World Economic Forum – India derailed.

Such is the faith of people in India that problems, challenges, opportunities, and any successes are often attributed to a divine force – the almighty. I remember a raging argument with my mother when I was a child, in which she basically justified her in-action by citing the same – “if it’s meant to be…”, which I’ve always seen as a cop-out as she avoided taking responsibility for an action.

Well, the reason I mention this is that having participated in the World Economic Forum’s India Summit in Mumbai earlier this week, India’s political & business leadership reminded me of the raging argument between my mother and me. Just that in this case, India’s much celebrated captains of industry became my mum for two days.

The problem is that everyone now recognises that the challenges India faces are possibly too big to overcome. The shine has truly come off. The penny’s dropped and they don’t know what to do. So they’re happy just to bumble on and see what happens (if it’s meant to be…)

Such was the elation of the mid 2000’s, that she was pleased to have been invited to the G20, and other international platforms, it seems that they’ve forgotten that if they desire global recognition, they need to offer solutions that fix problems.

Take, for example, the construction industry which itself will see an investment of a trillion dollars over the next ten years, but where are the skilled tradesman? In a similar fashion, take any profession and you arrive at the same problem.

India’s much talked of demographic dividend stands to turn into the exact opposite if practical solutions are not found. It’s far too easy to say that the private sector needs to play a role by harnessing the opportunity. India’s government needs to follow through by creating a favourable policy environment, else… the risks to her growth are simply too significant to consider.

I’m quite a positive guy, but this Summit knocked the stuffing out of me.

Corruption, a bloated bureaucracy, a ego, all stand in the path of progress. That’s what the India Summit confirmed in my mind.

KV Kamath – India’s Banker becomes Chairman of Infosys

Earlier today, it was announced that KV Kamath would become Chairman of Infosys – a major Indian and international IT services company that’s based in Bangalore.

In my book titled ‘India’s Inc – How India’s Top 10 Entrepreneurs Are Winning Globally’, I interviewed and included Kamath – although he wasn’t an entrepreneur per se – simply because he’d taken a boring, old world, finance institution and made it globally competitive – displaying all the traits that successful entrepreneurs display while building their businesses. In the book, I called him ‘India’s banker’ as ICICI had truly become a force in India. Their retail operations were slick, their corporate and investment bank delivered exceptional returns etc. The thing that truly marked him out, though, was his fascination with technology. He could have easily been the Chief Technology Officer for ICICI, such was his grasp of the potential technology held to provide a well deserved boost to his company.

For this reason, it came as no surprise that KVK, on retirement as CEO of ICICI, was asked to serve in Infy’s Board. So in many respects, this announcement also doesn’t come as a major surprise to the markets.

Interestingly, Narayana Murthy, founder and soon to retire Chairman of Infosys, also features in my book. Murthy’s known for many things but what stuck out was his commitment to retiring from Infosys as per the governance of the company. In many cases, such words are seen as niceties as it’s widely expected that their next generation will take over, so for this reason its important to mention and celebrate an entrepreneur who’s kept to his word on this – not that anyone has ever doubted it.

Recently, I’ve also read some of the media coverage around succession at Infosys in particular, which despite being interesting to ponder, is in fact a sign of things to come. Mr Murthy and his band of founders will retire soon. Whilst they claim that Infosys will thrive without them, Kamath’s appointment is a litmus test on their faith in the company that they’ve built.

It’ll be worth keeping an eye on Infosys, that’s for sure.

Strategists shape the future at WEF Summer Davos in China

Given his advocacy of a flat world, it came as no surprise when Tom Friedman was asked to moderate a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum’s Summer Davos event in China, deliberating what forces may shape our futures.

The assembled panel included Otto Scharmer who teaches at MIT, Kai-Fu Lee, a Chinese entrepreneur, and Dov Siedman, an American CEO – it needs to be said that whilst I hadn’t heard of the latter two, they stole the show as far as I was concerned.

Kai-Fu’s remarks on innovation were clever, but must have gone down like a lead balloon in China. After learning more about the guy, it comes as no surprise that he may have used the platform to score a political point with the Chinese authorities. Since the event, I learnt of his influence in China as a result of his previous roles as Microsoft and Google in China. His following on Twitter clearly shows he’s hot property.

He put forward a view that the next decade or so would be characterized by micro innovation – where entrepreneurs build on other peoples ideas, launch imperfect products, which they quickly refine and add value to. He explained that a Google or Apple come around once in a generation, and in all likelihoods regardless of the hype surrounding China’s emergence, the likelihood of successful innovative products coming from the mainland were almost non-existent.

To raised eyebrows and a growing sense of dismay, he spoke about the deficiencies of the Chinese education system, which he said didn’t allow for ‘out of the box’ thinking, thus holding back breakthroughs and progress that China so craves. Of course, he explained as a result of his own American education, he saw that America was better placed to deliver the next BIG discovery – thi in particular would have hit the nationalist nerve in China.

What he said made absolute sense, but to say it on home-turf in such an open manner must have been part of some plan in his head. Whatever game he’s playing (if any), I’m sure he’s likely to emerge victorious regardless of the type of reaction he received from the assembled Chinese media fraternity in the room that afternoon.

On the other hand, what Dov Siedman said chimed with everyone. He specializes in advising companies on ethics, and one his comments left an indelible mark on me.

He explained that in today’s world, whilst we’re able to exercise our judgment about what’s right or wrong, the clarity that a corporation needs to find should centre on how they’ll scale, not the company, but the values that we cherish the most. By doing so, the probabilities of building a sustainable and successful organization would, he suggests, increase dramatically.

By putting thought leaders like, Friedman, Kai-Fu and Siedman in the mix for a concluding session at a meeting like this, I believe that a strong signal has been transmitted by the WEF, marking a departure from one in which, not bankers, but genuine strategists were able to articulate their visions for what the future holds for us.

Where’s our Trade Minister Mr Cameron?

I agree with Iain Dale (click here)on the huge ommission by Cameron on appointing a city heavyweight to the vacant International Trade Ministers’ portfolio. Surely, this isn’t the right signal to send when you’re trying to develop a commerce based foreign policy. UKTI, whilst being ably steered by Andrew Cahn, could do with a vocal champion who undertakes the role with as much gusto as Lord Digby Jones, combined with the phenomenal practical experience that Mervyn Davies brought to the role.

In any case, if you’re interested, I’ve done or am doing the following media on Dave’s visit to the motherland:

BBC Radio 5 Live with John Piennar
Hindustan Times
BBC Radio Wales Breakfast Show
Indian Express
BBC Radio 5 Live with Gaby Logan
BBC Asian Network
Reuters
BBC World Service News
Al Jazeera English
BBC Radio 5 Wake Up To Money
BBC Breakfast Business News with Simon Jack
BBC Breakfast News with Sian Williams & Bill Turnbull
BBC News 24

Any new insights you can provide are welcome.

Thanks.

Britain must adjust to being the junior partner with India, also

The following is an article that’s been carried by Reuters, written by me (http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate-uk/2010/07/26/britain-must-adjust-to-new-relationship-with-india/)

Last week, on his first Prime Ministerial visit to the United States, David Cameron conceded that Britain was the “junior partner” in the special relationship. Next week, I fear that at the end of the much anticipated visit to India, he may yet again, have to concede that Britain is the junior partner in this ever increasing important relationship.

I attended an event some years ago in which the then Director General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) — Digby Jones — evangelised the need for UK Plc to embrace India, not for nostalgic or historic reasons, but to secure their survival. He explained “in the fullness of time, the past 250 years will be seen as a mere blip, an anomaly, in which India was subjugated. The future belongs to a resurgent India”.

It’s difficult to argue otherwise, just take a look at some of the statistics that stand out:

• Almost 25 percent of the world workforce will reside in India within the next 15 years. The average age of its citizens will be a youthful 29 in 2020, whereas in Western Europe the average stands at 45. India’s demographic profile provides a huge opportunity for her in the next century.

• India has a middle class larger than the entire population of the US — some 300 million residents, armed with a disposable income and looking for new avenues to spend their cash. The spectacular thing is that India’s middle class isn’t confined to its big cities or metros as they refer to them, but to far flung corners of the country in what are second and third tier cities, representing new markets — the Holy Grail as far as some of the world’s biggest fast moving consumer goods companies are concerned.

• Just today, I read a tweet from someone I follow on Twitter about how the Indian Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council has forecast GDP growth at 8.5 percent this year and nine percent next year. Now, compare that with all the talk of Britain having avoided a double dip recession as a result of the growth in our economy at a measly 1.1 percent.

That David Cameron understands the need to forge a stronger relationship with India is not in question. He’s made all the right noises, starting with a pro–India election manifesto culminating in the Queen highlighting her government’s desire to cosy up to the sub-continent in her first speech in the coalition era. He’s packed this visit with an unprecedented number of Cabinet Ministers signalling his intent on developing a wide-ranging cross departmental affair with India.

But the true question on the minds of crystal ball watchers, like me, is to work out whether this visit will fundamentally change the way we work with India or whether it’s just about style, something Cameron’s been accused of frequently.

In either case, in true Indian fashion, Cameron will be welcomed with open arms; and his eagerness to strengthen the bilateral relationship will be warmly reciprocated. Howeve securing the future prosperity of British jobs and industry will be on India’s terms, as the senior partner, unlike those set by the East India company some 250 years ago.

Sunil Mittal – the poster boy of Indian entrepreneurship

Visiting my relatives in India when I was young, I was always struck, even then, by the stories that were told about India’s bureaucracy. For example, we were told that to get a fixed line phone, people had to wait over 5 years after lodging their application. Given this was the state of India and in particular of her telecoms sector not so long ago, one of the statistics that astounds people today, unsurprisingly, is the take up rate of mobile phones in India – which averaged upwards of a couple of million handsets being sold every month!

Coming from quite a mature western European market, I’m totally flabbergasted with the competitiveness of India’s cellphone market. In addition her innovative ways of winning and keeping customers, such as with low cost price plans, energetic (but melodious) ring tones, value added information services etc. all are refreshing and provide great case study material in MBA schools all over the world.

But, often people outside of India (and outside of business schools) fail in recognising Indian brands and their successes fully, which was a prime motive in my writing my recently released book: India Inc: How India’s Top Ten Entrepreneurs Are Winning Globally.

My biggest regret is not that I didn’t write about Ratan Tata, Mukesh or Anil Ambani, but in fact that I didn’t include Sunil Mittal, the man behind the telecoms boom in India. He’s often credited as India’s poster boy for entrepreneurship as he’s created a phenomenal juggernaut of a company in Bharti Airtel. My reasons for excluding him, despite having met him over the past decade at many occasions, is that until recently he was totally focused on the opportunity India’s domestic market provides for Airtel – not that you can hold that against him – and my book looked at the international success of India’s corporate titans.

But, finally, all has changed. As of this week, Bharti Telecom owns Africa’s Zain Telecom and therefore makes his success an international one in the truest sense. His acquisition is second only to Tata’s purchase of Corus and provides Mittal with a growing footprint in an additional 15 countries and 150 odd million subscribers. It would be misleading to suggest that Mittal wasn’t interested in internationalising Airtel, as we all know of his failed negotiations with South Africa’s MTN over the past couple of years. But, I’m glad its finally happened.

What excites me, and many more, is his focus on Africa as it is here that I believe he’ll really be able to leverage his Indian experience to much gain. We hear of China’s love affair with Africa, but seldom do you hear of India making a beeline to some of the world’s most stunning countries and for this reason look forward to charting Sunil Mittal’s international success as much as India watchers have kept a keen eye on his domestic conquest.

Please don’t be mistaken, his rise hasn’t been free of challenge, controversy, or criticism and I don’t intend on sugar-coating his rise, but I fundamentally believe, above all, he demonstrates some phenomenal entrepreneurial traits that could teach the Bransons of our world a thing or two.

A Dubai Born Brand Going Global

It’s not often that you witness history, but last night, I observed just that. I’m in Dubai at the moment – a place I must say is not the most endearing for the simple reason that it’s all quite new and sparkly – despite the emirate of Abu Dhabi having to step in to help it honour its financial obligations.

There’s approx 1.5million people residing here, of which the local community constitute approx 15%. The vast majority seem to be from the southern states of India, who work in all capacities from maids & servants, professionals in corporates, and are also major investors with large enterprises in Dubai – all of whom, which have enabled its skyline to be as extravagant as it is.

It’s for this reason that I was truly taken aback to learn that the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum went to his first ever non Emirati (local population) event in Dubai, and he couldn’t have picked a better one. The event marked the 50th anniversary of an Indian family having invested in Dubai, whose company – GEMS – is a world beater in the education sector.

What’s remarkable about this family and firm is the way they’ve taken the best of being Indian and have fused it with Arabic culture, to set it on it’s path to global success. As an internationalist, I’m going to use this post to not only congratulate the Varkey’s, but importantly to applaud the Sheikh for taking this small, but important step in strengthening Dubai’s ties with the future.

As for GEMS, having looked at them closely, I’m convinced they’re at the cusp of truly becoming a global brand. They may have a 100 schools and educate 100,000 kids, but the landscape is so, so wide for them to paint. Yes, they’ll go through the pain of becoming a business that moves beyond the identity of its owner; yes, they’ll also make mistakes – but having witnessed their flair, ambition, and drive to recruit the best talent, it’d be hard to bet against them becoming “the” first global private education brand.

In Dubai, we may have just seen the future…

Narayana Murthy walks the talk

In a world where CEOs and business leaders have come under immense scrutiny, and where their ethical behaviour and ability to walk the talk ranks as highly as their ability to deliver shareholder value, I found it absolutely refreshing to attend a briefing held by an Indian NGO called Akshaya Patra (http://www.akshayapatra.org)  which had invited Narayana Murthy, Founder & Chairman of Infosys, to speak about why he supports them.

If there’s a business leader in the world who symbolises integrity and transparancy, the award should surely go this this tech titan.

It’s easy to see him through the lense of entrepreneurship, after all he founded what is today, one of India’s most international and prestigious firms’. His story is the stuff of legend and there’s no need to repeat it here, but you can read about him in my forthcoming book (http:://www.indiaincthebook.com).

What he captured in his speech tonight floored an audience comprising some very prominent people. Akshaya Patra runs a mid-day meals programme in India. Since 2000 they have grown from providing meals to five schools in Bangalore to feeding 1.2million kids over 7 states through leveraging the use of technology and understanding best practices and other management techniques to scale up their NGO.

Murthy narrated a life experience, which I cover in the first chapter of the book from a different angle, about when in 1974 he decided to return to India from France, he went without food and water for over 4 days after being locked up in Yugoslavia / Bulgaria for speaking to a girl on a train (!), which made him realise the injustices and inequalities of life. Having experienced starvation himself, he offered to the august audience that was gathered today that they should dig deep to support Akshaya Patra’s ambitions of delivering mid-day meals to 5 million malnourished kids by 2015.

What astounded me was the simple maths. One meal costs a mere Rs5.52, so to feed one child for a year, the cost is no more than £8 per year!

With Murthy backing them, they have my support.

Going back to how I started, its par for the course for large companies to have corporate social responsibilty programmes that support such NGOs, but Infosys isn’t a run-of -the-mill type of company, and what shone through once again is that Murthy isn’t an ordinary guy.

To end with he said it beautifully, he explained that rather than a fat bank balance, the ability to illicit a smile on the face of child is a better measure of success.

“You can have a comfortable night’s sleep knowing that you’ve helped another child sleep better”

Update on 'India Inc: How India's Top 10 Entrepreneurs Are Winning Globally'

Having completed writing my book and thinking that I’d fulfilled my end of the bargain, I’ve been even busier with other things related to this project. With advice from friends like Mark Kobayashi – Hillary & Alpesh Patel, who’re both serial authors, I’ve managed to make some headway in thinking about the promotion of the book.

So far, the book has received great feedback from esteemed and respected figures like Jim O’ Neill – author of the BRICs report & Chief Economist of Goldman Sachs; Lynn Forrester de Rothschild – of the banking family; Dean Dipak Jain – management guru at Kellogg School of Management; Chandrajit Banerjee – Director General of the Confederation of Indian Industry.. and a few more.

My next step in mastering how to use social media tools like Linkedin, Facebook, and Twitter in the promotion of the book. It’s lucky that my firm – www.saffronchase.com, has just launched a service that espouses the use of these tools for improving PR and government relations campaigns!

I’m meeting my publisher and his Indian distributor next week to discuss what we’re planning in India. Thinking of a tour of the key cities and university campuses in Feb / March 2010. Is this a good idea?

I’ve also been approached by an international bank with an offer to, potentially, sponsor the book launches globally. Looks like there’s going to be a lot of interest from sponsors for this type of book and the audience it could bring to them.

As a first time author, the experience has been fascinating. I may have been naive in thinking that all I had to do was write a book, but it’s proving to be fun and am looking forward to the journey.