India – Reflections on the Study Tour

“India is, the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.”

-Mark Twain, American author

It’s been a couple weeks since Chazen India officially ended, but the memories and the spirit live on till this day. There’s not a day that I don’t think about my study tour experience in India.  In the morning, I drink my masala chai tea that I brought back as a souvenir from my travels in India.  However, the subway to and from school is vastly different from the elephant ride up and down the mountain to Amber Fort.

When asked by other students on how the Chazen India study tour was, I am at a loss of words.  What do I respond with?  In my experience, India challenged, surprised, shocked, and almost broke me….but most of all, the country changed me for the better. A new appreciation for Bollywood films, better negotiation skills for bartering BATNA/ZOPA/RP), stronger stomach for spicy foods (fyi – everything is spicy in India), and respect for Tata Sons and Dabbawalas for creating a company culture that has proved financially and personally rewarding are some of my key takeaways from the trip.

However, the visibility of income inequality was pervading: beggars and homeless people parked right outside grand opulent hotels, children walking around barefoot while tourists snap pictures of historical landmarks, civilians working and living in the slums because they have no other other opportunity, etc. At least the government and CEOs are acknowledging this vicious problem: over and over again throughout our business meetings, there is an underlying theme and understanding that there needs to be more investing in infrastructure, education, and healthcare.  It seems that everyone in each industry is doing the best they can to boost the Indian economy through foreign direct investment, tourism, and job creation. We shall see in the upcoming years whether these changes have helped the Indian society for the better.

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Chazen India T-shirt with all the names of the participants

The best part of this trip was getting to know 40 other MBA students in this study tour.  The questions asked by my peers during the discussions with business executives opened my eyes to different business cultures contexts and subtexts and gave me better insight into other people’s views of the country and the economy.  The organizers welcomed us with open arms to their home country and showed us the best that their country had to offer.  Before this trip, I barely knew a handful of individuals who were on the tour.  Now, when I walk among the hallways of Uris, I see friendly faces and we joke about our time in the country.  A reunion is in the works (the best Indian restaurant in UWS for dinner and then a Bollywood movie right afterwards) IF we can find a time that syncs up with 40 busy Columbia Business School first-year and second-year students.

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New Year’s Eve at the Palladium in Mumbai (Photo credit: Sarah Nabahani, MBA 2015)

Going on this study tour through the Chazen Institute added a lot of value to my MBA experience that I wouldn’t have received otherwise through other international travel trips in business school (i.e. cluster trips, club treks).  The inside access provided by the Chazen Institute to CEOs and executives of multi-billion organizations and conglomerates and high ranking government officials were a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I won’t take for granted.

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Photo Credit: Jan Bucher MBA 2015

 

A big thanks to the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business, the student organizers and consulting organizers Kushal Sanghrajka (MBA 2015), Surabhi Shastri (MBA 2015), Mimi Vavilala (MBA 2015), Karan Ahuja (MBA 2015), Divya Goenka (MBA 2016), Anuja Mehta (MBA 2015), the faculty members Vince Ponzo and Professor Suresh Sundaresan for leading and organizing such an amazing and life-changing trip to India!  I had the opportunity to see the country from the organizer’s own eyes and immerse myself with this diverse and different culture. The business meetings in various types of industry were enriching and insightful and I learned so much from these leaders who care so much about their companies and their country.

Until next time,

Iris Chen ’15

Lessons Learned from Business Meetings (Part 2 – Delhi)

Iris Chen ’15

Fortis Healthcare

Our first visit in Delhi was with Fortis Hospital in Gurgaon, the highest accredited hospital in the country.  We met with the COO of the hospital who gave us a presentation on the healthcare landscape in India.  Some statistics that I learned include:

  • India has 17% of the world’s population but 20% of the world’s disease burden, 7% of world’s doctors, and 5% of hospital beds
  • India’s healthcare market is projected to grow at a rate of 18%, significantly faster than the Western markets at 4%
  • Overall, India has 1.3 hospital beds per 1,000 people. The World Health Organization recommends 3.5. In comparison, the U.S. has 6-7 hospital beds per 1,000 people.
  • As a % of GDP, USA’s spend on healthcare is 4x compared to India’s
  • India has 0.7 doctors per 1,000 people; the recommended amount is 25
  • India has 60,000 hospitals; only 1% of them has 200 beds or more

The Indian healthcare market has many challenges ahead to catch up to the rest of the world. One of the issues noted is the huge imbalance of doctors in urban areas vs. rural areas.  It’s difficult for rural areas to attract doctors when the salary and standards of living are better for doctors in the cities.  And this fact is most unfortunate because the rural areas are in need of the most medical attention.

While there are improvements to be made in the healthcare system, there are a lot of advantages of Indian healthcare.  For example, India has significant advantage compared to other countries in terms of competitive pricing and higher productivity.  It costs $5k for a heart surgery in India (in the U.S., it is $100k).  A cardiac surgeon in India earns $200K per year doing 100 surgeries/month. U.S. cardiac surgeons earn $1.2M/year doing 25 surgeries/month.  With the significant low cost, medical tourism is growing in India.  I also learned about the medical operating system process standardization for Fortis where the hospital was able to optimize various internal processes to become even more efficient.

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Standardization of processes at Fortis hospital

 

After the presentation, we did a tour of the facilities.  Since the bulk of the healthcare cost of the hospital is private (80% of people pay for healthcare out of pocket), you can definitely see where the financing went for the hospital. There was a relaxing/quiet area for patients before/after surgeries with comfortable seats, a food court, and even a movie theater that plays a couple of movies a day. It was like stepping into a 5-star resort for your hospital stay!

 

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Lobby of Fortis Hospital
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Fortis Hospital

 

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Meeting with COO of Fortis Hospital

 

MakeMyTrip

Our next meeting was with MakeMyTrip CEO and Founder, Rajesh Magow.  He talked about founding and growing the company in a time where the internet was just starting to boom in 2000.  In 2005, the company entered into a high growth phase and five years later in 2010, MakeMyTrip was made public.  MakeMyTrip has been the market leader for online travel since the very beginning and currently has a 47% market share in the online travel agency. 1 in 8 domestic travelers in India use MakeMyTrip to plan and buy their tickets to hotels, flights, trains, buses, and packages.  Currently, 35-40% of traffic comes from mobile as the Indian population buys more smartphones than any other device.  In his talk, Mr. Rajesh Magow truly believes that mobile will change the game in the future.

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CBS Students at MakeMyTrip Headquarters with CEO Rajesh Magow

Meeting with Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Former Planning Commission Deputy Chairman
Our last meeting in the Chazen India Study Tour was with Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the Former Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of the Republic of India. Mr. Ahluwalia spoke about the past public policies of the government during his time in the Planning Commission.  Takeaways from his talk: Indian government’s priority of use of funds should be invested in education and healthcare.  Government should be pushing for public and private partnerships.  Initially, the government had a 40% subsidy and businesses would bid on the contract.  However, Mr. Ahluwalia believe that private businesses and the government should work together to help fuel the Indian economy. In terms of a reasonable growth rate of India, Mr. Ahulawalia believes that a 7.5-8% growth rate was reasonable for the future.  The Indian economy grew at a rate of 8.3% for several years before it slowed down.  However, there is still the big issue of income inequality in the country: median incomes have not grown for awhile and the gap between the rich and the poor is growing significantly.

Overall, this meeting was a great recap of what we learned throughout all our company meetings in India.  Investing in infrastructure, education, and healthcare are among the top concerns of all businesses and the government while still maintaining a healthy growth rate for the Indian economy.  There is still much to be done about the income disparity in the country, but at least the government acknowledges that this is a growing problem and it will be interesting to see how the new government party deals with this issue.

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Last meeting with Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Former Planning Commission Deputy Chairman

 

 

Lessons Learned from Business Meetings (Part 1 – Mumbai)

Iris Chen ’15

HDFC 

Our first Chazen meeting was with Deepak Parekh, the Chairman of HDFC Bank Limited. HDFC is the fifth largest bank in India by assets and largest private sector bank in India by market capitalization.  Mr. Parekh is a trusted advisor of the government and the head of  a huge and well respected corporation (side note: in India, you are supposed to address officials as Mr. and Ms. as part of business etiquette).  I expected our meeting with Mr. Parekh to be very formal and conservative, but I was pleasantly surprised about how open and honest he was.  As an advisor to the government, he talked about the recent government change in the last few months and the given first budget coming up from the full government.  There is a Make in India initiative–manufacturing used to be 30-40% of GDP and now it is 12%, which is the reason why the Indian government is pushing manufacturing to improve jobs in India.  Mr. Parekh emphasized investing and manufacturing, and expects more foreign direct investments from the U.S. (especially in defense) over the next couple of years.  It was fascinating to hear the viewpoints of such a prominent figure in the Indian government.

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CBS students with Deepak Parekh, Chairman of HDFC

Future Group

Future Group is a private Indian conglomerate that focuses on retail stores, fashion, food manufacturing, and CPG.  While CEO Kishore Biyani could not make it due to a family emergency, we still met with the VP of strategy and communications who gave us the history of Future Group and the way the company expanded from a small shopping mall in 1999 in Mumbai to a a huge conglomerate of consumer products.  Future Group learned to integrate the look, touch, and feel of Indian bazaars with that of modern retail.  For example, customers prefer buying some products loose like grains of rice and the company implemented the same shopping technique into its stores.  Through this presentation, I learned that it is very challenging for any company to understand all consumers in India. There are so many cultures, religions, languages, income levels in the country and in order to be successful, a company has to match all these requirements.  Future Group learned to overcome these challenges in many ways–for example, the company celebrates 72 festivals every year since every festival in India is an opportunity for consumption. Before this meeting, I didn’t understand the many problems that Indian businesses faced when trying to expand throughout the country.

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All Future Group locations in India

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Tata Sons

I was very excited about our meeting with Tata Sons.  I had heard and read so much about the conglomerate Tata Group, but never had the opportunity to experience any products or services firsthand.  We met with R. Gopalakrishnan, the Director of Tata Sons, at the Taj President Hotel, which, not-surprisingly, is owned by Tata.  So to all the readers out there who don’t know what Tata is all about (I had never heard about the company before business school), Tata Group is an Indian multinational conglomerate with seven business sectors: communications and information technology, engineering, materials , services, energy, consumer products and chemicals.  It is also the most trusted company in India and is family-owned. The company is also highly philanthropic with many endowments and philanthropic trusts and is very well respected in the business community.  The meeting was very enlightening and it was wonderful to hear R. Gopalakrishnan talk about the business from when it was founded in 1868 to present time.  I learned that while Tata is in a lot of industries, it will not invest in alcohol, beer, movies, or defense (making bombs or guns) because these sectors are not part of their philosophy.  Throughout the Chazen India study tour, I noticed that the Tata logo was everywhere from the water and masala tea I drank ever morning (Himalayan Water and Tetley Sons), to the automobiles on the street (manufactured by Tata), to the hospitals we toured in India.

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CBS Chazen India MBA students meeting with R. Gopalakrishnan, Director of Tata Sons

“At Tata, it’s not what you speak but what you do.” – R. Gopalakrishnan

Unilazer Ventures and UTV Media

We had a last minute meeting with Ronnie Screwvala, Founder of Unilazer Ventures, a private equity company, and UTV Media, a media and entertainment company owned by The Walt Disney Company. Ronnie spoke about his successes and failures as an early entrepreneur in India, and the challenges of finding a media company and growing it substantially to be eventually bought by Disney.

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CBS students with Ronnie Screwvala, Founder of Unilazer Ventures and UTV Media

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Tata Memorial Hospital

Our meeting at Tata Memorial Hospital was with Dr. Shastri, the head of the oncology department at the hospital and one of the Chazen organizer’s family members.  Tata Memorial Hospital is a specialist treatment center for cancer and is regarded as one of the leading cancer centers in India.  Dr. Shastri explained one of the cases that was conducted in the hospital–the hospital conducted cost effective cervical cancer screening by “visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA)” test.  The test was effective in reducing cervical cancer mortality rate to low income women.  I was very impressed by the numerous cost effective methods that this hospital invented to treat low-income patients.

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Dabbawalas

Our last meeting in Mumbai was with the Dabbawalas in Mumbai.  They came to the Tata Memorial Hospital to present and as I mentioned in my previous post, I was most excited to visit the Dabbawalas.  I was most interesting in learning how the company is able to acheive six sigma efficiency through their everyday delivery. We met with a spokesperson from the organization as well as three actual dabbawalas. Through this meeting, I learned that there is standard pricing for all meals irrespective of weight, distance, and shape of each meal.  Dabbawalas earn around 7,000-8,000 INR ($113-$129 USD) per month. There has also been zero strikes in the company since each dabbawala is a shareholder of the company.  I learned that each dabbawala group is like family; they eat together everyday (no one starts eating their lunch until all members of the group are present), work together, and if one person makes a mistake, then the entire team must join together and take ownership of the mistake.  Most of these dabbawalas are illiterate and come from low income backgrounds, but they are committed and passionate about working as a dabbawala.

I asked the question, “Are there any female Dabbawalas?” The answer surprised me since there are female dabbawalas. While the work is very laborious, if the weight is too heavy, other members of the team will help the other team members.  The same goes for older Dabbawalas who can’t carry too much weight.

I came into the meeting with Dabbawalas with questions and curiosities.  I left the meeting with much more respect and understanding.

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Management Principles of Dabbawalas
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CBS students with the Dabbawalas

 

Mumbai, and Jaipur, and Agra! Oh My!

Iris Chen ’15

Greetings from Agra, home of the magnificent Taj Mahal and one of the seven wonders of the world!  It’s been a little less than a week since my arrival in India, and I can’t believe that I have experienced so much of the country already from both business executive meetings and cultural tourism experiences. This blog post will concentrate on the cultural learnings of India, while my next post will dive deeper into the business meetings at Mumbai and Delhi.

Agra

This morning, we took a 4 hour bus ride from Jaipur to Agra where we watched the Bollywood historical drama film “Jodhaa Akbar“, which talks about the 16th century marriage alliance between the Muslim Mughal emperor Akbar and the Hindu Rajput princess Jodhaa. While the film did contain overdramatic acting and a drawn out interaction between the two main characters, Jodhaa Akbar did teach me a valuable history lesson about the rule of the Mughal emperor: he tolerated of all religions in Hindustan, helping shape the acceptance of all religions in modern day India.  There are so many Islamic and Hindu influences throughout the country of India and it is fascinating to see two different religions portrayed in a somewhat accurate historical film. One of the organizers informed me Bollywood movies are such an integral part of Indian culture; people from all income levels all over the country will go see the latest Bollywood film in the movie theater.  Even if the citizens make little money, they will still save up just to see a Bollywood film.  Now I can see why–the movies are such a feel-good and entertaining distraction from real life!

After we arrived in the Taj Mahal, our tour guide explained that the mausoleum was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, grandson of Akbar, to commemorate the death of his third wife Mumtaz Mahal during the birth of their 14th child.  Her dying wish?  For the emperor to build something to remember her. He did just that, and apparently it took 22 years to complete the Taj Mahal.

CBS Chazen India at the Taj Mahal (photo cred: Jaime Rodriguez Macias)

 

Jaipur

On our first night in Jaipur, we went to eat at the Garden Restaurant at the Heritage Hotel.  Once we arrived, we were escorted to this beautiful outdoor seating area that was lighted by fire pits.  There was a stage for dancers and on the side, a tent set up for a puppet show.  One of our very own was drafted by the host to come up to the stage and dance.  He even agreed to put on the horse costume and blow the horn while other lady volunteers spun bowls on their head. We feasted on chicken tandoori that was made fresh off the outside grill.  Overall, a fun first night in Jaipur.

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Photo featuring Jon Ragins

 

Yesterday, we went sightseeing around the city Jaipur, the capital of the Indian state Rajasthan. We started off the day with visiting Amer Fort, a structure situated high up in the mountain. There is a serpentine staircase that leads up to the entrance of the fort, and the mode of transportation available to us was to ride the elephants!

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Outside view of Amer Fort

http://instagram.com/p/xWmkjQIKwA/

Video credit: Cailin Bigham

Our tour guide explained to us the history of the Amer Fort (also known as Amer Palace) – it was used by the Rajput Maharajas as residences for themselves and for their families. Amer Fort is known for its artistic and architectural style of Hindu elements and influences.  In the movie Jodhaa Akbar, the princess is from Amer Fort in Rajput and practices the Hindu religion.  The fort itself is a work of wonder with so many intricacies in its design and craftsmanship.

 

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CBS in front of the Ganesh Pol, or the entrances to the private palaces of the Maharajas
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Maharaja courtyard
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Cobra snake charmers outside Amer Fort

In the afternoon, we toured Jantar Mantar, a site with 13 architectural astronomy instruments/sundials.  These devices were built in the 17th century and apparently, the world’s largest sundial is located at the cultural site!

 

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Sundial
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World’s Largest Sundial

Lastly, we ended the day of sightseeing at City Palace, a palace complex that was used by the Maharaja of Jaipur.  Currently, the palace houses a museum that features artifacts from the age of the Maharajas.

City Palace

 

It’s been a fun couple of days of sightseeing in India!  From this trip alone, I learned so much about the history of India.  It’s been such an exhilarating trip of a lifetime thus far, and I’m so blessed to spend it with my classmates at Columbia Business School. Almost all of us have never been to India before, and we are experiencing this new and different culture for the first time, together as a group.  It’s nice to compare our interactions with the locals (some of the locals and fascinated by and tend to want a picture with the blondes and the red-heads in our group), our negotiation skills with bartering in the bazaars (BATNA anyone?), and the tastes of each local food (be careful: you are what you eat).  Tomorrow, we are off to Delhi for a couple of days of business meetings and networking events before the Chazen tour officially ends!

Getting Ready for Chazen India

Iris Chen ’15

What do you get when you combine 37 CBS students, 2 faculty members, and 7 organizers?  A trip of a lifetime to India!  Exactly three months ago on September 23rd, 2014, I found out that I was going to India over winter break through the Chazen International Study Tour program.  India has been one of the top places I’ve been wanting to visit, and I’m so excited for this opportunity through Columbia Business School.

I’ve had three months to prepare for my trip through health assessments, vaccines, pre-departure meetings, and applying for my visa.  On my travel assessment, I received a Hepatitis A shot, my 10-year tetanus booster, typhoid pills, malaria pills, and antibiotics.  Safe to say, I’m ready (health-wise) for my trip to start!

Chazen India takes place from Saturday December 27th, 2014 and ends on Wednesday January 7th, 2015.  We will start in the south of India in Mumbai and then we will fly north to Jaipur, drive to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, and will officially end in Delhi.  My trip will end in Delhi, but many students will continue their journey to Goa, a Western city known for its beaches, places of worship, and world heritage architecture.

The following is a list of companies we’ll be visiting on our trip:

HDFC Bank Limited, the fifth largest Indian banking and financial services company by assets headquartered in Mumbai.

MakeMyTrip Inc., an online travel company headquartered in Gurgaon, Haryana that provides online travel services including flight tickets, domestic and international holiday packages, hotel reservations, rail and bus tickets.

Zomato is an online restaurant discovery guide providing information on home delivery, dining-out, cafes and nightlife in major cities.

Dabbawalas

I am most looking forward to the visit to the Dabbawalas office to learn about the delivery system of hundreds of thousands of meals per day in Mumbai.  A dabbawala is a person in India, most commonly in Mumbai, who is part of a delivery system that collects hot food in lunch boxes from the residences of workers in the late morning, delivers the lunches to the workplace utilizing various modes of transport, and returns the empty boxes to the customer’s residence that afternoon.  I first learned about the Dabbawalas from Professor Singh’s Operations Strategy class. Here’s a video that explains the Dabbawala’s vastly complex operation:

Fortis Healthcare Limited (FHL) is a leading, pan Asia-Pacific, integrated healthcare delivery provider.

Tata Group is a family-owned Indian multinational conglomerate company founded in 1868 and headquartered in Mumbai.  It encompasses seven business sectors: communications and information technology, engineering, materials, services, energy, consumer products and chemicals.  It has over 100 operating companies, each running independently, in more than 80 countries across six continents.

A couple of weeks ago, we had our final pre-departure meeting with the Chazen organizers (see picture below).  We learned about travel precautions, expectations, business etiquette, dress code, and several local phrases including the traditional “namaste” greeting.  The organizers did a wonderful job planning every aspect of the study tour, including the New Year’s Eve party in Mumbai!  It will be very exciting to tour India through both the local and global perspective.  I’m so lucky that I have classmates around the world who can plan these amazing trips in their home countries, and hope that I can learn a lot more about their culture once I’m there.

Chazen India Organizers from L to R: Mimi Vavilala, Karan Ahuja, Kusha Sanghrajka, and Surabhi Shastri (not pictured: Divya Goenka and Anuja Mehta)
Chazen India Organizers from L to R: Mimi Vavilala, Karan Ahuja, Kushal Sanghrajka, and Surabhi Shastri (not pictured: Divya Goenka, Anuja Mehta, and Amber Liang)

Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks for more blog updates!

Final Thoughts on India: We’re Still Discussing

First of all, I must blatantly admit that I have been extremely tardy in posting this – my final thoughts on an amazing Chazen trip to India. I could blame it on my simple procrastination (in fact, that’s partially accurate).  Or the culprit could be the MBA lifestyle (after I landed at La Guardia, I got home and slept for 12 hours, cleaned my apartment, and started a block week course which left me no relaxation time between traveling and the regular semester start). But the biggest reason that I am just now writing this a month to the day from my return is that I have not felt up to the task of putting into words what an enormous perspective-altering experience the journey was. There is so much I could write, but nothing would do it justice.

“There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds… I had been seeing the world in black & white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor.”

– Keith Bellows, Editor, National Geographic Traveler

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Marcos Sheeran, ’13, on break from a fast-speed rickshaw ride through an Old Delhi market.

From a relationship standpoint, I now have 40 new people to whom I can say, “Hey, remember that time we felt lost speeding via rickshaw through a crowded New Delhi market?!” We share a common memory – a life moment – which bonds us together. (Or at least gives us cause to add 40 more names to our birthday party/karaoke night/happy hour guest list.) In fact, our private trip Facebook group is still going strong. The last post was made 13 hours ago, and it was about a recent CNN interview with Mukesh Ambani – owner of the billion-dollar high rise.

Other posts that have gotten the group debating include one about the plight of women’s rights in India. While we were there, the domestic and international news story was the account of “India’s Braveheart,” a prominent victim of the recent gang rapes that have taken place in the country. Because most of our meetings were corporate in nature, there was little opportunity to discuss with any native leaders their thoughts on what the government should do about crimes against women, girl education, or the like. However, as we met confident, intelligent women in professional settings, we did sometimes wonder aloud how half of the country’s population must feel about policies and some widely held beliefs toward their gender. And while I cannot fairly hold cultural norms there to the standard of my Western sensibilities (ex. one airport security line for women versus six for men – annoying!), I will say that I hope the inquisitive young girls that we met at Teach for India grow up in a society where they are wholly valued.  Another post that sparked an even greater debate was one on how India’s economy is growing relative to China’s. One of our trip leaders sent us a related article from The Hindu newspaper, which gave thorough insight into middle-class preoccupation with GDP growth.

Additionally, I have kept in contact with an Indian Columbia College alum who, in December, pledged to donate $12.12 million to the university for research and fellowships with a focus on India and other emerging markets. I “met” Sharik Currimbhoy (@SharikC), founder of a private equity and real estate firm, by Tweeting about his plan to leverage his relationship with the school for India’s eventual gain on the second day of our trip. He was kind enough to attend one of our alumni events thereafter, and spoke with me about how he plans to positively impact his homeland. Everyone, it seems, is doing his or her part to make sure that the rising tide of economic opportunity carries all ships. Still, quality of life disparity is stark – which was a huge takeaway for me, which then made me reflect on America’s own inequalities. I do not think that I will ever forget the palatial sight of the presidential – Maharaja – suite at Fortis Memorial (Hospital) Research Institute. We were not told the daily room rate, nor were we allowed to take photos. We were, however, given a tour replete with luxurious amenities for patients to enjoy, while literally across the street malnourished women begged for money as they held babies on their hips. Healthcare in India is a topic that I still want to learn more about.

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Chazen India participants pose outside of Kotak Bank in Mumbai.

On a lighter note though, me and many of my fellow trip goers are still suffering from cultural withdrawal! Last week I was having a bad morning and the only thing I knew would cheer me up before class was a hot cup of chai. It has now become a staple in my diet, and even my Western sensibilities cannot comprehend why American business meetings do not standardly include tea with crisp, sugary cookies. Other trip participants agree; we may start a movement. Additionally, one traveler has taken to carrying a small Ganesh statue in her purse for wisdom and good luck, while another reported that his hand-woven rug from Jaipur is decidedly the best purchase he has made in a long time. We have not scheduled a trip reunion date yet, but I am sure we will all meet again (for Indian food, of course) sometime in the near future.

In conclusion, the sights, sounds, and spirits of India are now embedded in my long-term memory. I learned so much that is relevant to my MBA classroom experience, and it is now enriched by a bit of global context – which I needed. Thanks to the Chazen Institute staff, Vijay Subramanian (MBA, 2013), and Alok Desai (MBA, 2013) for organizing a logistically complex trip! Getting such a high-level and diverse view of the country’s current situation would have been nearly impossible without their leadership.

Signing off for now,

~DeShaun Maria Harris, ’14 (Follow my travels:twitter.com/aspiringmaven)

Mumbai, Oh Mumbai!

As of now, we have been in India for three full days and I am starting to think that its tourism board’s “Incredible India!” branding is an accurate descriptor for what we are experiencing. There is a saying by G.K. Chesterton that, “The traveler sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see.” And after the first day and a half of self-contained bus tours, I am finally feeling like a traveler. We are getting out and interacting with Mumbai’s people and landmarks in a way that is beginning to feel a bit more organic.

Andrew Gordon, CBS '13 , meeting curious children in the streets of Mumbai.
Andrew Gordon, CBS ’13 , meeting curious children in the streets of Mumbai. (Photo credit: Cory Bronson, CBS ’13)

For instance, one group of CBSers was able to return to Haji Ali Dargah – a mosque and tomb situated in Worli Bay – after having viewed it from the bus window on our first morning. Their account was that the walk out to the mosque was the most awe-inspiring part because they were surrounded by a mass of people from a religious cross-section, all pressing against each other to reach the seemingly floating holy place before high tide signaled its close for the day. Truly, built-in free time is allowing all 42 of us on this trip to make the experience our own – an aspect I do appreciate. On the other hand, our tour guides have been phenomenal at succinctly explaining cultural nuisances that comprise the context of what we are seeing.

On my next post I will begin to cover our business meetings. For now though, I will just reflect on the cultural observations that we have made so far.

On our first day in Mumbai we took a whirlwind tour of the city itself, stopping briefly at its Hanging Gardens to look out over the city’s skyline by the Arabian Sea. Because it is still the holiday season, the park was full of parents with children at play. As we passed, many people stopped to stare at us and street vendors clamored to attract attention to their wares. Foreigners definitely stand out here at first glance because of race, and this fact has made me realize a distinct difference this major city has as compared to the global salad bowl that is New York City. Nevertheless, there is plenty of diversity in religion, ethnicity, and language – all on display in every facet of life. The Tower of Silence, we were told, is a place where Parsees lay the deceased to be eaten by vultures because they do not believe it is right to bury or cremate their loved ones.

The streets of Mumbai are not for the faint of heart! Cars, livestock, and people all share the road.
The streets of Mumbai are not for the faint of heart! Cars, livestock, and people all share the road.

Of course, deviations from what I consider usual are not all as extreme. On a shopping trip to the Palladium Mall – an opulent designer- branded symbol of India’s meteoric growth in wealth over the past two decades – some of us grabbed a bite to eat at McDonald’s. The first things I noticed were signs for seperate “veg” and “non-veg” kitchens and a menu devoid of beef and pork. The two prominent religions here are Hinduism and Islam, so most customers are vegaterians or only eat chicken and/or fish. Because of these options though, I tried a tasty spicy chicken sandwich, complete with paneer cheese and a side of french fries sprinkled with piri piri powder. As a former marketer, I have been intrigued to see how foreign brands translate their products and messaging to suit consumer tastes and behavior here.

On the topic of consumerism though, I think I can state for the group that it has been difficult for us to identify what “creature comforts” signify a middle class status. According to the United Nations, India’s Gini Index was 36.8 from 2000 – 2011, meaning that the economic spread between the upper and lower classes is one of the widest in the world. For comparison, the United States’ spread was 40.8 during the same time period (one of the highest) and Sweden’s was 25.0 (the lowest). So, on our trip thus far we have seen extreme displays of wealth (ex. Mukesh Ambani’s 27-floor, $1 billion dollar Antilla) and extreme realities of poverty (ex. The Dharavi Slum – a robust city within a city that houses about 1 million people in 1 square mile. I will not post about them here, because I think CBSers who have recently visited on other Chazen trips have done a sufficient job of writing about this jarring experience here and here).  Though, I will note that our tour guide informed us that not only poor people live in slums. Because real estate prices in Mumbai rival those of New York and London, middle class and wealthy individuals choose to live there too for convenience to the city. Additionally, some slums – including Dharavi – are legal, so the government provides municipal services. Plus, because both native and foreign people often have a certain low economic expectation of slum dwellers, Indians with more money can evade or underreport taxes there without a lot of suspicion.

All of this stated it is easy to see that wealth here does not buy complete isolation from the effects of living in a still developing nation. Lack of strong environmental regulations is the cause of a thick blanket of smog that floats over the city at various times of the day – sometimes blocking out the sun. This fact also contributes to the reason even some of the nicest residential buildings look a hundred years old from the outside – covered in soot and peeling paint caused by the harsh toxins in the air. Crowded roadways, unreliable power grids, and a polluted water system in some places all contribute to India’s infrastructure problem.

Still, I feel confident in stating that our trip so far has not been overwhelmed by feelings of hopeless frustration with conditions here. If any feeling has dominated for me it has been a sense of unbridled excitement that this country, which fought free of colonialism less than 75 years ago, is innovating so quickly to become one of the world’s largest economies. Business leaders that we have spoken with are intelligent, poised, and on a nation-building mission. And as an MBA student, it’s energizing to see how firms are making the “triple bottom line” a priority in a country where it is most critically a necessity.

~DeShaun Maria Harris, ’14 (Follow my travels: twitter.com/aspiringmaven)

Countdown to Chazen India: Vaccines & Visas

The Chazen India trip is a mere week away and I could not be more excited! I have been preparing for the trip for almost two months now – getting every vaccine known to man (minus the one for Japanese Encephalitis – thank goodness); standing in line at the India Visa Center for hours; and coordinating travel itineraries with friends at HBS and NYU Stern who will also be in India over the winter break. In addition, I have tried to familiarize myself with the culture by perusing the very in-depth reading packet that the Chazen Institute and our trip leaders compiled for us. It covers everything from the Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Country Report to timely feature articles on different aspects of Indian business and society from The Economist and The New York Times. I appreciate the contextual reading material, as it will hopefully allay boredom on a long flight and give me fodder to think of insightful questions for our company visits.

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Chazen India Social Media Guru, DeShaun Maria Harris
Photo from my participation in the South Asian Business Association’s Diwali Celebration a month before the trip. A group of us CBSers performed choreographed Bollywood-style dances.

Before I entered the lottery to be afforded the opportunity to go on this trip, my primary knowledge of India had passed through the lens of American media and Bollywood imports. The summer after I finished high school, I worked for an Indian couple who owned a men’s clothing store in my rural South Georgia town. Sometimes, on a break from customers, Mrs. Sada would invite me to watch Hindi and Telugu movies (with English subtitles), and eat yogurt rice after lunch. So, brilliantly colored clothing, vibrant cinematic displays, and deliciously spicy foods are what currently come to mind when I envision this ethnically diverse sub-continent which accounts for 17% of the world’s population. Looking to broaden my perspective? You bet! I have no idea when business or pleasure will give me a reason to return, so I plan to capture as many different snapshots of India as I can in a two-week stay. Hopefully, my accounts will accurately convey what my CBS peers and I experience, and serve to peak your interest in visiting this evolving global powerhouse.

~DeShaun Maria Harris, ’14 (Follow my travels: twitter.com/aspiringmaven)