Saturday, July 13, 2013

Reflection: Cal Poly MBA Trip To India

            The Cal Poly MBA trip to India was an invaluable experience that offered me and the other nine attending students a unique opportunity to experience the culture and business practices of a rapidly developing country. We were immersed in a totally foreign environment, and in many instances, pushed outside of our comfort zone. I took this opportunity to challenge myself and resist the urge to play it safe. I ate food that I had never even heard of, I spoke with complete strangers on an overnight train ride, and I even rode on a reverse bungee ride at an Indian theme park. My peers and I are extremely lucky that we had the privilege to experience India in a way that most people never will.
            Throughout the trip, the most valuable thing I learned about India is that it has many ambitious entrepreneurs who are willing to work tirelessly to take advantage of emerging opportunities. These entrepreneurs know that Indians are not oblivious to the goods and services available in developed countries. They want these same goods and services, but with an Indian twist. The common factor among all of the businesses we visited was that their leaders figured out a way to bring in these outside goods and services in a way that appealed to the unique cultural needs of Indians. Big Bazaar is a great example of a company that imported a Western shopping style in a way that appealed to average Indian consumers. Prior to shopping centers like Big Bazaar, Indian consumers had to shop at several small establishments to purchase all of their goods and services. Big Bazaar brought new value to these Indian consumers by creating a more convenient shopping experience with their one-stop shopping design of their stores. Rather than just importing the floor model of a Wal-Mart supercenter, Big Bazaar knew it had to make a few adjustments in order to retain the appeal of Indian consumers. They did this by giving their modern stores the same traditional bazaar feel that Indian consumers were already used to. This was achieved by piling goods directly on the floor rather than neatly on shelves and even by not washing some of their produce, so that it retained a more natural earthy look.
Groupon was another company that brought an outside service to India by making a few necessary changes that made the service more appealing to Indians. Most traditional Indian consumers have the need to literally touch and feel what they are purchasing in order to assure themselves that they are buying a quality product. This presented a problem to Groupon, a site from which customers must purchase their goods via the Internet and not in person. To resolve this issue, Groupon India allowed its customers to pay by cash on delivery, so they could actually examine the product before placing their payment. It was this type of adaptive ability that really impressed me during my visits to these companies in India. In an increasingly globalized world, the ability to adapt to the needs of other cultures is becoming a crucial factor for success. This adaptive ability alone shows me that these Indian companies could easily expand to other regions and see the same success rates that they experience domestically. Being able to adapt their company’s offerings to meet the region-specific needs of various cultures is a monumentally important core capability that these Indian companies will surely leverage in the future.
One Western product that has the potential to be a successful venture in India is the concept of providing referrals and opinions about businesses. This has already been successfully accomplished in the U.S. through Yelp and Angieslist. While visiting Groupon India, the company’s CEO, Ankur Warikoo, explained to us that India’s retail and service markets are still very unorganized. He also mentioned that many local businesses are perceived as inferior quality, which can likely be attributed to a lack of adequate information. Many unsavory businesses in India also have the luxury of having little or no customer-accountability, which leaves future customers vulnerable to continued poor service simply due to a lack of awareness. All these factors cause Indian consumers to follow a herd mentality when it comes to choosing a retailer or service provider. They figure that if everyone is going to one place, that place must be the best. This is simply the result of a lack of information. This lack of information provides a huge opportunity for ambitious entrepreneurs who are able to find a way to provide that information in a way that is useful to Indian consumers. There is a real opportunity in India to solve a huge problem of misinformation that causes many Indian consumers to blindly choose where they will make costly purchases. A few young entrepreneurs have already begun to tackle this problem in India through their website, FRILP, which is a social media based platform that allows consumers to get trusted referrals from friends and colleagues. The website is derived from the concept of “FRIends heLP,” which is intended to make it easier for Indian consumers to find trusted businesses (i.e. doctors, plumbers, tutors, etc.). This organization is capitalizing on India’s lack of trustworthy data on businesses and service providers, which leads to many Indian consumers leaving it to chance when they choose where to spend their hard earned money. Once this company gains some momentum and better establishes itself in India, it would be a great company to visit during a future MBA trip.
One Indian business concept that could be brought to the U.S. is the Kingdom of Dream’s idea of creating a theme park that represents all of the different regions of the country. Kingdom of Dreams allows visitors to experience all of India in one entertaining stop. Visitors to the park can experience the culture, food, music, and art of each Indian state. This is a brilliant concept for a theme park because it appeals to local Indians and visiting foreigners, both of whom probably cannot afford to travel to all of the Indian states during a single vacation. Kingdom of Dreams makes it possible to at least get a sense of each Indian state’s differences and distinct cultures. Bringing this concept to the U.S. would mean creating a theme park that represents all fifty states. Although the extent of the differences between the U.S. states may not match the degree of differences between Indian states, it would be still be possible to represent some of the key characteristics of each state. This hypothetical American theme park would probably not appeal as much to U.S. citizens who tend to have higher disposable incomes, and therefore possess a greater ability to actually travel to each state. However, I can see this theme park being immensely popular among foreign visitors who simply don’t have the time or money to travel throughout the entire United States.
The most impressive business practice that I took away from India was the importance of being able to adapt. The companies we visited were successful because they were the best at adapting to changing economic conditions, cultural practices, and technological developments. Those who spoke at these companies made it very clear that even momentary complacency can lead to a business going under. This was especially true at the IT companies that we visited. Our visit to Cisco revealed several amazing technological developments that made communicating, shopping, and even receiving healthcare easier and more convenient. However, we were told that the company never stops innovating because they operate under the assumption that their current projects will become obsolete in the very near future. Puravankara, a construction and property management firm, was another example of a company that adapted its strategy to take advantage of India’s changing industrial conditions. The company realized that southern India was developing at a very rapid pace. They saw that industrial development in cities like Bangalore and Chennai was becoming very diversified. Puravankara was one of the few companies to capitalize on this by realizing that a diversified set of industries meant a diversified set of potential homebuyers. This in turn ensured that there would always be a steady flow of potential buyers even if one or two industries started to decline. Puravanakara’s decision to build affordable homes in these regions was a brilliant response to the changing industrial climate, which gave their company a huge advantage in the form of minimized risk and fast returns on their investments. Westerners could definitely benefit from adopting this mindset of adaptability. Many business owners in the U.S. refuse to accept the fact that developing countries are becoming increasingly competitive. This is causing them to remain complacent in their efforts to better compete on a global scale. Western business owners should observe the way many Indian companies are staying ahead of the game by constantly adapting their strategies to remain in front of their competitors.
Developing economies are showing developed nations that small companies with a little bit of ingenuity can perform just as well, if not better, than large companies with unlimited financial resources. Many of the companies we visited are producing high quality goods and services with a very limited set of resources that often appear improvised. Core Jewelry is an Indian company that operates on a global scale, offering a wide variety of high quality wholesale jewelry. During our visit to their manufacturing facility, it was amazing to see how this company was able to produce such large quantities of premium jewelry with so few employees and such makeshift equipment. Puravankara also demonstrated how its innovative thinking allowed it to cut costs and offer its premium housing at unbelievably affordable prices. Rather than pumping more money into each housing project, Puravankara focused on developing cost saving technologies that would allow it to gain a more sustainable competitive advantage throughout its future. Many of these Indian companies seem to excel because when they are faced with a challenge or an opportunity, they do not automatically throw money at the situation. Instead, they figure out a way to overcome the challenge or seize the opportunity through creative solutions that cost very little. While these Indian companies are undoubtedly being propelled forward by their internal strengths, they cannot avoid the constraints they face as a result of their developing nation’s poor infrastructure, overly burdensome bureaucracies, and lagging educational system. Poor infrastructure makes it difficult to transport goods, unprofitable to invest in underdeveloped regions, and troublesome to connect the rural and urban areas. India’s government remains largely decentralized, which makes it difficult to impose widespread economic or social policies. This hinders the country’s development in terms of passing progressive resolutions that would help the country better compete on a global scale. India also faces having a disproportionately large young population that currently does not have universal access to quality education. This means that India may face a potential shortage of skilled and educated workers in the future, which could hinder its economic development.
This trip tested my ability to adjust my way of thinking while living among a different culture. At times it was difficult to understand some of the differences between Indian culture and U.S. culture. One of the main differences I noticed throughout the trip was the appearance of disorganization that seemed to characterize many aspects of Indian society. The traffic in India seems to operate without any type of order or regulation. The buildings and neighborhoods seem to have developed organically without much city planning. The general manner in which average Indians go about their day seems much less structured than the way Americans live. Indians compensate for this lack of order by being more resourceful and more comfortable with the practice of figuring things out as they go along. As the trip progressed I began to focus less on these differences and notice more of the similarities between our cultures. Both Indians and Americans essentially have the same goals in life; we just differ a little when it comes to the path that leads to those goals. Overall, I was pleased with my ability to adjust to Indian culture. Throughout the trip, I kept an open mind and did my best to understand why things are the way they are in India. During a bus ride back to the hotel, I had a discussion with some of my peers about the problems of corruption in India. With such rampant corruption in India, it is easy to automatically look down on Indian society. However, our discussion on the bus opened my eyes as to why corruption is so widespread. If you are a police officer or a local government employee and you are barely making enough money to make ends meet, the temptation to accept a bribe is overwhelming. This made me understand that they don’t accept the bribes because they are inherently bad people. Rather, they accept the bribes because they are victims of unfortunate circumstances. I think this type of enlightening discussion and understanding were some of the biggest benefits of going on the trip to India.
During this trip, I was forced out of my comfort zone on several occasions. There were the mobile street vendors who would harass you while you were shopping. I was not used to this kind of interaction, and I wasn’t sure how to react. At first I got angry and annoyed with them, but as the trip went on, I got used to them and learned to just ignore them. The overnight train ride to Mumbai was another occasion where I was forced way outside of my comfort zone. The confined sleeping quarters and lack of personal space on the train were a very new traveling experience for me. This really opened my eyes as to how privileged Americans are and how we take for granted all of the seemingly small luxuries of American life. Surprisingly, the train ride actually turned out to be a fun experience. I talked with complete strangers from another culture and heard some of their life stories. I got past the lack of personal space and absence of privacy. This actually made the train ride more fun because it pushed everyone to interact more and get to know one another better. The overall trip itself was a huge push outside my comfort zone. Before this trip, I had never traveled abroad, so just getting to India was an intimidating feat for me. This trip showed me that I am capable of traveling to the other side of the world and enduring a rigorous course. With this experience, I am confident that I could travel abroad for a business trip and successfully perform my job.
Our trip to India was full of surprises and excitement that come with traveling to an entirely new culture. One thing that surprised me the most about India were the acts of goodwill being performed by a company we visited. With so much poverty, Indian society is often perceived as very competitive with a mentality of every man for himself. This perception was completely shattered during our visit with Lemon Tree’s upper management, where we learned about the company’s voluntary efforts to employ disabled people. A very good point was made during this company visit that discriminating against disabled candidates means that you are probably missing out on hiring some real talent. I was very pleased to hear that Lemon Tree is trying to open up a hotel where the entire staff will be comprised of disabled employees. This not only directly helps a historically marginalized group, it also sends a message to the public that disabled people can perform the same, if not better, quality work as everyone else.
After going on this trip, India holds a whole new meaning for me. This country is a growing buildup of potential that is beginning to show the world what it is capable of achieving. Having a first-hand look at the resourcefulness and drive of Indian companies really affirmed all of the reading I did about India becoming a rising power. Just having this awareness about India is the most important thing I took away from the trip. My trip to India was truly an eye opening experience that has provided me with a deeper understanding of our changing world and a newfound appreciation of a different culture. 


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