India is, for some, the new Silicon Valley. When a group of MBA students at Cambridge Judge Business School was offered the opportunity to learn first hand about innovation, they chose to study emerging markets in India rather than the more familiar high-tech industries of California.
The 17-strong group had to plan and fund the trip themselves. "That was part of the deal," says Dr Shailendra Vyakarnam, director of the school's Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning. "Organising it was a useful entrepreneurial experience, and they invested a huge amount of energy in the project."
Vyakarnam provided the underpinning of academic learning which made the trip more than just an interesting week away. "I wanted them to understand entrepreneurship in a different environment, get a feel for the pace, and observe high growth in a marketplace where there's constantly something new and different."
Ankur Bisen, who worked for the Tata Group in India for 10 years, led the trip with fellow MBA student Stephanie Leung, identifying and contacting business leaders in small and medium-sized enterprises which had innovative business models. "We wanted to meet the founders of these organisations," says Bisen, "and targeted companies which had started in different decades over 40 years in a range of sectors including hospitality, media, banking, outsourcing and retail."
The students researched in pairs a founder chief executive and their company, then presented their findings to the class and to Anil Verma from the High Commission of India, London. "Mr Verma contributed comments and analysis, and pushed us to ask even more relevant questions when we met the founders. Doing our research before arriving in India gave us a head start in understanding their viewpoint," says Bisen.
Leung describes the experience of India as overwhelming. "You're hit by the sheer volume of people in India – a society of 1.1 billion people trying to function. We observed that the founder CEOs not only see the individual opportunities for growth in a fast-changing and heavily populated society, but also have a unique ability to see the big picture."
The students agree that the most important lesson of the trip was discovering that the textbook way of doing things doesn't always apply to real life – particularly in a developing marketplace. Moyosola Okoye, formerly Procter & Gamble's head of marketing for Southern and Eastern Africa, found contradictions in the two approaches.
"In the classroom, we were taught an exit strategy was essential when writing a business plan. In India, there isn't necessarily a plan at all, and the norm is to keep your business in the family, passing it on to the next generation. We were also taught that planned growth should be a key part of strategy, but many Indians are content to create employment for themselves and their family, without moving up to the next stage of expansion. Business school showed us the advanced way of doing things, India showed us a practical and low-tech approach."
Why were the chief executives prepared to spend up to three hours with a group of students from the UK? William Bissell, managing director and son of the founder of Fabindia, a home furnishing and fashion retailer, says he enjoys meeting students. "I find their questions stimulating, and feel we have a responsibility to show them an alternative way of doing things.
"Fabindia was established 50 years ago to sell products made by rural craftsman using traditional techniques. We have developed a business model of inclusive capitalism through community-owned companies where the producers own a minimum of 26 per cent of the company's shares."
Patu Keswani, founder and chairman of Lemon Tree Hotels, was keen to talk to the students about opportunities for entrepren-eurs in India. "Often it is the culture which enables entrepreneurship. Our economy has become an enabling environment and is conducive to creating new businesses. By visiting our country, students get the sights, smells and sounds of how India does business – it's a sensual experience."
Keswani identified a classic gap in the market – middle-priced hotels with high standards of service and comfort. Basing his business on asking what customers wanted, he has established a leading hotel chain catering for business and holiday clients.
The research which the Judge students put in ahead of their trip paid dividends. At Fabindia, Leung asked Bissell detailed questions about the challenges of running a family-based business, and explored with the founder of Lemon Tree Hotels how his company grew so quickly and successfully, ahead of competitors.
"The hotel group is slick and corporate, Fabindia is strong on ethics, and the two entrepreneurs contrasted strongly in their visions of growth, market and what they wanted for their company in the long term," she says. "Though so different, they are both visionaries who are respected as leading entrepreneurs in India, and their organisations reflect their own personalities and values."
Bissell has a message for business students from the West who are choosing India, China and other emerging markets as a real-life study option. "India is flavour of the month, and ticks the current business boxes, but some students aren't coming to see what we're really good at, which is innovating at low cost. Frugal innovation should be the focus of their visits. To get the most out of their trip, students should study a particular company beforehand, as the Judge group did, and start to understand the issues."
Bisen claims the tour was the most rewarding experience of the Judge MBA programme. "We were given a unique insight into nine successful and innovative companies, and made invaluable contacts. Some of our students were from emerging economies and will take back what they learnt to apply it in practical situations."
For Vyakarnam, such tours can expand career options. "Visiting students see the many issues that need solving, and high-calibre informed MBA graduates can contribute a huge amount to the future of these emerging markets."
'Our visit fired me up to try out new ideas'
Angharad Parry, a London-based barrister working in commercial arbitration, has long been interested in business.
"I decided to do an MBA at Cambridge Judge Business School to understand my clients' interests and to expand my own law practice as a successful business," she says.
Many of her clients are based in the Middle East and the Far East, so she jumped at the chance to be part of the student group from Judge which travelled to India.
"The goodwill among our hosts was fantastic. My CV mentioned I was a lawyer, and when we visited The Sona Group the head of the legal department was brought in specifically to talk to me."
At a meeting with Dr Prannoy Roy, chairman of NDTV, Parry was impressed by his innovative approach. "He explained the linguistic class divisions which favour news media in English for middle-class viewers to bring in higher advertising revenue. Dr Roy is developing news channels in local languages which will reshape the media landscape in India.
"Our visit fired me up to try out new ideas."