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The Indian Paradox-High Tech, BPO and Beyond

In 1999, my English friends in London summarized India in 10 words “Chicken Tikka Masala, Shahrukh Khan, Taj Mahal, Gandhi, crowds and IT.” They summarized Indians as “software engineers, doctors, bargain hunters, cabbies and newsagents.”

Not anymore! On January 26, 2007, at Harvard Business School’s annual SABA Indian Conference, Charles Kaye, Co-President of Warburg Pincus, described India as an “enigma wrapped in a conundrum.” Gopalakrishnan, Executive Director of Tata Group, called India the “land of paradox-a country that likes to do the most obvious thing after exhausting every possible alternative.”

But, wait-let’s get this straight! 2% of the planet’s land is housing 16% of the planet’s population-that doesn’t sound right! A churn out of 350,000 engineers per annum, a 100% growth in FDI over the last year, a per capita income of $3,400 at PPP and $714 at nominal and an economy threatening to grow at 10% annually-hang on, this sounds plain crazy! But crazy is fabulous-crazy statistics like these get the world to sit up and take notice!!

Tony Fernandez (CEO, Appco India) believes that Indians make the most thrilling and proactive businessmen to work with-“even the tomato seller in Delhi wants to rip you off for 10 cents!” No wonder 500 students, professors, business, media and India enthusiasts decided to forgo the cosy comfort of their homes and descended on the frosty HBS campus this Friday. SABA hopes it wasn’t for the open bar! Or the free samosas and pakoras!!

The conference convened five heterogeneous panels on a wide array of business issues, and the two keynote sessions unraveled the challenges and opportunities ahead from macroeconomic, microeconomic, logistical and political perspectives. The speakers inspired, enthused, amused, enlightened and astounded the audience with their humor, candor and simplicity. They reveled in their Indian accents, heritage, and culture and wittingly acknowledged their shortcomings as a nation.

Surprisingly, nearly the entire entrepreneurial panel believed that the maximum resistance faced when starting out their business came from their own families and friends. “Since we decided to return to India after higher education in UK, U.S. and Australia, we were automatically labeled as failures!” they quipped almost unanimously.

Nevertheless, these entrepreneurs and business giants persevered through their mum’s nagging and auntie’s interference! Lina Ashar (Founder Kangaroo Kids Education) and Tony Fernandez enthralled their audience with their zesty escapades and tricky maneuvers through arranged marriages, joint families, red tape, and an Indian legal system that has the “best laws that never get implemented.” Atul Nishar (CEO, Hexaware Technologies) talked about his dilemma around the sale of Aptech-“When Indians abroad sell businesses, they become famous (Sabeer Bhatia became famous after he sold Hotmail)-however when Indians in India sell their businesses, they are condemned for selling off their family jewels.”

Despite the muddled politics, fiscal constraints, demanding socialist economic model, infrastructure bottlenecks and uneven reaction to foreign investors, India continues to gallop on its strengths of management potential, enhanced awareness, greater connectivity, return of macro-stability, and untapped human capital.

Did you know that there are more Mercedes sold in Ludhiana than in Delhi and Mumbai? Or that the cell phone market in India grew 270 times last year alone? Naturally, a 70% population under the age of 35 will slant consumer consumption! Corporate India is spicing up the stakes confidently and sassily! Abhay Havaldar (Partner, General Atlantic) suggests that “To be successful in India, learn to listen. Information in India comes in bite size chunks from multiple stakeholders-often not wrapped in powerpoint presentations in board meetings.”

Yet, in my opinion, several sectors in India still need to catch up. Is the growth “trickling down” the chain? Charles Kaye questions whether India can continue to create the physical infrastructure and regulatory environment that will support sustained non-inflationary growth. What remains hidden is India’s astronomical farmer suicide rate. With a 60% agrarian economy, why can’t we expect a transformation in the unsupported and dismal agrarian national supply chain-it’s only so long before Private Equity enters the arena of ecotourism and sustainable agriculture in India in a colossal way! However, till then we will have to let the PE and VC posse concentrate on real estate, telecommunication, finance and manufacturing!

The conference concluded with more debate, questions and viewpoints during the mingle and jingle drinks with India’s business glitterati, where the HBS posse demonstrated noteworthy dexterity at distributing business cards yet again. The network-crazy HBS machine spun its wheels at F1 speeds as R. Gopalakrishnan found himself cornered by 50 eager HBS faces interrogating him about summer internships with Tata India! Ah, the gold rush to delve into the verdurous, paradoxical and effervescent India catches on.

Check out the conference at: www.hbsindiaconference.com

February 5, 2007
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