Fulbright US-India Series: Mukesh Aghi | President & CEO, US-India Strategic Partnership Forum

In this conversation we will be speaking with Mukesh Aghi, the current president and CEO of the US - India Strategic Partnership Forum also known as USISPF. Mr. Aghi has been at the forefront of diplomacy between US and India and in this conversation, we hear from Mr. Aghi about the opportunities and challenges for deeper collaboration between the two countries moving forward. Hope you Enjoy!

Topics discussed in this episode:
1.What led Mr. Aghi to get interested in the US-India space
2. How the idea to form USISPF came about
3. Key opportunities for collaboration between US and India moving forward
4. Key challenges business leaders express in terms of conducting business in the Indian environment
5. Ideal partnership between US and India ten and thirty years from now


00:06 Karan Takhar
Hello everyone. This is Karan, and welcome to the Zenergy podcast. Over the past decade, India has done an impressive job of integrating renewable energy into its energy mix. For this Fulbright Podcast series, I sought to investigate the enabling factors and potential of India's global leadership in renewable energy with a focus on solar. This Fulbright series is broken down into Four Seasons. This season we capture the views of high-level officials of government and will try and understand how India's continued progress in renewable energy development can strengthen its leadership position on the world stage and provide new revenue for global impact. In this conversation, we'll be speaking with Mukesh Aghi, the current President and CEO of the US-India Strategic Partnership form, also known as USISPF. Mr. Aghi has been at the forefront of diplomacy between the USA and India, and in this conversation, we hear from Mr. Aghi about the opportunities and challenges for deeper collaboration between the two countries moving forward. I hope you enjoy this wide-ranging conversation. Thank you so much, Mr. Aghi, for taking the time. I've been really excited to speak with you, and for people listening, I think it would be best to start at the beginning. Can you briefly tell us about your background and ultimately, what led you to get interested in the US-India space?

02:00 Mukesh Aghi 
Thank you, Karan. My educational background is I got my undergraduate degree from Beirut, Lebanon, and then my MBA from Andrews University in Michigan, and my doctorate from Claremont and Post Doctorate from how, and my work experience all tech background. I did two startups in IPO and worked across from Japan to Paris to Delhi to London and across United States, and after working for almost 30 years in the tech industry, I realized that there is a fundamental gap between stabilizing relationship between India and the US because, you know, there is no single institution or independent institution which stands there while. Politicians and diplomats come and go between two countries because their rival democracies are. There's no sense of continuity which goes on. So on that basis, we saw the gap and aligned roughly, almost. Initially, 100 companies the government supported, and the last four years, that number has gone to over 350 plus companies and our rule is this basically ensuring that we are able to provide from a geopolitical perspective to economic to from technology from mobility policy guidelines to both sides of the ocean itself, and that's how we play. We're not-for-profit. Our objective is very clear, enhance the relationship between the two countries.

03:59 Karan Takhar
Very interesting, and that's incredible growth from 100 to 350, and just really interested in diving a little deeper into how the idea exactly came about in terms of was there a specific experience that you can point to which? In your mind, is the founding experience, or did it just sort of evolve over time?

04:31 Mukesh Aghi 
Well, I turn it well over time. Because as I was looking at the policy landscape in DC. One thing was very clear, but there's no independent institution, and you have to understand that so far, there are other institutions which are focused purely on business-to-business, and the relation between India is much broader geopolitical; yes, it's economic because people to people is academic was on the H1B visa issues. So the relationship has to be nurtured and fed on both sides. Make sure that we move in the right direction. So that was a gap which was there, and on that basis, we basically went in launch on this institution.

05:25 Karan Takhar
Got it. Thank you so much for expanding on that and in terms of.Getting the first 100 companies on board. What were some of the initial challenges you faced in terms of trying to convince these companies to join, If there were any?

05:42 Mukesh Aghi 
well, just like any startup, it's a grind, but you got to have a good value proposition. It benefits these companies, and we were able to convince them that, you know, we bring a much stronger value proposition, and Yes, there are times there were skeptics there times they wouldn't join us. But that is fine. I think we believed, you know, value proposition. We've lived on mission, and since we're not-for-profit, are we able to convince a lot of other people to look at us much more seriously. So initially, it was tough, but once you have the momentum. Then it becomes easier as time goes by.

06:29 Karan Takhar
That makes a lot of sense. Is there any chance you could provide more clarity around what the companies kind of brought to the table and then let value USI SPF proposed to the companies in terms of this is how we can help you through our efforts?

06:50 Mukesh Aghi 
Well, I think. We've got two-pronged strategy. One is, is build a board which is very powerful, and that build defines. The back query of the organization, and so we had some like John Chambers. The former chairman of Cisco coming as a chairman, and then we have very strong founding board members such as Indra Nooyi, Ajay Banga, Shantanu Rana, and then you can go down the list of Fortune 100 companies , andThey will only come because, yes, they have emotional attachment to India, but more important is what value can you bring to their organization, and so we looked at every issues we could and drive the agenda both with the US administration and also with the Indian administration and if you are able to bring value. They would join us. So we put our topics, although from taxation to predictability, transparency, or getting benefits from a state level. So it just a matter of issue which could we could take it. To a company and sort that out.

08:02 Karan Takhar
I see. It seems like the relationship between US and India is fed in Inflexion point today, and was wondering if you could talk about how you feel the US-India relationship has evolved over time and what you believe are the key opportunities. For the countries moving forward.

08:28 Mukesh Aghi 
So I think you have to look at it first from a geopolitical perspective when it will come down to the transaction. One is that the economic prosperity of India is good for America and American companies. We look at companies such as Google or Uber or WhatsApp, or Facebook. They are all shut out of China and India, they dominate the market. Indian economy will grow next 20-30 years, and it will become a 5.$10 trillion economy, and from a value perspective, Indians like US products, services, education. We have over 200,000 Indian students in the US, and we expect the number. Eventually to reach at least 500,000. They contribute to the economy, they contribute to research, and 70% of them come into the STEM program, and if they, you know, more than 50% also they go back, they become Goodwill Ambassador America in India. So I think if you look at it from a broader perspective., 2nd is in a military strong. India is good for regional stability. USA and India agree the current rule of the law. It is good for everybody, and so that's where there's alignment, and that's where the focus is also. Now when you look at those two broader principle and then start walking down, there's a collaboration cooperation on the defense side India US have conducted more joint exercises than any other two countries. I India, as per collograpy  20 plus billion dollars worth of use defensive equipment. It is exploring how to make more and more in India itself. So and what we're seeing is lot of use company selling manufacturing plant in India to support the domestic AUS environment from India itself. Then I think we look at the growing markets, such as healthcare on the e-commerce side. You look at on the digital payment side, India provides tremendous opportunity for U.S. companies. So I think from every aspect what we're seeing is if I geopolitical alignment is taking place, we are also seeing that commercial discussions are also taking the right direction. Now the trajectory of the relationship is in the right direction. The momentum is in the right direction as it relies for potential.No. We believe India US can do much more together to have a good economic partnership, the partnership which provides sense of stability on the global order. Also, so we will see more and more. Positive momentum building up between the two countries.

11:41 Karan Takhar
Understood and just kind of building on that. Could you maybe speak to what you feel would be the most ideal place for the relationship to be ten years from now and then ultimately 30 years from now?

12:00 Mukesh Aghi 
Well, it's it's hard to predict 30 years from. Now but I can say one thing 30 years from now. The commitment by Prime Minister Modi in Kop 26. You know zero net emission by 2070 is an ambitious, and I think if US India can work on that goal is going to benefit not only these two countries but rest of the world also. That's 1.2 is you have to understand India is a country of 1.4 billion people. It has economic ambitions. It has regional ambitions, and it like to maintain his strategic independence, so it avoids alliances itself are because the region is in has a lot of challenges itself. So I think you will see India maintaining that strategic autonomy as it bases its relationship. With the United States. We will see also. That the trade between the two countries, which is around 140 two 145 billion dollars, would go up to at least $500 billion. That's the message then Vice President Biden made a commitment in 2015. So I think there are lot of milestones and lot of targets to be achieved between two countries, and I strongly believe that we will maintain that momentum as we move forward.

13:37 Karan Takhar
What do you feel are the most important, I guess channels to further strengthen the partnership?

13:46 Mukesh Aghi 
So I think you always have a G2G discussion, or you have bureaucrats to bureaucrats discussion. But I think businesses play a very critical role, and people who people play very important role. The role of Indian diaspora in the US becomes spherical. The role of students going back and forth becomes important. The CEOs of companies which are investing in each of these geographies become critical. So it is a, I call it not a single platform, multiple platform, and we become that platform for all of these organizations, comment and speak to each other and provide sensor advice, white paper, and discussions.

14:37 Karan Takhar
One of my final questions in terms of increasing U.S. business engagement in India or vice versa, and I know you SSPF, as you mentioned. As a lot of partnerships with companies in both regions and when you engage with these industry poles, do you find out some of the key challenges they express in terms of conducting business, I guess first, from U.S. companies conducting business in the Indian environment?

15:10 Mukesh Aghi 
Well, you always. Have challenges, and these challenges could be from taxation to vegetarian environment to predictable with policy making are all easier doing business, and you have to understand when you have a country which is trying to streamline or structures, laws, regulatory environment. It does take time. So yes, we keep on hearing on these issues, but the opportunity is much greater, and so basically, these challenges become obstacles. So what we're seeing is the interest on investment is going up and up, we're seeing the FDI going up, and I would say that from every aspect. The companies are very bullish in India, and I would say that that is expressed in the FDI investment coming into India itself.

16:15 Karan Takhar
Thank you so much for all of this insight , and I always end on the interviews with this one final question, which I'm especially excited to hear your answer for, given that. Your journey and the work you've done is really commendable, and like hopefully, I can achieve a similar trajectory down the line, and my question to you is. So just reflecting through your experience and reflecting back on who you were, maybe when you were 2025, just out of college, is there any piece of guidance or advice that you would give your younger self?

17:01 Mukesh Aghi 
Yeah, I always, you know, my advice is. Fall in love with what you do. I don't fall in love with your organization. It's important that what you do. Brings that sense of contribution and change in a positive way, and make sure you're having fun doing what you're doing. OK, If you're not having fun. Doing what you're doing, then I would say don't do it. Do something else, and you will find your 'cause. You'll find a mission in trial and error because you have to keep on. I would say bounce couple of times until you think that's the right direction to go. So take the risk but also take decisions but enjoy what you're doing. Because if you're not, then you're going. To be miserable.

17:59 Karan Takhar
Thank you so much, Mr. Aghi. Really appreciate it. I hope you enjoyed that episode, and do check out the show notes For more information on my guest. See you next time.

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