Lost and found in India

Lost and found in India

AIPM Director Knowledge, Dr Victoria Herrington

I was last in Mumbai 16 years ago. Then a weary, penniless, backpacker at the end of a two- and half-year stint wandering the globe: like most twenty-somethings getting lost and enjoying the process of finding myself. This time I was in Mumbai with 70 of my favourite people – EMBA S18 – for module three.  We were here to explore the Global Rules of the Game. That is, how firms – domestic and international – can operate effectively in emerging markets. Though I suspect I am not the only one who found a lot more than that.

On the face of it, the difference between my two Indian experiences could not be more stark. Rather than criss-crossing the country on public transport, haggling for hotel rooms in the backpacker parts of town, and spending days walking the streets observing life in all its gruesome glory, I was staying in the impressive St Regis Hotel. A luxurious bubble where every room was staffed by an enthusiastic butler; mornings were started with a refreshing dip in the pool; evenings whiled away being pleasantly pummelled in the onsite spa.

The air conditioning may have provided welcome respite from the heat and pollution of the city (now one the most polluted cities in the world), but it could not insulate us completely from the complexities of operating in India. And whether we liked it or not, exploring the realities of doing business in India, and other emerging markets, meant that we were going to get (intellectually) dirty.

Emerging markets are by designation ill-defined. There are few written rules, and those that do exist are inevitably loosely adhered to amidst a swathe of competing unwritten rules. Companies must balance both their market and their non-market strategies, and engage in a delicate dance of priorities, opportunities, and the management of threats. Key to this is having a clear understanding of the country in which one is operating and how one’s corporate activities contribute – intentionally and unintentionally – to the lives of the people there.

This got me thinking about organisational values, and the realisation that part of this dance asks international firms to reflect on how tightly they hold their values in places like India. In markets where the rules are still being written, where social norms differ from other places in the world, and where there are institutional voids and governance vagaries, there are certainly opportunities for firms to profit in new and unexpected ways if one is flexible enough to do business differently.

Take for example the partnership between Starbucks and Tata in India; a model that Starbucks eschews in other parts of the world yet has recognised as key to success in India. Less positive perhaps is the example of Coca-Cola and their dubious marketing campaign in India involving gendered tag lines on Coke cans like these ones in the photos.

For me it seems perfectly clear that negative attitudes towards women are promoted (or exploited) in the seemingly harmless jibe about one’s wife being one’s strife. That this sentiment is presented on such a well-known brand of soft drink contributes to the normalisation of such negative attitudes. And we know that such normalisation of negativity towards women drives the pandemic proportions of domestic violence we see across the world. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that 137 women are murdered each day by their partners around the world; that this accounts for approximately 58% of all murders of women and girls; and that of the 50,000 of such murders last year, 20,000 occurred in Asia[i]. The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women reports that the lifetime prevalence of physical or sexual assault against women in India at 29%[ii], itself almost certainly a underestimate given the low importance with which such offences are typically treated by the authorities[iii], which is of course another outcome of negative attitudes towards women, especially those who are victims of domestic or sexual abuse.

As our class discussed international-firm forays into emerging markets, I could not help wondering how Coca-Cola reconciled its marketing approach in India with a professed commitment to gender equality internationally. Perhaps they do not realise the on-flow ramifications of the way they choose to sell their product, I thought? Or perhaps gender equality is only an organisational value worth holding on to in operating environments where women’s voices are heard, and public opinion sanctions misogyny? Out of curiosity I wrote to Coke’s Board of Directors in Atlanta, the consumer helpline at Coke India, and the General Manager of Public Affairs and Communications at Coca-Cola India and South West Asia to find out. I am yet to receive a response. Which is something that surprises me given the salience of gender equality in the US; and spurs me to put my Module-Three learning into practice to find ways to influence the non-market system instead. Experiential learning at its best. And in the interim I will choose to drink Pepsi.

My reflection on organisational values also led me to start thinking about my own values, and which of these I should choose to hold on to and which are ripe for review. Perhaps it is natural that the third module brings to the fore some deep soul searching. The politeness of the first module is behind us; the explosion of hard work between modules two and three has set the bar in terms of required commitment; and we find ourselves face to face with the realities of continuing our personal and professional development. The jet lag; the tug-of-war between family, work, and study; working effectively with difference in our study groups. I, like many, decided to undertake the EMBA because I was acutely aware that what had gotten me to here, would not be sufficient to get me to there. (I still do not necessarily have a sense of where there is, but I recognise that it is somewhere different from here.) The module in India has challenged me to see my contribution to the world in new and unfolding ways. What I choose to say, and not say. Where I choose to focus my attention and effort. What behaviour I choose to walk past, and as such what standards, behaviour, and values, I choose to accept.

What does all this mean for me in practice? To be honest I am not entirely sure yet. Except to say that the opportunity provided through the EMBA is so much more than learning about organisational change, leadership, analytics, or emerging markets. If we take it, there are myriad opportunities to learn about ourselves, and our contributions to the world. So it is with an uncanny resemblance to my first visit 16 years ago, that I find myself in India once again getting lost, and enjoying the process of finding myself.

[i] United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (2018) Global study on homicide: gender related killing of women and girls. Available at https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/GSH2018/GSH18_Gender-related_killing_of_women_and_girls.pdf

[ii] Global database on violence against women. Available at http://evaw-global-database.unwomen.org/en/countries/asia/india

[iii] Toor, S. (2018) How to stop violence against women in India – it starts with training police officers. The Conversation. Available at https://theconversation.com/how-to-stop-violence-against-women-in-india-it-starts-with-training-police-officers-90251

First pubished at the University of Oxford, Saïd Business School: http://bit.ly/2F8vxgp

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