Saturday, April 7, 2012

"Unclear": Darden GBE India 2012

Having finally recovered from a fierce jet lag hangover upon my return to Charlottesville, I think I can now properly put my thoughts and feelings on paper to summarize my spring break Darden Global Business Experience (GBE) in India. Before leaving, one of my South Asian classmates told me about India, "You will either love it or hate it." I found myself oscillating between the two on this trip.

Darden at the Taj Mahal

Either way, one could not describe India as "dull" – it is a place that brings out the strongest of emotions. My Lonely Planet India travel guide uses the word "bamboozling" to describe India. That is about as good of a word as I could think of to describe it. For an outsider, India is an enigma. It is incredibly diverse, but also an extremely frustrating and difficult place to visit. Challenges were everywhere. Poverty was thrust in our faces like nowhere I've seen on Earth. The crush of humanity turned even simple trips into energy-zapping battles. We were exasperated by Indian customer service and had our nerves frayed by risk-seeking Indian rickshaw drivers. I faced water-borne illness, suffocating air pollution, and the incessant March heat. We all felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: "I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

Though challenging, India is a country with fascinating cultural and geographic diversity. It may have more languages, styles of dress, and types of food packed into one place than any other country. The perception of a monolithic India in the American media could not be more false. In fact, I'm surprised that a democratic country like it can function at all. Getting so many different types of people to agree on policy must be a huge challenge. From the three places I visited in India (Kerala, Delhi, and Mumbai) I am convinced that the importance of "think global, act local" cannot be understated in Indian business.

My trip started on the evening of Saturday, March 10 from tiny Charlottesville airport, the beginning of a 30-hour journey to Washington-Dulles, Frankfurt, Mumbai, and finally landing in Trivandrum at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent in the seaside province of Kerala. The Darden-run part of our trip wouldn't begin until Saturday morning in Delhi, so a few of my classmates and I decided to explore Kerala (and catch up on sleep) for the five days before. This was a great decision. Kerala is a bit like Florida – steamy with beaches and backwaters. As one of my Indian classmates put it, "It's like Puerto Rico without the hot chicks."

Keralan fishing village
Kerala runs at a slower pace than the big cities in India which we were to visit later. Kerala, known as "God's Own Country", isn't wealthy but has the highest literacy rate of any province in India. We started in Varkala, a mix of "real" India and "tourist" India with a hippie beach town along the Arabian Sea. Our luggage got stuck in Germany and we spent 4 days without our clothes, or bug spray – my legs were ravaged by the mosquitoes! Thankfully, we were fine walking around in t-shirts and flip flops (which we were to purchase in beach-side shacks), and we had a great American host in the house we were staying in to help us get acclimated. In Varkala we visited fishing villages, took a tour of the relaxing Keralan backwaters, and rode around in rickshaws everywhere. From there, we took a long hot train ride to Kochi, an old European fort town, finally reuniting with our luggage and seeing the historical parts of the city.

My flight to Delhi, to reunite with the rest of my Darden classmates, landed late on Friday evening and I only had time for a 3-hour nap before a 4AM wakeup call to head to Agra for my date with the Taj Mahal! This wonder is every bit as good as advertised – magnificent on the outside with its bright white marble exterior, and tremendous surrounding gardens. We followed with a sightseeing tour of Agra Fort, as much a palace as a defensive structure. A coach bus returned us to Delhi, only a 130 mile journey but which took us 5 hours to complete!  Indian highways are congested and entirely inadequate for the trucks, automobiles, rickshaws, pedestrians, and livestock which try to use them.

Typical Delhi traffic
On this bus journey, we also christened "unclear" as the word of our trip. Given the level of confusion we all felt about India, this seemed like the perfect word to describe almost any situation. When will we be getting off the bus? Unclear. Where is our lost luggage? Unclear. Why is there so much litter on the sides of the roads? Unclear. What do the cows and goats eat in the city? Unclear.

Also, on the bus ride back to Delhi I became ill. What ailment did I have? Unclear. I was feverish, very tired, and reaching for Immodium regularly. I suspect it was something related to the non-potable water – maybe the peeled fresh vegetable salad I ate in Varkala, or maybe the night I ran out of bottled water in Kochi and used the sink to rinse my toothbrush. I was a bit careless, and my body paid the price for the next few days. Taking clean tap water for granted in the US is a great luxury that is very frustrating to live without abroad.

Getting sick took the life out of me and made Delhi feel even more overwhelming. The embassy and government areas (where our hotel was situated) were nice, but once we left the safety of this area the traffic and pollution (smog and litter) really wore on me. I understand that smog generally accompanies breakneck industrial development, but the litter was really frustrating. I couldn't believe how much tolerance the Indian culture has for throwing trash on the ground and for burning trash on the sides of roads. The country is an ecological disaster.

Gokul and Akshay, awesome Darden burrito entrepreneurs!
We had a couple good business visits lined up in Delhi, and despite my illness I was functional. We met a two Darden alums who are starting a Chipotle-like Mexican restaurant on the outskirts of Delhi, and the burritos were tasty! We attended a reception with a group of Darden alums and discussed doing business in India over cocktails. With the alums I learned about topics like corruption (rampant but you deal with it), the schizophrenic relationship between India and foreign businesses (sometimes embracing but sometimes protectionist), the quality of Indian managers (they typically are very harsh to employees), and how to get a straight answer in a country where people don't answer you directly (establish strong personal connections with business associates). We visited a large power producer, Jindal Power, and learned about the state of the electricity infrastructure in India (chronic power shortages, new power plants being fueled by coal – which will only make the pollution worse). I liked that I was learning about doing business in India, but by the time we flew out on Tuesday evening I was ready to get out of Delhi. The city is far too sprawling and busy for my liking.

Gandhi museum in Mumbai, the Mani Bhavan
Our final stop was Mumbai, a far different place than the others. Along the sea and much denser than Delhi, I think most of the group (myself included) liked Mumbai better. Mumbai is the banking and Bollywood center of India, sort of like New York with a little L.A. mixed in. Delhi, the governmental colossus, is much more like D.C. (with even worse traffic!).

In Mumbai, we had business visits with a private equity fund, Johnson & Johnson, the U.S. consulate general, and a real estate company. We also met with Teach for India, modeled off the American version. We visited one of the schools they were working at in a Mumbai slum (the slums are packed in with the better neighborhoods on the crowded Mumbai peninsula) and the kids were great. They were practicing Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" and were talented actors! I came away from the visit thinking that the problems in Mumbai's impoverished schools are similar to those in America's, but simply on a much larger scale.

After two weeks in India, I was yearning for the simple delights of life back home in beautiful Charlottesville. Breathing clean air, driving around without incessant horn honking, eating raw fruit and brushing my teeth with tap water felt wonderful! That said, I have absolutely no regrets about visiting. I learned an immense amount about the Indian culture and business climate in a short time, things I never would have fully internalized from the comfort of a classroom. A global business person cannot ignore a country with 1/6 of the world's population, and I value the insights of India that I gained. Though I'm not eager to travel back to India in the near future, if I receive a business assignment there post-MBA the country will now be a little less "unclear".

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