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Chindia Rising

Posted by kevinwolz on January 16, 2012

As I near the end of my 15-hour flight back to Chicago, the impact of the last two weeks is only beginning to sink in. I doubt that I will fully understand everything that I saw on this trip for years to come, and yet it has already begun to have a profound effect on the way I look at the world. From the food I eat to the path of my career, the East has left its mark.

Just two days after a great Christmas with my family, I headed off to the airport to meet a group of 26 unfamiliar UIUC students and fly half way around the world with them. We represented different ages, different degrees, and different career plans. Our desire to experience a whole new world was our only common thread. The purpose of our trip was to experience first-hand the people, the culture, and the emerging markets that are now a global force.

We started in the bustling city of Chennai, on India’s southeast coast. To our innocent eyes, The city was congested, the streets dirty, and the weather muggy. But we wasted no time with this superficial reaction and immediately began to dig deeper, uncovering the true nature of what we saw.

In both urban and semi-rural areas, we meet with and interviewed students of all ages,  adults of all professions, and business(wo)men of all fields. Fishermen, farmers, retailers, teachers, pharmacists…you name it. Our focus, however, was on entrepreneurs, especially women. The rise of women’s self-help groups, with great help from Dr. Madhu Viswanathan, one of the professors leading our trip, has sparked a dramatic increase in the entrepreneurial initiative and business leadership of women across India. Interacting with these amazing women was incredibly inspirational.

One of our days in a semi-rural village was by far the best of the trip. We walked the streets of the town, interacting with store owners, children, and homemakers going about their daily activities.

I entered the home (hut) of a family that barely makes ends meet. I saw where they get their water. I saw where her daughters go to school. I played with them in the streets. I saw her daily religious ceremony. And I saw the opportunities that lie ahead.

After such a vivid insight into the lives of people in this village, our last stop was the local community center, where many of the wives work in a new enterprise that hand makes paper mâché decorative dolls. It is an entrepreneurial community effort that has created a new path of opportunity for the village and is the perfect example of changes taking place in the emerging Indian markets.

From the outside, the village looks poor, unstructured, and completely disconnected from the modern world. While we from the West expect all development to take place in our image, this is not the case at all. The emerging market of this small semi-rural village in southern India may not look exactly like a small town in center Illinois, but I can assure you that it is just as sophisticated and poised for success.

From Chennai, we headed inland to the booming city of Bangalore, the technological hub of India and its most rapidly developing city. Bangalore was starkly different from Chennai: mild weather, modern skyscrapers, and fast food on every corner. Our goals here were obviously quite different. Rather than rural villages and subsistence marketplaces, our time in Bangalore focused on the technology and big companies coming out of India. Here, we visited with Boeing, Accenture, Caterpillar, Motorola, and Mindtree, some of the biggest names in business. Company executives gave us valuable insights to both the rapid development of the Indian economy and the unique approaches that were necessary for their success in a country very different that what we were used to. We also had the lucky opportunity to meet with government officials (from all three branches of government) while in Bangalore and get a first hand experience the inner workings of their system.

A perfect example of Bangalore's intrigue: Modern green development on the left, and typical slums on the right.

As quickly as it started, our time in India was then over, and our group then headed to China via a more than 30-hour transfer that included nothing less than planes, trains, and automobiles. Our first stop in China was Chongqing. Ever heard of it? I surely hadn’t. And yet it’s a city of 30 million people!! Both Chongqing and our subsequent city of Chengdu are a force to be reckoned with. They are the industrial and commercial powerhouses of western China, and they have a plan. They are already huge, and they are growing FAST. I had heard people say it before, but I never really believed it until now: Get out of the way U.S.A. China IS the next world power.

"Hot Pot": The traditional meal of Chengdu.

The final stop in our journey was the wondrous island metropolis of Hong Kong. In addition to our traditional company visits and economic insights, our focus in Hong Kong was also on politics. I had never really understood the unique political situation and history of Hong Kong until interacting with the several powerful and famous (some controversial) figures we were lucky to meet with. Sitting in a suit at a mahogany table on the umpteenth floor of a skyscraper that’s first floor is occupied by a Versace store was certainly a stark contrast to our first experiences in Chennai, but I have no doubt that they were just important. It is always critical to understand both ends of the spectrum, and I’m sure that Hong Kong will be a centerpiece in this arena as the rest of China takes off.

View of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak above the city.

Overall, I learned and experienced  way more in the past two weeks than I could ever aspire to write in this post. The insights above are just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope that at the very least I have conveyed that India and China are big, they’re different, and they’re coming fast. Their influence on the world economy, culture, and politics will reach every one of us in new ways everyday. There will be both great opportunities to embrace and serious problems to tackle. I went on this trip so that I could get a glimpse of what that future might look like and what it might mean for me. I urge everyone else, businessmen and homemakers alike, to take similar prudence towards understanding and appreciating the future that is coming.

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