16 Jul 2013

Embracing Chaos

Former Microsoft India Chairman Ravi Venkatesan (MBA 1992) offers the key to finding success in emerging markets.
Re: Wick Skinner (MBA 1948); Ganesh Natarajan (AMP 169)


If anyone could write the recipe for business success in emerging markets, it would be Ravi Venkatesan (MBA 1992). After all, he's led not one, but two, major multinational companies—Cummins and Microsoft—in India and brought both to dominate their respective markets there.

India, he says, is the archetype for all emerging markets.

"If you can't succeed here, you're not going to do well anywhere," says Venkatesan, who most recently served as chairman of Microsoft India from 2004 to 2011. "Emerging markets are chaotic and corrupt, and have bad governments, crony capitalism, and lousy infrastructure. Guess what? That's India.

"If you want to succeed in emerging markets, if you want growth—and most companies have no choice—you have to go to these markets. You can't wish away the chaos; you have to embrace chaos, and you have to learn to thrive in the midst of chaos."

In his just-released first book, Conquering the Chaos: Win in India, Win Everywhere (Harvard Business Review Press), Venkatesan's recipe for success includes doing things that most managers and CEOs aren't trained to do, namely, getting on the ground and immersing themselves in the culture, and rolling up their sleeves.

"A lot of companies are run by people with no emerging market experience," he says. "They do fly-bys and don't understand the market from the ground—just from a PowerPoint presentation in a boardroom. They're saying, 'Let's wait until the country looks more like us.' Well, by then, someone else has run away with the whole market."

Venkatesan points to Apple, which waited for better distribution systems in India before it established its presence. "But Samsung didn't wait, and has the whole market now."

The book, he says, is a "wake-up call to American and European companies. This is a huge opportunity, but the window is going to close. They have to move quickly."

Venkatesan knows his message may strike some as zealous, but he's fine with that. "I'm doing it because I love my country," he says. "We need more companies to come invest in India and create jobs. I thought, who else can do this other than me? I know both sides. I've lived in this world and I understand that world. I should be the one translating because otherwise they're talking past each other."

The book isn't the only way Venkatesan is working to help his native country turn around its difficult circumstances. Last year, he launched Social Venture Partners (SVP) India is a spin-off of the Seattle-based nonprofit that pools philanthropic activities in a local area, in order to focus financial power on effectively solving local social and economic problems.

"In India, things are not going well," says Venkatesan. "The country is just massively corrupt, with seriously bad government and a society that is really getting polarized with inequality. So a lot of us in India are incredibly concerned.

"The good news is, there are a lot of us now, in our 40s, 50s, and 60s, who have done quite well, and we want to give back, but none of us, individually, knows how to do that. I can write a check, but have no idea who to give it to, and no idea how it's going to be used. There's not the satisfaction of seeing an impact. So, guess what? I'd rather not write that check. Other people may have reached a point in life where they can give some time and share their considerable skills but they don't know where to go to volunteer."

Last year, with the help of several professionals from Microsoft who had founded the original SVP in Seattle, Venkatesan set up the first office of SVP India in Bangalore, where he lives with his wife.

"We've created a platform so that if you want to make a difference, there's a place for you to come in, meet like-minded people, and have resources and a brand so you can go out and have an impact in the community. You don't have to go it alone. You have this whole community with you.

"We now have 60 partners in Bangalore—the fastest growing chapter in SVP International. We are currently starting chapters in Mumbai and Pune," says Venkatesan. Megna Rau and Ganesh Natarajan (AMP 169, 2005) will leap those offices, respectively. First on the agenda for SVP India? The issue of livelihoods, and creating jobs while solving local problems, like overflowing garbage in Bangalore.

Venkatesan was just 50 when he left the corporate world in 2011, deciding that it was his time to make a difference in the world in a more personal way. "There comes a moment when you realize you have very finite time," he says. "At that moment, you need to switch from optimizing achievement to optimizing how you spend your time, because that becomes the scarce thing—your time on earth."

That's not to say Venkatesan didn't do plenty to improve lives in India while working. As CEO at Cummins, he helped establish India's first college of engineering for women, and at Microsoft, he helped create a computer literacy program that has trained 35 million children and nearly a million teachers in India to use computers.

He's also mentored young professionals—many of them HBS students—and has a major following on social media in India where he is a regular writer and lecturer on business, India, and the meaning of a successful life.

Venkatesan's goal, to positively affect people's lives "at scale," comes from the gratitude he feels for the people who guided him as a young man.

"I got lucky. I had amazing teachers and mentors who helped me, who opened doors, and kicked my butt," he says. "There's no way I can repay them, except by doing the same for others."

One of his mentors was an HBS professor who had been long-retired by the time Venkatesan got to his first class.

"Wickham Skinner was a huge influence on me," he says. "He'd written an important paper back in the 1970s, and I wrote to him to refute a few of his points. He agreed with me and became my mentor. He told me to apply to HBS. To this day, he's been a huge influence on me; he's one of the finest people."

Vekatesan counts HBS as a "pillar" in his life, and he's remained very actively involved in the life of the School since graduating. He helped set up the HBS Indian Research Center, and he served for 20 years on the HBS Global Alumni Board of Advisors, stepping down this past June. "HBS gave me confidence," he says. "I studied hard—I was a Baker Scholar. It meant I could go out in the world and hold my own.

"The School has supported me in many intellectual ways," he continues. "It is this amazing place where the more you give, the more you get back. I am very grateful to be part of this institution."

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1992, Section C
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