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Volume XXIX Number 2
Spring 2007

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Students in India
Kelley School of Business students in India
Photo by George Vlahakis

Indiana to India

by Jennifer Piurek

In 1987, when I traveled to India for the first time, I stepped off the plane in Bombay into a morning full of pungent smells--stale sweat, sandalwood, incense. During a bus ride to the Ganeshpuri ashram outside Bombay (now Mumbai), the driver barreled down the narrow dirt paths at top speed, veering off at the last second only when other drivers refused to slow down. While my parents dozed in the seats next to me, I stared out the window at cows wandering the streets and women carrying jugs of water on their heads, tending fires beside their crude makeshift homes.

I've been back to India twice since that visit, and never during my trips did I imagine that India and its culture would one day enter the economic mainstream. But over the last two decades, technology has dissolved the lines between here and there, making the India of today one of the most powerful emerging markets in the world.

In October 2006, a group of 60 Indiana University Bloomington sophomores learned firsthand about the changing India on a weeklong trip to the country. Led by 10 IU faculty and staff members, the sophomores, all students at IU's Kelley School of Business in Bloomington, were immersed in the complexities of globalization as part of an IU class on emerging economies.

"The whole world predicts that India and China are emerging giants," says Munirpallam "Venkat" Venkataramanan, one of the trip's faculty leaders. Venkat is a native of Chennai (formerly Madras), India, and chair of undergraduate programs at the Kelley School in Bloomington. He is also Lawrence D. Glaubinger Professor of business administration. "Our students need this knowledge and exposure to get an idea of what (an emerging economy) is really like," Venkat says. "It is one thing to read in the paper about these 'emerging economies,' and another thing to sit in traffic for a couple of hours while the infrastructure is actually being built, to see the poverty and richness side by side."

During the trip, the IU group met Indian economists and visited an auto plant, a TV manufacturing facility, and a call center, among other sites. They also met with 10 Kelley School graduates who moved back home to India after receiving their degrees. All 10 are currently running their own companies. India's growing importance within the global economy has changed what the country's new generation believes is possible, says Venkat.

"Growing up, we never thought we could start a company," he says. "Everyone thought they should work for somebody, preferably a multinational. In that way, the multinationals have helped, because they created a middle class that demands other services. The biggest sector in the Indian economy is the service sector right now."

Indians are even demanding Starbucks coffee. Starbucks will open its first stores in India in 2007. "You might say this is wrong," Venkat notes, "but if people are willing to pay and work harder for it, then from a business point of view, people are going to say this is fine. And that's the same thing with the retail sector. India is going to look for a way to modernize and provide the services we provide in the United States because that's what people are demanding."

After the recent trip to India, Venkat ran some debriefing sessions to see what the students learned from the experience. The reality of India--seeing a functioning democracy or successful company juxtaposed with beggars on the street--was eye-opening for them. "When we went to the Taj Mahal, the students were shocked at how many vendors spent two hours following them around, trying to sell postcards for only five cents. It put things in perspective," Venkat says.

When they enter Kelley's core business classes as juniors, the students will be able share their real-life experiences with classmates. "These students are going to bring in the uniqueness of personal experience, rather than 'Well, I read it on the Web' or 'I read it in Business Week,'" Venkat says. "They'll think, 'I was there, and I know.'"

Jennifer Piurek is a Web content specialist at IU's Office of Creative Services and a freelance writer in Bloomington.