Will Bachman 00:02
Hello, and welcome to Unleashed the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. I’m your host Will Bachman and I’m here today with one of my closest friends Rudra Chatterjee, who is joining us from India. Rudra. Welcome to the show.
Rudra Chatterjee 00:20
Hi, Will, great to see you.
Will Bachman 00:23
So Rudra there’s so many different things I thought we could talk about today. But maybe just to give people a little bit of an overview of what you have going on professionally. Maybe just introduce yourself, let you know, tell us about the different businesses you’re involved in.
Rudra Chatterjee 00:43
Sure. So Well, as you know, the two different businesses completely separate. One is in growing team. My family’s been growing tea for over 100 years. And we have tea estates in India and in Rwanda, we have been growing tea and some of the best regions where I think the best regions of producing Darjeeling, Assam, and in high altitude in Rwanda. And other business is in manufacturing carpets. Which mostly handmade and associated with the carpet business is also furniture business, which is a new, new business. So these are two different businesses, the tea business is called Lakshmi tea. And the carpet business is called ob.
Will Bachman 01:40
Okay, and we’ll include links to those in the show notes. So I just wanted to give give people a sense. So you have a couple family businesses going on. I want to start with, and you also we should mention, you also teach right you you and you say you teach you write periodically, and tell us about those two aspects of what you have going on.
Rudra Chatterjee 02:08
So I’ve ever since we were in Colombia together, and I have enjoyed teaching, I had a taste of being a teaching assistant. And then I became an adjunct professor in International Management Institute in Calcutta, in India, and also a guest faculty in Indian Institute of Management, I am Calcutta. And it has some relevance to my the things I see at work. But it’s also keeps me the fun part is the fact that I get to hear what the students are saying about the problems I face. So it’s, in some ways, great advice from people who would be either, you know, colleagues or customers, in terms of writing is a little more on I read like newspapers, Telegraph, statesman, these are newspapers in India. And there is no period, it’s usually something to do with economics. To Do With, after the budget is announced, or some significant economic policy is announced. I try to write you know, marrying my interests in history and business. And that’s, that’s what I enjoy doing.
Will Bachman 03:35
Great. Now, you have always struck me, like, you know, I like to read, but I don’t read like 10% of the amount that you do. I, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned a book to you. And you haven’t told me Oh, yeah, I just read that. Or I read that a couple years ago. Tell me a little bit about your reading interests, and the types of books you’d like to read and maybe how you decide what to read next.
Rudra Chatterjee 04:02
So it’s funny that you say that, because I never read as a kid. And, you know, I started reading only when I was in where I am now in Mizzou, and I didn’t have any friends. And there was this big library right next to where I lived. And it was the only way I could spend my time other than at work. So I, by necessity, didn’t have the choice of books. I read what was available. It wasn’t a very, it’s not like the New York Public Library. It’s got a few books. So you read what I read what I got. And I still think of reading books a little like meeting people. And the you know, when you meet a person, you engage with them and you find a lot of things that are interesting about them. I don’t necessarily read the books that have got number one ranking In newspaper or rating, or some very famous authors, I miss the browsing experience these days, but in the past, it would be going into a library and just going through spending an hour that was as interesting as reading a book was it was just spending the time looking through different books reading a couple of pages, and thinking of the times when it was written, but mostly, it’s nonfiction, mostly somehow related to either economics or current affairs or history. And within that, is most of my reading. Or, you know, you were asking about the, I’m reading a book called The new map by Daniel Yergin. It’s a book, which Danny Reagan has written a lot of books on energy. He’s written the prize. And the quest and this is a book that came out in September, I don’t know, Amazon referred in recommended to be read, and I started reading it, I’m enjoying it. But there’s also a lot of, you know, books I’ve been reading during this period where we are all stuck at home during the COVID times on how we reacted to the plague in India, how we reacted to the, you know, avian flu in 1918 1819 180. So, you know, just the context of, you know, how things are so similar during our age and the age then so it’s more out of interest, but my interest tends to be more history or economics.
Will Bachman 06:45
What are some of the the top books that you’ve read recently that you would recommend?
Rudra Chatterjee 06:51
So, I’ve been, like going through a lot of books, the great pandemic, which is 100 years ago, written I think, 20 years ago, there’s a books by Neil Ferguson on Empire. And I’m really I read a recent book, which he talks about the 1918, flu, and the impact it had on the tea industry, called the empire of tea. So it’s, it’s quite all over the place. But those are the books I’ve read recently.
Will Bachman 07:42
Now, you’ve also been organizing some talks recently, with some pretty well known economists, some sort of virtual events, tell tell us a little bit about those, those talks that you’ve been organizing.
Rudra Chatterjee 07:57
So when the you know, was shut down in March, I thought one positive is that I would be able to reach out to people who I wanted to have conversations with. And it’s easier to do it now. Like we are speaking diamond versus apple and you’re in your farm. So I reached out past I think, early April to visit vangie and Esther Duflo, the Nobel Prize winners in 2019, and economics. And we’ve done work with them in a corporate company, talking about how to engage more women in the workforce, and coming up with processes where absenteeism can be reduced. So, we wanted to speak with them in general about the tools that they have used. And, you know, both Esther Duplo and Abhijit Banerjee, it was just very early during the COVID days, we talked about the Indian economy, we talked about COVID. Next, reading did an event with the head of Moody’s for us and India, William Foster, to talk about the credit rating impact, after you know, this kind of a shock, and that was, you know, interesting and a lot of curiosity among both banks and business people. We, I did an event with Joseph Stiglitz, who was a professor in London. And he spoke about inequality and the challenges about governance in different countries. And last event was, I had worked my first job so To speak, was with outside my family was with Muhammad Yunus, Grameen Bank, short internship. So he spoke to us about social business. And he made a huge impact to our business, because of the huge number of people who work in tea and in home furnishings. And I thought it would be a good time when so many people are challenged, challenged in terms of jobs in India, for business leaders in India to hear Muhammad Yunus speak about how to run a social business, or how to engage and create productive opportunities for a lot more people. So those were the those were some of the events Actually, I’ve, I’ve had a lot of events over the last few months, because it’s just like, it’s so much fun. And anyone who, anyone who agrees I love doing this, these conversations on what’s happening to the world, and how do we react? I think we are in a completely different world, in many ways, and hearing many perspectives is great.
Will Bachman 11:11
You mentioned kind of the social aspect of running a business. I know that at ob t at that you’ve taken, you know, quite a number of initiatives in terms of environmental protection and taking care of the workers that go well beyond the requirements that the government in terms of what well beyond government regulation. Could you could you talk about that a little bit in terms of some of the investments you’ve made and what what drove you to do that?
Rudra Chatterjee 11:45
Absolutely. So OBG you know, his company, which is in the middle of a rural area, in a very populated part of Indian, Uttar Pradesh, very close to Parliament’s and both creating opportunities for the 1000s of Weaver’s a, to ensure that they have their children have good education, creating good schools, which are helping their families get a opportunity that they didn’t get, and also creating a safe working condition in the village where the law and order situation cannot, can sometimes not be very good. So having very good safe working places, creating an environment where the people don’t have to travel far creating a well lit place in a row through which they walk from their village home to where they come to work. And having a process which uses as little water and as little energy as possible, have been the focus. And the reason these have been focus is I think, you know, in a company for a company like OBD, which is within the villages of India, in having a strong community impact makes us a stronger company, especially over the long term. And I’ve always felt that we have two sets of customers one is the villages where we give work and for them to choose OBG over anyone else. And for customers to buy our products. The second is obvious, you know, having good designs, having good marketing, having good prices, that’s more You know what, you know, we are always taught most most of the time we speak about that. But for example, the then in late March, everything shut down. The first thing we did was get good packets of food, which will look after a family for one month distributed to more than 2000 families. And we had colleagues in obesity wearing masks, but driving through the villages, handing it out. I think over years when people in the villages see that obesity is standing up to be countered, bringing jobs, bringing education, making sure that environment is safe. We are the preferred choice for these people when they want to work. And that gives us an very easy growth opportunity because we need workers to grow and this is a labor intensive business. So that’s something that I think, you know, all of us at OBD would use I have to do irrespective of the business consequences, but I think there is a business case as well. And also, I think it’s, when you’re talking about what the government requires us to do, I think it’s certainly a, we’ve tried to stay ahead of that, you know, not because the state mandates us, but we feel that this is something that engages our colleagues, you know, a lot of a lot of companies believe in paying a big bonus, after a good deal, I think, along with a good bonus, if you can do some things that they feel proud of the company having done. And they feel that they’ve contributed, which they have, by going and distributing the food during COVID times, and, you know, seeing that, you know, the schools are running well. That creates as much engagement in the company as monetary benefits. And I think the same is true for Lakshmi, you know, when there was a big issue of migrants in India, coming from one part of India to another, and we created their clubs, in all these states and the clubs to offer for migrants to come and stay in the clubs, and then only if they’re tested, and they found to be enough COVID, negative, they come into the TST. But till then they can stay, they can, you know, as long as they’re not, you know, meeting people, they can stay there, eat food. And if they’re not, well, if they are found COVID positive go to the hospital. And so we know that was a way to ensure that the minimum number of people got the infection in the TST. In Rwanda, where we have 3d Estates, we first you know, told people that they don’t have to come to work, they will get paid, even if they don’t show up in the beginning, because that was a worry. And we made a contribution to the local charities and the government, who was who were actually doing all the work. So I think this has been something you know, every year, you have different requirements, as a citizen, as a corporate citizen, this was a big gun. You needed to do more than other years, because this was one of those years that we will always remember. Hopefully, it’ll be one year. But it will be it was one of those years that we would be remembering many years later, you know, did we do a good job? You know, did we do our play our role, and I think I’m glad that both obedia and Lakshmi were participants during this process.
Will Bachman 17:57
I know that there has been, you know, some concerns, on some parts about the use of child labor in the production of carpets. Tell me about the steps that that ob T is taken to make sure that there’s no, you know, child labor being involved in the production of carpets.
Rudra Chatterjee 18:16
So the employing children is illegal. And so having process to ensure that there is no children in the weaving sheds is something that is done every three days. In obesity, we know whenever someone is leaving, Who are the members in the family, we ensure that they’re in school or away from the workplace during the work hours. And we have a very strong process which the ILO called as it was referred to as the gold standard that this was 20 years ago. The process has been good and the process is working, I think. From the legal point of view of ensuring that children don’t work, we are fine. The issue is more needs to be done. And it was because of that, that we contributed to opening our schools, by project mala, who opened five schools where children who are in the grieving families get educated, it’s not enough to have the negative thing that no child should work, but what are they doing during the time that they’re not what what skills are they learn, so that they, you know, get a good job, hopefully, as an executive, nobody or you know, anywhere else in. We’ve also been working for the last five years with a very good organization called prism for primary school education, and the quality of education that is being given is better and I think better Also have, it’s taken a while. Because the reason child labor exists is any purely economic reason, because people are very poor, and they can’t easily make ends meet. So if you can give good jobs to the adults, I don’t think they would push that you want to work, and especially if there’s a good education opportunity. So I think all of these have to be done, have a strong law, so that, you know, whatever might be the reason, which we may understand, you can’t have a child. Second, have a good environment for schooling. And thirdly, make sure that the parents are getting good jobs, make sure that parents are getting good salaries, so that they can look after their families. So all three of those are key and OBD is being this is much before my time that will be took these decisions and has played a pioneering role in eliminating child labor from the industry.
Will Bachman 21:02
When you and I were in business school together, I might have had slightly stronger Excel skills. But I recall that you, you you were a few years younger than me, I guess, I guess you’re still are. But you it’s it seemed to me that you were much more mature and wiser in your business judgment. And, you know, there was many cases where, you know, you would share a perspective and I, you know, I think it must have come from being in a family business and being kind of at your father’s side, and kind of growing up in that environment. Talk to me some about some of the lessons you learned from your father, as you were growing up about how to you know, how to manage a family, family owned business.
Rudra Chatterjee 21:49
So firstly, you were much better at most things than me than Excel. Excel was one of those things, especially, you know, I came into a completely unknown world of business school. And thanks to your guidance, I picked up a lot of business school kid skills during my time in Colombia. But I do certainly feel that my business training was started at a very young age. by my father and my grandfather, my grandfather had started our company more than 100 years ago. And he had to leave his home, which is now in Bangladesh, and set up business again, in India, in a very challenging environment. And my father took that business, which was a small business, run by my grandfather, who was also a freedom fighter who fought against the British during the to get us to a part of the independence movement. So business wasn’t the only thing he was engaged in, but my father grew the business tremendously. And in those days with one telephone in our house, one landline and very difficult to get a connection, there were times when I would pick up the phone and, you know, actually do the business deal. Because if I didn’t, there would be no more deal there was, it wasn’t like you could, so there would be someone who’s offering something at some price. And my father would say that, you know, if he offers this as this price return, you know, you know, the phone call, you get disconnected if you if you if you don’t do it. So, you know, we were very curious, and we also realize that it is tough job to earn a return. You know, the world that I grew up in, in the 1980s. You know, it was the license Raj in India, very few, it was very difficult to set up a business very difficult to buy a car in, get a telephone connection. And it was a huge struggle that I saw my father go through. But the beauty was that every evening he you know, a lot of people say we shouldn’t talk about work at the dinner table that was never followed by us. We were always talking about what happened and how things didn’t work out. And so I think a lot of people, when they grow up in the business, they just grow up in an environment which is almost like a vacuum. And they come into business like they’re doing any job but it’s not, you know, the fact is, it is an entity in my the tea business and we didn’t have, you know, a stake in OBD at that time. The tea business was an entity that I saw, you know, how things, whether it was the good market was crashing market, the next year, high cost, bad weather, you see issues with wages with, you know, new laws and how things would change. So those were things that we would invite on a regular basis. And the lessons were essentially that you have to have a good plan, a good strategy of what why your business to succeed, most businesses don’t succeed. And B, you have to be very nimble and humble. Running a business, you know, because things keep changing. And, you know, this is a, I think, a great year for us, not just kids growing up, but all of us to see how this can be from, you know, just the year before. And the what seemed completely, like, a great business sometimes seems like a very, you know, challenged environment. And so that was something that we grew up learning, and I think I took some of that to the business school, and I took some of that to my consulting job after Business School, when I would see that, you know, group of very well intentioned consultants would be suggesting something completely crazy, according to me to the, to the client, because it looks good on paper. But you know, it is not a robust plan, and it can go wrong, and it can kill a good business. And so I was, you know, I was more conscious of, you know, that this is not something that needs to be optimized, necessarily all the time, you have to run it for longevity. You know, that’s, that’s, you know, that’s what I felt I brought,
Will Bachman 27:03
can you can you think of any particular examples of, you know, consulting recommendations that, that didn’t kind of jive with your own kind of personal personal experience having been in business.
Rudra Chatterjee 27:17
So there was a few of them, there were time we were in a company, which was making robotics, and, you know, there were poor returns in the sensor, and some of the parts of the tools that the company was engaged in, and in all the waterfall and all the charts, it was just looking like a terrible business. And you know, and it was like this Excel, which is a fantastic tool, but you know, people were just cutting out the last the 10 most unprofitable segments, and showing a much better return if you had just not done these 10 businesses. And that’s, you know, it was quite obvious that, you know, robotics is something that might be valuable in the future, and that’s why the company is doing it, but it was a lot of attention and negative attention. Was that, okay, you should be doing robotics, but you know, you haven’t been very efficient at that, and stuff like that. But you know, in some cases, you are not supposed to be very efficient on something that you don’t really know, what the future is going to look like, you have to have a broad plan of going after the segment. And this company finally did very well, because they had invested in that segment, the having the sensors in robotics, but during the whole project, there was a lot of attention not on, you know, okay, how can we make this into an even bigger opportunity in robotics, but okay, you are losing a lot of money, your experience experiences negative, you know, maybe we should, you know, be a little more focused and how we are investing. And maybe we should not, you know, people wouldn’t say cut it off, but they say let’s be a little smart about how we’re spending the money. Well, that’s not the way I looked at it and even in my business. You know, I’ve seen you know, in the furniture project in the first two, three years, the business was much worse than what would be expected because when you’re getting into a business you you know, you never know you know, whether you know what the customer wants, you’ll be doing a lot of wrong wrong sampling you probably do the wrong product and all of that it was much worse and a lot of the guidance from independent directors board members, were okay let’s you know, do this in a small way. It’s almost like you You want to have fun with this segment, do it but don’t spend a lot of money. But you know, you have to say that this is probably going to be If you’ve thought through it, this is probably going to be something that you have to put the money aside and forget about it. Don’t think about the returns, give it five years, if you’ve lost the money, you know, that’s what you’ve, you know, you have to be prepared to do it. And that was not the way in general, I saw consulting, I loved consulting, I still have a lot of positives out of my experience. But I think sometimes consultants are led by data instead of, you know, using data to, you know, in a more nuanced way.
Will Bachman 30:41
Let’s talk about caste for a minute. There’s a new book out, you may have read it called caste that talks about, you know, race in America and caste in India. Tell us your perspective on how things are you kind of the current situation in India, and how you see how you see that situation evolving?
Rudra Chatterjee 31:07
Yeah, I bought the book, brought it to Morocco. And I think there’s it’s the first time I saw a book, which actually takes the black experience in the United States and the cost experience in India and puts it in one book. I think Ambedkar, founder of the, the drafter of our Constitution, the main drafter of our Constitution, spoke in some, at some points, he spoke, and combine those two experiences, but this is the first time I’ll speak about caste in India, and the challenge that it has had to development. Firstly, I see no redeeming feature of the caste system in India. And it’s been probably the most long term and most damaging feature of India, where, you know, finding a structure which has been so resilient and robust, and has existed for 1000s of years. And, you know, being it’s something that was there in, you know, 2000 years ago, still relevant in newspaper advertisements, when, you know, people are, you know, and I’m sure, although I’ve been now married for many years, so I wouldn’t know, but I’m sure even in on apps, when you’re looking to date or something like that, it’s so it’s, it’s something that’s just lasted. And the reason is, because it’s a hierarchy. So it’s reinforces one caste is, you know, it’s, you know, it’s kept down by the one higher cost. And even within each cost, there is segments, there are segments. And so there is a, the experience of cost, you know, it’s something that when I was, you know, being having grown up in Calcutta, having grown to an elite school, I didn’t see it as much as I did when I got into work. And I went into religious and I saw how ingrained it was, it has, you know, just like anything, which is like, like racism, or, you know, sexism, because it has, it is not based on reality. It, it runs in a peculiar way. And if you can’t, if you can’t, you know, come up with a good set of reasons why it should be removed, is there is no reason why it should be there at all. But it just there are too many players who have lived off it for too long for it to be given up.
Will Bachman 34:11
What are some of the ways that it it frustrates progress or impedes you as a business person in terms of, you know, hiring people promoting people or that just sort of
Rudra Chatterjee 34:22
the challenge is that, I think, just when you have cost, you’re essentially it’s an absence of merit. And that no business runs well, when there’s an absence of merit. And you get focused on costs you focused on which part of the country you’re from. which language you speak, that is a challenge. And it’s been a challenge in I think India wouldn’t have been is probably a dramatic thing to say, but I don’t think India would have been colonized for as long if it hadn’t been focused. It, you know, when, when Indians fought for their fitness used to be one part of India fighting for the freedom because many parts, many other parts, you know, they couldn’t combine themselves effectively as one unit. I think that’s true in India. And I know there is at least strong recognition, across, you know, government, across political parties across many parts of society, that it is something that needs to go. But it is pernicious in its own way. And it’s it, I think the best sunlight is great education. The best disinfectant of cost is bringing, bringing good schools and making sure children are sitting together, and learning and getting jobs because they are no longer identified by their caste, but by their degrees or by their skills. But it’s not. It holds it, the country is held back because of it. And it’s not easy to resolve it, I think the opportunities of a country or any part of a country, which gets out of the cost, you know, identity to try to, you know, an identity of merit is huge.
Will Bachman 36:47
Tell me a bit about the current situation of COVID. In India, you know, how is how is the government responded, our business responded and what’s happening today with with COVID in India?
Rudra Chatterjee 36:59
I think the government responded very early and very strongly. You know, I’ve obviously lived many years in us and I was quite alarmed at the, you know, discussion on whether wearing masks is a good idea, or is it a flu that will go away, that was you know, the kind of commentary from the highest levels of US government, that didn’t happen in India, India, in a lockdown very strongly, very early 26th March, and that lockdown was originally supposed to be for 15 days, then it got extended a few times. And we were in total lockdown, till early May. The challenge was not the seriousness with which it was taken, the challenge is that India has a massive informal economy. And it is impossible, like for companies like ours, we continue to pay all wages through the COVID days, but the people who don’t have a job in the first place, or are making goods and selling goods, or cooking food and selling food on the roadside for them, there has to be more help coming their way. And that is a big challenge. You know, I don’t know, what would have been the best way to put money in their hands without having that pre existing system. You know, maybe they needed to, you know, we basically got stuck in a bad way as a very high, highly populated poor country with a very high informal network. I think companies did more than their share. I think just like at ob T, we realized that this is a great opportunity. Many companies did more than their share, but many companies really struggled. Now, many companies themselves were running out of cash. And, you know, banks were, you know, pressurizing them to pay back when they didn’t have the money. So there were many issues that it was, in some ways a perfect storm. And the number in India was high. But I think the testing must have been reasonably good. Although the newspaper said that the testing rates were not very good, but I feel testing must have been reasonably good because the fatality rate is probably the lowest in the world, which usually is high, you know, there’s nothing else that I can say why is the fatality rate so low? It’s probably because more people were tested to have COVID. And that’s why the numbers are low. The number it looks like now that the numbers are, you know, it had gone up to 98,000 was the highest number of COVID cases in one day. It’s now down to Round 50 but there is no vaccine anywhere else in the world. So it might go back up, you know, because people are people now realize that they have to wear masks, but you know, they have to continue earning money. And it’s a huge challenge. And, you know, to meet the, you know, both the what the two concerns, right the the, whether you will die of COVID and whether you will die of hunger. And in a poor country like India, it’s, you know, it’s never an easy, you know, it’s never easy to take that call for any state. I hope that we will have a vaccine soon. But the second challenge would be how do you distribute a vaccine to 1.4 billion people? Apparently, some of these vaccines need to be transported in cold temperatures. So the vaccine were to come out in, say, March next year, when the summer is about to start. How do you manage that? And so, you know, it’s a, it’s a huge challenge. My only hope is, these have been India’s biggest weaknesses, like you were talking about caste. You know, one thing is, everybody realizes that, you know, this is something that is impacting all of us together, and we need to have systems as a country, irrespective of our caste, or gender, or what language we speak, or, you know, rich or poor. We need good systems in our country, good logistics, good health care, and, you know, vaccine programs, good technology so that we can work even when we are not at office. So there would be some positives coming out of it. But right now, we are in the midst of dealing with a very bad crisis.
Will Bachman 42:11
Rudra I think we’re coming to the end here. I know you have two happiness meetings, for people that wanted to follow up and learn more about the books you’re reading or the company, your companies that you run, where’s the best place for people to go to find out more about what you have going,
Rudra Chatterjee 42:29
a company websites for the companies. I have a website that I just write my news, I put my newspaper articles and any video interactions with the professors you spoke about I posted on Rudra strategy.com. So it’s, you can always go and see what I’ve written or if I’ve done any interviews, I haven’t actually put up anything on books. Because, you know, I don’t, I am happy to, if you if you want me to, but I haven’t done that as yet. But, you know, in terms of what I’ve written, and any of the conversations I’ve had on video, they are up on Rudra chatterjee.com
Will Bachman 43:09
antastic. Well, we will include that link in the show notes. And I would love if you have some time at some point to start tracking the books that you read. I’d love to follow your recommendations, maybe on Goodreads or something. But we’ll include those links in the show notes. Rudra. It’s been such a pleasure having you on the show. Thanks for joining today.
Rudra Chatterjee 43:30
Thank you so much. We’ll be right