Columbia’s 13th Annual India Business Conference

A few weeks ago, Columbia Business School hosted its 13th Annual India Business Conference. Each year, the event serves as a powerful forum that brings together some of the brightest South Asian thought leaders in business, entrepreneurship, politics, and the overall Indian community. With hundreds of attendees, 4 prestigious keynote speakers, and 3 engaging panel discussions, the underlying theme of innovation was hard to miss.

As the largest democracy in the world, India has a lot of upside but is far from perfect. At this conference, there were three main takeaways that alluded to how India is properly positioned to find, resolve, and enhance those imperfections to get the country to a stage we’ve been patiently waiting for.

Zoom Dojo Co-Founder Ritu Banga moderates the panel "The Transformation of Indian Entertainment Industry."
Zoom Dojo Co-Founder Ritu Banga moderates the panel “The Transformation of Indian Entertainment Industry.”

1. Averse to change no more

With outside perspectives that frequently consider India to be “old school” and “conservative”, a fundamentally flawed outlook has been created. “Indians are averse to change” is a blanket statement that has stalled innovation for far too long. With the current median age of 27 years, it’s no surprise then that India is ripe for both disruption and innovation in all sectors. In the first panel of the conference, Rethinking Business Models for an Emerging India, Sandeep Malhotra (SVP, MasterCard), Neeraj Singhal (Former Expansion Head, Uber India), Padmaja Chundhuru (Country Head, State Bank of India), and James Shapiro (Resident Director, Tata Sons) spoke about the changes in financial transactions currently taking place in the country, especially after demonetization.

With a cash-reliant economy, it was interesting to see how both consumers and businesses combined new technology with tried-and-true methods. Uber’s app allowed for cash transactions in suburban areas because it’s what both drivers and passengers wanted. MasterCard helped develop the BharatQR code which allows for cashless/swipeless transactions for small businesses while providing “money-in-account” sooner than traditional debit/credit based systems. Indians like most other populations are only averse to changes that make life more difficult, but by working directly with citizens and consumers, governments and businesses don’t have to fear a lack of adoption.

2. Election principles can apply everywhere

Many have spoken of the Indian general elections as a marvel of modern democracy and a person wholly qualified to receive that as a compliment is Dr. S.Y Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner of India. He provided a lot of interesting facts and anecdotes about the voting and election process. For instance, equal voting rights were given to women on day 1 of independence. Or that in 2014, over 800 million people were eligible to vote with more than 66% registering and voting. This level of engagement had a lot to do with the Voter Education Division that Dr. Quraishi spearheaded. This division spent very little money on frills and focused on getting all eligible voters registered including young adults who just turned 18, the LGBT community, and other crucial-to-connect-with populations. In order to drive the nation forward in other sectors, that same level of inclusion, education, and participation will be required.

3. The key to a successful democracy lies in its people

The biggest takeaway from this conference is that the largest democracy in the world happens to also have the workforce with the most potential. Gaurav Sharma, Head of Growth at Saavn and one of the members of The Rise & Rise of Investments in India panel spoke highly of a dedicated, hungry, creative pool of local talent that’s yearning for more opportunity. With investments coming in from abroad, STEM education as a constant staple, and that golden median age, India has the all the makings to take the global economy by storm and isn’t showing signs of slowing down but quite the opposite.

AIF Board Member Harit Talwar shares his experience in the corporate sector
AIF Board Member Harit Talwar shares his experience in the corporate sector

What does this mean for us at the American India Foundation?

Business innovation often drives innovation elsewhere and social impact in India has plenty of room for it. As long as communities follow Goldman Sachs’ Head of Digital Finance, Harit Talwar’s life advice of always be willing to help but more importantly be open to receiving help, there’s a bright horizon for both the economy and society to thrive. The American India Foundation is beyond grateful to be a part of a community that does just that! 

AIF Volunteers Ronak Gandhi, Neha Jain, Mukundha Sastry, Sunaina Mehra, Vipin Shri, and AIF Staff Joshua Patel and Katja Kurz

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