2023 – Building Bridges, Bolstering India & U.S. Connections

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The strategic partnerships—and opportunities—between India and the United States to promote global security, women’s rights, trade and investment have never been stronger. This was the thesis of the daylong Seattle-Setu conference at Seattle University, showcasing the state’s pivotal role in building economic and political bridges with India. (Setu means “bridge” in Sanskrit.)

More specific to Washington state, the conference highlighted the benefits Indian companies bring to the local economy and the myriad investments flowing from the state to India. A series of keynote speakers and themed panels expounded on topics ranging from business partnerships and talent recruitment between India and the U.S. to philanthropy to the differences and challenges unique to India’s legal system versus what is common in the States.

As part of the conference, the university also officially launched the RoundGlass India Center, dedicated to further strengthening business, education, philanthropy and other collaborative efforts between Washington state and India. Law Professor and Associate Dean Sital Kalantry will serve as the Center’s executive director. (Read a recent opinion piece from Kalantry, published in the Seattle Times, on the importance of the U.S.-India relationship.)

The conference kicked off with opening remarks from President Eduardo Peñalver, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, state Senator Manka Dhingra and Sunny Singh, founder of Edifecs.

State senator speaking at morning conference session.
State Senator Manka Dhingra speaks at the conference.

In his remarks, Singh spoke on the benefits of the India Center, which he called “a platform to strengthen the collaboration of ideas for a common cause.”

The Center will undoubtedly help to remove barriers and expand opportunities with India, from higher education to the business and legal worlds. (World leaders will gather in India September 9-10 for the 2023 G20 New Delhi summit.)

“The state of Washington, by creating this Center, is creating a name for itself for a Washington-India corridor,” said Anurag Varma, senior vice president and head of public affairs for Adani North America, one of the speakers on the panel “Navigating the Legal Landscape: Empowering Businesses for Transnational Success.”

One of the keynote speakers was U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), the Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration Integrity, Security and Enforcement. Jayapal is the first immigrant in recorded committee history to serve as either Ranking Member or Chair of this Subcommittee. The focus of her speech was “Opportunities for Seattle’s Engagement with India,” during which she elevated the importance of the new India Center. 

“I am deeply, deeply grateful to the RoundGlass India Center for all the new learnings and the opportunities that I know will transpire on this platform you provide for leading minds from both of our countries to come together to learn and to build a brighter future together,” said Jayapal, who also noted that the Center’s opening coincides with the news that Seattle is getting its own Indian consulate. “I know so many of you have been working on this for years. It’s finally happening.”

The first panel of the conference, moderated by Brian Surratt, president and CEO of Greater Seattle Partners, focused on “Global Collaborations: Embracing Opportunities and Overcoming Challenges.” Centering on highlighting the connections between India businesses and those in the U.S.—including American companies bringing goods and services to India—the panelists emphasized the bilateral nature of this relationship. While Indian businesses significantly contribute to the economic prosperity of the Emerald City, Seattle continues to provide opportunities for growth and success for Indian enterprises.

Panelists at Seattle Setu conference.
The “Global Collaborations: Embracing Opportunities and Overcoming Challenges” panel.

Across the board the panelists stressed the importance of knowing your market and to not adapt a one-size-fits-all approach when entering a new market or releasing a new product or service into a country. Something that might work well in the U.S. may not in a smaller or midsize market in one of India’s many cities. 

When adapting to a new market, “focus on the fundamentals and … authenticity” in your products or services, said Samir Kumar, vice president, International Consumer at Amazon. “At Amazon, if we are going to call ourselves a global company, we have to adapt to and learn from both large and emerging markets.”

On the subject of recruiting talent from India to work in the U.S., “Seattle is far better off than other societies and cities,” said Anand Swaminthan, executive vice president and global industry leader with Infosys Communications, Media and Technology. 

Added panelist Raj Shah, founder of Shah Safari: “We are very blessed for those of us who make Seattle home. There are wonderful forces here that allow people to thrive here and then take that out to other parts of the world.” 

For the panel, “Navigating the Legal Landscape: Empowering Businesses for Transnational Success,” leading U.S. and Indian-trained lawyers shared their expertise on the intricacies of Indian law, providing essential guidance to businesses venturing into transnational activities between the two countries. Topics included the evolving legal education in India to satisfy the demand for globally trained lawyers, the staggering growth of corporate law firms within the country, recent regulatory changes concerning foreign law firms operating in India, the shift toward arbitration to resolve disputes and the challenges posed by U.S. immigration laws.

Lawyers on a panel on India laws.
The “Navigating the Legal Landscape: Empowering Businesses for Transnational Success” panel.

“The approach to market entry is almost identical in all democracies. It’s about the voice of the people,” said panelist Anurag Varma, senior vice president and head of public affairs at Adani North America. “Participate in the democracy. That’s what some companies don’t export.”

Moderated by King County Superior Court Judge Ketu Shah, the panelists underscored the value of relationship building.

“The critical thing about (practicing law) in India is relationships and getting to know the client in authentic ways,” said Pallavi Mehta Wahi, co-U.S. and Seattle Managing Partner at KL Gates, while speaking on transnational legal hurdles. “It’s all about the honesty of these relationships.”

Panelist Pratibha Jain, general counsel and head of strategy for Everstone Group, noted that “Even though there’s been a bridging of the gap (between the U.S. and India) there is still a wide gulf: its culture, its distance, its language.”

Two guests in audience at conference.

For the conference’s afternoon sessions, the first was led off by Jayapal’s keynote address.

The four-term Democrat—and first Indian American woman elected to the U.S. House—shared her story on being born in Chennai and immigrating to the U.S. as a 16-year-old college student. Jayapal emphasized the need for Democrats to gain majority in the House and having Senators abolish chamber rules that allow members to filibuster bills as essential to passing comprehensive immigration reform.

“That’s what we really need to do,” Jayapal told the audience, also adding: “We haven’t had comprehensive immigration reform for decades. … It is hurting us economically and culturally. We’re losing people to other countries, like Canada.”

Additionally, Jayapal praised the RoundGlass India Center and the Seattle-Setu conference as strengthening relationships between Seattle and India.

“This opportunity to really center a dialogue about India and U.S. relations and specifically the opportunity and challenges of this region, which I am so, so proud to represent, is phenomenal,” Jayapal said. “This exciting new venture has enormous potential and builds on an already strong foundation of engagement between our city and India.”

Jayapal was followed by a session on “Empowering Change: Impact on Social & Economic Development in India.” 

In a panel discussion moderated by Seattle University Economics Professor Meenakshi Rishi, PhD, Ankur Vora, chief strategy officer for the Gates Foundation, said “doom and gloom” thinking is vital to recognizing the reality and depth of the challenges facing India. However, there have been substantive advancements in recent years that should be recognized, such as reducing and eliminating the tragedies of child deaths and deaths by starvation.

“We are making amazing progress,” Vora said. 

Conference afternoon session with Meena Rishi.
The “Empowering Change: Impact on Social & Economic Development in India” panel moderated by Economics Professor Meenakshi Rishi, PhD (far right).

Dilip Wagle, senior partner for McKinsey & Company and a social entrepreneur and philanthropist, emphasized that philanthropic giving can result in positive change.

“Giving is an act of sacrifice, it is an act of courage,” Wagle said. “If you believe in the cause, then step up.”

In a forum called “U.S.-India Relations: Past, Present, and Future,” Nancy Izzo Jackson, deputy assistant secretary for India from the U.S. State Department, told the audience that India was poised to become the world’s third largest economy by the end of the decade. 

U.S. State Department speaker
Nancy Izzo Jackson, deputy assistant secretary for India from the U.S. State Department.

India’s ascent on the global stage holds transformative potential, said Izzo Jackson, who emphasized that by embracing the partnership between the world’s oldest and the world’s biggest democracies, the U.S. can harness the power of collaboration across trade, people-to- people connection, security, gender equality, environmental sustainability and more. 

“The establishment of the RoundGlass India Center here at Seattle University stands as an important step toward furthering our understanding of the potential and opportunity unlocked by the U.S.-India partnership, guiding us toward a shared prosperity, progress and innovation and a more sustainable world,” Jackson told the audience. “I am excited to see the contributions I know the Round Glass India Center will make to this partnership for the 21st century.”

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