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Q & A

Leading through COVID: Adapting in India

In this series, we talk with Yale SOM alumni about their professional and personal lives during the global pandemic. Bikram Sohal ’97, who began the year leading the Indian office of a global ad-tech company, describes the impact of COVID-19 in India, a country with deep ties to the global economy but where much of the economy is still informal.  

Adapted from a phone interview on August 12, 2020.

Q: Has your personal and professional life changed as a result of the pandemic?

It has totally changed. 

I work for StartApp, an Israeli-U.S. ad-tech company. We entered the Indian market only two years back as a new growth opportunity. I’d built my team up to 10 people.

“From a business perspective, what COVID has done to us is pretty extreme. The advertising pipeline closed; we saw about an 80 percent drop in revenues.”

As we began hearing about the virus, I flew to Tel Aviv for a week in mid-February to meet with key people to develop a revised plan. It was the early days of COVID. We had seen what happened in China, and awareness was coming up in international travel. I got an N-95 mask. I thought, what the hell is this? I’ve never seen anything like it. I put it on for the flight; it was so irritating. I would say 70% of the people were with the mask. At the airport in Israel, there were still groups of tourists arriving from Korea and Japan.

I had my meetings. I was supposed to go to a conference in Singapore the week after I got back to India—it was postponed. Then the world froze. 

Where I am, in Bangalore, the situation was good at that time. But the state government started seeing that COVID was spreading in India and declared a lockdown starting March 14. Then on March 24 all of India had a very strict lockdown. It lasted almost two and a half months.

Within a week we had clients calling in pausing on their spends. One of our big clients is Amazon; it all stopped. WeWork was a client. They said, “Nobody’s coming to an office, so why should we be advertising?” From a business perspective, what COVID has done to us is pretty extreme. The advertising pipeline closed; we saw about an 80% drop in revenues. When shops are closed, people are not traveling or staying in hotels; when people are not buying cars, brands are saving all the money they can. And we’re still figuring out how to come out of it. 

For the India operation, we’ve practically closed it. We laid off everyone. I’m no longer running the daily operations. They slowed down so much that what remains has been restructured between our Beijing office and our Tel Aviv office. I’m now a consultant working on getting some big deals for the company. 

I’m also doing some consulting on the side to help small consumer-facing brick-and-mortar companies that have very limited online presence develop digital channels to increase their sales.

Q: What does the current reality look like in India?

“The unorganized labor sector is, maybe, 90 percent of our workforce, and it has been hugely hit. We have 1.3 billion people in the country, so it's a big, big problem.”

Most of the organized sector is still working from home. Companies are not doing any major capital investments. The government is having a tough time in tax collections and getting revenues. So government spending on infrastructure and big projects has come down. Then there is a whole downstream effect. The unorganized labor sector is, maybe, 90% of our workforce, and it has been hugely hit. We have 1.3 billion people in the country, so it’s a big, big problem.

I went to my first face-to-face meeting on Monday. It was a four-hour meeting with four people sitting across four ends of the room with masks. Every aspect of work, at least for us, has been impacted, from a monetary perspective to interacting with people.

Work calls are done on Zoom and the same thing on a social angle. We aren’t meeting. With friends and family, it’s, “Hey, let’s have a Zoom Friday night. Let’s share our stories and a few drinks.” I have a lot of family in the U.S., so we do Zoom get-togethers. We were planning to visit in person.

Our daughter is entering the 11th grade. She was going to do a summer program in the U.S. We were supposed to leave on May 25. The international flights were cancelled. The summer program was cancelled. 

She has been doing her schooling through Zoom. There are no classes on campus. But today they’re having elections for the student government council. She’s standing up for one of the elected positions. All the candidates did prepared videos speeches. They had digital posters. And the final debates happened through Zoom.

Q: Have you seen any sign of recovery?

In this month, there’s been some uptick in advertising. Clients are always demanding. But now it’s two times the pressure in terms of pricing and return on investment for every dollar that they spend. The budgets have gone down and the expectations of what $1 will get them have gone up.

The one good thing: it’s a global economy and whatever is picking up in other countries is picking up here. Amazon and Flipkart, which is a competitor owned by Walmart—they’ve seen a huge uptick in business. Delivery companies have seen an uptick. The online education industry has seen a surge in demand. Online gaming has seen a huge uptick. We’ve seen the OTT [video streaming] industry really picking up—that’s Netflix, Amazon, and the Indian versions like Hotstar. 

These industries have been advertising during this whole lean period. But the growth by these companies and these industries does not make up for the overall decline that has happened because people are sitting at home. We’re not going out. Movie theaters are closed. We’re not socializing. Restaurants are closed.

Q: What are your expectations going forward?

I’ve written off 2020. It’s going to be more of the same for us in India from a business perspective, from a social perspective, from a family perspective. I don’t think much is going to change. 

September through December is a big festival season. Traditionally, a lot of spending happens during this period. We might see an uptick in the GDP numbers. But 2020 is still going to be a washout year.

What happens in 2021 depends on how we, the citizens and the government, tackle the increasing COVID numbers. We still are reporting 50,000-plus new COVID patients every day. And these are the government numbers. The reality could be higher because not everything is being tracked. How we can bring that down will affect how 2021 shapes up.

Q: Do you see reason for hope?

If we contain the spread, then get a vaccine out, things will slowly start getting back to normal. Luckily, the Serum Institute of India is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. They are tied up with AstraZeneca to make a COVID vaccine developed at Oxford University. The trials and manufacturing are being done in India. They will produce a billion doses and make a portion available for $3 a dose in developing countries.

When I talk with friends or businesspeople, that’s the hope. There will be some more pain, but we will do it. It will just take time. 

Interview conducted and edited by Ted O'Callahan.
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