August 24, 2017 by
Photography by Anthony Flott

Take a bus ride through the traffic-jammed, people-packed, animal-filled, and trash-cluttered streets of Delhi, and it won’t take long to realize that the way business is done in India is not exactly how it happens in Omaha.

Or anywhere else in the United States, for that matter.

That is one of the many lessons a group of University of Nebraska-Omaha students learned during a trip there in March. Day after day they witnessed vignettes of Indians at work that they never see back home:

  • A street vendor in a blood-stained shirt snatching live chickens from a cage, then butchering them for workers purchasing meat for dinner on their way home.
  • A work elephant lumbering along the shoulder of a busy road, laden with bamboo logs.
  • Men in fields making bricks by hand in small kilns.
  • Families salvaging wood, metal, and other materials from half-built, but long-abandoned, buildings.
  • This was no party-filled spring break on the beach. Rather, it was an exclusive opportunity to study the world’s fastest-growing economy of 1.3 billion people—two-thirds of them 35 and younger.

According to the World Bank, India’s GDP in 2015 was $2.1 trillion, an eightfold increase since 1991, when it loosened its economic policies, spurring private and foreign investment. Such growth helped drop the percentage of Indians living below the national poverty line from a mind-blowing 45 percent in 1993 to a (still staggering) 22 percent in 2011. In the United States, that number was 15.9 percent in 2011.

India right now is a major player in the world economy—and its financial clout is likely to increase.

It is critical, then, that U.S. companies understand the who, what, where, when, why, and how of business in India. That was the goal of the UNO students who traveled there as a capstone to their class, “Business & Social Action in India.” UNO Professor Patrick McNamara taught the class and led the trip, his 12th to that country since 1991. His class was a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, most from UNO’s College of Business Administration. A handful are employed at Omaha companies, including Lozier, Hudl, First National Bank of Omaha, and Northwest Bank, that stand to gain from what those students learned.

“While the time was limited, this did provide some important insights into the business culture, the complexities, and the opportunities of India,” McNamara says. “India is overwhelming—sensory overload, tensions, and kindness at every turn. To effectively do business in India, you have to be open to these paradoxes and not intimidated to dive in and fully immerse yourself in the culture. The Indians will trust you more if you do.”

Prior to the trip students studied Indian politics, society, culture, and U.S.-India relations. The real learning, though, came almost immediately after landing at Indira Gandhi International Airport and arriving at their host site, the campus of the Institute of Management Technology (IMT) in Ghaziabad, one of India’s top business schools.

That began a whirlwind of lectures and Q&As with some of the country’s brightest business minds. IMT faculty led the way, providing insights into Indian consumers, social values, human resources management systems, and “Making Sense of the Indian Workplace.”

Next came Siva Nagarajan, managing director for Mother Dairy Fruit & Vegetables, an India Fortune 500 company. Among the company’s innovations is providing milk dispensers at stores to which customers bring their own containers and fill only with what they need. The practice saves 4 tons of packaging materials each day.

Nagarajan also gave a detailed overview of India’s corporate social responsibility government mandate requiring companies to spend 2 percent of their net profit on social development.

“Philanthropy is becoming the flavor of the day,” says Nagarajan, whose talk spurred much conversation within the UNO contingent.

UNO MBA student Andy Max, an asset/liability market risk manager at First National Bank of Omaha, says the mandate pushes companies to build on the foundation of India.

“I found it refreshing to see the pride they have for the sustainability of their country and how willing they are to invest in the future of India,” Max says.

The group also visited the home of B. K. Goswami, chairman of the Gupta Charitable Foundation and uncle to Vin Gupta, founder and former CEO of Omaha-based Infogroup. Later, at the U.S. Embassy’s American Center, First Secretary Matthew Asada provided insights into India’s demonetization of the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, a possible first step toward a cashless society. India is attempting to demonetize 85 percent of their currency and use a combination of two systems, one that uses a biometric database to show proof of identity and “India Stack,” a secure, digitized system that allows Indians to store and share personal data, including money.

Visits also were made to the corporate offices of Businessworld Magazine and Betaout, an analytics startup that provides e-commerce help for companies. Betaout founder and CEO Ankit Maheshwari spoke to the students inside a glass-walled meeting room. On the other side, most of the company’s nearly 80 workers typed away on laptops or held discussions in small pods throughout the cubicle-free office. Their average salary—$1,500 to $2,000 a month—is nothing near what similar IT workers would get in the U.S. ($5,000-$8,000), but at least they are working—given its “youth bulge,” India needs to create 1 million new jobs each month.

No matter where the UNO contingent went, hospitality was the order of the day with offers of tea, water, cookies, potato chips, donuts, and freshly made samosas.

“The business meetings we experienced in India have a social-heavy aspect to them relative to the U.S.,” Max says. “Not only [in] the conversation but also the refreshments. Food and drink appeared in every business setting, and our hosts insisted we fill our plates.”

UNO students also toured one of five orphanages run by Salaam Baalak Trust to help the nearly 400,000 children who live on Delhi streets.

Other business lessons came throughout the journey. Like how to haggle for anything and everything: a group lunch at a buffet restaurant; taxi fare; souvenirs; or help with bags at the airport. While walking, Max also learned that if you are a street vendor, watch out for monkeys—having watched one swipe two juice boxes from a vendor, then run up a tree and guzzle them.

The monkey was just one of many reminders that India ain’t home. Much of Delhi has a post-apocalyptic motif worthy of a Terminator film—throughout the city is building after building partially constructed but since abandoned; rusted rebar protrudes from the top of the last-completed concrete floor. The roads are a chiropractor’s dream, and traffic signals and rules are seemingly nonexistent. Rubbish-filled rivers reek. Several times the group passed what at first was mistaken for a mountain—the world’s largest landfill. Roaming freely are lots of cattle and stray dogs, with more than a few rats.

There is also lots of optimism.

You could see that in the smiles and spirit of IMT students, who frequently engaged their UNO counterparts in lengthy conversations on far-ranging topics, including banking, government corruption, open markets, Pakistan, pop culture, and—perhaps their favorite topic—
President Trump.

Delhi might not always be pretty, but business is getting done there and throughout India.

“I can’t wait to see how the fastest-growing global economy will impact the world over the next 10 years with their substantial talent pool,” Max says.

Tips for Doing Business in India

Conducting business in India? Keep these tips in mind:

  • Do give a handshake and a small bow when meeting someone.
  • Do learn the eating etiquette of your destination in India. Don’t be surprised that many Indians eat with their hands in urban and rural settings. Also, don’t hesitate to request a spoon and fork when dining (if you are uncomfortable eating with your fingers).
  • Don’t wear clothing that is
    too tight (women).
  • Don’t give hugs or kisses.
  • Do present a business card by holding it with both hands.
  • Do consider downloading WhatsApp, a smartphone messaging app used by more than 65 million Indians, including most businessmen (the country topped 1 billion cell phone users in 2016).

This article published in the Fall 2017 edition of B2B.