Lessons Learned from Business Meetings (Part 1 – Mumbai)

Iris Chen ’15


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.

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.


All Future Group locations in India


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.

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


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.



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.

Management Principles of Dabbawalas
CBS students with the Dabbawalas


Reflections on Mumbai and Bangalore


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.


A craftsman in Dharavi Slum


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)


Buying spices at the market


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.


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.

Embroidery factory

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