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One thing rang out loud and clear at the 8th Annual Kellogg India Business Conference held in Chicago over the weekend: when it comes to business, Indians -- both in the US and in India -- are definitely in a league of their own.
The conference -- 'India: Drivers for Growth', -- held at the Northwestern University's Allen Centre, featured a full day of panel discussions and keynote speakers, apart from the usual networking and socializing.
After a decade of Indians and Indian Americans making it big in business -- specifically in the technology sector -- this year's conference aimed at examining what the future holds.
The speakers and more than 300 participants -- from India and the US -- explored opportunities in a variety of areas, from large banking institutions to genomic startups. The broad themes of technology, infrastructure, retail, and social issues were also discussed.
Four keynote speakers were sprinkled throughout the day's programme: United Airlines president Rono J Dutta; Deloitte Consulting, Americas, managing director Manoj Singh; Worldtel CEO & chairman Sam Pitroda and Indian Minister for Law, Justice, Company Affairs and Shipping Arun Jaitley. The mostly male, mostly Indian audience comprised senior executives, alumni, start-up entrepreneurs, and MBA students from the country's top business schools.
Dutta, an IIT and Harvard Business School graduate, translated his 16 years of experience in the airline industry into general business concepts applicable to any other sector.
Donning the mantle of a professor, the United Airlines head said there are four vital lessons one needs to learn to run a successful global business. They are: defining your markets correctly; positioning yourself uniquely to the customer; understanding early macro-industry trends, and realizing that global businesses need alliances.
Elaborating on his fourth lesson, Dutta said, "The greatest lesson we learned from the British is that the British never fought any battles alone -- and [United] has learned that, too [through partnerships with other airlines]."
Dutta also stressed the importance of the structure of the company, saying that foundation was the groundwork to build upon. Looking at United Airlines as a model business system, Dutta compared his company to Air-India, which, he said, "should be owning the Gulf traffic" but has failed to do so because of critical errors in the company's structure.
First-year Kellogg Management student Uma Mahankali of Hyderabad was very impressed with Dutta's insight. Mahankali, also an IIT graduate, said the only reason she came "so early [in the morning]" to hear Dutta's 9am lecture was because he was a fellow IIT alumnus, and she found that to be "an inspiration".
Often, "entrepreneurs speak more about their firm", she said, "but, I found [Dutta's speech] more informative. The four lessons are basic and I could see it apply to organizations on any level."
Singh, who followed Dutta, addressed business growth in India. According to him, "India is one of the fastest-growing economies... with a fairly steady growth rate of five to six per cent." And while other developing countries may have larger economies, that constant growth provides stability and promotes high-level business, he said.
"India has been a good source of great talent," said Singh, a change management expert. "India's complete advantage is its people and vendor skills. It's one of the few countries that's a skill-surplus country. It's skilled people -- that's how [India] got on the map." The other advantage is that they are English-speaking and educated; in addition, the 12-hour time difference is to the nation's geographic advantage, allowing for global businesses to operate as 24-hour machines.
Jaitley closed the day's discussions by providing an insider's view of India's economy and addressing India's current economic strengths and weaknesses.
Citing power, housing and real estate as areas needing improvement, he emphasized the role politics plays in economics. "Strong legislative action needs to be done" and the government needs to "remove those outdated legislative measures" to forge ahead in these areas, he said.
As far as the areas of growth and development are concerned, Jaitley explained that the quality of India's roads and highways is improving. One hundred contracts have been awarded to build a road system to connect the country from all directions by the year 2007, and the plan aims to connect every village to those roads.
Most importantly, however, Jaitley pointed out a general change in the country's consciousness as well as its economic shape. "In the last seven years, the below-poverty level has decreased 9 per cent, with a 6 per cent growth rate... The middle class is increasing."
And unlike in the past -- a time when "excellence was confused as elitism" -- "even the villager is looking up" now, said the minister. Much of this change in consciousness can be attributed to the country's exposure to TV, the means for 75 million Indians to see, understand, and be influenced by the rest of the world, he said.
It's that sort of national mentality that encourages India to not concentrate so much on the global game of economics, but to compete and win against itself, he added.
"Despite areas where we're not competing well [globally], there seems to be movement, and the road ahead seems to be a more positive road."
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