UNICON Reflections: Insights from India

UNICON Reflections: Insights from India


Mike Malefakis
Associate Vice Dean
Wharton Executive Education

I would like to thank the Harvard Exec Ed team for a wonderful UNICON Directors’ Conference in Mumbai,  Viewing the Future of Executive Education Through the Lens of India.  I’ve always been fascinated by India. I love Indian food, music and have enjoyed a lot of movies about India.   I have Indian friends and known many extremely smart and dedicated India students and faculty but in my 24 years of working in Executive Education with five business schools, I’d never visited the country before.

So I really had no appreciation of what insights and lessons could be learned from India.  I had always seen India as a market with huge potential but equally large challenges.  I had read lots about tech innovation in India as well as the street smart entrepreneurism in the informal sector.   However, I really did not think it would have direct implications for my thoughts on how to build for the future of executive education – how short sighted I was.

After spending time with two outstanding professors, Das Narayandas and Ashish Nanda, and over a dozen Indian entrepreneurs, executives, journalist and venture capitalist I now understand why Harvard invited us to India – it serves as a powerful metaphor for Executive Education because we are an industry that is entering a period of disruption and rapid change. What I came to appreciate is that India is a fast evolving, chaotic place that on one hand seems out of date with many ties its past and many seemingly insurmountable legacy challenges.  On the other hand it has an incredibly vibrant entrepreneurial spirit and network that is rewriting the rules of the game faster than we realize.  There are so many leaders who are striving to disrupt the old ways of doing business and who find ways to innovate around the sometimes crushing bureaucracy, lack of infrastructure and consumers who are determined to pay as little as possible.

Those hurdles are not seen as obstacles.  They are seen as challenges to surmount by using intelligent design, customer centric agile approaches to shaving costs while still delivering quality service or product.  It is a very messy chaotic place that at times seems out of control because those who are making change happen are doing it more organically.  It is a stark contrast to highly efficient centrally planned innovation, or the mature market approach where many are looking back to glory days of the past.

The entrepreneurial spirit of not accepting the way things are but aspiring to build a better solution serves as an inspiration for all of us in Executive Education who are increasingly facing our own chaotic market where the old rules are being rewritten by new entrants.

It seemed that every Indian leader we met was very proud of, and drew strength from, their culture that goes back millennia despite their goals of trying to create new solutions that break with the past.  That is exactly what we have to do in Exec Ed, celebrate and draw strength from our schools’ mission and legacy as we push for innovative solutions for a rapidly evolving market.

Our institution’s history and mission fundamentally differentiates us from the disruptors coming from consultancies, EdTech companies and online offerings.

I also sensed that there was a supportive network of Indian entrepreneurs who sometimes compete with each other but often find time to collaborate either through financing, supply chains or simply by bouncing ideas off of each other.  That too was very analogous to what we strive to do in UNICON.  In the conference several delegates mentioned the increasing need to find ways to collaborate more often than we have in the past as we develop innovative solutions for the future of executive education.

Thanks again for everyone who attended and shared their thoughts, experiences and challenges.  You all made this an extremely valuable conference that will serve me in many ways going forward.

Summary of Insights from India:

  • Draw strength from past history, culture & philosophy. Do not be bound by tradition, rather be strengthened and inspired by it.
  • Do not accept the status quo as what has to be rather it is a state that we are working to evolve from.
  • Draw inspiration knowing that you can help make tomorrow better than today. Focus on what can be rather than what is.
  • Do not let a bureaucratic mindset block your progress. For that matter do not let lack of infrastructure, lack of capital, lack of clear governance from a central authority, and so many other constraints that are faced by Indian entrepreneurs stand in your way – use creativity and build and leverage your networks to overcome these obstacles.
  • Continue to build your network, collaboration is key to success in a chaotic fast changing world.

Mike Malefakis
Associate Vice Dean
Wharton Executive Education


  1. Larry Murphy 5 years ago

    Sounds like a truly inspirational program – I’m sorry I missed it!!

  2. Good read. Thanks, Mike!

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