Jeff Bezos tries to woo India with Gandhi, Nehru jacket, and his rural roots

Swag se swagat.
Swag se swagat.
Image: Quartz India/Manavi Kapur
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Amazon India just tried to pull a well-planned rabbit out of its hat—though it surprised no one.

The company, which is organising a two-day small- and medium-business engagement event in Delhi today and tomorrow (Jan. 15-16), hosted founder and CEO Jeff Bezos to a fireside chat with India head Amit Agarwal. An earlier press invite for the event had said the fireside would be with Agarwal alone.

Dressed in a blue ikat Nehru jacket over his shirt, which he said he bought from one of the Amazon sellers, Bezos and Amazon appeared keen to highlight the importance of the India story in the e-commerce giant’s global plans.

Tapping into his roots as a boy from Texas in the US, Bezos spoke about his close connection to the rural economy. “I spent all my summers at my grandfather’s ranch from age four through 16… I have learnt so much from my grandfather, and I think it is true of many people in rural areas—that they are very resourceful and very self-reliant,” he said. “That really made a big impression on me.” Bezos and Agarwal spoke in English, though the event was attended by several people from across India who may have struggled to understand Bezos’ stories from the ranch.

The event focuses on bringing together Amazon India’s sellers and micro, small, and medium businesses together, and also a platform for the company to showcase its various programmes for small businesses. Programmes such as Karigar (for weavers and artisans), Saheli (for women entrepreneurs), and story boxes (where each Amazon delivery package has a story of the entrepreneur selling the product), are going to be the headline of the various panels and discussions.

Bezos’ visit to India comes at a time when Amazon is facing an anti-trust investigation in the country. The company has been extremely secretive about his visit, his first in six years.

On Jan. 14, Bezos visited Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial in New Delhi to pay his respects.

There’s speculation that Bezos will meet prime minister Narendra Modi over the coming days.

We are the same

Bezos had a stable job in 1994 in New York City when he thought about selling books online. “When I told my boss about this, he listened to me patiently and said it’s a great idea, but for somebody who did not have a job already,” he said. And as he took the two days to think his boss advised him to, Bezos pictured himself as an 80-year-old, and how he would look back on his life. “Would I regret leaving this company in the middle of the year, the annual bonus, etc, which can all be very confusing? But if I have this idea and I don’t try it, I will regret it for the rest of my life,” he said. “I also knew if I tried and failed, I would never regret it.”

That’s when he took the plunge to create Amazon, Bezos told the audience in New Delhi.

It was a gamble nonetheless. “What would you have done if it didn’t work out?” Agarwal asked Bezos. “I would be an extremely happy software programmer somewhere in the US,” Bezos said.

And yet, the Seattle-headquartered tech giant, which is valued at nearly $1 trillion, was once a small startup, too.

Been there, done that

“I’ve seen Amazon as a company with one person, 100 people, 1,000 people, and today, it is a company with more than 700,00 people,” he said. “At every stage, you are figuring out what to do, and how to do it. As the company grows bigger, you stop focussing on the how, and focus on the what. But as it grows even bigger, you move to the question of who,” he said, talking about the genesis of Amazon over the year. “Make sure you hire not only those people who you can teach but also those can be your tutors,” he said.

Bezos also became a momentary motivational speaker, offering up failure as the best path to success. “Amazon is the best place in the world to fail,” he said to a laughing audience. He was quick to add that such failures were great when they were about experimentation and innovation, but never about operations and excellence. “Just one success can pay off all these failures,” he said.

Gifts for India

During his fireside chat, Bezos also announced a $1 billion (Rs7,000 crore) investment to help digitise micro, small, and medium enterprises across India, and bring 10 million Indian traders online by 2025. He said he hopes that Amazon India will help its sellers export $10 billion worth of “Make in India” products to the world.

“This country has something special: its democracy. And I have another prediction for you. This century is going to be about the alliance between India and the US, between the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest democracy,” Bezos said.