The US-India Business Council (USIBC) is going West, to the state considered America’s tech capital, and which leads all other US states in exports to India. This week, USIBC will hold its first ever West Coast Summit, in Menlo Park, in California’s Silicon Valley. This will be in addition to its annual summit held every year in Washington, DC in June.
The Silicon Valley meeting, organised in partnership with Ficci, will focus on sectors important to the region, including technology, media and entertainment, and venture capital. USIBC officials are confident the new event won’t cannibalise its traditional annual summit, and will instead draw those unable to make it to Washington, DC every year. “It’s been hard for our West Coast members to attend the Washington summit. The distance, topics, focus are all contributing factors,” said Mythili Sankaran, USIBC’s West Coast director, in an interview from Mountain View, California.
An evening gala on April 26 will be followed by a full-day programme the next day, unlike the half-day schedule common in Washington, DC. According to Sankaran, the meeting will have a broader and more in-depth coverage of specific sectors. She said the main difference from the June summit, however, would be in the audience. While the Washington event sees strong participation from the US and Indian governments and lobbyists, the Silicon Valley event will draw mostly industry leaders.
Keynote speakers include several high-profile figures, including former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, Andy Bird, chairman of Walt Disney International, Sam Pitroda, advisor to India’s Prime Minister, and former US ambassadors to India Timothy Roemer and Frank Wisner. The chair for the evening gala is Ram Shriram, founder of Sherpalo Ventures and a board member and one of the first investors in Google. The main focus areas for the meeting include technology, biotech, renewable energy and private equity.
While not part of the official agenda, some issues important to the technology sector and taken up by USIBC recently, are certain to be discussed. Sankaran said the retroactive tax provisions in India’s FY13 Budget are a “huge concern” for all American businesses, not just the tech sector. US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner had relayed these concerns when he met Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee in Washington, DC last week. Sankaran identified entertainment taxes in India as another big concern for the media sector.
Earlier this month, USIBC had also complained that India’s new preferential market access or PMA rules aimed at favouring locally-manufactured electronic goods for government purchases would hurt tech sector trade between the two countries and may contravene WTO obligations. In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, USIBC and over 30 other business groups from around the world had asked India to rescind the PMA and avoid “market-distorting policies”. In the interview, Sankaran added, “USIBC is not opposed to the Indian government’s goal of increasing domestic manufacturing. Rather, we encourage the Government of India to create policies that will incentivise investment, as opposed to mandates.”
Another thorny issue, this one directed at the US government, is the reported denials and delays in granting H1B visas to applicants from India. As Sankaran noted, “Numerous Indian and US companies in a number of sectors have reported substantial challenges in acquiring visas for managerial and skilled professionals travelling from India to the US, which delay or even thwart investment in the US economy. USIBC urges the two governments to work together to create policies that ensure the free and fair movement of skilled persons, which is so vitally important for industry to be competitive in today’s global economy.”
Sankaran said planning for the event started about eight months ago. Despite the sluggish economic climate in both countries, she described the response as “overwhelming”, with the meeting being sold out two weeks in advance. “For the tech companies and business community on the West Coast, opportunities in India are too high on the radar,” she explained, and pointed out that several companies were already well entrenched in India. Given the response to this event, USIBC plans to make it an annual gathering.