Sunday, October 07, 2007

New India - Yet Again

I just finished my fourth trip to India in as many months, and now have this huge challenge on my plate - that of running a full-scale business in India.

Mythologies and emotions aside, this is surely a very daunting task. As I keep mentioning to my colleagues, paraphasing an observation about China - from outside, all one sees is the huge multiplier effect, x times the population, y times the size of middle class, number of people in the age group 18 - 30 larger than the whole population of Western Europe; but once you are in, it is actually a game of endless divisions - languages, states, religions, so on and so forth.

The popular British colonial view of India was summed up by Winston Churchill, when he observed that India is no more a country than the Equator. While this reflects more Edwardian delusion than historical reality, the diversity of India is undeniable, and plain to see even for Indians.

The key in operating in India, however, is in ability to see and operate with, to quote another, kinder, colonial observer - the historian Vincent Smith - 'The Unity in Diversity'. In business strategy terms, this will mean working with not just the large numbers, but the quality and variety of the populace.

Kind of obvious, but not so, as I have discovered in my last few years in Britain. For most observers outside, India is a fuzzy, metaphysical lump, 'like, to a blind man, piono playing appears to be movement of fingers and no music'. That comment was made by Rabindranath Tagore, India's leading poet, about a hundred years back, but things have changed very little.

In fact, the understanding of India has improved little, despite this corporate rush of doing the 'India thing'. The new, English-speaking, yuppie India has emerged, almost in line with the mystical but monolithic western perception, and has become the 'global' face of India. Predictably, a beevy of businesses have gone into India armed with strategies designed for this 'New Indian', with a near-complete ignorance of the village connections, parental ties, religious constraints, deep-seated fears and mildness of ambition that is so uniquely Indian.

The trouble is that when you exclude 'Indian pecularities', you exclude Indians, millions of them. This makes business plans unviable - strategies don't work anymore.

Interestingly, this is what our business is all about - teaching English to Indians, making them more homogeneous, accessible to global businesses.

But I am already having other ideas. It appears to me that our business will be about letting Indians discover the world in their own terms, letting the diversity out. English is an wonderful instrument, not just of homogenization, but of ability and freedom, and our strategy will be to 'unlock the ability' hidden in every Indian. This is difficult, but this is what will differentiate us. So, that's my journey and it starts here.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Business in India - Finally Launched

The English training business in India finally got launched - on the 28th September in Hyderabad. An interesting point in life for me - this took me three years of effort to get there. This meant bringing together people I have worked with for a while to make this project happen, and some of the new people I came across. For this launch, everyone came together - a happy occasion.

The idea was to create a multi-purpose learning centre with a core offer of English language training. The problem of English language training indeed is that it is difficult to build a medium to long term offering, which means that one needs new students to sign up every month or so to keep going. This is the other end of the scale of the education business, where you need students in annual cycles perhaps.

In India, a price-sensitive and highly competitive market for English Language training, it will be a challenge to establish a premium training centre. The business model will be a matter of negotiation and exploration, and long term commitment would be needed to get the business going.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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