SABA’s Annual India Conference 2010

SABA’s annual India Conference on March 6 featured some very influential speakers from India and a wide variety of industry panels addressing the most pressing issues in the country.

The annual India Business Conference held by the South Asian Business Association (SABA) took place on March 6 and featured influential businessmen and policy makers from India.

The keynote speakers included Mr. Rajat Gupta, former MD and CEO of McKinsey worldwide; Mr. G V Prasad, vice chairman and CEO of Dr. Reddy Labs, a fully integrated global pharmaceutical company in India; Mr. Gururaj Deshpande, co-founder and chairman of Sycamore Networks, Inc; and Mr. Arun Singh, deputy chief of mission at the Indian embassy in Washington D.C.

In a fireside chat with HBS professor Nitin Nohria, Gupta said that education and health will be the two fundamental equalizers in the world going forward and spoke about the efforts businesses and the government in India are taking with regard to health and education. Gupta himself is the chairman of the governing board of the Indian School of Business (ISB), which is ranked 12th among global B-Schools in the world according to Financial Times, and is also a chairperson in PHFI (public health foundation of India), a private-public partnership involved in the research, training and strengthening of public health systems in India.

When asked to do a SWOT analysis on India 2010, Gupta came up with the following:

Strengths – Demographics, Free market democracy, Entrepreneurial culture, most diverse country in the world

Weaknesses – Geopolitics, Income Disparity

Opportunities – Natural bed for innovation, largest middle class, low carbon pathway

Threats – China

Gupta concluded by speaking about the opportunities available for Indians who are currently in the U.S. He said that Indians now have a choice to make a wonderful living in India and a chance to be a global citizen at the same time. He urged HBS students to consider working in India as a viable alternative to working abroad.

The India conference featured a variety of industry panels including Private Equity, Venture Capital, Healthcare, Brands, Social Enterprise and Media. Here are some of my observations from the panels that I sat in on:

Social Enterprise
The panelists were Mr. Anup Akkihal, founder of Logistics for Global Good, which focuses on SCM systems for drug delivery in India; Mr. Nathan Sigworth, co-founder of PharmaSecure, which addresses problems of counterfeiting in drugs; Ms. Shalaka Joshi, VP of CSO partners, which is involved in creating a platform for non-profits to develop and perform through partnership with policy makers and corporations. The panel was moderated by HBS marketing professor Kash Rangan.

Challenges facing social enterprise in India
The panel began with panelists addressing the challenges facing social enterprise in India and what could be done to address the same. Akkihal conceded that social enterprise is an obstacle course, and it is very essential to have a strong core team and a sound business model in order to be successful. Sigworth agreed and said that he would not have chosen such a challenging career had it not helped in solving a fundamental social problem of counterfeit drugs in India. Joshi, who is on the venture capital side of social enterprise, mentioned that the problem is not so much in capital but more so in the retaining of human capital.

Choosing a career in social enterprise
When asked why each of them chose a career in social enterprise over other opportunities, Sigworth responded by stating that he would never do anything for pay that he would not do for free and that the problems faced by pharmacists regarding counterfeit drugs represented a huge opportunity. Akkihal said that he chose social enterprise for the adrenaline and also that he got the idea from his last project as a consultant. Joshi mentioned that the unique opportunity to work at the intersection of public policy, venture capital and social entrepreneurship attracted her to the job.

The panel concluded with Rangan asking audience members if they had suggestions for either for-profit or not-for-profit social enterprises in India, and they threw out some very interesting suggestions, including internship opportunities for undergrads and the diminishing attention given to not-for-profit organizations in light of the new wave of for-profit solutions.

Building brands in India
The panelists were Mr. Harindra Singh, vice chairman and MD of Percept Limited, one of the biggest media, communications and entertainment conglomerates in India; Mr. Suhel Seth, MD of Counselage, a strategic brand management and marketing consultancy; and Mr. Gopal Krishna, VP Emerging Markets, Yahoo Inc. The panel was moderated by Sonit Seth, president of NetSAP, Boston (Network of South Asian Professionals).

Challenges faced in building brands in India
Harindra Singh started by saying that brands in India are built over time, and it is very challenging to build one over the short term. During one such engagement where it had to build awareness quickly, Percept had used the popularity of cricket and Bollywood to help its clients launch products and services. Seth agreed that brand-building is challenging and also mentioned that global brands have to be re-branded in India because the market is very different. He gave the example of Coca Cola and said that while the consumer regards it as a thirst quencher in the U.S., in India it’s more of a celebratory drink for special occasions. He opined that the high savings rate in the country, the demographic mix and the culture make building and sustaining brands difficult in the face of excessive brand migration and low customer retention rates. Krishna of Yahoo said that the penetration rate of the Internet has caused branding to shift from traditional to newer media over the past few years and will only increase going forward.

Sustaining and growing brands in India
Seth described why it is so important to understand the history of the country in order to build a successful brand – the colonial past, the deeply suspicious consumer and the value of endurance. This, he claimed, explains why Mom and Pop stores exist along with big retail chains and will continue to exist for a long time to come. Krishna agreed and added that entry for a foreign brand is easier, but brand loyalty among Indian consumers cannot be taken for granted – they have to customize to survive. Harindra Singh concluded by saying that companies that build trust and confidence by giving back to society will do better in the long run.

Lavanya Manohar is an RC student in Section A. When not trying to decipher three different cases in a day, she likes to blog and watch movies.