India Trek Awes and Enlightens

As an itinerant cattle rancher from Colorado who went to college in LA, traveled extensively in Europe, spent four years in San Francisco and eighteen months at HBS I feel like I’ve seen a few things. Like me, many of us arrive at HBS secured by our accomplishments, believing that we are wiser, worldlier and generally more experienced than most of our peers and elders. Nonetheless, after recently completing the HBS India Trek led by Naveen Tewari (OF) and his team, I must admit my ignorance. Not necessarily my ignorance to cultural differences, but more acutely, ignorance to my experientially-dulled ability to be surprised.

My past traveling experiences have focused primarily on visiting historical landmarks, plowing through a brief description of each, followed by an extensive search for a well known bar or restaurant to enjoy the rest of the evening with friends or family. Once in a while there will be a brief interlude with exercise or physical activity, but on balance, much to my chagrin, I tend to become securely attached to my guidebook. Previously this methodology has produced some memorable trips; however, because of unprecedented access and depth of focus, the India Trek provided an opportunity to get beneath many more aspects of the country’s culture, not just historical or social, but political and economic as well-and then to reflect with my classmates upon these experiences.

From the very first day, which included a visit to Reliance (India’s version of GE) where we were given a tour of their lavish company campus, debriefed by the head of their telecommunications division (which has become the market leader in less than three years) and given free cell phones to use during our stay; the trek was more than just a trip. Day after day we experienced Indian culture. Many couldn’t help but remark at the stark contrast of Mumbai’s slums to the opulence of the Reliance campus. Nonetheless, all noticed the palpable sense of enthusiasm and optimism felt by the Reliance employees. Not only for themselves, but for the long term benefit they are providing to their country. Based on current trends over 20% of the Indians will form a new middle class within twenty years-this is over 200 million new consumers. Further, companies such as Reliance see themselves as part of this plan, a fifty year plan that will capture the potential felt by the world’s second most populous nation.

Mumbai, the trek’s first stop, has over twenty million people living in half the area of New York City. Consequently, the most often heard description of our experience was “more.” More of everything, more colors, more people, more smells and sounds and images than a person can hope to absorb. Throngs and throngs, face after face, we were shocked by a uniquely cosmopolitan and destitute city.

After the speed of Mumbai, the trek moved to Goa where we spent New Year’s Eve on the beach. Goa is the place to be on New Year’s in India, as evidenced by the prevalence of Bollywood movie stars and hordes of tourists. While most spent their time sightseeing or on the beach, nearly everyone rang in the New Year at Club Cabana. Imagine one thousand or more revelers, 10% of which where from HBS, celebrating the New Years in a Miami Vice style mansion on top of the highest hill in Goa with panoramic views of over twenty fireworks shows!

Following a New Years recovery, the trek made its way to Bangalore-affectionately referred to as India’s Silicon Valley. In Bangalore, trekkers were treated to a talk on entrepreneurship by Infosys Chief Narayana Murthy, well known as the Bill Gates of India and then a touching talk by his wife, Sudha Murthy on social enterprise work in India – very moving to hear especially after the tsunami.

The first ever NASSCOM HBS Technology Symposium also took place. NASSCOM is a chamber of commerce of sorts for Indian technology businesses. NASSCOM fulfills functions from government lobbying to marketing for India’s High Tech sector. Members of the panel presented their respective views of the future of Indian technology as well as actionable items that must be addressed in order to get there. This Symposium provided an unprecedented view into the inside perspective on BPO, Business Process Outsourcing, from the entrepreneurial, governmental and development perspective, and served to highlight the tiny fraction of the BPO market that is served by India and why BPO alone will not be sufficient to transition from a developing country into a developed one. For me this symposium was an unexpected highlight, which transformed not only my perspective of how Indians view Americans, but also cemented my view that strong developing economies and their corresponding strengthening consumer classes are necessary to create a stabilized economic and political world dynamic.

The capitol of India and a focal point for most trekkers was Delhi. Home of many of the most interesting landmarks such as the Red Fort, Hamayun’s Tomb and Parliament, Delhi was also where the trek was invited for high tea with the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, who graciously discussed the effects of the tsunami upon the country as well as his view of India’s future. It is safe to say this experience would not have been possible had it not been for HBS and the critical mass created by the trek. In many ways the reaction of Indians to our trip cannot be exaggerated. For example, after visiting the Prime Minister, the unassuming and unknowing trekkers proceeded to Amity Business School, where we were greeted like celebrities by over 1,000 business school students. Many of us were interviewed by CNBC and all were lauded as the future leaders of the world by many of the speakers. Sheepishly we were congratulated by legitimate Indian dignitaries and were treated to a traditional Indian dance performance before a catered meal. I know that I speak for many when I say that this was a pinnacle day.

On the way to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal-the sole purpose for many visitors to India-the trek stopped off at Naveen Tewari’s ancestral village – Rajugella. As described in fellow trekker Steven Cohn’s (OD) article (see page 3), this was an extremely powerful experience, which has spawned an effort to dramatically improve the prospects and therefore livelihoods of the villagers. Compared to this experience, the Taj Mahal became little more than another building to most.

The trek concluded in Jaipur, after consecutive days of six hour bus rides. While cramped, complaints were minimized by the ability to visit with new friends and reflect on one of the more dramatic events of the trip-when the driver of one of the buses was attacked by an entire village-after hitting a truck-before being rescued by the police! For those who know little of Jaipur, it is called the pink city because its walls are colored bright pink. Further, it is known for its shopping and the Amber Palace, which is a tremendous palace, built into the hills and surrounded by a mini version of the “great wall.” And of course, everyone loved the fifteen minute elephant ride up to the palace.

Day after day, experience after experience I was consumed with the
depth and breadth of India. To the HBS students from India who hosted many of us at their homes before the trek, or those who hosted parties on our behalf during the trek, our many sponsors such as Reliance, Taj Hotel chain, Tata Group and NASSCOM, to the Prime Minister and other dignitaries who consented to give us their time, I am extremely grateful.

A virgin trekker, I was unprepared for the magnitude of this experience, and for this reason I believe that at least one trek should very nearly be a requirement for graduation. I came away hopeful for India, and maybe more importantly, infused with a common sense of promise in our futures that is solidified in the honest, and maybe for the first time, legitimate appreciation of another culture.