When the Wharton India Economic Forum (WIEF) was set up 15 years ago, the promise of the Indian economy was just beginning to show on the horizon. Among the firm believers in the country’s potential was Venkat Badinehal, who helped to found the Forum.
At this year’s WIEF, Badinehal — now a New York-based managing director and head of U.S. banks in the investment banking group at Deutsche Bank — was back with his vision for both India and WIEF. The country has experienced a significant transition in the past decade-and-a-half, he says. The past has been exciting; but the future promises to be even more so, Badinehal notes in this interview with India Knowledge at Wharton.
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
India Knowledge at Wharton: Venkat, thank you so much for joining us today. You were one of the co-founders of the Wharton India Economic Forum 15 years ago. What did you see then that spurred you to co-found the conference?
Venkat Badinehal: When I came to Wharton, it was very interesting to see the awareness of India. It had just begun to emerge on the global scene; the economic liberalization had started. People felt there was enormous potential. But the awareness, the knowledge and the excitement was limited. When you entered what’s called the preeminent business school globally, and you saw how limited the awareness about the country was, there was a view that it would be great to have an event which would help educate people — not only in Wharton, but throughout the U.S. — about the opportunity in India.
There was also another view that we needed to create greater interaction between the two countries, so business and political leaders of both places could come and share views of what the opportunity is, what the challenges are and, more importantly, to [see] what can be done better. I think it was a combination of education and creating the future growth of India, because without this [interaction] it was not going to happen. That was a fundamental driver. It was obviously a tall order. First, it was getting the people that matter. As with any event, the success is driven by who is part of it. We dreamt big and we always believed that unless you get the best to share their views, you’re not going to be successful.
But we were fortunate from the very beginning that we’ve had the top financial and political leaders from both sides of the globe coming and sharing their views. It’s easier today than 15 years ago to see this. I can’t think of any major Indian CEO who has not spoken at WIEF; or any finance minister or governor of the Reserve Bank or the secretary or assistant secretary of state, like you have [Robert] Blake [assistant secretary of state — south and central Asian affairs] here this year, or the many U.S. CEOs who’ve been part of this event over the years. So that was, I think, the primary driver.
The interesting part of it is also that India has changed over 15 years. And WIEF has had to change…. It’s moved from [discussing] that India has emerged and the opportunity [there] to talking about how both the economies can strategically benefit, and what needs to be done from here.
So every year that’s the role WIEF plays. And that’s why I think people who want to hear what’s happening in terms of the latest in India find this a better venue than any other. And I’m very happy to see Wharton playing that leading role, year after year.
India Knowledge at Wharton: You spoke about some of the prominent leaders who have come to speak. What are some of the changes you’ve seen over the years?
Badinehal: I’ll draw a parallel to the first year. A lot of the speakers who came from India came to this conference and left after the conference. You might ask, “Why is that relevant?” It just meant that they had limited U.S. involvement beyond that conference. They were excited to come and share their views. Today, U.S. companies [are] going to India and so are U.S. political leaders. At that time I didn’t know the last time the U.S. president had visited India. Today, the first state visit of any foreign leader that [President Barack Obama] hosted happened to be for an Indian leader [Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh]. And [Obama] happens to go to India within his first two years. So that’s the part that has changed — the interaction and the links [between the U.S. and India] have dramatically increased.
We went through a time when people understood India and both sides felt we would have a great collaboration [in the future]. Now, it’s already happened for businesses on both sides. For U.S. businesses, India is a very important market. For Indian businesses, access to U.S. markets, both financial and otherwise, are very relevant. And the same thing [has happened] on a strategic and political landscape. India is now considered a real global player and its viewpoint is sought. India is now considered one of the most important economies.
The second thing, which I touched on earlier in my comments, is that the confidence of people in India has increased dramatically; they [feel that they] have a role to play in the global economy. And global players have accepted that India is relevant in the world economy. It is very exciting to see that change and it’ll be very exciting to see where India will have gone in 10 years from today.
India Knowledge at Wharton: What do you see five to 10 years down the line as this conference continues? Is there is someone on your wish list that you would love to see at the conference?
Badinehal: When this conference was founded 15 years ago, India was just a place of opportunity. It had a lot of people. Some part [of that population] would be middle class and they would be relevant. Nothing more than that. And there was a little bit of IT outsourcing that [U.S.] companies had done. Now there’s been the creation of [Indian] global companies. There are real revenues, real profits; real Indians have succeeded in global businesses. India has always had a role politically. But it was on the periphery. [Now] it’s clearly among the top 10 economies in the world. The question is: is it among the top two to five economies?
There’s no reason why, in the next 10 years, we’ll not be among the top three or four important economies. The U.S., China and India will be sort of the top three. So I think that’s the next opportunity that we’ll see. And you’ll also see Indian businesses being even more global. I had to Boston for a wedding on Memorial Day and was looking at hotels, and it’s the Taj Boston. It [feels] great. The Tatas own Land Rover and Jaguar [and] the Pierre Hotel in New York. These are the symbols of luxury, of quality per se, and they are part of an Indian business empire.
What will be so exciting to see is that in 10 years, people will accept as common that a lot of things are made in India or are part of an Indian business. It’s started now, but it’s on the fringes. In 10 years, people out of [U.S.] business schools will join, say, Infosys as they would any U.S. company. That’s one opportunity. I am very confident it will happen. And I’m very confident that WIEF will attract the business leaders of tomorrow.
If you ask me, I think the one person that I would like to see who has not been at WIEF — her son has spoken at WIEF — is Sonia Gandhi [president of the Indian National Congress, one of the country’s major political parties, and wife of late Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi]. She is a woman who didn’t have roots in India; wasn’t really interested in politics, married into it and gave birth to people who are into it. She has helped shape and adapt herself and the party to the changes that have happened. It would be great to see what parallels she draws on the levels of innovation. Again, we’ve had a lot of finance ministers, but we’d love to see the Prime Minister of India also speak at the event.
That aside, I’m very pleased on the other spectrum. I always felt that the WIEF has done a very good job of attracting the very elite from India; the “who’s who” from the business world and the political world in India has spoken here. I would like this to be a stopping point for the who’s who on this side of the Atlantic. And I think it’s started. I think having Secretary Blake is very positive. But I want to see CEOs of major U.S. companies. On the political landscape, why not have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and people of that sort talking about the relevance and importance of India, not only in the economic perspective, but also politically and strategically. The Governor of Pennsylvania should be part of the event; the Mayor of Philadelphia should be part of it. They should be proud that WIEF, which is part of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, is hosting this. In the next 10 years, because of the importance of India, you will see a tremendous increase in participation from U.S. players.