In the next five years, Ann Arbor can expect a new influx of immigrants – corporate, not individual – from India. It isn't exactly like the 19th century land-rush that opened the American West, but it will bring jobs and new industries to the state.
Why Michigan? The state, especially Ann Arbor, has advantages that make life here attractive both professionally and personally. With the growing global reach of Indian corporations, the University of Michigan and area firms provide a solid foundation in research and intellectual properties, particularly in life sciences, engineering, and alternative energy. Paired with the state's aggressive approach to tax incentives (including new film industry incentives) and DTW's direct connection to airports around the world, our little link in the Rustbelt has become very attractive.
"They come here for the educated workforce and the favorable labor laws. From an employer's standpoint, (labor laws are) much better than California, much more conducive. Unions are prevalent in India as well, so they're used to working with them," says Gurinder J. Singh, an attorney with the Ann Arbor office of Miller Canfield. She works with Indian companies looking for joint ventures or into setting up operations here.
There are equally strong arguments for Michigan on the personal side of life. "It's a great place to live, a great place to start a business. Businesses are about families – it's a great place to raise a family. The people I hire have families and they want to live in a place where they like raising a family," says Vinay Gupta, founder and CEO of Janeeva, Inc., an Ann Arbor-based software company. Even though Janeeva's customers are located outside of Michigan, he likes the quality of life here.
Inbound companies are mostly larger firms, says business developer Mahendra Ramsinghani. The economy is still a concern, but auto vendors and technology in auto-telematics (CAD/CAM, GPS and others) are ideally suited for our market as access to customers is important.
A former venture capitalist, Ramsinghani is Mentor-in-Residence for the University of Michigan Office of Technology Transfer, helping with accelerated commercialization and formation of new companies. His wife, Deepa Ramsinghani, is an owner of Concentrate's parent company, Issue Media Group.
Despite these promising trends, the international recruiting process sorely needs an umbrella organization to coordinate the many efforts already taking place, business development observers say. The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce (DRC), SPARK, the Michigan International Chamber of Commerce and the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce are all working on trade expansion but lack basic materials.
"How do we present Southeast Michigan as a good place to do business? How are other professional specialties, such as accountants, doing business development? We need to say, 'Come here – we've got a lot to offer'," says Miller Canfield's Singh.
For the past two or three years, the DRC has sent a trade mission to India, and interest has been strong. Alumni of area universities, now based in India, told Dick Blouse, CEO of DRC, that they would love to get back here, says Subhash Kelkar, executive director of the Detroit-based Indo-American Chamber.
"Michigan has immense buying power with auto, chemical (Dow), electronics (Whirlpool / Jabil) - which has not been marketed well enough to the far east," Ramsinghani says. Our huge market is of interest to both biotech and traditional manufacturing companies, and Indian automakers look to Detroit as a potential distribution point for their cars.
Two of the biggest business names in India have Michigan operations: Tata Motors' technology division (formerly called Incat) in Novi and Bharat Forge in Lansing. Bharat is a multi-billion-dollar company. A large textile manufacturer is currently in negotiations to bring a facility here.
When Bhushan Kulkarni, president and CEO of GDI Infotech, an Ann Arbor-based information integration company, met with the president of the Society of Automotive Engineers India last year, he heard of the sector's quest for global outreach and its interest in Michigan's IT and design and engineering talent.
"We don't have any concentrated efforts to attract that sector. We need more aggressive efforts. A lot of companies have tremendous interest, but they don't know how to go about it," he says. "My feeling is this process has already started, but people like me can only facilitate. We need focused energy from economic development people at the state level for attraction. When we have that, we'll start seeing a lot more action."
Kulkarni is involved in Ann Arbor SPARK's cultural ambassador program, an informal one-year-old outreach to attract international businesses. SPARK's program has a multi-country focus: the Arab world, China, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Russia and Taiwan. Each country team promotes business development in Ann Arbor through networking and the local community.
Unfortunately, negative media coverage of Michigan's economy doesn't help recruitment efforts.
"Because of all the doom and gloom presented by the media, people (from outside Michigan) are deterred from coming here. They think there's nothing in Michigan. On a trip to India earlier this year, in every conversation, I tried to present Michigan as one of the best opportunities," says Nipa Shah, founder and executive director of the Michigan International Chamber of Commerce (MIICC), based in Novi.
Shah recruited famous Bollywood actor Anupam Kher to hold Actor Prepares, a four-week acting workshop, in Troy this October. "That's what I said to Mr. Kher, in fact. We have the best educated workforce, an affluent community with people in good jobs, entrepreneurs, and given the economic downturn, the excellent property availability and film incentives make it an attractive place to come. That message isn't really getting through."
Shah said producers are considering shooting Asian or Indian films in Michigan, including some Bollywood components. Actors trained at Kher's new school would presumably have an edge in getting roles. This Bollywood -Motown connection sets the stage for cultural and economic opportunities few could have ever imagined for the Mitten State.
For an inkling of what that might look like, watch for Ocean of Pearls, a new film that tells the story of a young Sikh doctor in post-9/11 Detroit. A Michigan-made production, it premiered last week and is now in theatrical release.
Constance Crump is an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine. Her previous article was Young Guns On Board.
Gurinder Singh and Subhash Kelkar Checking Out India
All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer.