'm a co-leader of this trek with Sherene, and it's been an incredible experience working with her.  After a very CRAZY few weeks of finals, second year project trips, dissertation planning, Yatra prep, etc., I found myself frantically packing for this trip.  Actually, I find that I'm always frantically packing because I always cut it close.  Fast forward, I made it to Heathrow just in time and boarded my Emirates flight.  Best. Airline Experience. Ever.  Emirates is living proof that economy class doesn't have to be hellish.  The staff was so friendly, the food was quite tasty, the entertainment system was engaging, and no screaming babies.  I will continue to steer business to Emirates when I can't fly Continental.    A day stop in Dubai and then made it to Delhi.

So, I meant to blog everyday while in India.  Fail.  Sherene and I are in charge of 35 Yatra Trek members + managing to a jam packed schedule.  Plus, this is India so things never go as planned.

Anywho, I'll do my best to give snippets the next few days.  On day 2 in Delhi, we had Mr. Tarun Das speak to us.  He is the former head of the Confederation of Indian Industries (an important business roundtable) and is on the board of many blue chip organizations.   Because an important meeting with India's Finance Minister popped up for him, we had to rearrange our schedule and were late to meet him.  Because of the strong VIP culture in India, I was freaking out a bit.  However, it turned out alright, and he was so kind and engaging.  He individually met every student and had a small chit chat conversation ahead of his talk.

I really enjoyed the talk and following Q&A because he was candid and spoke at exactly the right level for people who only know headline stats about India.  Here is a high level summary of some things I learned:

-In 1947 when India gained independence, the self-doubting Indians looked externally for help in which direction to lead their country.  The US was focused on rebuilding Europe and Japan after WWII.  Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, looked north to Moscow for guidance and steered the country down a socialist model where the government had command and control of the economy.   That lasted for 40+ years until 1991 when India began privatization, accepted foreign investment, and began dreaming new dreams.  One decision led to 40+ years of stalling for a country with ~1 billion people.  Diplomacy, openness, and willingness to help other countries matter when nation states are at precarious points.

-I've always wondered why most Indians choose to study in the US and not the UK (even though many do).  US universities are top-notch, but getting a work permit to stay in America is challenging.  Given the 200 years of British rule, it seems to not make sense.  The missing piece is a decision that Margaret Thatcher made where UK universities began charging tuition on a sliding scale based on nationality. Foreigners for the first time had to pay more to go to UK university than Brits.  And, scholarships are not as prevalent in the UK as they are in the US.   Now 130,000+ Indians study at US universities every year.  Those talented individuals could have come to the UK (where they likely would have felt more comfortable and welcome).  If not for their reputation, US universities will face this challenge if our narrow-minded government continues to "protect" American jobs with stringent work permit nonsense.

-From 1963-1988, India had NO contact with China for 25 years.  Now China is India's main trading partner (ahead of the US) with trade at >$70 billion USD in the first 9 months of 2011.  That's alot of economic activity that wouldn't have happened if India and China didn't have a relationship, albeit slightly adversarial and cold.  India has many free trade agreements with ASEAN, Singapore, and potentially Europe.  It will be very difficult to sign one with the US as Obama can't talk about it with unemployment high in the US and an election around the corner.  I predict it will happen in the next 10 years.   On the other hand, India is hesitant to sign free trade agreements with China because they (rightfully) don't trust China's prices and doubt there is an actual private sector.  The onus in on China to change its ways and frankfully have better ties and diplomacy with the rest of the world if it wants to compete and benefit in the long run.

-Lessons for foreign companies entering India.  Don't go with a JV approach because the foreign and domestic companies both will want to rule the world.  That combo does not make for a good industrial marriage.  Don't fly in for day long business meetings in India and feel you can get the job done.  Business one night stands don't work in India.  Don't think of India as one market...think of it as 27 countries (not 1).  There are 27 states that were amalgamated to form India (a country that never existed otherwise).  Each state has its own language, food, traditions, beliefs, social issues, etc.

Overall, my takeaway was "A lot has changed in India in the past 60 years.  A lot still needs to change."

And now, here are a few pictures...

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