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India's overseas entrepreneurs gain ground on Chinese rivals

Bangkok's Little India is home to shops selling fabrics and other Indian goods.

BANGKOK -- The air in Bangkok's Chinatown, known locally as Yaowarat, is filled with the smell of Chinese medicine. At the edge of that neighborhood, however, the smell suddenly changes to that of curry.

     Little India, as this part of the capital is called, is where many Indians seeking their fortunes overseas come and settle in. Long overshadowed by the success of their Chinese counterparts, these expats, and their children, are starting to catch up.

     "I came from India's Punjab State," said the woman who owns Mama Restaurant and Sweets, a popular Indian restaurant in the district. Her eatery doubles as a home appliance shop, with television sets made by South Korea's Samsung Electronics and Japan's Sony piled up out front. "I sell them to neighbors," she said.

     Situated between China and India, Bangkok is at the crossroads where these two powers meet. Chinese and Indian immigrants both come to Yaowarat to set up shop, such as restaurants and sundries stores, and from there gradually expand their businesses. Charoen Pokphand Group, the largest overseas Chinese conglomerate, also got its start in the town.

     Harprem Doowa, a third-generation Indian immigrant, is another example. His father, who grew up near Yaowarat, found success in running a textile business, and Doowa himself, now 28, took a similarly entrepreneurial path, co-founding an online insurance business here.

Home-field disadvantage

Though many Indians have left home in search of opportunities, settling in foreign countries and working hard to grow their businesses overseas, they have long been eclipsed by the success of overseas Chinese doing the same. This is partly because of China's rapid economic growth, and partly because China has actively invited its expat businesses to invest in the mainland. Companies such as Charoen Pokphand Group and Malaysia's Shangri-La hotel chain have grown by taking advantage of such opportunities.

     India, whose gross domestic product is about a fifth of China's, also lags behind its neighbor in terms of economic reform. To protect its domestic companies, it has long kept the door shut to its own expat businesses. Indian businessman Lakshmi Mittal, who made his name as the king of steel by starting in Indonesia and later building a strong foothold in Europe, has been struggling to enter the market in his home country. 

     But there are signs of change. In January, Indorama Ventures, a Thai chemicals company founded by India-born CEO Aloke Lohia, entered the Indian market by acquiring a local plant that produces polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. The company had been producing PET, a key material for making plastic bottles, in 20 countries but had no plants in India. Indorama Venture is now the world's largest producer of the material for use in PET bottles.

     India's soft drink market has been expanding and the demand for PET is set to grow 20% annually thanks to its population of 1.3 billion people. Lohia said the timing was right to enter the Indian market, given China's slowdown and India's continuing growth. In 2015, India is estimated to have maintained real growth of 7.0-7.5%, compared with China's 6.9%.

     Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is now welcoming Indian investment from abroad. The government said it will lower the hurdles for overseas Indians to invest in the country if their businesses help promote the government's signature policies, such as the "Skill India" program to train engineers and the "Clean India" program designed to improve environmental facilities, including by building more toilets.

     Indians are starting to become more prominent in the global business world, as well. Last year, Google chose Sundar Pichai as its new CEO. Pichai, currently in his 40s, was head of the U.S. company's development team responsible for its operating system. Microsoft and Adobe Systems, two major American software companies, are headed by Satya Nadella and Shantanu Narayen, respectively.

     Back in Bangkok, expectations are growing. Ram Sachdev, a 59-year-old second-generation immigrant who launched an information magazine for local Indians, is confident that there will be more work to support Indian entrepreneurs living abroad to enter the Indian market. The gap between overseas Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs, it seems, is finally closing.

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