Nathan Sigworth still remembers the trepidation that accompanied his move to India. A college grad with an eye for business, he wasn't concerned about unfamiliar turf or overcrowded cities. More worrisome was the competition he'd face from Indian peers with a reputation for math smarts and hard-driving ambition.
But three years later, the company he launched here to help consumers detect counterfeit medicine has just inked deals with Indian drugmakers to use his service on 50 million packages of pills a year. While Indians have long headed to the United States to boost their fortunes, Mr. Sigworth sees India as a land of opportunity where Americans can bring much-needed skills to the table – despite concerns that US education is turning out workers who cannot compete.
"When I first moved to India I thought, 'Gosh, here I am surrounded by people who are doing algebra in elementary school.... [With] all these smart people, how can I even compete?' " says Sigworth, a 20-something from Connecticut who is cofounder and CEO of PharmaSecure in New Delhi.
What he discovered, he says, is that American education and American cultural heritage "prepare us so well for working in the world, for being pioneers."
On President Obama's Nov. 4-14 trip to Asia, he encouraged more trade with India as a way to add jobs in the US, but enterprising Americans like Sigworth aren't waiting for jobs to come to America. "I would say, 'Go east, young man,' " he says. "I think sometimes people in the US don't realize what they bring to the table if they go outside of their country."
Part of what they can bring, he says, is an outlook that comes from the international nature of American higher education. Sigworth and a small group of friends at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., came up with their business idea after hearing from African classmates about the problem of fake medicine.
Their solution: Print a randomized code on each pill pack, along with a number to text in order to verify the code. A computer receives the cellphone message, checks the code in a database, and sends back expiration and batch information that the customer can crosscheck.
Implementing this idea are 10 employees. Some are Indian-Americans, others are Indians who have worked or studied in the US. Complementary skills and perspectives have emerged on this team, some influenced by cultural upbringing.
Blending cultural strengths
At a basic level, Americans come from a culture of affluence, and Indians – particularly in past decades – come from a culture of scarcity. Americans, therefore, tend to bring higher expectations for customer service and quality control. "We know what we expect. We demand it," says Sigworth.
Luke Pomranky, another American at the company, notes that those with US training tend to focus on identifying steps toward a goal. "I see that as well with Indians who have gone to the States and have come back with this different mentality that it's not just that [a goal] will come about miraculously, but it's much more, 'What's our plan of action to make this happen?' "
Those growing up in a less-wealthy India, however, bring experience in shaving down costs of production. Given the large population, many businesses here make money on low-margin, high-volume sales.
The Indian focus on the bottom dollar helped Sigworth stick to priorities. For example, PharmaSecure's office sits up a couple of flights of dark steps in a cramped back alley behind a Hindu temple and between a sweet shop and a leather vendor. As his company grew, Sigworth grew anxious about the low-budget digs – until he visited the corporate headquarters of a large manufacturer in Delhi.
"I walk up this windy staircase, dimly lit. I would never have guessed that this is a multibillion-dollar company. No air conditioning," says Sigworth. "And then I realized that [as] you see the growth rates of companies here [you realize] … they haven't had time to move."
A link to American jobs
India's economy is projected to grow by 8.5 percent this fiscal year, and last year mostly dodged the slump that hit the US and Europe.
Trade between India and the US is expected to reach $50 billion this year. Last year, the US exported almost as much to India ($16.4 billion) as it imported ($21.2 billion). A study by the India-US World Affairs Institute linked those American exports to 96,000 US jobs.
"Many American companies still don't think of India as a serious market. When I tell people that India has a trillion-dollar economy, many are shocked," says Gunjan Bagla, principal of Amritt Ventures, a California company that advises companies on how to do business in India. "I'm hopeful that Obama's visit will change that."