How Anil Ambani Learned the Ropes of Doing Business in India
In the Fall of 1982, Anil Ambani, scion of one of India’s wealthiest family, returned home to Mumbai, then Bombay, after attending the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Anil had fast-tracked through his two-year MBA program in less than 15 months.
He met up with his father Dhirubhai Ambani and announced, “Look, Dad, I’ve become an MBA, and I’m going to take a break since I worked hard. I will see you in the New Year.”
Dhirubhai asked, “I am very happy and delighted that you accomplished this. Since I did not go to any formal school or college, I do not have any degree, why don’t you tell me, from your learning at Wharton, what does an MBA stand for?”
Smug and self-satisfied, Anil replied, “That’s simple. Master of Business Administration.”
Dhirubhai countered, “An MBA represents Manē Badhā Āvō che,” (Gujarati for “I am know all.”) He explained,
You are entering India, and you need to Indianize your MBA … at Wharton School, did they teach you about customs duties, excise duties, income tax, sales tax, Parliament?
Do you know about a zero-hour question, a call-attention motion, and the difference between a starred question and an unstarred question in the Indian Parliament?
If you don’t get to know all these things, let me assure you, all your formal education is not going to help you. You need your practical Indian MBA. And I am going to create that learning environment for you so that you can get the exposure.
A formal education doesn’t necessarily teach you everything about how to navigate the real world
Dhirubhai Ambani, the prototypical crony capitalist that he was, was highlighting the importance of learning the ways and means of doing business in pre-liberalization India.
One must note that Ambani’s extraordinary rags-to-riches story was a blend of cunning, street smartness, audacious risk-taking, and an unparalleled knack for bending the rules through powerful politicians and bureaucrats. As controversial as he was, Ambani must be understood in the socio-political context of India’s post-Independence industrial milieu. He artfully exploited the opportunities those times offered.
Idea for Impact: Formal education cannot complete the kind of real-world operative skills that you need
If you’re truly serious in your desire to get ahead in business, you will need a broader grasp of your chosen discipline than you can get from formal education.
- Look, listen, learn. Every industry, company, organization, and team has its own culture. Spend time observing the winners: what does success look like? Who holds power, and how are they persuaded? What are the traits of people who get ahead? Emphasize developing skills in line with the winners.
- Develop a network of people who can potentially lend a hand or bail you out of a jam. Invest in the people who will listen to your ideas and support your ambitions. Get to know peers at all levels to build a support base. Any person may have the knowledge and the allegiances that they can put to work for you if they’re so inclined.
- Discover how to make the most of the circumstances you’re dealt with. Don’t manipulate others for your own devices in a Machiavellian sense—although, occasionally, you may need to use duplicity for respectable purposes, i.e. where certain ends can justify certain means.
Remember, the political payoff for fostering and nurturing relationships, and for developing a vast reservoir of skills and experiences, may take months, years, or even decades.