Pens, Papers and Passports

Pens, Papers and Passports
A growing number of students from U.S. colleges want to hitch a ride to the high-speed Indian economy 

By Shilpa Banerji

It wasn’t long after Lauren Skryzowski entered Yale University’s School of Management that she realized something was missing. While business schools at other institutions offered unique programs with corporations in emerging economic powers, Yale was lacking. The university did have a partnership agreement with China, but there was no such opportunity to learn from and form connections with the burgeoning businesses of India, the second most populous nation on the planet. Skryzowski had a brainstorm after some classmates suggested a spring break trip to the country. She posed a simple question to her administrators in the school — “Why not have a business study trip?”

It didn’t take much convincing for them to see her point, and in February the university sent 20 students, Skryzowski included, to New Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore to meet some of the country’s top business and political leaders. The six-week course, “Emerging Market Study Trip, Destination India,” was meant to expose the students to business practices in a country that many experts believe could be the world’s next superpower.

In 2005, Yale President Richard C. Levin traveled to India specifically to improve ties with educational, political and business leaders in the country. As the American and Indian economies become more interdependent, such cooperative programs can be very valuable for both sides. So when Yale began contacting Indian officials, they found them eager to listen.

“We sent out some cold e-mails, including to the Indian prime minister,” says Skryzowski. “It blew my mind how responsive they were.”
India has seen its economic fortunes take off in recent years. Last year, its gross domestic product rose 8 percent over 2004 in response to an expanded manufacturing sector. The country’s large English-speaking population is leading India’s transition into a world leader in the software services industry. And American universities have taken notice, especially of the movement on the technology front.

American students aren’t new to India. It has long been a popular destination for nonprofit work and students of public policy, but now American business schools are realizing the opportunities available in Southeast Asia. As international experience becomes an increasingly vital component of business success, more schools are telling their students to come to class with pen, paper and a passport. And it’s not just a one-way street. American students are learning first-person about one of the world’s fastest growing business powers, and in doing so are becoming more attractive potential employees for those same corporations.

According to Skryzowski, by the end of the February trip, 75 percent of the students said they would consider working in India. Although she recently accepted an offer from IBM, Skryzowski says she still hopes to work in India one day.

Dr. Jonathan Koppell, a Yale associate professor of politics and management who accompanied the students to India, says business is never purely about dollars and cents.

“It has a lot to do with what’s good and bad with regulations, infrastructure and strategy,” he says. “We were impressed with the executives who were not only thinking about this, but [thinking about] their competitors around the globe. Seeing that in practice was very enlightening.”

Yale isn’t the only American institution to see the value of forming ties with Indian corporations. Stanford University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology already have initiatives in place to provide their students with internship and employment opportunities at Indian firms.

The Stanford Asia Technology Initiative, open to everyone from freshmen to doctoral candidates, offers exposure to different regional technology hubs around Asia. The summer fellowship program has been up and running since 2002 and culminates in a global entrepreneurship conference, held in Shanghai, China or Bombay.

According to Aditya Agrawal, associate director for the initiative’s India Site, the program places five or six fellows each year in Indian information technology, biotech or financial services companies.

“The IT sector is the main area of interest,” he says. “There are a diverse number of students who apply … Chinese Americans who want to intern in India or vice versa.”

MIT has been running the MIT-India Program since 1998, and coordinator Deepti M. Nijhawan says interest has been growing steadily.

“If you’re building future leaders, it’s one thing to have a lab mate who is Indian but a completely different experience if you’re working there,” she says. “Those who go come back with positive experiences.”

MIT sophomore David Reshef interned last year with the school’s Poverty Action Lab in conjunction with an Indian nonprofit called Seva Mandir. Reshef worked on various rural development initiatives in and around Udaipur, Rajasthan, also known for its famous lake palaces. In spite of the language barrier and other adjustments, he says it was one of the most amazing experiences of his life. “I would love to go back and work there after finishing undergrad and [before starting] medical school,” he says.

Reshef, who plans to intern in Zambia this summer, encourages other students to consider working or interning in India. “It’s a lot of fun and very rewarding. Students should know there is funding available for them to go,” he says.

Last year the MIT program sent 28 students from different disciplines — mechanical engineering, biology and neuroscience, among others — to India to work as interns in IT firms, colleges and universities and nonprofit organizations.

Infosys, a Bangalore-based IT firm with a sprawling, university-like campus, developed the first international internship program in 1999. Five years ago, “InStep” received 300 applications for 15 available positions. The program now has 100 positions, but received more than 11,000 applications from all over the world in 2005-2006. InStep is open to students at any level and runs year-round to suit academic calendars in different countries. The internships run anywhere from eight to 24 weeks, and students receive a monthly stipend, a fully furnished apartment and free food and transportation within the city.

“One of the prime focus areas was to create a multicultural work force, which is essential for any global corporation,” says Bani P. Dhawan, a marketing manager at Infosys. “Cross-cultural teams bring different experiences and viewpoints to the table. As no two countries are alike, the ability to understand the language and culture of a country can make the difference when building long-term relationships.”

In addition to internship and exchange programs, more institutions are hosting conferences focused on India’s growing presence on the world stage. Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School have played host to conferences in the past, and this year both the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management have organized events on the subject.

“India is a hot topic and everyone wants a piece of it,” says Sunil Bindal, a graduate student at UC and a coordinator of its conference. “Our conference was a blockbuster last year and we want to continue the traction … with the rise of Indian multinationals and looking at India beyond just outsourcing and the IT industry.”

Called “Vibrant India — Next Wave” the conference earlier this month attracted industry leaders such as Dr. J.J. Irani, director of the Tata Group; and Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande, chairman of Sycamore Networks.

Last month’s “Asia Rising” conference, hosted by Northwestern, featured Sam Pitroda, chairman of the National Knowledge Commission of India; James Lawrence, chief financial officer of General Mills; and Weiying Zhang, professor of economics and executive dean at Peking University in China.

“Students [seeking internships at Indian companies] may not get the best monetary compensation, but it’s a very good experience overall to see how things actually work,” says Debmalya Chatterjee, a Northwestern graduate student. Chatterjee recently accepted an offer at India’s Johnson & Johnson branch through the Kellogg career center.
Infosys is expected to hire 300 students every year for technology and management positions and train them at its Mysore facility in the state of Karnataka.

“This is the wave of the future … these are prominent global firms so it’s not surprising they are looking at America for talent,” says Yale’s Koppell. “Competition for talent extends beyond borders, and that’s the reality.”

Alexander Krasavin, a Yale student who is mulling over an offer from Infosys, says he is interested because of the company’s ability to compete with consulting-firm giants like Accenture. “I see working in India as an exciting and interesting opportunity. I am particularly intrigued by what India has to offer and its role as a world economic powerhouse,” he says.

Krasavin says his interest in Infosys has grown after meeting the company’s founder, N. R. Narayana Murthy, at the Yale campus last month.

“His entrepreneurial spirit was definitely inspiring and it was amazing to hear someone who built a company from barely anything… especially, since I am an aspiring entrepreneur, too.”

South Asia is no longer just a tourist attraction or a place to volunteer in disaster relief efforts. As Skryzowski says, “If you don’t understand China and India now, how can you be a good business leader? There is a value in looking outside your country.”


Reporter’s Notebook

I went home to New Delhi in January after nearly three years away. I expected change and I saw it everywhere — people with lucrative new jobs, driving their new cars on new roads to their new homes before going shopping to one of the many, many new malls in the city.

My parents moved into one of the developing suburbs near the international airport — mid-rise condos that had sprouted around the new metro train station. Like the rest of the growing middle class, they own two cars, book airline tickets over the cell phone (or mobile phone as it’s known there), watch “Indian Idol” and order books online. And like most homes in the area, they employ a housekeeper and, sometimes a cook.

Signs advertising American restaurants such as Ruby Tuesday, Pizza Hut and other fast food joints competed for my attention among the crowd of billboards at one of the malls in Gurgaon, another suburb which has grown into a major hub for multinational offices. Barrista’s is the local answer to Starbucks, and you can find employees from nearby outsourced call centers taking their breaks there.

“Flyovers,” or overhead roadways, are a source of pride here. The construction boom means more are being built, which is helpful because they ease the traffic bottlenecks.

In spite of the progress, however, the gap between the haves and have-nots is obvious. Affluent teenagers danced at a local hip-hop club while, only a few miles away, poor, migrant laborers live without access to clean drinking water.

I discovered some new hangouts and made the rounds to my old stomping grounds. The ethnic clothing store was the same, as was  the streetside vendor selling fried potato fritters in hot sauce. But I had to walk through a metal detector at my old export reject market because of a terrorist attack a few months ago. I took in the polluted air, haggled over the price of an auto rickshaw ride and enjoyed the best head massage — thank goodness some things haven’t changed.

— By Shilpa Banerji



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