The Surprising Global Relevance of India’s Business Environment

The Surprising Global Relevance of India’s Business Environment


Economist Romain Wacziarg immerses UCLA Anderson MBA students in new knowledge

FEBRUARY 24, 2023

  • Professor of Economics Romain Wacziarg teaches UCLA Anderson’s Global Immersion course in India, where growing business sectors include tech, entertainment and health care
  • Global Immersions expose students in all four of Anderson’s MBA programs to the relevance of a country’s history, politics and culture to current global business practices
  • Wacziarg spent his childhood years in India and says that observing and experiencing its economic development challenges influenced him to become an economist

One of UCLA Anderson’s most successful curricula is its series of Global Immersion courses, run and managed through the Center for Global Management. The only courses that regularly include a mix of students from all four of the school’s MBA programs, CGM’s Global Immersions feature a deep dive into the business environment of various international locales, including (but not limited to) Brazil, Israel, Japan and South Africa, with extensive engagement and participation of local alumni in country. The CGM offers seven such courses per year.

Professor Romain Wacziarg, who holds Anderson’s Hans Hufschmid Chair in Management, instructs the Global Immersion course dedicated to India, where he grew up. Wacziarg studies the causes and effects of the global spread of democracy and how deeply rooted features of societies affect their economic performance today. He taught a version of his Global Immersion course before joining the Anderson faculty in 2008 and has taught it five times for Anderson students. He is looking forward to leading it for the sixth time.

Q: What are Global Immersions like?

Global Immersion is like other classes, but with a twist: It ends with a one-week trip to a specific country. When I teach it, the country is always India.

The class is called The Business Environment of India. I take a generalist approach because my scholarship usually views things from 30,000 feet looking down. You’re going to learn about the economy of India, how it’s grown in the era of reforms, what its most competitive sectors are. You’re also going to learn about the politics of India, the world’s largest liberal democracy. Because that’s all relevant to the way you would conduct business in that country.

What’s unique at UCLA is the class structure. We meet three times in L.A. before we travel. Then we travel for one week throughout a country, where we meet with companies, leaders of civil society and policymakers. There is academic content throughout: Sometimes I’ll just take the mic on the bus and talk about the specifics, or I may reserve a conference room at the hotel so we can have a little class about the economy of India. Then, when we come back to L.A., there’s a debrief class where we take stock of the lessons we learned during the in-country trip.

Q: What types of companies do you visit while in India?

We try to visit organizations and businesses that epitomize the Indian story, the way the country has emerged over the last 30 or 40 years, and even more recently during the Modi era. There’s a sectoral focus as well, because you couldn’t cover the whole Indian economy on one trip.

Typically, we go to Mumbai, which is the financial and entertainment capital of India, and we go to Hyderabad, which is one of the two tech and health care capitals of India. These four sectors happen to represent some of the strongest areas of growth in the Indian economy over the last couple of decades and they also coincide with what our MBA students are interested in. For example, we have a lot of students at Anderson with experience at Disney and other entertainment companies, so there is interest in that space. This is an MBA program so, naturally, there is a lot of interest in finance. We look at the whole landscape of finance in India, going from very small-scale microfinance all the way to wealth management and stock markets. We cover the whole spectrum.

Understanding the Indian tech landscape is particularly important because it’s very complementary to and integrated with the U.S. tech sector. The last time we went, we visited Microsoft, India. They have thousands upon thousands of employees in India, and they do more and more high-end kind of programming and coding in India. They have a real presence there, with a magnificent campus in Hyderabad that we visited. Health care is also a huge focus in the L.A. basin and that’s something we have in common with Hyderabad as well.

Q: Students from any of our MBA programs can take a Global Immersion courses. Could you tell us a little bit more about the typical GI student?

That’s a great question. I would say that there are two kinds of students.

There are the students who already have some connection to or knowledge of India. About a quarter of my students in the last section were either from India or born in the U.S. of Indian origin. These students are looking at careers in which they’re going to be interacting with India. They realize this is the fifth largest economy in the world. It is now the largest country in terms of population. They know that India is going to be in their lives in some way or another, and they’re going to have to interact with businesses or customers or suppliers that are located in India.

The other students are just curious about India. And what’s particularly fascinating to them is, when they get there, they realize India specializes in all these sectors that are relevant to their business and career goals, and that they’re also going to have to have interactions with India. They have a sort of aha moment when they realize that, although they took this class because it was an exotic destination and they were going to learn something about a country they didn’t know much about, now it’s much more than that. It’s one of the most gratifying parts of the class, seeing how much people seem motivated to engage more with India in the future.

Q: How is India becoming a more important business and economic partner of the United States?

The U.S. and China are increasingly engaged in a sort of adversarial relationship. There’s talk of decoupling, which means that the Chinese and the U.S. economies, which are closely integrated when it comes to things like manufactured goods and trade, are trying to sever many of those links. There already is a huge need for a substitute.

One of the cases that I teach is the case of Apple, which produces virtually all of the iPhones sold in the U.S. in China. That creates a vulnerability in case there is a conflict or problem in the supply chain. Apple is trying to diversify its source of iPhones, and India is the natural place to go because of its scale, because of its friendliness to the U.S., because of the proficiency of many Indians in English, because of the strength of the IT sector. The decoupling with China, in my view, is the strongest argument for our students becoming more and more interested in India, because that’s going to be the center of gravity as U.S. trade increasingly moves toward India. It will, in my estimation, be a pretty dramatic reorientation.

Q: How did you become interested in India?

I spent the first seven years of my life there. My dad was posted in India first as a diplomat, then he worked for a French bank, and he ultimately spent his whole life in India and became an entrepreneur there.

That’s where it started, and I credit India for my becoming an economist. When I was going to India as a child, it was an extremely poor country. When I saw the development challenges that existed, it made me want to become an economist interested in economic growth. It’s in the era of reform that Indian growth started to take off, that poverty started to fall, that more and more people started to join the middle class. India motivated my career as an economist. I have a few research projects on India specifically, but most of my projects are inspired in one way or another by the Indian experience because I study economic growth. I had a longstanding interest in the question of whether being a democratic country fosters economic growth and you can see how that traces its roots to India, the world’s largest democracy.

Q: What do the course assignments consist of?

The class has a blog where I post mostly issues having to do with current events in India, and we follow very closely the main issues on the agenda of private-sector business challenges. For example, we had a whole discussion of the recent Hindenburg Research report to short the Adani Group, which led to a huge decline in the stock price of this big Indian conglomerate.

We discuss academic papers on the economy of India and economic growth more broadly. We talk about specific firms, but typically not in the case study kind of format. Beyond this, each student group has to create a PowerPoint presentation on a topic that has to do with the themes of the class, and it ends in an exam.

Q: I know the class is joined by an old friend of UCLA Anderson.

I was going to mention that. When Professor Bhagwan Chowdhry retired from UCLA Anderson, he joined the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. This is when we decided to start to visit Hyderabad. We’ve done that twice now, and it’s become a staple because it allows us to finish the class on the campus of the Indian School of Business. Our students get to see what a major Indian business school looks like and to interact with some of their professors, including Bhagwan.

Q: What is it like having students from all Anderson’s MBA programs in one class?

It’s great. What I particularly appreciate is that you have students at different levels of seniority in their career. The students that are a little more at the executive level, a little older, bring all the experience they’ve had in their careers. They love that this type of class is very applied and not theoretical. There’s no math or anything like that, but there is a lot of learning about the real world. Then you have the full timers, and it creates a great mix, I think. The younger students get a real sense of what a career path looks like later on.