Mumbai Immersion

From September 14–17, 75 MBA@UNC students traveled to Mumbai, India, for an immersion focused on Indian business culture and strategy.

In the opening session, Dr. Sridhar Balasubramanian told students, “Today, if you don’t know India, you don’t know the world.” Because India has the second largest economy in the world and a population of 1.3 billion, “it is imperative for any company, globally or even in the United States, to have an ‘India strategy.’”

Led by alumni, local business leaders and faculty members, sessions focused on the Indian economy, innovation and family business.

Day 1: Shifts in India’s Economy and Culture

For the first session, Deepika Warrier, vice president, Nutrition Category of PepsiCo India, explored the challenges of localizing a global brand for Indian consumers by sharing examples of Pepsi’s evolving brand strategy.

Scaling business in India is key, as “there are low margins, and consumers are willing to down trade on quality for price,” Warrier said. Ninety percent of PepsiCo India’s business is at “mom and pop stores,” according to Warrier, and their products are sold in three million outlets.

In addition to finding the “magic price point,” global brands must “adapt to meet consumers’ needs,” Warrier said. “The cultural context changes over the years, and you have to cycle through how you are relevant. In the nineties it was all about being part of the magic and people’s adventures. Today, it’s about nationalization and localization, making an impact.”

PepsiCo India’s strategies include using “Hinglish”—a combination of Hindi and English—to make a well-known marketing slogan that appealed to Indian youth in the 1990s, “Yeh Dil Maange More!” or “This Heart Desires More,” and adapting their product portfolio, like Kurkure, a version of Cheetos made of rice with spices.

“With India, you have to tell a story,” Warrier said, and to tell a compelling story for their target audience, companies must invest in understanding Indian culture and consumers.

Following Warrier’s session, UNC Kenan Flagler alumnus Ajit Dayal from Quantum Advisors and Senior Economist and Group Vice President Vivek Kumar of YES Bank Limited, Mumbai, led sessions on India’s economic growth and development.

For Dayal, getting his MBA at UNC was a pivotal moment, as he changed his mind about returning to India. “I realized I should equip myself with skills to come back to India and help my country,” he said in an interview.

Dayal’s advice for students is to “think of the poorest of the poor” and their own communities as they make decisions in their careers, particularly as UNC graduates develop more influence in their professions.

Day 2: Resilient Entrepreneurs and Frugal Innovation

Balasubramanian kicked off the second day of the immersion by asking students to reflect on a quote from marketing guru C. K. Prahalad: “If we stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden and start recognizing them as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers, a whole new world of opportunity will open up.”

Exploring global marketing strategies for developing countries, Balasubramanian leveraged examples of frugal innovation in India. From the $30 prosthetic Jaipur Foot that revolutionized accessible rehabilitation for Indians with amputations, to the doctors who perform a record 50–60 eye surgeries each day at the Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai South India, students learned about resourceful, breakthrough innovations throughout India.

Next, Balasubramanian had students analyze the leading Indian conglomerate Tata Group’s greatest failure with innovating in the auto industry. With a goal of making the first Rs. 100,000 (or $2,000) car, the Tata design team targeted rural and poorer consumers to transition from squeezing their families on two-wheelers to safely driving their families in an affordable car. After setting up production capacity for 400,000 vehicles, however, Tata sold only 260 Nanos in July, highlighting their continued lack of success with the model.

Tata’s mistake was in marketing the Nano and not striking a careful balance with value and price, Balasubramanian said. “Even when you’re targeting an audience who’s very concerned about price, you have to be very careful about how you position the value proposition.”

Because Tata Group is India’s largest conglomerate, students have learned a lot about the company through the MBA@UNC program, student and anesthesiologist Mike Norton from Lewisville, N.C., said. As a result, this was a valuable chance to learn about one of their costly failures. Norton noted, “With all we’ve learned about the successes in the Tata Group, it’s useful to see their failure and to see that even the ones that so often do it right sometimes get it wrong.”

In the afternoon, students continued learning about frugal innovation in India in a surprising place: the world’s third largest slum, Dharavi. With more than one million people packed into less than a square mile of government-owned land, Dharavi houses 20,000 mini factories that produce $1 billion of annual economic output with textiles, jewelry, recycling and baked goods.

On a four-hour trip with Authentica Tours company, students walked through the narrow alleyways of the Dharavi community, peeking into a variety of one-room factories and interacting with workers and residents.

The experience wasn’t what students had expected. “I thought there would be a lot of people living in poverty or with uncomfortable living situations,” said Jack Jesset, a student who works in operations in Nashua, N.H. “But being there, you can see the self-sustaining systems they’ve created.”

Students said taking a half day to explore part of the city was important from a cultural and business perspective.

“I work in manufacturing, and you talk about doing more with less and innovating at zero cost,” said Sean Canny, a student from Greenville, S.C.

In Dharavi, workers and entrepreneurs innovate with machinery and methods with “no training, because of the necessity” with “nothing going to waste,” Canny said. Workers use “everything—every piece of trash, every square inch of space.”

Juxtaposing the innovation and resourcefulness of workers, students witnessed concerning sanitation, environmental, and health impacts for residents, making the tour a sobering and edifying experience.

“We easily could have done the Mumbai immersion without Dharavi, but then you would have lost out on the opportunity to see how billions of people live,” Balasubramanian said at the end of the tour. “Gritty and hard as it was, I hope this was a powerful learning experience for you.”

Day 3: Family Businesses and Conglomerates

The final day of the immersion focused on family businesses, a key facet of Indian business since 85 percent of all Indian companies are family-run, as compared to 60 percent of American companies.

Professor Ashraf Jaffer led the morning session on family businesses, discussing cultural and historical context for the high number of family-run companies, as well as drawing on stories of her own family’s leather purse business. “Think of family businesses as an extension of your culture,” Jaffer said.

“The way they relate to customers and the way they relate to suppliers are different than if they were a standard corporation,” she continued. “So, if you want to come to India and work with Indians, you are probably going to do business with families, and it’s important to understand them.”

Following Jaffer’s session, Kenan-Flagler alumnus George Alexander spoke to students about his family business, The Muthoot Group. Alexander serves as the executive director of Muthoot Finance and leads the Southern India operations for their gold lending business. As one of six fourth-generation family members in the business, he provided personal examples of family business practices and challenges that students learned about in Jaffer’s morning session.

Reflecting on his career, Alexander told the current MBA@UNC students, “I don’t think I would have gotten so far in my life without the MBA I earned from UNC.” He said that through the program he was exposed to other cultures, new topics and important coursework, like the Family Business course.

“It exposed me to a lot of entrepreneurs and people who are in family businesses in the United States,” as well as “family business practices, which we’ve put back into our family business constitution.”

As most students concluded the three-day immersion, 25 students prepared for the extension, visiting diverse businesses in Mumbai and Delhi for the next five days. Jaffer led the extension for students and said that the goal for the company visits is to explore “the nuances of family business, scale, life cycle and conglomerates. We try to make clear connections to students’ work and key industries.”

Whether students returned home or continued with the extension, the immersion experience is “intensive, for the academic side but also the social side,” Jaffer said. “You build a community that goes beyond classes and cohorts, and it’s a mix of generations of students in the program.”

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