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Be Tenacious, Drink the Tea

Wall Street Journal 2010-03-02

Recognized for their leadership in the Renewable Energy marketplace, Ameet Shah and Sourabh Sen, Co-Chairmen of Astonfield Renewable Resources, have been invited as guest columnists for the Wall Street Journal Blog, India Chief Mentor.

By Ameet Shah and Sourabh Sen

On the heels of the considerable attention that renewable energy has received in the recently delivered Union Budget 2010, we launch a 2-part series from the founders of Astonfield, a renewable energy company with a strong presence in India.

Many non-resident Indians dream of going back to India to apply the knowledge they have gained abroad to improve conditions in their country.

And many find this to be much easier said than done.

It was no different for us. Both NRIs ourselves, we were educated and trained abroad and had never done business in India prior to starting Astonfield. So what did we know about it? Little, as we soon learned.

We formed Astonfield in 2005 with a vision to deliver clean, affordable, locally-sourced renewable energy to the masses in emerging markets. When we first approached leaders in India about installing utility-scale renewable energy projects across the country, people laughed at our plans. “Did the leadership really not understand the tremendous potential of clean, distributed power to fuel sustainable development?? we marveled. Later, we realized that they fully grasped the potential but also understood the time and effort it would take to create the government policy framework required to support such a program. What they needed, and we hoped we could provide, was some of our infectious “can do? enthusiasm.

Stubbornly and perhaps with some naiveté at first, we invested the time and money to learn that the key to forming our business lay in two very important concepts: Tenacity and Tea. Putting our Western business sensibilities on the backburner, we went hat-in-hand, door-to-door to meet with the local leadership in each of our target markets one by one. We would accept their hospitality, drinking tea and getting to know each personally, while building our understanding of their goals and aspirations for their respective constituencies. Sometimes we would be rudely dismissed from a government office, and more often than not, we would leave with upset stomachs from the tea (which we painfully noticed on more than one occasion was brewed on the floor of a less than sanitary hallway, with water that was not the kindest to our fragile Western digestive systems).

But slowly we began to build a business plan that resonated with India, and in turn began to build consensus for a proper policy framework that would allow India to tap into its vast natural energy resources, thereby charting a path to sustainable development for generations to come.

The first lesson every entrepreneur must take to heart when aspiring to do business in India is the need to adapt to the unique pace and protocol of the Indian market. What works great in the U.S., the U.K., or any other part of the world, can be ineffective or even offensive in an Indian context. This is not say that NRIs should not leverage their skills obtained from working abroad; our international finance and entrepreneurial experience has been crucial to establishing and maintaining our market leadership position. However, we learned early on that if you want to play in the Indian landscape, you better come with an Indian business model. Anything less and you will not even be offered tea in your meetings. In that case, you may leave with your stomach intact but your business plans in the toilet.

Ameet Shah and Sourabh Sen are Co-Chairmen and Directors at Astonfield based in New York with offices in New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.