India lures interns to look at outsourcing

By Saritha Rai, August 7, 2005

This summer, Omar Maldonado and Erik Simonsen, both students at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, did something different.

Bypassing internship opportunities on Wall Street, just a subway ride away from their Greenwich Village campus, the two went to India to spend the summer at an outsourcing company in the Gurgaon suburbs of New Delhi.

“The India opportunity grabbed me,” said Maldonado, a Boston native whose family is from the Dominican Republic. “I wanted to get a global feel for investment banking and not just a Wall Street perspective.”

He and Simonsen, both 27, are spending three months at Copal Partners, an outsourcing firm with 100 analysts, which produces merger and acquisition pitch books and provides equity and credit analysis and other research to global banks and consultant groups, including those on Wall Street.

Maldonado and Simonsen, of Riverside, California, are part of a virtual invasion of students in India – mainly Americans so far, but also some Europeans and Asians.

Graduate students from top schools in the United States, as well as countries like France or Singapore, are vying for internships at India’s biggest private companies. For many, outsourcing companies are the destinations of choice.

Time spent in India is not just valuable business background, said Kiran Karnik, president of the outsourcing industry trade body, Nasscom. It is “also culturally fulfilling,” he said, adding that many students also travel while in India, giving them a view of the country and its deep history.

Nasscom is now trying to track the ever-increasing numbers of foreign interns. Many are in India to study globalization first hand, he said; China does not present the same opportunities because of the language barrier.

Karnik said he had met more than a dozen interns from the Harvard Business School spending the summer in India this year. “I expect a bigger horde of students to arrive next year because the ones here said they had a great time and will go home to talk about it,” he said.

Elsewhere, too, the trend is on the rise. At Georgetown University’s Robert Emmett McDonough School of Business, Stanley Nollen, a professor of international business, said India was of growing interest to students.

“No longer is India thought of as a land of snake charmers and bride burnings,” he said. “Now India means the world’s best software services, and increasingly, pharmaceuticals and auto parts.”

Nollen directs the school’s programs for MBA students in India that include “residencies” – academic courses centered on consulting projects for companies operating in India. A group of 49 students arrived this month and went to companies like Philips India Software and MindTree Consulting, both in Bangalore, the motorcyle-making unit of Eicher in Chennai, and the ICICI Bank in Mumbai.

But India can be a jolt to an average student visiting for the first time. In Gurgaon, a small town despite its tall office complexes and shiny new malls, Maldonado and Simonsen share an apartment where the power fails several times a day. Summer temperatures are regularly above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or 38 Celsius.

The two said they had come prepared to find “inadequate infrastructure,” but had not been prepared for the daily frustrations of Gurgaon. There is no mass transport system, and even shopping for something as basic as an umbrella can take hours. They rumble to work in an auto rickshaw – a motorized three-wheeler that seats two and is a ubiquitous form of transport in Indian cities.

But the sophistication of the work being done in Copal’s Gurgaon office contrasted with the chaotic city outside. Simonsen said he was amazed.

“I came expecting to see number-crunching and spreadsheet type of work; I didn’t expect American banks to farm out intricate analytics,” he said. The two are working on a project that analyzes investment opportunities for clients across 23 countries.

Infosys Technologies, the country’s second-largest outsourcing firm after Tata Consultancy Services, discovered how popular India had become as an internship destination when the company began recruiting: for the 40 intern spots at its Bangalore headquarters, the company received 9,000 applications.

The final 40, cutting a wide academic swathe from engineering schools like Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie-Mellon to business schools like Stanford, Wharton and Kellogg, have since arrived on campus for stays of three months. The interns work in areas from marketing to technology, but also experience a slice of Indian work life. They live in a 500-room hotel complex on Infosys’s expansive campus in the suburbs of Bangalore, exchanging coupons for meals at the food court, and riding the company bus downtown to decompress at the many pubs and bars.

Among them is Caton Burwell, 28, of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“India has come to symbolize globalization and I wanted to participate in the workings of the global economy,” he said, explaining why he had chosen India over companies nearer to home. “Besides, it would look great on my résumé.” Burwell said he has a better grasp of the workings of the global economy and the logic behind the choices companies and countries made, since arriving in India. “Being here is a powerful experience; it is impossible not to think differently,” he said.

Also, his attitude toward outsourcing has changed since meeting Indian employees who work very hard and care a great deal about the quality of their work. “To come here, meet these people, and to return home and turn your back on outsourcing is hard,” he said.

Jeffrey Anders, 29, from M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management is similarly stirred. Anders is halfway through his internship at the business process outsourcing division of Hewlett-Packard India in Bangalore.

“I can’t help but feel that I am witnessing the creation of a new global economic order, a new reality that most people back home don’t realize is coming,” said Anders.

After a meeting with the recruiting head of HP India’s back-office unit at a conference at M.I.T., Anders went to India to work on building a group of Indian economists and statisticians to perform complex analytics and predictive modeling for Western multinationals. “These highly educated and qualified people are not stopping at call centers and back-office work; they are getting ready to compete for every job.”

Meanwhile, Indian companies are looking at summer internships as a way of building a diverse work culture.

“Bringing investment bankers here provides our Indian team a perspective and context of Wall Street,” said Joel Perlman, co-founder of Copal Partners, a company based in London that has four employees each in New York and London and 100 or so in India.

Other companies, and even the schools themselves, are looking at internships as a step toward sending bright young people to work in India.

Infosys, for instance, hired Joshua Bronstein, a former intern from Claremont McKenna College in California, as its first American employee based in India nearly two years ago.

“In this increasingly global economy, we would expect to see India become an even greater source of employment for our students,” Sheryle Dirks, director of the Career Management Center at Fuqua, said.

Interns like Anders are getting a close view of the social changes underway in India. Outsourcing has created thousands of better-paying jobs and spawned communities of young people who can afford cars, apartments and iPods.

“I thought the stipend was the down side,” said Anders, “but coming here is a priceless experience.”