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The India Panel at the Asia Business Conference

Hosting a panel at a conference always suggests a mixture of excitement and apprehension – perhaps even more so when one is well acquainted with the panelists. As the panel manager for the India Country Panel at the Asia Business Conference, the subject matter and the speakers could literally not have been closer to home – my mother, Gita Piramal, was scheduled to present on the Indian political economy and its effect on entrepreneurship over the last 25 years. My concerns over how “appropriate” it was to invite a member of my family to speak were quickly squashed when I realized the (not insignificant) leverage it gave me to emotionally blackmail many unsuspecting acquaintances into attending the discussion. And I fully exploited this angle to ensure a packed audience in the days preceding the conference! Luckily, despite the nightmare clash with the end of Hell Week, I had no need to worry – we had a full house.
The panel (India: A Tale of Two Economies) painted a landscape of a country experiencing change in many ways – the transformation from the old to the new economy as well as the progress from an agrarian nation to an industrialized one. Change as deep rooted as this can never be painless however, and Mrs. Piramal’s presentation highlighted 10 political events in the last 25 years that profoundly changed the nature of entrepreneurship and the democratization of capital in the country.
It’s a sobering list for Indians and foreigners, and includes a state of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, the Union Carbide Gas Leak in Bhopal in 1984 and riots triggered by communal clashes in 1992. Her experience as a business historian was evident as she traced the links between seemingly unrelated events in the political sphere and their effect on business. For example, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s desire that all Indians be able to watch the Asian Games held in Delhi in 1982 led to a `television revolution’ as the number of TV sets in the country multiplied almost overnight, thanks to the efforts of a Dubai based exporter and India’s premier takeover shark!
The following presentation by Mrs Lalita Gupte, COO of ICICI, related the experiences of a company that had successfully lived through these turbulent periods. One of India’s largest financial institution and the second Asian bank to list on the NYSE, ICICI transformed itself from a staid term- lending institution to an Internet savvy e-bank, with assets of US$ 17 bn and annual profits of $235 bn. Mrs Gupte stressed the importance sustaining competitive advantage by acquiring both financial and knowledge capital. And several members of the audience found a new role model in the petite panelist – of the most senior female executives in Asia.
Finally, no discussion on the New Economy is complete without that omniscient bastion of entrepreneurship – the Venture Capitalist. Rakinder Grover, General Partner at Walden International outlined the `technology revolution’ that has attracted global attention towards India, despite this sector’s more recent decline. His ideal model for a budding venture was compelling, and ensured the predictable pit dive for business cards at the end of the panel.
In conclusion, there were many ideas for MBA students seeking to travel a newly emerging Indo-US corridor. Mrs Gupte warned that one needs both the appetite and resilience to successfully navigate this territory. However, as one speakers remarked, “where there are many problems to solve, there are many opportunities”. Judging from the requests for copies of the presentations, the panel seemed to have lived up to expectations, and it’s with an honest grin that I say my mother is a credit to me!

February 12, 2001
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