Immersion into India

Students learn how business can be a ministry in India. Watch exclusive video!

by Myrna DeVries Anderson '00
Spring 2012

Early in his internship at Sri Lakshmikantha Spinners Ltd. in Hyderabad, India, Calvin senior James VanDenBerg toured the operation, including a partially built expansion. There he saw eight women filling gaps in the foundation from a nearby dirt pile. The workers were carrying the dirt on plates balanced on their heads, though an unused wheelbarrow stood nearby.

VanDenBerg mentioned the scenario to the owner of the mill, his boss. “Why couldn’t that job be done by one person using the wheelbarrow?” he asked. The owner answered, “If I train one person to do that job, then seven people are out of work.” VanDenBerg, an accounting major, pointed out that American businesses put a premium on maximizing productivity, but his boss was unmoved. 

“He said, ‘That would never work in India,’” recounted VanDenBerg to Calvin business professor Leonard Van Drunen. As he told the story, the van in which they—and several other Calvin students—were riding surged through the cars, trucks, vans, cows, donkeys, motorcycles, women dressed in saris and hijabs, farmers, farm wagons and bicycles that make up the traffic in Hyderabad. It was a little after 9 a.m., Current India Standard Time, the regular time of the students’ morning commute. Elsewhere in the city, other vans were delivering other Calvin students to their workplaces.

Interning in India

The students were all enrolled in “Business as Mission in India,” a January interim course that placed students in two-week internships in Hyderabad. The students—majors in business, accounting, business marketing, political science, Spanish and English— interned with website developers, software companies, a human resources company, a real estate developer, a cotton spinning mill and a counseling service.

The original vision for “Business as Mission in India” was to give Calvin students an inside look at how business operates in an emerging economy. The interim is one of several the business department has planned to India, China and Brazil—all countries with rapidly emerging economies. Because he had already led three interims to China, Van Drunen decided to shift destinations for January 2012 to India, a country that, over 10 years, has experienced vital economic growth (with the GDP nearly doubling per person in the last 10 years). This year also saw the launch of the “Business and Culture in Brazil” interim, led by business professor Robert Eames and economics professor Evert Vander Heide.

In 2010, Van Drunen attended “Marketplace Revolution: Fighting Global Poverty Through Business,” a conference hosted by nonprofit Partners Worldwide that provided the vision for the India interim. At the conference he met Michael Brian, Samuel Varghese, Vijay Burton and Aldrin Thomas, four Christian business owners from Hyderabad. All four men are strong advocates for business as mission (BAM), the notion that business can be used not simply as a profit generator, but also as a ministry. Partners Worldwide, an organization dedicated to eradicating poverty, promotes the BAM model around the globe. Brian, a Partners Worldwide in-country coordinator, is the leader of Business Seva, a 60-strong network of Christian businesspeople in Hyderabad. (Seva is Hindi for “serve.”)

The four business owners invited Van Drunen to bring Calvin students to Hyderabad. “I thought, if I could find a model that would allow students to engage on a peer-to-peer basis for two weeks, that could be very valuable,” Van Drunen said. Together, he, Brian and Jacqueline Klamer ’07, a Partners Worldwide writer and projects coordinator, developed the internship idea. Klamer and Brian collaborated to place the 13 students who signed up for the interim in companies in Hyderabad owned by Business Seva members. A few were placed in other Christian-owned companies, and two interned in a Hindu-owned company.

“This was all a big experiment,” Van Drunen said. “It could have really failed.”

The interim kicked off Jan. 4, when the students flew to Delhi, where sightseeing was the first item on the agenda. The students toured the local markets (with Calvin alum Jon Voskuil ’87, who does retail business in India) and Old Delhi historical sites, including the Red Fort and Raj Ghat (Gandhi’s tomb).

“I think it’s really important to know where you came from so you can understand where you’re going,” Van Drunen explained of the tourist activities that filled the interim’s first couple of days. “So, when you come to India, understanding the Mughal dynasty that built the Red Fort is crucial.”

Getting down to business

Three days later, the group flew to Hyderabad, a city of 7 million in southern India, and got down to business. Van Drunen confessed that he was uneasy as the students faced their first day in a strange workplace, especially those who were the lone intern at a given company. Yet, the vans drove off from the Hotel Minerva Grand, and they came back with students who were enthusiastic about their work experiences and their new colleagues. Van Drunen gathered them together and told them, “Guys, I am so proud of you. We could have come to the swimming pool and dipped our toe in the shallow end ... but no, you guys walked around to the deep end, walked around to the high dive and dove in.”

For the next two weeks, the students were largely self-directed. They worked at least six-hour days, and when the workday ended, they explored Hyderabad. On the job, they faced the challenges of doing business in India: corruption, limited education, an untrained labor force, lack of infrastructure and other issues.

During his tour of Sri Lakshmikantha—supplier of fine cotton thread to China, Thailand, Bangladesh, Brazil and Peru—senior accounting major Justin Lambers experienced a power outage that affected the whole plant. He was surprised to learn that such outages are a regular part of the mill’s workweek. “India is growing fast, and power companies can’t keep up,” Lambers explained in his reflection paper for the interim. Several of the students also had trouble coping with the flexible nature of the workday or with other inefficiencies.

Changing the way business is done

At least two of the Calvin interns had an opportunity to change the way business was done at their internship sites. Junior accounting major Matthew Mays was interning at website developer Sholay Online and reporting to the Christian owner of the company, Sudesh Kumar.


“He taught me the business, the weaknesses of his company and the difficulties he faces being a businessman in India,” Mays wrote in his paper. “I quickly learned that there is a major problem in that country of collecting money from their customers. Indian culture lacks organization and a sense of urgency.”

One day, Kumar handed the intern a stack of order forms and asked him to create a sales report. As Mays picked through the forms, he realized that the company had no effective means of tracking sales—and that many people owed his interim boss money. He approached Kumar with the idea of creating a client database that would log sales electronically and got Kumar’s approval for the project. Around that time, sophomore business major Ross Ryzenga joined Mays at Sholay.

“Ross suggested using Access, a Microsoft product used by small businesses to track transactions,” Mays wrote. “After hours of work, we created an entire database for every sale from the past three months. Ross also trained the Sholay employees so they can use the database on a daily basis.”

Van Drunen was gratified to see the students contributing in the short time they were in Hyderabad. Of the database project, he said: “This was more than I could have possibly imagined.” But the major emphasis of the interim was for the Calvin students to learn, Van Drunen emphasized, as did Brian: “The internship was not just to give students exposure to Indian business culture, but also to give them an idea of how Christians use business as a ministry.”

Most of the business owners who worked with the Calvin students describe themselves as either born-again or recommitted Christians. Many of them count Brian as a mentor and Business Seva as an inspiration. And their faith has very practical outworkings in their day-to-day operations.

At Olive Technologies, the software development company where junior Gray Moser and senior Brad Ten Harmsel worked, images of Jesus hang where there would typically be images of Hindu deities. (Though Indian companies are considered “secular,” it is common for Hindu business owners to pay offerings to Balaji, the deity who oversees business, and to feature shrines in their workspaces.) Olive Technologies also hosts Bible studies, open to employees of all faiths, and donates to Christian charities.

“It’s a good thing to challenge them (employees) with what we believe,” said chief projects officer Vijay Burton, who characterizes Indian culture as unquestioning and conformist. More than 80 percent of Indians are Hindu; less than 3 percent of the population is Christian. “In India, gone are the days where you would have an evangelist with a Bible in his hand or her hand. Now you need to speak the truth in your everyday context,” he said.

“The fact that Olive took a stand to become a BAM organization is a powerful message in itself,” Ten Harmsel wrote about the company, which counts Trans World Radio, the International Bible Society and Campus Crusade for Christ among its clients.

Witnessing a difference

The Calvin students daily witnessed the ministry focus of their workplaces, even those who worked in “non-BAM” Christian companies. Junior business major Mark Jacksy worked at Intense Synergy, where owner Kishore Inumula uses his profits to support full-time ministers in Africa. C. Rameswara Reddy, the owner of Sri Lakshmikantha Spinners Ltd., pays for the education of his workers and their children. And Person to Person (PtP), a counseling and training service owned by Samson and Christine Gandhi, offers free therapy to anyone who needs it. The Gandhis have felt the impact of operating a Christian business in a corrupt culture, testified Sara Maldonado, the business and Spanish major who served as their intern. “What should have been simple processes of establishment and growth for PtP takes years longer than necessary because, as an organization, they refuse to compromise their principles; they do not pay the expected bribes—no matter how large or small, no matter how unfair the treatment or how long the wa
it—they do everything through the legal and normal channels,” she wrote.

Many of the students were impressed by what they witnessed. After working at real estate developer Aliens Space Station, sophomore accounting major Jon Spoelhof observed in the interim blog: “The one thing that stands out the most about this place is how PUMPED people are about the Lord.”

All of the students, whether they worked for Christian or Hindu owners, had multiple occasions to experience Indian hospitality. “Coworkers at the companies students worked for invited the entire group to their house to hang out. Parents of a Calvin student invited the group for dinner. An Indian studying at a University in the U.K. who I met in a restaurant at lunch gave me his e-mail and phone number in case I needed a tour of the city or some pointers,” Lambers wrote. “People went to great lengths to ensure that we felt welcomed and comfortable.”

On several occasions, the students socialized with Calvin alumni and parents from India: the Gandhis, whose sons Michael and Jasper graduated from Calvin with engineering degrees in 2010; the Divakarans, whose son Anand is a current chemistry student; and Keziah Samuel, an ’08 business grad who spent the last three years working in finance in New York. Keziah’s father, Samuel Selvakumar, spoke at a group dinner about Indian culture and business.

Warm welcome appreciated

The students enjoyed the warm welcome, said Karen Van Drunen, who had visited India before and traveled along on the interim to help. “Indian hospitality makes me think that, as an American, I have to be more welcoming of foreigners,” she said.

When the students completed their internships, they flew on to Delhi and bused to Jaipur, where they rode elephants up to the Amber Fort and toured other sites. Then it was on to Agra and the Taj Mahal—and yet more sites. “It’s really hard to know how much history and cultural background to include in the interim to convey the vast, wonderful history—without going on overload,” Karen Van Drunen conceded, adding: “It’s worth it.”

Brian had given his assessment of the internship portion of the experiment earlier in the week: “I would say it was only by His grace that this thing went well. No mishaps, no accidents; no one got lost. The students have learned something, and they certainly have contributed,” he said.

“What I especially liked about it was the context that we were there to learn from them … ,” Van Drunen said. “I would do it again.”