Long India

In the last year of undergrad, I ended up getting an offer from a consulting firm. 

A few months later, I got admitted to an Indian business school. I called up the partner who hired me to let him know I wouldn’t be joining the firm.

“Are you crazy to join an Indian business school? The same people, same attitude, same culture, all over again? We’ll put you through a US business school after 4 years, trust me. It’s so much better there, more diverse.” 

While there were a lot of stereotypes in that statement for a young 21-year-old to even grasp, it ended up posing a bigger question to me.

Go to the US or stay in India? 

Going to the US was what many of my batchmates intended to do. Privileged middle-class aspirations being beckoned by a promised land. The largest economy, countless immigrant successes, the temple of capitalism, massive wealth creation. 

I believed I had the opportunity, and I really wanted to go. But here I am, 6 years later, writing this from somewhere in India. Put simply, I bet my career on India.

Or rather, the idea of what it would be.

Many friends said I was plain stupid. There were times when I agreed with them. What seemed like just another important decision was in fact a major crossroads in my life.

The longer I stay here, the greater the sunk cost, the bigger the potential regret. We have one life after all.

For a few months after the demoralizing partner conversation, I kept asking myself and everyone the same question “where should I be today – US or India?”

Not one person said India. Bad roads, pollution, low standard of living, bureaucracy, poverty. The US presumably had none of it. 

But the question I ended up asking myself was ”what does tomorrow look like?”

If you look at population in each continent by 2100 it would roughly break down into 1 Bn: Americas, 1 Bn: Europe, 4 Bn: Africa, 5 Bn: Asia. While I’d love to live to more than 100 to see that day, this fairly simple statistic has a powerful insight. 

90% of the world will be in Africa or Asia. The center of gravity of humanity will be here.

To bet against Africa/Asia is to bet against humanity. 

One may say that this is a simplistic argument that holds true even today, yet Asia and Africa are pretty poor. Are you saying humanity is not thriving despite Asia and Africa being big?

What we are missing is that we have the largest young population on the planet. The number of millennials in India, 400MM, is greater than the entire population of the United States. 

India’s young people are and will be engines of growth. Their consumption, creation, and entrepreneurship will continue to drive growth.

If we don’t grow, humanity will not – by sheer virtue of our young population’s size.

The average age of India is 26, US is 38 and EU is 43. In many ways, we are 12 years behind the US. After 12-15 years, we will be where the US is today.

This group of people that I am a part of has dreams, aspirations, hope. This urge is what finally drives value creation. In the micro-trends of government or policy, there’s nothing that can stop this unstoppable force. 

There is no immovable object. 

What we see in China is not a one-off economic transformation, but a harbinger to what will happen everywhere in due course. It is not a question of if, but when. 

Startups will be front and center of this transformation.

Startups are groups of people building for and hoping for a better future. They are “vessels of hope” that take us to the future they imagine. These startups are in all shapes and sizes, kiranas, bootstrapped, family businesses, VC funded companies. 

They all are building today for a better tomorrow.

The startup ecosystem is a leading indicator of the economic transformation that will happen. Companies that are young today, will mature in 10 years. Many large organizations of tomorrow are probably 3-4 years old today.  

You can already see the Indian startup ecosystem’s quality accelerating to be close to the US and China. The number of unicorns in India created this year has even surpassed China, something none of us would have believed a few years ago. 

Put differently, India itself is a massive startup, with a killer ingredient beyond just being young.

We have a crazy, diverse country. That makes this growth chaotic, but also possible. Diversity of ideas, thoughts, and culture are big drivers of innovation. 

In many ways, India is not even the US, but more like Europe. Migrating from UP to Maharashtra is not very different from migrating from one European country to another.

You don’t need to go to a business school to get access to diversity in India. 

It was a point that was lost on the partner, but not me. We have all the ingredients to be an economic superpower, which I see as an inevitability. 

So where will you be tomorrow?

Thanks to Sajith Pai for reading drafts of this essay