Reflections on Mumbai and Bangalore

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The group! (photo credit: Kristin Johnson)

A little more than a week ago, my classmates from GIP India and I made the long journey back to NYC, some for the first time in several weeks after taking advantage of the opportunity to travel, job hunt, take block week courses on campus, plan and attend weddings, and in one student’s case, participate in a 10-day meditation retreat.  It’s great to see some new friendly faces around campus, and we’ll all be seeing quite a bit more of each other as we finish up our projects on reverse innovation and get together for a reunion dinner in a couple of weeks.

I haven’t yet talked much about the cities that we visited on the trip, but we roughly split our time between Mumbai, the “financial capital of India,” and Bangalore, the “technology capital of India.”  The cities were a fascinating study in contrasts and contradictions that somehow seemed to work…to an extent, at least.  In a country of over a billion people that’s rapidly growing, urbanizing, becoming more educated, and more, it would be an understatement to say that such development is fraught with challenges.  On the other hand, this also means a potentially huge opportunity for the entrepreneur with the right idea and ability to execute.

With possible brief exceptions in Sao Paulo and Seoul, I’ve never seen so many people in one place as in Mumbai.  I arrived and was immediately struck by the number of people in and around the streets, the homes and businesses one after (and on top of) the next…if I’d ever questioned whether there could really be seven billion people in the world, I questioned no more.  I was also struck by the hospitality; all of the employees at the hotels, restaurants, and companies were extremely friendly and available to assist us at every turn.  The food was delicious, and there were so many new things to try that I wasn’t even able to keep up with it all 🙂 Shopping here was a new experience; with a little help, I was able to bargain successfully for a few items while braving the throngs of mostly friendly vendors as well as men, women, and children trying to sell their items for the rupee equivalent of a few dollars or less.  There is a sense of grandeur to be found in Mumbai with its colonial architecture, and tranquility to be found in places like the beaches and fishing villages that we passed along the way.

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A craftsman in Dharavi Slum

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Girl in Mumbai (photo credit: Kristin Johnson)

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Tourists and locals mingle in Mumbai (photo credit: Roberto Tribioli)

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The city at night (photo credit: Roberto Tribioli)

I think that when we all got off the plane in Bangalore, some of us were surprised at how non-chaotic it felt.  Where was the traffic? Where are the slums?  (This was a noticeably different experience from leaving the Mumbai airport, where there are slums in close proximity).  As we drove around for company visits the next day, parts of the city felt a bit reminiscent of Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv.  We drove by gardens and countless signs advertising for global technology companies.  I didn’t see as many signs of extreme wealth or extreme poverty as in Mumbai; evidence of a growing middle class seemed a lot more visible in the city center.  The nightlife was fun but it felt a little more low-key as bars have to close at 11pm.

That’s not to say that in a city with roughly 8-10 million people (in the greater metropolitan area), the chaos isn’t there.  After the conclusion of our immersion course, a classmate and I decided to venture to some of the markets that are not usually visited by tourists.  The markets were vast and we were hit with a burst of color and scents upon arrival.  Something that struck me was that for as disorganized as the market may appear, with vendors camping out on the floor, they seemed to take their jobs very seriously, with produce in very neat piles.  We also inevitably encountered the difficult traffic that India is known for (it took us about an hour to drive several kilometers) and breathed in more exhaust than I’d like to think about – however, while that trip would have cost a fortune with a NYC cab, we paid just a few dollars to our tuk-tuk (a three-wheeler used in many Asian cities) driver.  We also crossed the street several times, which requires paying very close attention as there are few stoplights.  I was thankful for some of the Indians who helped us figure out the best time to cross, but I have never had so many vehicles whizzing past me in such close proximity!

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Riding in a tuk-tuk (photo credit: Ira Simkovitch)

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Buying spices at the market

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Cow in the road

I think that India is a perfect location to take an immersion course, and we all felt that the course provided a truly valuable opportunity to study business and culture in an important global market.  One student commented that he was “amazed by the level of innovation in the Indian start-up scene and by the social impact of every company that we visited.”  In my personal life, one of my biggest mentors at my first job out of college was from India, and I’ll always remember how he advocated and put his reputation on the line for me at work, and the example that that leaves me with as I mentor others.  I’ve been truly inspired by this trip, and hope that I’ll have the opportunity to come back and experience more of this country someday.

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Lessons in Reverse Innovation

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Visit to Bharti Airtel

The theme of this year’s Chazen India trip is “reverse innovation,” and prior to our trip, the class spent time researching innovative products and solutions developed in India for possible export to the US market, as well as participating in a design simulation workshop. While in Mumbai and Bangalore, we’ve had the opportunity to visit senior leaders at roughly a dozen companies to learn about their approaches to innovation. I’ll highlight a few of those visits here.

We began our visits at a division of Monitor/Deloitte called Monitor Inclusive Markets, a mission-driven group with the goal to make market-based solutions work in areas such as affordable housing, mobile payment systems, and clean cookstoves. In terms of housing, a huge number of people are moving from rural to urban India and this presents a large opportunity for developers – as well as a challenge to provide homes that provide people with what they aspire to have, at an affordable price, and with appropriate financing options. In terms of marketing clean and safe cookstoves, the cultural context provides a wrinkle in that the wife’s health often isn’t prioritized; successful ads have instead included depictions of sons suffering from the pollution from a traditional stove. (To note: gender relations have come a long way from issues such as the banned practice of sati, in which a recently widowed woman would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre). One of Monitor’s many insights was that in the social enterprise space, people typically think about products, but “it takes a lot more than a great product to scale” because you have to contend with entrenched customer behaviors. They’ve found that “innovation is about the business model, and scaling it.”

Probably no visit to India is complete without a visit to Tata Group. The Tata Nano, with its claim to fame as the cheapest car in the world, has been the subject of business school case studies, and I was lucky enough to meet Chairman Emeritus Ratan Tata when he visited Columbia this past fall. In terms of a few takeaways from this visit, I found it particularly interesting that the cross-functional teams working to develop the Nano were 28 years old on average – the company was conscious that “past experience of older employees would have to be unlearned.” Some additional insights from the Nano’s mixed success were that in retrospect, the car’s development maybe should have been quieter – while the hype put Tata on the map, they encountered significant delays before they could start selling to their target customers. Additionally, they learned to modify their original brand positioning to portray a more “fun” car, as India is a very aspirational society. Consumers didn’t want to feel that the car was cheap (vs. affordable) and perhaps “incomplete.”

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Latest Nano ads (source: company website)

We went to Godrej Industries to learn about the Chotukool, a low-cost refrigerator. Their philosophy starts with “a noble mind: 80% of families can’t afford refrigerators in India, but they aspire to have a cooling solution to meet their specific and different needs.” The team shared how they have developed and tweaked the product over the years, and a lesson that we took away from that visit were that when creating a disruptive innovation you have to keep away from a “features” mindset; they’ve been very frugal in their developments and make sure that any features that they add are necessary, as opposed to “nice to have.” For instance, the product is a bit heavy, but they decided not to add wheels due to the additional cost that they would have to pass on to the consumer. Additionally, the company had a significant business breakthrough in their public-private partnership with the India Post, which provides them with an excellent distribution system.

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Demonstration of the Chotukool refrigerator

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A small group of us interested in innovations in wind energy met with Suzlon Energy

We met with Harsh Mariwala, CEO of Marico, which is a CPG company focused on providing select products (such as hair oils) in locations where they can be profitable and hold a market leadership position. Their approach seems highly pragmatic in an industry that has a lot of global players and tends to be low margin. Mariwala emphasized the importance of culture building; theirs is “very open, equal, transparent, participatory, and empowering,” and he strongly attributes the company’s success to this. He shared about one of their innovations, which was to create a plastic container for their coconut oils, which had up to this point been kept in more expensive metal containers to keep away mice. Distributors initially balked when Marico wanted to move to a plastic container, but the Marico team tested different plastic bottles in a mouse cage, found a design that worked, and today 100% of the market players use plastic bottles.

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Tiny 2-rupee bottles of hair oil targeted at low-income customers

We later met with Manish Sabharwal, CEO of HR services TeamLease, to learn about his work within “the agony and ecstasy of India’s labor market.” Corporate India has been lowering its hiring standards, so this gives many new people access to the labor force, but opportunities are not available in every location or due to family status. Given the large population increase and demographic transitions (people moving from farms to non-farm living, schools to work, rural to urban, and subsistence to surplus, etc.) there is a growing population of young people who have little chance of finding a job. TeamLease provides solutions, for instance, in that it offers low-cost, basic training to make people more employable for temporary jobs, which could turn into full-time opportunities. The benefit for the companies is that they can test out employees.

The challenge in all of this work? It’s kind of illegal. Sabharwal spends 30% of his time working with public policy leaders to effect change in India’s labor laws and noted that there are hundreds of lawsuits against him, but he is clearly very passionate about the work he is doing.

This meeting was one of the most fun visits because Sabharwal is a fantastic storyteller. Some of his best lines:

“As an entrepreneur, there are two kinds of companies you can create: a baby and a dwarf. (The difference being that the former can grow)

“Entrepreneurship is the art of staying alive long enough to get lucky.”

“The biggest challenge in public policy is when everyone agrees with you.”

“India doesn’t have an ideas deficit; it has an execution deficit.”

All useful things to ponder.

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TeamLease office

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Visit to Innovation Alchemy

Our last visit was with the founders of TutorVista, impressive entrepreneurs who have had several successful exits. (It’s safe to say that we were all paying very close attention to them!) TutorVista is an online tutoring service in which Indian teachers with masters’ or PhD degrees teach students in the US who can’t afford private tutoring, at a flat rate of $100/month. Sounds straightforward, and there are definitely other companies in this space, but their competitors tend to target the lucrative but much smaller market for wealthy and struggling students, whereas TutorVista’s disruption is that they “ensure that everyone can be their customer.” Indeed, the company is even working with US schools that need to comply with the No Child Left Behind act, and they’ve carefully thought through issues such as disintermediation. I was lucky to grow up with an identical twin – e.g. instant study buddy – but I could picture myself taking advantage of such an easy-to-use tutoring service growing up, had it been available.

There is so much more that I could include here, but I’ll leave it at that before this blog becomes too long. The company visits were a valuable opportunity to learn more about innovation in India, and there’s a large stack of follow-up reading I’d like to do in this subject area if the time permits! I’ll post another blog later this week with impressions of Mumbai, Bangalore, and the trip experience as a whole.

Krista Sande-Kerback ‘14

The Slum Behind “Slumdog Millionaire”

Cardboard Recycling in Dharavi

Our first day in Mumbai provided a rather profound immersion into life in India for people at or near at the “bottom of the pyramid.”  My classmates and I spent the afternoon taking a tour of Dharavi Slum, one of the largest slums in the world and, as we discovered, a center of not only housing for Indians from all over the country but also of significant informal sector activity.  (To note: none of us took photos out of respect for the slum dwellers, but I was able to get high-resolution images from Reality Gives which led our group through the slum.  They did a great job leading the tours and I’m grateful for the images, as I truly believe a picture speaks a thousand words.)

We began the tour in a more industrial section, where we witnessed workers participating in a wide variety of entrepreneurial endeavors.  Recycling was a major activity: oil cans, paint, soap, aluminum, plastic, bags…you name it, it is probably getting recycled somewhere within Dharavi.  We also witnessed workers creating buttery confections, tanning and curing leather to make handbags, and more.  Many people were hard at work, and cars and trucks regularly made their way through the narrow passageways, piled high with materials.

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Paint recycling factory

Oil can recycling in Dharavi

Mumbai has very bad pollution to begin with, but these work activities result in a particularly severe assault on the senses.  In some cases protection is available to the workers, but the temperature in Mumbai is sweltering most of the time and it is very uncomfortable to wear any more layers or masks.  Visiting Dharavi for just four hours wasn’t without consequences; my throat was feeling the aftereffects of breathing the polluted air even the morning after.  As uncomfortable as it was to witness and experience, though, I can’t really blame the workers given the environmental factors.  While my throat will recover, the vast majority of people in the slum won’t be able to escape this kind of existence, however, and life expectancies in this community are about 50-60 years.

Plastic recycling factory - crashing the plastic into little pieces

We then braved the traffic to cross the main road – a rather risky endeavor that I’ll talk more about in my next blog! – and visit a residential section.  The pathways were narrow and one-room homes were basically stacked on top of each other.  We saw sets of shoes at the entrances, laundry out to dry, and images representing each family’s religion – here in this community, Muslims and Hindus coexisted peacefully, from what I could tell.  The homes were small but it appeared that the residents worked to make them as clean and cozy as possible with curtains and flowers.  There were noticeably more women here engaged in pottery production and taking care of children (to note: the Hindu women work outside of the home, while the Muslim women do not).  There are some schools run by organizations such as the one that led our tour, so this is promising, although literacy rates are still low in India.

Boy in a narrow street in Dharavi

I asked our tour guide about the celebrated film “Slumdog Millionaire,” part of which was indeed filmed in Dharavi, and whether or not it portrayed anything close to reality.  What I could discern of the tour guide’s answer was that the movie portrayed an outdated and somewhat glamorized view of the slums, but was partially accurate at least in its portrayal of Dharavi in the 90’s.  In any event, this was my first time visiting a slum, and Dharavi provided numerous surprises.  For instance, not everyone living in the slums is poor.  There are some wealthy business owners who live or at least spend their days there for convenience sake.  In some cases, migrant workers basically live at their “office,” rolling out mats to sleep at night – this is a win-win as they have a place to stay and the owners have free security.  Secondly, homes in the slum are not as cheap as I would have expected; a one-bedroom place ran for the equivalent of about 60 USD per month.

Ultimately, I am glad to have had the opportunity to experience a small fraction of what the Dharavi slum has to offer.  It isn’t easy to witness poverty, particularly on this massive a scale, and feel almost powerless to do something.  I know that a lot of us are reflecting on this experience over the course of our week together.  There seemed to be a real sense of resilience in Dharavi, however, and many residents smiled or said hello to our group, with a desire to connect that seemed genuine.

Dharavi Kids' smiles

Krista Sande-Kerback ‘14

Preparing for Chazen India

I’m Krista Sande-Kerback ’14, and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to blog for this year’s Chazen Global Immersion class to India!  I arrived in Mumbai late last night after close to 24 hours of travel, and after months of anticipating this trip, I am grateful to be here.

Columbia’s business school curriculum offers a significant number of case studies on companies’ strategies in India, and I’ve personally done some business with Indian companies and volunteer organizations over the years (consulting for outsourcing/offshoring projects and running the regional chapters for a global professional women’s network).  This is my first time visiting the country itself, however, as is the case for most of the students in the group.  I know that we are all looking forward to taking everything in, from sightseeing and experiencing the local culture in Mumbai and Bangalore, to participating in a dozen company visits, to sampling the cuisine, and more.

Our 30-person class has done extensive preparation in advance of our trip: applying for visas, obtaining shots and malaria pills, and participating in classes and group research leading up to our week-long in-country immersion.  We’ve been on semester break for the last month and some students arrived in India early to travel to other regions, so it will be great to exchange stories tonight over dinner.  The topic guiding the course itself is “reverse innovation.” The concept is that innovations can and may increasingly be adopted first in a cash-constrained, entrepreneurial environment in the developing world and then migrate to wealthier countries, as opposed to the “traditional” trajectory which works the other way around.   In our first three sessions, we heard from practitioners implementing these solutions in industries such as healthcare, and participated in a design simulation.  A major takeaway was that although it’s often believed that free, open, unconstrained solutions produce the most creativity, research shows that sometimes constraints lead to the most creative and success results.

Through group research projects, we’re exploring successful Indian innovations that could be adapted for the US market.  Our work expands on what we learned in the Marketing core curriculum, in that we need to dig deep to understand what drives success in the Indian market, determine what segment(s) of the US could be profitably targeted, and then figure out how to market to these consumers.

Our first group activity, a tour of the massive Dharavi slum (which features prominently in a number of films such as “Slumdog Millionaire”), will start in about an hour.  I’ve just spent the past week on campus immersed in another block week course on the “marketing of luxury products,” which featured meetings with executives from some of the most exclusive global brands.  I’m sure that experience will provide a fascinating juxtaposition to what we’re about to encounter in this country known for its huge contrasts.

More to come very soon!

Krista Sande-Kerback ‘14

West Bank Tour and Concluding Thoughts on Israel

On our free day, most of the Chazen Israel group decided to visit the West Bank in order to gain a better understanding of Palestinian points of view on the conflict.  We booked a tour, left Tel Aviv, and drove into Zone A of the Palestinian Authority, an area that comprises about 18% of the West Bank, is administered by Palestine, and is forbidden by law to Israeli citizens.

Our first stop was the town of Beit Sahour, where we visited Byzantine ruins and a large cave typical of where a number of Palestinians stayed for safety during the wars.  Then, we walked through a refugee camp and the dividing wall in Bethlehem.  The graffiti and murals were bold and provocative, while the soldiers were friendly and appeared relaxed.  (As our tour guide Tamer quipped, conflicts tend to break out on Fridays, but not usually on Saturdays when we were there; needless to say, we were extremely grateful for no incidents other than some minor delays crossing back through the Israeli border in the evening.)  Tamer’s take on the situation was that there is significant mistrust between the people of Palestine and the very corrupt leadership and the wall is a big obstacle to peace as it is very difficult for Palestinians and Israelis to meet.  He also believes that “suicide bombing was a mistake” and expressed relief that it has decreased significantly today.

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We later visited some ancient sites throughout the West Bank, stopping at the basilica in Bethlehem located approximately on the site where Jesus was born, the site on the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized (the border to Jordan, which is naturally demarcated by the narrow river, was a tantalizing 30 or so feet away at current water levels, but we would have been seized by security had we tried to cross), and the oldest city in the world, Jericho, all of which feature prominently in the Bible.  Our last stop was Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority where we drove through the city center and visited Yasser Arafat’s tomb.  I found myself at times enchanted by the striking landscape – a beautiful reminder that this region is much more than the war zone that we typically hear about in the news.

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The Jordan River

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Scenic views close to a Bedouin settlement

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 Archaelogical ruins overlooking the area where Jesus was tempted by the Devil according to Biblical accounts.  He wasn’t the first to inhabit the region though – the city of Jericho is 10,000 years old!

Upon returning home, I can safely say that Chazen Israel was really a trip of a lifetime, and based on the conversations I’ve had with fellow trip members on campus, we’re all still thinking about and processing the experience.  To try to quickly encapsulate some of what we learned, from an economic perspective, there are many positive signs for Israel: unemployment is stable, wages are increasing, household leverage is low, and a recent natural gas discovery is estimated to create $100-$130 billion in value over time.  The country still faces some major hurdles, however.  For instance, the relative poverty among Arabs and Ultraorthodox Jews is very high, and despite the fact that Israel has some very good universities (and the #1 ranking in number of university degrees per capita), the educational system as a whole is below the OECD average.  From a business perspective, Israeli entrepreneurship seems to be on fire, with 4,850 active startups, a competitive edge in a number of technology fields, and a culture that really encourages risk taking and asking difficult questions.  For an insightful view of Israel’s startup culture, I highly recommend Start-Up Nation, which we all read before the trip.

As a few classmates weighed in:

“Prior to visiting Israel, I was firmly critical of the country and held strong doubts on Israel’s right to exist.  My trip to Israel has taught me that Israel is a living, breathing reality that is not going away. However, in order for Israel to uphold its own vision of a Jewish homeland, a country for the Palestinian people must also be viable and secure.” – Kris McGee ‘14

“I’ve always observed from afar the fervent patriotism of Israelis, and this week has helped me understand exactly why—you have so much to be proud of. Thank you for sharing with us a part of your culture, your history and your lives. For the second years, this will be our last Chazen experience. We will soon enter the proverbial real world with Chazen Israel as one of our last Columbia memories, and we are grateful to you two for making it a profoundly memorable one.” – Chuan Go ‘13

“The main reason I wanted to help organize this trip was to show the numerous different faces Israel has, the challenges that we faced here and the obstacles we are going to face in the future.  Another reason (which is as important as the first in my eyes) is to be reminded how fortunate I am to grow up here and be surrounded by sights that are so important to a variety of religions all around the world.” – Guy Soreq ‘14

It’s an honor to have had the opportunity to participate in this trip experience and contribute these blogs.  Thank you for reading!

Krista Sande-Kerback ‘14

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Swimming in the Dead Sea!  Photo Credit: Megan Carley

Venturing North: Haifa and the Golan Heights

Whenever I travel to a new country, I always appreciate it when I have the time to venture outside of the capital city and witness a contrasting experience of life there.  We’ve had such an opportunity in the second half of the Chazen Israel trip, in which we stopped in the industrial city of Haifa for several hours, followed by an evening at a kibbutz and a morning of exploration at Golan Heights.

Our first stop was a visit to Elbit Systems, the biggest private defense company in Israel with revenues of $2.8Bn, 13,000 employees worldwide, and a lot of R&D and international growth.  Tomer Goldberg ’13 had worked there before school and the company’s portfolio includes airborne systems, unmanned vehicles, homeland security, EW & countermeasures, ISR & EO systems, combat vehicle systems, and naval systems.  The presenters shared an in-depth view of their unmanned air vehicle systems, which have applications such as patrolling long borders to identify penetrations, scanning an area for targets with a radar, or moving target detection; in other words, helping the military to attain better “situational awareness.”  They also demonstrated their Helmet Mounting System, a high-tech helmet with display, tracker, and electronic unit to help pilots target the enemy by maneuvering their heads instead of the entire aircraft, and to also monitor the pilot’s health while in flight to help avoid unnecessary tragedies.  The company has made strategic decisions to focus on the defense market and concentrate their efforts on certain markets by operating as a “multi-domestic” company in the countries where they have contracts; they are also conscious of the relationships they build with their clients and won’t, for instance, take any clients from China given their huge business in the United States.

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After visiting Elbit Systems, we stopped by the Baha’i Gardens, a beautifully landscaped garden and memorial to one of their founders buried there (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site).  The Baha’i have a small, transient community in Haifa that comes to the city to study and tend the garden, although they are not eligible for Israeli citizenship.  From our scenic lookout, we were able to view the large port and the coastline facing north towards the Lebanese border.  Haifa was hit by a number of rockets from Hezbollah, but from what I read and heard from our guides, the city, which is home to many international companies, kept operating through the attacks and this hasn’t stopped significant foreign investment.

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Next, we visited the Church of the Beatitudes, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  The view was beautiful but even more remarkable is that these are the spots where in multiple accounts in the Bible, Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, walked on water, and performed much of his ministry.

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We arrived in Golan Heights in the early evening and spent the night at a kibbutz, or collective community traditionally based on agriculture (today, they typically have at least one factory or other businesses – this one had developed a number of tourist activities).  Many innovations have developed at kibbutzim and although only 2% of the population lives on them, President Shimon Peres mentioned in his speech that they produce 7% of the country’s GDP. Our itinerary included cozy accommodations and delicious food produced at the community, a dance party on a hill, driving ATVs in the nature preserve, and visiting the eerily calm Syrian border (UN operations in the area are uncertain due to the recent kidnappings) one mile from the kibbutz.

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As an aspiring wine connoisseur, I personally really looked forward to our visit to Golan Heights Winery.  The winery is one of about 250 wineries in the country (90% of them are in this region), most of which are small boutique operations, but this one produces about six million bottles per year and has won a number of different awards.  We toured the facilities, learned about the winemaking process, and sampled Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Moscato wines.  The tour guide was engaging and informative for anyone wishing to order wine in a business situation, store it, and open it properly, and also shed light on how to make kosher wines and manage an operation such as this in accordance with the Sabbath.  The winery staff doesn’t work on the Sabbath, and it was also interesting to hear that every seven years, they take a sabbatical in which they do not plant more vines and there are some limits to the amount of pruning that they can do.  Everyone that I talked to really enjoyed the wines and I think that we would agree that Golan Heights Winery is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area.

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We returned to Tel Aviv for a couple of days and the group is mostly in the process of heading home to New York City now.  I’ll send a final report on the other side!

Krista Sande-Kerback ’14

Jerusalem: Ancient City, Modern Politics, and a Spontaneous Dance Party

The moment that I reached the old city in Jerusalem, I almost had to pinch myself to make sure that what I was seeing was real.  I’ve been a committed Christian all my life and to see a 3,000-year old city of incredible significance to my religious community (not to mention, to millions of Muslims and Jews) was a powerful experience.  Upon starting this blog, I find myself wanting to write something beautiful and profound to reflect the magnitude of the experience.  At the same time, I just have a few days left in Israel and want to be fully engaged for them, so for at least the time being, I’ll remember that “perfection is the enemy of ‘good enough’” and use that as a guiding principle for my writing.

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View of the City

We took two tours of Jerusalem – a day tour around the old city that gave us an in-depth view of the holy sites as well as how 35,000 people carve out a living inside the ancient walls, and a night tour that led us underground to see the inner workings of the wall and the original stones from King Herod’s rein (Herod was king during Jesus’s birth and had embarked on significant building projects in Jerusalem).  It’s kind of mind-blowing to see so much history captured in such a concentrated area, and practically every corner had a story, whether it was along the route of the “stations of the cross” or a place of worship for one of the many religious sects coexisting in the city.  We heard the hauntingly beautiful Muslim call to prayer and visited the Muslim quarter (the gold dome in the photo above is their main mosque in the old city), saw a huge group of Orthodox Jews getting ready for Passover, ate delicious hummus in the market, and much more.

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Our tour guide extraordinaire!

One particular highlight was the Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall,” which is arguably the most sacred site for believers outside of the ancient Jewish temple and a major pilgrimage spot.  I have known about the Wailing Wall for many years because my parents had also visited Jerusalem when they were in their twenties and shared with me about how moving the experience had been.  I took my place among the group of women praying at the wall (men and women pray separately) and appreciated the moment for quiet reflection.

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President Obama is in town staying in a nearby hotel, so we were grateful for our bus driver who skillfully avoided getting stuck in blocked-off roads!  Thankfully, there were no safety issues for us and the nuisance of a presidential visit didn’t impact our trip too much beyond a few rescheduled meetings.  We had to walk 45 minutes in suits to get to our meeting with Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fisher (not that anyone really minded on a beautiful day) and it was certainly interesting to see the locals’ reactions to a group of foreigners in suits.  They appeared very much in the know about the visit and asked if we were part of his entourage and/or offered their opinions about the United States.  Our conversation with Stanley Fisher began with him sharing a lot of details about the Israeli economy and their strategies for dealing with unemployment, education, inflation, foreign investment, and more (I’m glad to have just finished macroeconomics in business school as that definitely enhanced my understanding!) and he weighed in on the conflicts in the Middle East: “[Israel] really needs to gain peace with its neighbors…the situation in this part of the Middle East is getting much worse.”

In the evening, we went for a big group dinner at one of Guy’s favorite restaurants.  The dinner started out something like this…

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…and, thanks to an awesome restaurant staff, ended with music and dancing!

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Krista Sande-Kerback ’14

Banking, Technology, and Politics in Israel

The Chazen Israel trip is off to a packed and fascinating start!  In the first two days, we’ve participated in an event with the president of Israel, visited a pharmaceutical plant, solar power startup, energy company, bank, and venture capital firm, met local CBS alumni and admitted students, explored the nightlife, and of course eaten lots of local food.

At our first meeting at Hapoalim Bank, Chairman Yair Seroussi talked with us about the Israeli economy (GDP was 3.3% in 2012, with a budget deficit of 4.2%) and the banking climate.  One of the significant challenges facing Israel, in his view, is that young people are highly leveraged and housing is very expensive – in fact, there were demonstrations last year around this issue. In terms of the banking industry, he mentioned that many of the larger banks are leaving some of the regions where they are operating and are focusing on their core markets; Hapoalim’s strategy in response is to try to be the market leader domestically and a niche player internationally, particularly where there are large Jewish diasporas.  Ultimately, Seroussi feels that “the challenge of banks in the future is the balance…between the [traditional banking] structure and new technology.”

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The next stop to Teva Pharmaceuticals, a 111-year old Israeli company focusing on generics and its flagship drug Copaxone with $20.3Bn in revenues, was a new kind of experience for most of us.  Teva has 73 manufacturing sites in 60 countries and is experiencing significant growth globally (it currently produces 6 billion tablets and capsules annually). We had a conversation with one of the managers and then donned white lab coats and booties in order to enter the manufacturing facilities.  It was fascinating to watch pills go through the various stages of the manufacturing process and to go into a fully automated warehouse where the packages were being moved around by various types of robots.

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Getting an audience with Israeli President Shimon Peres that evening was a particular highlight – and we were lucky that he kept the appointment, given President Obama’s visit to Israel this week!  Peres is an impressive speaker and consummate politician (particularly at almost 90 years old).  One of his key takeaways was that the greatest challenges facing the country are “tradition on one hand, and innovation on the other” and he stressed the importance for Israel of “studying the unknown future” as opposed to just the past.  Overall, I enjoyed the event and was happy to be interviewed about my impressions so far by a local organization that is working to bring more MBAs to experience Israel.

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Tomer Goldberg introduces President Shimon Peres (photo credit: Anton Chtcherbakov)

Our second full day was devoted to visits to Pitango, a venture capital firm, Noble Energy, an American firm that recently made some huge natural gas finds off the shore of Israel, and Solar Edge, a late-stage startup that developed a DC power optimizer to make solar panels more efficient and “captures more data per second than the biggest bank in Israel.”  Among other things, we learned that there are about 4,850 startups in Israel, and government initiatives help to promote high tech; Pitango co-founder Rami Kalish got his first chance through a government support program for high-tech in which they picked qualified managers and would invest 8M in the venture, provided the company got an additional 12M investment.  The meeting with Noble Energy was fascinating as they’ve recently discovered large offshore natural gas reserves and gave us a detailed explanation of how they found and process these resources.  It’s a rare for a country to suddenly find these resources in a company that already has a high-tech sector and now needs to integrate this into the economy, and it will be interesting to see if they or their competitors make additional large discoveries.

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CEO and Chairman of SolarEdge Guy Sella shares his entrepreneurship story as well as a technical explanation of solar panels

Trip organizers Guy and Tomer credit our ability to obtain these meetings and experiences to the power of their Columbia Business School as well as their military networks.  Military service is compulsory in Israel, and our speakers have frequently cited this as a formative experience for them personally and something that has made Israelis in general more informal with each other, willing to pitch ideas, and open to taking risks.

We’re now in Jerusalem for a tour of the city’s historical sites, which has been a profound and fascinating experience for much of the group.  More to come in a couple of days!

Krista Sande-Kerback ’14

Getting Ready for Chazen Israel

Spring break is finally here!  I’m starting my first blog as official “social media guru” from a Turkish Airlines flight after spending a day and a half in Istanbul with two friends from my cluster, and am looking forward to meeting up with the Chazen Israel group in Tel Aviv.

After a busy spring semester so far, there is a lot to process.  As everyone at Columbia Business School knows at this point, we said farewell to a beloved classmate, DeShaun Maria Harris ‘14, last week after she passed away unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm.  This loss is a profound lesson for many of us to “live life to the fullest” that we would have preferred to be reminded of in a different way.  DeShaun was on my learning team, so I feel particularly privileged to have gotten to know her well and learn a significant amount from her in a short period of time.  Just a week earlier, we had caught up at length during happy hour, sharing our hopes and excitements for our campus involvements and summer internships.  As I’ve been going through the various stages of grief, it still hasn’t fully sunk in that she’s gone – I can just picture her face, her smile, the sound of her voice so vividly (and a wonderful trip that we took to New Orleans as a cluster, below) – but I’m just grateful to have had that time with her.

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DeShaun was also a blogger for the Chazen India trip in January, and she shared some beautiful stories and pictures about her experience HERE.  She certainly sets the bar high for me.

Anyway, the trip organizers, Guy Soreq and Tomer Goldberg, have put together a tremendous itinerary for the group, and here is some of what we have to look forward to in Israel:

  • Meeting the President of Israel, Shimon Peres
  • Meeting with Stanley Fisher, the Governor of Bank of Israel
  • Visiting several companies, including Teva, Pitango, Noble Energy, and Solar Edge
  • Socializing with recently admitted students and alumni
  • Visit to Hagolan Vineyards
  • Hiking in the Golan Heights
  • Siteseeing in Jerusalem, around the Dead Sea, and in the West Bank

More to come soon!

Krista Sande-Kerback ’14

Follow me on Twitter: @kristasande