Ajit Rangnekar, dean of the Indian School of Business, faces a dilemma: be a top-ranked global school that competes with western institutions or specialise as an emerging-market centre that focuses on finding solutions for developing economies.
“It’s a tough call,” says the former head of PwC Consulting in Hong Kong and the Philippines. On the one hand, the ISB wants the global recognition that will put it on a par with world-class institutions such as Harvard and Stanford. “This is what the students want as they aspire to work in Fortune 500 companies.”
On the other hand, Rangnekar feels the school in Hyderabad has a moral and ethical duty to interact with its environment, which means training students to affect society by setting up social businesses. “This is a harder route to pursue, as it doesn’t pay off immediately and students are not always keen to work for enterprise with a social impact.”
The ISB has already launched the Centre for Emerging Markets Solutions, which helps small businesses exploit market opportunities overlooked by big enterprises. It has attracted the attention of George Soros, the billionaire investor, Pierre Omidyar, the founder of Ebay, and Google, who have invested $4m in projects linked to the ISB.
Rangnekar says the support of big investors proves that what the school is doing is valuable. However, he fears that pushing too hard towards being an emerging-market business school could be counterproductive in the short term. “If we start placing more emphasis on being an emerging-market business school, then people are going to say, ‘You know what? I’m not going to get a job with McKinsey or Goldman Sachs,’” he says.
The biggest challenge for the school is to be relevant to both the top of the pyramid (providing skills for people to join big multinationals) and the bottom (providing skills for graduates to work for SMEs).
Rangnekar sees the ISB’s location in an exciting emerging economy as a clear differentiation compared with other global institutions. “This emerging market is the future,” he says. “Everybody – in the west and east – is asking: how do you translate this big, amorphous entity called the emerging world into market segments that I can understand, into market strategies that I can implement and finally catch? That’s going to be the area on which the world is going to focus in the future.”
Rangnekar objects to the view of some of his colleagues that focusing on emerging markets would be restrictive and would fail to prepare students for global challenges. “Global does not equate to only the UK and US,” he says. “If the market solutions I am looking for are relevant in Africa, south Asia, south-east Asia and China, then am I not global?”
The centre of gravity of economic power has shifted, he argues, but it will take a while to convince faculty and students that they need to embrace and exploit this shift.
But he does not rule out that emerging markets might experience a boom-and-bust cycle “like the dotcom bubble”. He says: “This could happen to emerging markets too. But it is obvious that this part of the world is one that everyone will have to engage with. If we do go down, we will return just like the internet companies did.”
However, for Rangnekar, the main reason to back a business school that focuses on finding emerging-market solutions is predominantly an ethical one.
“I cannot be in this country and ignore the issues of a large section of its society … if we don’t take care of the problems, the country could end up in turmoil very soon,” he says. “Having a large number of people whose aspirations are not met is a time bomb, and India can simply not afford it.”