Making connections: Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business success

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PAWAN LUTHRA’s address at the inaugural Engaging with India conference organised by the AIBC and AFR

The sound cloud in the India-Australia business space is filled with mandatory references to the c words – coal, cricket, commonwealth, curry.
But I’m going to talk about the other export which India is famous for, People.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business
I’d like to talk about you.
Consider, for a moment, your own self – where you came from, where you live now, the kind of work you do, how you define yourself. You’re quite a “mixed up” person really, aren’t you.
I know. Because I am just as “mixed up” as you are.
That is the crux of my presentation today, celebrating our “mixed up” nature and seeing how we can put it to some use.


When I look around this room, I don’t see Indians and Australians, or Indian-Australians, or any other kind of hyphenated Australians.
By virtue of our origin and our work, we are all really “transnationals”. We transcend the national space as our reference point for our activities, and indeed, our identities.
We are connected to several places at once. Our multi-sited lives involve exchanges and interactions across borders. These exchanges may be physical mobility and economic contributions, but could also be ideas, values and practices.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business.Indian Link
The many new modes of communication, rapid transport, and easy-to-access trade-and-information networks, have all but strengthened our connections to two or more places, at any given time.
It’s a wonderfully enriching frame of reference, in which we are contributing (hopefully significantly!) to two or more different ethno-systems.
“Neither here nor there” is a phrase that once typified us as migrants, but not anymore (Hindi speakers may know this as “na ghar ka na ghat ka”). And no one really uses the term “ABCD” anymore, you know, “America-born Confused Desi” or “Australia-born confused desi”, where “desi” is the Indian word for “Indian”.

If anything, the term should now be ABCD, “America/Australia-born connected desi”!

To my mind at least, the idea of such transnationalism is now even overtaking that of multiculturalism.
Only recently, we all became acquainted with a brand new world figure, a Pakistani-born UK-resident, who looks set to be in the news over the next few years. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is the new face of a “mixed up world” – let me now rephrase that as a “transformed” world – that is wonderful in its diversity and is setting a whole new agenda.
Last month, high ranking Australian diplomat Harinder Sidhu officially took up her new position, High Commissioner in New Delhi. She becomes the second Indian-origin person in this office, after Peter Varghese not so long ago. Ms Sidhu counts as her contemporaries, an Indian-origin US Ambassador to India (Richard Verma) and an Indian-origin Canadian High Commissioner Nadir Patel.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business.Indian Link
Their respective governments have, amongst other qualities, leveraged their Indian background to help oil the wheels of international relations. In fact, Nadir Patel has said that he enjoys talking in Gujarati with Prime Minister Modi and he admits that being of Indian background does give him an edge. It seems to make sense.
As I interviewed Harinder Sidhu on Indian Link Radio recently, she agreed. “There is a genuine advantage in coming to this posting with a ready-made understanding of cross-cultural relationships,” she told me.
As transnationals, diasporic communities come not only with such “ready-made understanding” of two cultures, but a host of other strengths that can help nudge along the bilateral equation in multiple ways.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business.Indian Link

Global Indians

The Indian diaspora is the largest in the world. There’s a staggering 30 million of us. We’re spread across 215 countries.
Think of the “dias-power” of it!
Narendra Modi certainly does, and in a very big way.
The astute Prime Minister of India, has played to the strength of the Indian diaspora like none of his predecessors ever has. (Of course he was wooing the diaspora even as Gujarat chief minister, with his ‘Vibrant Gujarat shows’). As PM, he reaches out to them in high-voltage, massive-arena, theatre-style, sold-out events across the world.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business.Indian Link
His message to the “NRIs” as they are called in India, is that they are a “brain gain, not a brain drain”.
He praises them as part of India’s “soft power”, and it is clear that for him, they are a consolidated and viable vote-bank, and as the newspaper The Hindu said, “a redeemable, interest-bearing, asset that is merely parked offshore.”
Back in India, your poster-boy diasporans may well be Satya Nadella, or Russell Peters, or Salman Rushdie. Outside of India, the quintessential Indian is the IT employee, the taxi driver, the cornershop owner aka Apu from The Simpsons, or the multitude of motel operators and petrol pump owners.
Of course, both categories of “Indians” are making their mark in their own way.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business.Indian Link
The Indian community in the US is seen as the most influential of all the diasporic communities.
There are more Indian CEOs than any other nationality after Americans, in the S&P 500 companies, finds a study by Egon Zehnder.
Time magazine once termed CEOs as India’s leading ‘export’, claiming that the subcontinent could well be ‘the ideal training ground for global bosses’.
India-born CEOs include Satya Nadella (Microsoft market cap $404 billion), Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo $154 billion), Sundar Pichai (Google $490 Billion), Anshu Jain (Deutsche Bank $21 billion) are but some of the personalities inspiring a whole generation of MBA and IT students in India.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business.Indian Link
While you have these high-end executive Indians, you also have smaller-scale success stories such as the Patel community which dominates the budget motel market.
There have been successful forays in state and national level politics as well: Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business.Indian Link
Across the globe, there are many other names from the Indian diaspora that have spurred young people in the homeland into new careers.
Indra Nooyi (Women in business)
Amartya Sen (Economic theory)
Vinod Khosla (Entrepreneurship)
Hargobind Khurana (Biochemistry)
Venkataraman Ramakrishnan (Structural biology)
Amar Bose (Electrical engineering and sound engineering)
Kalpana Chawla (Space exploration)
Sunita Williams (Space exploration)
Lakshmi Mittal (Industry)
Zubin Mehta (Classical music)
Anish Kapoor (Contemporary art)
S Chandrashekhar (Astrophysics)
CK Prahlad (Corporate strategy)
Ajit Jain (Insurance)
Mira Nair (Film making)
Pan Nalin (Documentary film making)
In Australia, Indian settlement began in the 1800s.
The first Indians arrived with the British who had been living in India. From the 1860s, Sikhs, ‘Afghans’ and Pacific Islanders were recruited as workers in rural and northern outback Australia. Many ‘Afghans’ actually came from India (as well as Iran, Egypt and Turkey). They were loosely called ‘Afghans’ due to their similar dress because mostly Sikh wear the turban, and they worked as cameleers to operate camel trains throughout outback Australia, as ‘pioneers of the inland’.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business.Indian Link
It was business migration that brought the second lot of Indians over. They travelled the towns selling food and other wares out of carts. In the 1881 Census, 998 people were listed as born in India; ten years later, the number recorded was 1700.

Today there are over 450,000 people of Indian origin living in Australia, and spread across various industries. While there was a wave of medical professionals who migrated here in the 1970s and 80s, there are now Indians in almost every field of endeavour, from corner shop owners to university academics, from IT professionals to lawyers, even film makers and Booker Prize winners.

A special skill set

Now what is it about the migrant experience that propels people to get ahead (mind you, this is the desire for getting ahead which businesses need to tap into for their own growth)
As migrants, we are used to change – perhaps even drawn to it. We are risk takers, which is what brought many of us in this room to Australia, giving up the comfort of our solid support structures. We brought with us, probably not more than a few hundred dollars in cash, but we were armed with tertiary degrees and an deep desire to make it in a new environment. We are flexible, innovative and constantly seeking to reinvent ourselves, and to find new ways in everything we do.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business.Indian Link
This set of personality traits, coupled with corporate success in many instances, can see us become development partners with the home country in significant ways, in areas such as business creation, trade links, investments, remittances, skills circulation, exchange of experiences and even impacts on social and cultural roles of men and women in the home society.

So where to from here?

The Indian diaspora will do well to learn from the two other major Diasporas – the Jewish and the Chinese, in their attempts at engaging with their respective homelands.
The Jewish diaspora is considered the most “classical, archetypal and mobilised diaspora” with a great sense of solidarity that has sustained over the years, and which has exerted much cultural, social, economic and political influence.
The Chinese diaspora is more like the Indian diaspora, much more diverse within itself, the powerful attachment to the home country overriding regional differences. It is also just as widespread as ours, with students making up a large proportion of their numbers too. As the Chinese government flexes its economic muscles, it has sought quite successfully to establish closer economic and cultural ties.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business.Indian Link
China and India have pursued radically different development strategies, with India perhaps paying an economic price for its democracy, but it has been said, “There would have been no Chinese economic miracle without the help of the overseas Chinese.”
In an interesting trend we are seeing in the diasporas of both China and India, STEM (science technology engineering and maths) seems to be the way to go. Both governments have made huge efforts to incentivize a return-to-home by scientists.
In China, the return of scientists, in for example their “Thousand Talent” program  which has the goal of bringing back 2,000 scientists over five to 10 years, has been coupled with an outpouring of investment by both government and private industry. In India, collaborative research projects with universities abroad have flourished – Australia has also participated extensively and in diverse fields.

As transnationals, how can the diaspora help?

While the diaspora can be leveraged for business, their power can also help in other areas:
Influencing governments
We’ve talked of Modi reaching out to the diaspora, but the engagement with the diaspora really began much before. Rajiv Gandhi was the first prime minister to recognise the growing clout of the diaspora. The economic liberalisation of the 1990s opened India like never before. But the credit for utilising the diaspora most effectively might actually sit with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business
Of course I’m talking about the US-India nuclear deal of 2008. After Manmohan Singh and George W Bush first agreed on the deal in 2005, America’s Indian community, one of the most educated and affluent ethnic groups there, lobbied hard for the Congress to pass the bill. Before this, the 1974 Pokhran nuclear tests, the 1998 nuclear tests and the Kargil conflict were other occasions during which diasporan communities – even to a small extent here in Australia – were able to lobby with their governments.
Crisis response
In the economic crisis of the 1990s (at a time when India was facing its worst balance of payments crisis, its foreign reserves were dwindling and it was about to default on its international payment obligations), the Indian diaspora pulled its resources to help the country through bonds such as Resurgent India Bonds.
Importing best practices
Diasporans take best practices of the rest of the world back home. Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose and Vallabh Bhai Patel were also diasporans at one point and returned home armed with the specialised experience that helped India win Independence from British occupation. Former PM Manmohan Singh was at the London School of Economics prior to becoming the Finance Minister of India and opening up the economy. In more modern times, personalities like Sam Pitroda and Sabeer Bhatia contributed greatly. Many business school academics from outside India continue to this day to advise the Indian government on various issues.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business.Indian Link
Bringing in new business
When economic liberalisation in 1991 opened new business opportunities, diaspora members in high tech development began to outsource to India, often at low cost, providing technical and managerial knowledge.

Which specific platforms lend themselves easily to being leveraged by the diaspora?

The diaspora can play a significant role in business development because they know:
*Where the customers are
*How to deal with the local culture
*And in terms they both understand
Tourism, health care, financial and education services can be good platforms.
Health Care: The diaspora has helped establish some of India’s leading hospitals such as Escorts, Apollo, Prasad Eye Care hospitals. Naresh Trehan for example, was a Lucknow lad who moved to New York, worked there for a number of years as a cardiac surgeon, and returned to India in the late ‘80s to launch Escorts Hospitals.
Today, India’s secondary and tertiary health care services not only provide care, but also add to health tourism. With the Australian health care system struggling to keep up with the demands of an aging population, this can be an interesting opportunity.
Science and technology: Israel has leveraged its diaspora to take advantage of highly trained experts and scientists in fields such as information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnogy, Indian-origin scientists from the diaspora can be leveraged to assist in developing India as an R & D centre. As High Commisioner Suri said this morning, after US and UK, India has the largest number of start-ups in the world.
Over the past few years, the Indian community in Australia have begun to make the mark in the sciences.
University departments such as in Material Sciences and Nanotechnology have strong representation from our community, Dr Veena Sahajwalla from UNSW having become the poster girl for women in STEM in this country.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business
Indian Link newspaper has recently been carrying a spate of articles reporting scientific advances made by Indian-origin scientists in cancer research, app development, dairy, crops, pest control, wildlife conservation and the like.
Education: An interesting example of how a world class education institution was set up leveraging the Indian diaspora, is the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.
ISB was started in 1996 by a group of businessmen and academics. Co-founders Rajat Gupta and Anil Kumar (both McKinsey & Company senior executives) in collaboration with international business schools Wharton and Kellogg. Today it ranks 33rd in the world in the 2015 Financial Times Global MBA Rankings.
The diaspora was used to facilitate academic exchanges, collaboration and twinning arrangements between Indian and foreign institutions.
There are other basic ways in which diaspora can help in facilitating business in their home country:
Remittances: This is an early cross-national economic activity that migrants indulge in. The remittances from the Indian diaspora are estimated at $70 billion, the highest in the world. Remittances are such a huge industry that we have large-scale companies vying for the business – such as MoneyGram. (And creating, in the process, other interesting forms of cross-national references such as putting Bollywood badshah Shah Rukh Khan on the backs of Sydney buses!) These remittances help boost business opportunities for the recipients in India.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business.Indian Link
Tourism, especially heritage tourism: Tourism is the 4th largest industry in the world. When diaspora “return” home, connections are built and sustained. Tourists from the diaspora are more likely than other international travellers to have or make connections with the local economy.
Diasporans also help bring in tourism. Plenty of us take our friends back home for weddings or just showing them around. I’ve acted as tourist guide myself many times and have also devised elaborate itineraries for my Aussie friends. We also help non-Indians understand Indian culture in a positive way, often in our own homes and private spaces.
Leveraging the Indian diaspora for business
While the big players will involve themselves with major industry, the service sector in India is poised for strong growth which will have further opportunities with the follow through of CECA.
The community is growing and businesses can leverage into their expertise to build into increasing business not only with India BUT also with other Indian small and medium sized businesses around the world. In a tiny example, but one which is significant in the business community, the collective action in connecting the diaspora across lands, can be seen in our own ventures such as TiE, and the fledgling GAPIO (the Global Association for Physicians of Indian Origin).
Diaspora populations can play a unique and important role in opening markets and as business development partners, fostering change in society.
Let’s not forget that it was the return home of one diaspora personality that created an independent business environment in India. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi did leverage his knowledge from overseas to get India its independence.
Fast forward 69 odd years, here we are discussing how to leverage the Indian diaspora for business success!

Pawan Luthra
Pawan Luthra
Pawan is the publisher of Indian Link and is one of Indian Link's founders. He writes the Editorial section.

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