India is a huge country boasting a multifaceted economy with innovative companies growing globally, but awareness about its impact on Georgia’s economy is relatively small.
Israel, while itself a small nation, has more than 50 companies with headquarters here, creating thousands of jobs, minting millionaires and weaving a well-known narrative of trade and technology that has attracted attention at the highest levels of state government.
How to make the divergent investment stories of these allies intersect better here in Georgia, to the benefit of all three sides, was a topic of exploration at a recent celebration of 25 years of their diplomatic ties in Atlanta.
The discussion at the first India-Israel US Forum at Arnall Golden Gregory LLP covered a variety of factors in the Indo-Israeli relationship, but a panel discussion at the end of the event created more questions than answers.
Ani Agnihotri, whose USA-India Business Summit brings together academics and business leaders each year at Georgia Tech, said his efforts to help Georgia sell itself in India have met with limited success. In more than 30 trips, often with city and state leaders, it has become evident that the city’s brand isn’t always top of mind among Indian companies.
“It has been hit and miss. We don’t have traction. The boardrooms in India don’t know much about Atlanta or Georgia,” he said.
That’s partly because, unlike Israel, India hasn’t been visited by the state’s top elected officials, despite Mr. Agnihotri’s best efforts.
He contrasted that with South Carolina, whose former Indian-American governor, Nikki Haley, visited and set up an office in Delhi, leading to millions in manufacturing investments.
Neither has the India story in Atlanta been well enough explored, he said. It’s too focused on the prevailing narrative of information technology — big outsourcing firms like Wipro, Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services — with not enough attention given to future-facing sectors like financial technology and entertainment, in his view.
Jorge Fernandez, vice president for global commerce at the chamber, said the employment impacts of Indian IT firms locally are vastly underreported. While solidifying that base, the chamber is looking at areas of expansion.
Atlanta has changed its approach from strictly focusing on nations as sources of investment to pursuing cities with complementary industry clusters, he said.
“National governments are too big. They have too many priorities. Provinces are very diverse. But cities have a lot in common. And at the end of the day, the major cities are the economic engines that really propel the economies of our respective regions,” Mr. Fernandez said.
India is a big part of that, he said. Whether it’s working with Accenture’s Internet of Things initiative in Bangalore, Mumbai’s Bollywood scene or Hyderabad’s entrepreneurs, the chamber sees private-sector, project-based collaboration as the wave of the future, not the staid agreements with governments that might not be in office for long. He gave the example of the state of Karnataka, where a biotech memorandum of understanding with Georgia has fizzled after its initial signing.
Atlanta, he said, has to tell the story of its technology ascent in both India and Israel.
“No one knows what Atlanta is all about,” Mr. Fernandez said.
In Tel Aviv, the city is focused on cybersecurity, financial technology and health care information technology.
Those are also key sectors in Atlanta’s outreach to India, along with smart cities, logistics and the Internet of Things — connections between devices, for the benefit of consumers and manufacturers.
In all those sectors in both those countries, the city is looking to connect with leading venture capitalists to put Atlanta front of mind, Mr. Fernandez said.
Already, there has been some overlap in the India-Israel investment in the South. Wipro, the Indian IT giant, attended last year’s Conexx fintech summit to explore partnerships, said Guy Tessler, president of the organization also known as the America-Israel Business Connector. Conexx is hosting another fintech delegation in Atlanta May 22-23.
Other Atlanta-based companies have operations in both places. NCR Corp., for instance, makes ATMs in India and works on point-of-sale software in Israel.
Nagesh Singh, consul general of India, agreed that the breadth of the Indian investment story in the U.S. has yet to be explored fully. Even the well-known IT narrative fails to take into account the massive employment and tax impacts of Indian firms.
According to a Confederation of Indian Industry study, India is one of the fastest-growing sources of foreign investment in the country. From 2011-15, $15 billion of Indian investment flowed in, supporting 19,000 jobs. Less than half were in the IT sector, Mr. Singh said.
“There’s a myth that is floating around that it’s all IT, IT, IT,” he said, noting how Novelis’s Indian owners plowed $2 billion into reinventing the aluminum company.
The local economic commentary prompted a lot of discussion late in the event, but it started more with cultural and diplomatic discussion.
Maina Chawla Singh, scholar in residence at American University, whose husband, Arun Singh, was Indian ambassador to Israel before a recent stint as ambassador to the U.S., relayed on-the-ground research focused on Israeli tourists in India and Indian Jewish communities in Israel.
Shimon Mercer-Wood, consul for media affairs at the Israeli consulate general in New York, discussed how the Israeli government uses agricultural collaboration to build political ties across India.
MASHAV, Israel’s foreign aid agency, has set up 26 centers of agricultural innovation powered by Israeli technology. They focus on finding “progressive farmers” who will adopt trademark Israeli innovations like drip irrigation, an approach that has allowed the small country to grow crops in the desert. The goal is expanding trade and opening diplomatic doors.
“We don’t see this as aid,” Mr. Mercer-Wood said. “We really don’t, and it’s not just being politically correct.”
The event was also attended by Israeli Consul General Judith Varnai Shorer, who gave opening remarks. It was co-hosted by the American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta office.