“We have been hearing so much about India’s growth story in the US press. To actually experience it firsthand has been a remarkable experience,” gushes Lindsay Hyde.

The 30-year-old is among the 42 students from Harvard Business School (HBS) in Chennai now, as part of a FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development) project to learn about companies in emerging markets (rapidly growing markets which present exciting investment opportunities).

Culture counts

Does India live up to the new market promise? Hyde seems to think so. “We have been talking to several youngsters and many of them want to become entrepreneurs. Now, this indicates a country with palpable opportunities,” says Hyde. She and five others from HBS have spent the last five days at the Nalli group, studying the sari retailer’s potential in home furnishing — through store visits, surveys and customer interviews.

No business can be separated from the culture it operates in. “Several insights have emerged from candid conversations with people at their homes, over filter kaapi and south Indian snacks,” says Erin Gillman from Texas. Visits to temples and the shopping streets of Chennai also exposed them to the real world, according to 27-year-old Marisa Clark.

The field programme (for first-year students of the two-year MBA programme) was introduced last year to complement the B-school’s case-study method of teaching, says Andy Zelleke, Senior Lecturer.

“The objective is to enhance the students’ intelligence of markets previously unfamiliar to them.”

Apart from Nalli, students are also working at six other companies — Amelio Child Care, Sundaram Medical Devices, Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels, Fruit Shop on Greams Road, Maxivision and Ticketgoose.

There are also teams in Mumbai at Airtel, Eureka Forbes, Godrej, HSBC, Piramal Healthcare, Wipro Consumer Care, Mahindra Insurance Brokers, Mahindra Rural Housing Finance and Tata Chemicals.

The project ends Monday with a presentation to the management team. (Similar visits are on at 12 other cities around Asia, Africa and Latin America.)

‘Not too different’

How different are Indian companies from global firms? “Not too different. Indian firms — big or small — are as professionally run as global firms,” says Hermes Alvarez, who has had stints at multinationals in Paris and Houston.

Indian enterprises are probably more robust as they have to contend with external issues such as power and roads, which are taken for granted in the developed world, observes Oghale Ighoavodha, who has worked in Nigeria.

Apart from the frequent power cuts, which caught some of them by surprise, the students had no major adjustment issues in Chennai.

In fact, they had all volunteered to work in India.

It helps that many students at HBS are from India, says Zelleke. “About 35 per cent of HBS students are non-American. Of the 900 students from the last batch, 45 were from India.”

For the students working on the Nalli project, the weekend will be spent at the silk hub of Kanchipuram.

Hopefully, they will also get to grab a bite of a grand Pongal (Tamil Nadu’s harvest festival) feast.


(This article was published on January 11, 2013)
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