Going From Family Business In India To An MBA In China

The latest in our series of China MBA stories from the book—Changing Careers, Changing Lives—written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis

This story was originally published in a book written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis, in collaboration with Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB).

It was after the Partition of India, and the dissolution of the British Raj in 1947, when a young man cycled 265 miles south from Lahore in northern Pakistan to India’s capital. In Delhi, he started a new life, building his own paper business empire from scratch.

Decades later, that man’s grandson, a teenage Nakul Batra, was in a suburb of New Delhi, setting up a regional branch of his grandfather’s business. Today, Batra Paper Mart generates millions of dollars importing paper from abroad and distributing it across India.

“Coming from a family business, I had a business mindset from the very beginning,” says Nakul. “I wanted to contribute, earn money, and start new things. But I always had this itch to get out of India.”

From a young age, Nakul had an appetite for something more.

Looking outwards

Born in New Delhi in 1988, Nakul started working on his family’s business expansion while studying economics part-time at university. He was just 20 when he went full-time with the business.

The initial brief was all about gaining new customers. Thrown into the deep end, Nakul toured national trade shows, but he didn’t yet know how to communicate with business people. He started gaining traction, but it wasn’t easy. He knew he needed to be grounded in business education.

The question was: where? The answer was China.

When Nakul was very young, his aunt on his mother’s side moved to Hong Kong and set up her own clothing business, trading from China to India through Hong Kong. From around the age of eight, Nakul would visit her there once a year.

His interest in China grew. Just a year after completing university, he took his aunt’s advice, along with recommendations from family friends, and applied for an MBA at CKGSB.

“Looking at Hong Kong and comparing it with India at that time—it was really aspirational,” he says. “Hong Kong was new—the airport was fancy—it was clean, modern, it had this vibe, and this energy.

“I saw opportunities there and how well my aunt was doing,” he continues. “I wanted to be outside of India, but also help the family business. And, since we were already importing from China, it made sense for me to be there.”

China foundations

Aged 21, Nakul went into the CKGSB MBA program as the youngest student in the class. He couldn’t speak Mandarin. He wasn’t used to the cold or the food in Beijing—he was vegetarian at the time.

He knew that he wanted more global business experience but, beyond that, he was unsure about what he wanted to do next in his career.

“At first, it was a struggle,” he says, “but that struggle helped—now I can speak the language more or less fluently.

“My classmates, and the school, were very supportive,” he continues. “The class size was small, so you really got to know people, meet good friends, and create the right kind of network.”

Nakul began to enjoy the buzz of business school life. He co-founded the Sino-Indian business society, he helped organize international study trips to Singapore and Malaysia, and he was an active member of CKGSB’s consulting club.

By the end of the year, it became clear that he didn’t want to go back to his family business. Then, still aged just 22, Nakul managed to start a new career in a new country, thousands of miles away from home.

He took up an internship at a consulting firm in Shanghai, working on an Indian market research project for a US-based multinational, before going on to a project management job at a market research firm, working with Fortune 100 firms looking for expansion and investment opportunities across Asia.

“Applying for jobs left, right, and center, talking to headhunters and friends, interviewing, meeting people at networking events, and looking for the right opportunity that could lead me to where I wanted to be—these were all things I learned how to do during my MBA,” he says.

“Even more than that, the MBA gave me the China exposure I needed, the knowledge of Chinese culture and the importance of personal relationships,” he continues, “Guanxi was the first word I was taught at CKGSB!”

During his time at business school, Nakul’s life changed in more ways than one. He met his future wife, Natalia, a Russian girl studying Chinese at a local school in Beijing. Nakul and Natalia both moved to Shanghai at the same time, and things fell into place—their first child was born in March 2018.

Starting from scratch

Nakul now works out of a business unit just north of downtown Shanghai. He’s heading up a new Asia HQ for a Swiss building supplier looking to expand—building the business, defining the market strategy, looking for customers, and growing the brand.

Once again, he’s starting up something from scratch. But this time, it’s on a global scale. 10 years on from his first forays into business back home in New Delhi, Nakul is ready for the challenge.

“Building any new business is a struggle,” he says. “Success doesn’t come easily. But now, with the education I received from CKGSB, I have more tools, more knowledge, more real-life experience, a bigger network, and a solid framework to go on.”