"My mann (heart) beats for Macondo.." exclaimed Sushil, concluding a long meeting with his friends and business partners Lathika, Roopam and Noor in April 2000. The four youthful founders of Mann-India Technologies were brainstorming about which geography to go for their new IT venture. Macondo is the fictional town in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian writer. Sushil Chaudhary, the MD of Mann-India, had liked the magical realism in the Latin American literature. His three young colleagues smiled and agreed instantly with the choice of Latin America. They were fascinated by the vibrant Latin American culture. Salsa and samba, football and carnival excited their Mann (heart), the name chosen by the founders for the company. Since Mann is also a typical German name, they made it as Mann-India to avoid confusion.
In the previous month, the group had decided on what business to start. It was the year 2000, the year of big buzz for Indian IT. Thanks to the millennium bug scare, the Indian IT had arrived at the global stage. The Indian IT companies were riding the high waves of business flowing from US and Europe. The global success of the Indian IT had got the attention of the Latin Americans too and they also started looking for Indian IT services. But the Indian firms, especially the big ones, were so overwhelmed with the enormous volume of business from developed countries and they had no time to look at the emerging market of Latin America. Mann-India found an opening in this situation and bet on Latin America for their IT venture. The region now accounts for over ninety percent of the group revenue of the company which reached 180 crores of rupees in 2012-13. Their target is 1000 crores in the next 3-5 years.
Sushil, Roopam and Noor had graduated in engineering from NIT, Trichy in 1997-98. Lathika is an economics graduate from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi. They had got comfortable jobs after the their studies and had worked till 2000. But they were not content with the monthly salaries and secure jobs. They aspired to become entrepreneurs. They did not want to do just business. They sought adventure and fun too. Latin America beckoned them with the perfect blend of business and fun.
The first entry of Mann-India in Latin America was in Panama. Since Mann-India was a small start up, without the credentials of experience or established clients, it was not easy to get the confidence of Panamanian companies. But the Panamanians liked the youthful enthusiasm, sincerity and hard working culture of Sushil and his colleagues. A Panamanian bank Banco Casa de Ahorros gave them the break by awarding a contract to set up their first mobile banking. Soon Mann-India got their next project to re-engineer the Sigma ERP Platform of Sisinge. This was followed by a product development work for Arango Software. The biggest breakthrough was when Panafoto, the largest retail chain of the country gave Mann-India a project to build their ERP System.
In 2002, Sushil visited Colombia. Although Colombia at that time was considered as a risky place because of guerrilla war, kidnappings and narcotraffic, Sushil had courageously travelled to many parts of the country by road. He was fascinated by the warmth and friendship of the Colombians and decided that Colombia would be the next target for his company. Mann-India went in and got a few Colombian projects.
Venezuela was the third destination. Mann-India entered the country in 2003 and got two projects including a government contract to build a Mobile payment platform for financial inclusion at national level. Happy with the performance of Mann-India, the Venezuelan government gave a larger project to handle the software for currency change from the old Bolivar to a new strong Bolivar.The Venezuelan oil company PDVSA also gave Mann-India some business.
It was time for Mann to move on. They entered Dominican Republic in 2008. They established a development centre in Santo Domingo. Mann-India is currently in the process of exploring the Peruvian market for IT business.
Mann-India has offices in Noida, Delhi, Hyderabad, Bogota, Caracas and Santo Domingo. It has won several awards and recognitions from business organizations such as Nasscom and Red Herring rankings. Mann-India's verticals include banking, insurance, telecom, ERP and retail.They have developed several products of their own and also provide consultancy services. They are now diversifying into other businesses within India as well as global trading.
Argentina is the latest destination for Mann-India for agribusiness and trading. Sushil will be visiting Buenos Aires soon to explore import of edible oil and other food products from the agriculturally rich Argentina.
Sushil and Lathika, whose friendship and partnership lead to marriage in 2006, have lived in Latin America for eleven years, of which they spent four years in Venezuela, three years in Colombia, two in Panama and another two years in Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. They say that these were the best years of their life. They cherish the time they spent with their Latino friends who took them to their homes, beach barbecues, weekend villas and dance parties. They have made lots of Latin American friends whose friendship they value much more than the business they have got from the region.
picture- Lathika and Sushil
Personally both Sushil and Lathika feel enriched by their Latin America experience and have imbibed the Latino spirit of celebration of life. They have learnt to balance their life between work and fun. Weekend outings, annual holidays, beaches, body care, fitness, dancing and music have become integral part of their lives now. They give equal importance to enjoying life as much as to achieving business targets. They find that their productivity and creativity have in fact have gone up now. They encourage their Indian staff also to give importance to fun and relaxation.
How was Lathika's experience in Latin America as a woman? She felt inspired by the Latinas who are more assertive and independent. She found that the Latin American gender relations and interactions are more natural and easier without the Indian complexities and barriers. She felt much safer and more comfortable during her travels alone even in the interior of many countries in the region. She found the Latin Americans in general as non-judgmental and non-intrusive in the private lives of others.
Sushil says that the secret of success in the Latin American markets is his understanding of Latino culture and business practices. Before starting business in any country he would travel through the country as a backpacker, frequent the beaches and bars and get a feel of the place. His understanding of the local culture gave him unique insights and plan his strategies. He learnt the plus and minus points of his Latin American colleagues and leveraged their strengths. While he himself would work on weekends he never made the mistake of disturbing his Latino staff to come to office on holidays. He knew that holidays were sacred for the Latin Americans and extra money and savings do not mean as much to them as is the case with Indians. Having understood the fact that Latin American business is driven by personalities as much as systems, Sushil focussed on cultivating friends and spent more time with people than with the computers. " Know Who" is said to be more important than " Know How" in Latin America.
The four founders and a number of the Mann employees have learnt to speak Spanish. This has opened more doors for them in Latin America and enabled them to establish rapport with their clients. Spanish language has become the most popular foreign language in India after English, replacing French. The Spanish teaching institutes have mushroomed all over the country including in second tier cities such as Pune.
Another secret of the success of Mann was their ability to spot and hire local talents and managers who got them business. Mann has 35 Latin American staff in their operations in the region at this moment although they had a larger number when executing big contracts in the past. The Latin Americans consider it a privilege to work with an Indian IT company. They see Indian IT firms as the ladders for global exposure, upgradation of expertise and acquisition of multicultural skills. Some of them practise yoga and meditation and look for opportunities to visit India. The spiritual satisfaction is a bonus for them while working and interacting with Indians.
Sushil admits that the image of India as an IT power has helped them in getting contracts easily in Latin America. He says that an Indian name with a young nerdy look is enough to get admiration and business. Of course, Sushil had to face lots of curious questions from the Latinos who kept asking him about the secret of success of Indians in IT. Sushil had attributed it to the Indian aptitude for abstraction as a result of the millennial tradition of philosophy and wisdom.
Some Latin American governments and especially the small and mid size ones welcomed Mann India with proactive support and encouragement. They hoped that the Indian companies would train the young talents of their countries and inspire them to start their own ventures. The Minister of IT of Dominican Republic Mr Eddie Martinez went out of his way in facilitating the entry of Mann in his country's cyber park, whose profile got enhanced with the Indian IT presence. Mann collaborated with the Dominican government in setting up a " SAP centre of Excellence" from which Dominicans could get training and SAP certification. Chile goes one step further than the other Latin American countries by providing even financial support to foreign start-ups in the tech incubator zone of Santiago. Some Indian start-ups have gone to Chile availing themselves of the incentives given by the Chilean government.
picture -Sushil, Eddy Martinez Minister of IT and Investment, President Lionel Fernandez of Dominican Republic and Lathika
What were the challenges faced in Latin America? According to Sushil, some of his Indian colleagues needed more time to understand and adjust to Latin American ways of business and life. Some Indian managers tried to boss over their Latin American staff who resented and became uncooperative. The Indian managers expected their subordinates to say "sir" and show respect for hierarchy. But the Latinos would have none of it and preferred to call their Indian superiors by their first names. Some Indian staff got carried away by their imagination of free spirit of Latinos, mistook friendly gestures especially of women as invitations for more and got into trouble. Vegetarians had difficulties in getting food of their liking. There are not many Indian restaurants or shops selling Indian groceries as in US or Europe. Those Indians who were looking for the comfort zone of Indian communities and "Little Indias" as in North America, Europe and Australia were disappointed since the Indian communities in Latin America are very small. The most serious challenge was crime, violence and insecurity in the day to day life in many big cities of the region. Sushil faced personal threats in Panama from a local mafia-type local businessman due to some contractual conflicts. Mann India, which got their largest contracts in Venezuela, is now struggling to remit some of their earnings out of the country due to the foreign exchange restrictions. Their contact who used to help in the Chavez era has lost influence under President Maduro. This is the downside of the personality-based society of Latin America which Indian businessmen need to watch out.
On the positive side, Mann staff found it easier to merge in the local communities since many Latin Americans also look like Indians in their "Café con Lait" ( coffee with milk ) color of the skin. The Indians learnt Spanish quickly since it is an easy language and the local people do not mind grammatical mistakes. The Indians found the Latinos friendly, warm and shared Indian values of families and hospitality. More importantly, the Indians felt at home when they heard the Latin Americans complaining about their unscrupulous politicians, inefficient bureaucracy, rampant corruption and inadequate infrastructure.
Sushil and Lathika share their success and happiness-filled Latin American stories and experience in business conferences of organizations such as CII and Nasscom inspiring other younger entrepreneurs to explore the opportunities offered by the new markets of Latin America. There is a huge potential for small and medium IT companies of India to get business in Latin America. There are a number of midsize Latin American clients who look for small and medium Indian IT companies for contracts which do not interest the big Indian firms such as TCS. The Electronics and Software Export Promotion Council (ESC) is doing a commendable job by including small Indian firms in delegations visiting Latin America every year and exposing them to the opportunities there. They also invite Latin American IT companies to their annual IndiaSoft exhibition and connect them to the Indian counterparts.