GE's Jeff Immelt is a champion of "reverse innovation." Mukesh Ambani is an "extreme innovation" protagonist. Both minds think alike. They know that necessity is the mother of innovation and that India is the land of necessity.
That's why Mr. Immelt and GE have decided to build products for the world from India. They've made a start with an ultra-cheap electrocardiogram device—it sells for $1,000 and is made in India.
That's why Mr. Ambani and his Reliance Industries have set up an innovation team led by RA Mashelkar, a former head of government research agency network CSIR.
Mr. Ambani cautions against "getting trapped" by the western model and to rely on "extreme innovation" instead to leapfrog to the next level of development. "What's needed is extreme innovation. Twenty years from now, people will not talk about garages in Silicon Valley, but projects in Indian villages and rural areas that will be scaled up."
"People perceive India as a land of a billion problems, but I see it as a land of a billion opportunities."
The GE CEO, made a case for "reverse innovation"—the flow of knowledge and products from the developing world to the developed world. For this, India must develop efficient business models that could be used by the rest of the world.
"We should get to a point where ideas start transporting back to the developed world," Mr. Immelt said. GE has decided to let all its business heads in India report to the country head, underscoring the importance India has in its scheme of things and how much the company feels that a flexible environment in India could be more conducive for growth here. "At GE, the only person who believes that it's a good idea is me," he joked.
GE has set itself a target of growing its nearly $3 billion India business by 30% a year for the next five years.
Mr. Immelt, whose father worked at GE for 40 years, said his story represented the American dream.
"From discussing GE at our kitchen table to managing the company at the board level in just a generation is representative of the American culture."
"We are normal people who work together and do extraordinary things—and we like it that way." The panel discussion involving the two business leaders and moderated by CII chief mentor Tarun Das had its share of banter as Mr. Ambani shared his personal secrets.
"I'm from the chemical industry", he remarked when Mr. Das quizzed him about his jet-black hair. That his wife Neeta makes him work out regularly was an admission by Mr. Ambani. "Neeta makes sure that I work out though you don't get to see the obvious results."
Not too long ago, a call for Indian investment in the US by the CEO of GE would have raised more than an eyebrow. But when Mr. Immelt made that call on Thursday, it didn't seem surprising.
''The next generation of BPO jobs should be in the US,'' he said, and asked Indian businesses to see the world "from (US President Barack) Obama's eyes." Emphasising the importance of ensuring that politicians come on board, he said, "If globalisation is put to vote today in the US, it will lose 70:30."
Mr. Immelt was all praise for Indian entrepreneurs. "The business class in India is equal or better than the rest of the world." A regular practice at GE is for the top leadership to discuss their perceptions of CEOs from other countries, he said, and they often found that Indian CEOs cared more about their companies than they did for themselves.
On the new drive to give back to the society or bring in change where it's needed most, Mr. Ambani said the bulk of India's young people want to work for rural transformation.
The two corporate leaders were optimistic that the next five years would see India growing rapidly. In a lighter view, Mr. Immelt said he expected a good road between Mumbai airport and the city, mainly to highlight the need to focus on infrastructure.
In what he called his wish-list, Mr. Ambani said he hoped by 2014, India would have demonstrated to the world that it could register double-digit growth annually, create gainful employment for 12-15 million people every year and have in place world-class education and training infrastructure.
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