Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Conscious capitalism, Indian entrepreneurs and an awesome well-known Indian blogger

For a long time now,  I have been following the blog, Youthcurry, of a famous Indian blogger and author, Rashmi Bansal.

This is a blog about youth affairs, trends, education and careers. Opting out of the science-stream-engineering-medicine rat race of the Indian educational system at a young age, she majored in economics instead and went on to graduate from the prestigious Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad, also known as IIM A, one of India's top business schools.

Again, instead of merely continuing to climb the corporate ladder and drawing a hefty pay check, she went on to launch her own magazine - JAM (Just Another Magazine), a youth magazine.

Besides maintaining a popular blog, she has also authored three books on Indian entrepreneurs. Some of them are social entrepreneurs who have launched ventures that benefit the poor or further the cause of education.

Now, she has a new book coming out on Dharavi, nicknamed Asia's largest slum, located in Mumbai, India, titled - Poor Little Rich Slum. There is a great article on Dharavi in the National Geographic magazine here.

Ever watched the movie - Slumdog Millionaire? Well, coming from Mumbai, I know that slums are not just about poor, helpless people. Dharavi residents work and run businesses and their children go to school just like other people living in comfortable, legitimate apartments and houses.
The poor there aspire to a better life, too, and, in fact, Dharavi is known for some of its economic activities. For example, while I was still living in Mumbai, I knew that Dharavi had a famous road side leather goods market where one could buy leather jackets and the like before embarking on a trip to colder climes in America or Europe.

It would be interesting to read this book.

Entrepreneurship in India was lesser known in the past, confined to only the sons (and occasionally daughters) of families who were traditionally into business. There was even a stereotype that only Indians belonging to certain ethnic groups, such as the people who were natives of Gujarat (Gujaratis) or Rajasthan (Marwaris, one particular sub group from the state) had a knack for it.
Now, Indians are gradually waking up to the fact that one can do one's own thing and be successful and, better still, create jobs for other people and even make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate.

Meanwhile, I checked out the websites of some of her other books and it has been absolutely fascinating and inspiring. I lost myself in the stories of the people featured in her books and received a jolt of enthusiasm from it. Do check them out here:

Stay Hungry Stay Foolish

Connect the Dots

I Have a Dream

I popped in on a site called Goodreads to check out the page on her third book and was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of new books featured on the side bar, both fiction and non-fiction, penned by budding Indian authors.

This is another thing I admire about America and was struck by, during my initial years here. I was fascinated by the number of books that were being written by all sorts of people from journalists to professors and even politicians and how they promoted their books on various news channels such as Fox News, CNN, etc.
And, of course, American entrepreneurship. In my previous post, I had talked about the things that I was struck by when I came to the US. This is a key point.
In America, as a general observation, individuals do not wait for the government or some external entity to make changes in their lives. They start their own ventures, get organized as a community and take action.

When I lived in India, there was a columnist I followed very avidly in the Times of India, the economist, Swaminathan S Ankalesaria Aiyar. Having no educational background in economics except for a basic, introductory course in just one semester during my degree program, I learnt about terms such as 'trickle down effect', 'free market economy' and 'protectionism'.

India only started liberalizing its economy and allowing foreign direct investment in the early 1990s so we were a little late to the game. Foreign goods were looked upon as a luxury and were sometimes smuggled into the country. All this encouraged corruption.
Of course, there were big corporations that are British or perhaps a combination of British and Indian in origin that have been around since the days of British rule, for example, Britannia, Cadbury (now acquired by Kraft Foods) and Hindustan Lever (the Indian arm of Unilever).  The American giant, Johnson and Johnsonopened shop in India after independence in 1957. However, it was extremely difficult for newer companies from other countries to enter and directly do business in India.

Mr. Swaminathan Aiyar asked the question (paraphrasing is all mine) as to why should India only be afraid of being overrun by foreign corporations. Rather, why couldn't Indian companies compete and stand tall with them? This has certainly proved true.

Recently, Ford sold its Jaguar division to Tata, an Indian company. The Indian steel magnate, Lakshmi Mittal, founded a company that took over Arcelor and is now one of the world's largest steel companies, ArcelorMittal.

There was a time when there was a certain amount of paranoia against foreign companies. Today, American companies such as McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza, Subway, Kellog's, General Motors, Ford, Coca Cola and Pepsi, to name a few, have a major presence in India along with Japanese, German, South Korean and British biggies such as Toyota, VolkswagenHyundai and Vodafone.

Although India was never a Soviet-style Communist economy, it wasn't the open, all out capitalist economy that the US is. Over the last two decades and more, India has been embracing more free-market economics and capitalism. Ordinary Indians, besides just being consumers, are waking up to the potential that increased competition and economic opportunity bring.

There is another side to capitalism besides the large corporation that kills all the Mom-and-Pop businesses and cares more about its bottom line than workers. Not all large corporations are devoid of responsibility and concern for their workers and other staff.

Capitalism, in its benevolent form, has the potential to transform society in a very positive way. I call this conscious capitalism, borrowed from the term 'conscious living' from many spiritual movements and one of my favorite personal development gurus and bloggers, Steve Pavlina. Companies think about their impact on the environment, their employees and society at large and act responsibly like a good citizen, even going beyond the bare minimum expectations at times.

Small businesses offering some unique products that are more environment friendly and affordable, can command a market share, too. One sees this a lot in the green products area. In the US, some of these products such as eco-friendly, natural cleaners and cosmetics, have spilled over the shelves of specialty stores such as Whole Foods into regular departmental stores. One such brand is Seventh Generation Inc. which now has natural antibacterial cleaners and cleaning wipes, even infant diapers and baby wipes.
A lot of local, environment-friendly, biodegradable baby diaper companies such as gDiapers, are now gaining a market niche in the presence of heavyweight brands such as Pampers and Huggies.

As for dairy and other food products, local is the new powerful. There is something so comforting about knowing that your milk comes from local farmers that send out their cattle to peaceful pasture with lots of fresh air and sunshine and without pumping them with hormones, that many of us tend to prefer that over some big name dairy brand.

Then, there are the socially conscious companies such as Toms that donate shoes and other items to people in need. In fact, Toms donates a pair of shoes for every pair purchased! Take another example, Zappos, that motivates its employees including call center workers, giving them freedom to grow and perform their jobs without treating them like assembly line robots. Check out their corporate culture on Zappos Insights.

Imagine if every country in the world embarked on a path of economic freedom for its citizens and created opportunities. That would probably mark an end to global poverty and underdevelopment, needless wars and destruction...

As the famous John Lennon song goes - Imagine...


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