CEO Vinita Bahri-Mehra: Local director’s mission is to build bridges to Asia

The Columbus Dispatch

After passing the Ohio bar exam, Indian attorney Vinita Bahri-Mehra jumped at the chance to work on international deals between her native and adopted countries in law firm Kegler Brown’s global business practice. It was a prime time to be operating in that legal sphere.

“When I came here in 2002, the whole emerging-market phenomenon was bursting,” said Bahri-Mehra. “I was very focused on the fact that, as the world is getting flat, increasingly Ohio companies are going to feel they have to expand globally.”

Today, U.S. companies, including many in central Ohio, are capitalizing on the emerging Indian market. In the past two years, India has become the fourth-largest economy, said Bahri-Mehra. India has a projected gross domestic product growth rate of between 7 and 7.5 percent in 2015 under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Because of these changes that are happening in India, we see a big demand for projects in India,” she said. Bahri-Mehra spends up to 65 percent of her work as Kegler Brown’s Asia Pacific team leader on projects related to India. Her work covers intellectual-property licensing arrangements, joint ventures and acquisitions.

Bahri-Mehra spoke with Columbus CEO magazine for the August cover story about business connections between the Columbus region and India.

Q: From a business perspective, what’s the connection between India and central Ohio?

A: Overall, Asian-Americans account for 2 percent of the labor force in Ohio. Of that 2 percent, we can definitely say

50 percent of that comes from India. The labor force you’re attracting from India to Ohio, we’re talking about high-skilled (labor). It’s wonderful to see that Ohio has been able to do that and keep the people here.

The job opportunities that Ohio has to offer are helping the Indians who come to achieve the American dream. Columbus is a great place to live. It’s very affordable to buy a suburban house.

Q: What potential for business transactions between Columbus and India do you see in the course of your work?

A: We do see very high net worth value products being exported to India. We see that a lot of companies who are looking at diversifying their portfolio are looking at expansions or acquisitions in countries like India. That’s the fastest way to expand into a foreign country: acquire a company that helps you to penetrate the market much faster.

We see a lot happening in terms of joint ventures. That is, Ohio companies who are looking for partners in India to sell products. Every time a company looks internationally or does some project globally, be it India or China, it has a positive direct economic impact back into their operations in Ohio.

Every time they’re growing the business globally, they’re creating dollars that then can be used to create jobs here in the U.S. Expansion to countries like India and China, which are the emerging and growing markets, have a direct impact on growth of the Ohio companies. It helps their bottom-line numbers in terms of profitability.

Q: What about Prime Minister Modi’s regime makes it easier to do business there?

A: Modi himself gives a sense of stability to the foreign companies who are looking at investment in India. Prior to the Modi government coming in, there was no sense of stability within the government.

The second thing that the Modi government has done, which helps to increase investment in that country, is brought in concrete reforms which are actually business friendly. .  .  . They have shown with these reforms that they are undertaking that they can strike that balance between capitalism and socialism. Those reforms give a lot of confidence to the investors.

Q: What bureaucratic or social barriers may challenge U.S. firms?

A: Dealing with the bureaucracy, you have to be patient. Since we have a business-friendly government now, that will smooth out. You need to have consistent follow-up, you need to have a different style of negotiation. That’s a cultural issue. You just need to understand the culture is different so the style of doing business or the style of negotiating a contract in that country is going to be different. That doesn’t change if the government changes. Some things will not change. You just have to — as an Ohio company or a U.S. company — adapt to that culture, assimilate that culture to be successful in that country.

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