Rakesh Kumar, Chairman of Indian Exposition Mart Limited (IEML), tells Education Post’s Prabhav Anand that the trade promotion industry is reaching a stage of maturity and organizers are now looking for a full-service package and not just an exhibition space. He further talks about the challenges facing the handicraft industry and how IEML is using innovative strategies to stay ahead of competition.
You spent several years as the Executive Director of the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH). Could you tell us more about your experience in this role and some of the key accomplishments during your time there?
It is actually more than 3 decades. In those days, there was the real charm of trying to create an institution from scratch. The industry was not so organized back then, and the vision of getting together to create frameworks for sustainable growth of the handicraft sector was something that had to be communicated creatively. Today EPCH has a membership of over 14,000 exporters and is perceived to be an extremely well-run group of professional organizers.
One of the things I miss the most, was the ability to take up an individual exporter and guide and mentor him towards success. That is a luxury in today’s time! At the same time, I would like to humbly say that I was part of a great team, who shared the same values and passion.
After your tenure at EPCH, you served as the Chairman of India Exposition Mart Limited (IEML). How did your previous experience prepare you for this role, and what were some of the challenges and opportunities that you encountered in this position?
Actually, the context is that, when we in EPCH got the entire community of handicraft exporters together and started doing global shows then we recognized the gap in infrastructure as well as service orientation in the exhibition space industry. This gave me the thought to set up our own exhibition space which would serve two purposes – first, to be a venue for handicraft exhibitions and benefit our exporters in EPCH and second, to fill the gap of the venues in the National Capital Region.
It was while I was the Executive Director of EPCH when IEML was born, as a collaborative participation of exporters and the government of Uttar Pradesh. Today IEML is scaling up and is now, it is into its 17th year of the journey. Here again, the challenge was to get people together and convince them about the vision and the power of working together, which was achieved by me and other team members of EPCH gradually.
In those days, such a concept of having hundreds of shareholders was not the norm and the one idea that became a leverage point was the permanent marts we would set up for the founding members. Till date, this is an unparalleled story in any industry.
During your time as Chairman of IEML, you oversaw the expansion and modernization of the company’s facilities. Could you tell us more about this initiative and its impact on the trade promotion industry in India?
Every organization has various stages in its journey and being the founding member, I am a witness to various stages of evolution and growth of IEML, which continues to be held by hundreds of exporters in a collective manner. At IEML, our first stage of growth came when we convinced the organizers to move to Greater Noida, as in those days Greater Noida was not as developed as it is today. Our second stage of growth came, when we anticipated and envisioned the market and expanded our exhibition halls ahead of the industry demand. Over a period of time, the biggest exhibitions in every sector started preferring IEML, taking us to a pole position in the private sector exhibition venue space. Our current stage of growth is around our own IPs to give us a differentiated and unique position in industry. We have already launched six IPs of our own and have aggressive plans around this. The trade promotion industry is reaching a stage of maturity and now it is at this time when organisers look not only at facilities and space but also the service package and the team attitude. Here again, IEML has anticipated the industry needs in advance and planned ahead.
You have been recognized for your contributions to the Indian handicrafts industry, as well as your efforts to promote trade and commerce more broadly. What do you see as the most significant achievements of your career, and what motivates you to continue working in this field?
I am honored that the industry recognizes my effort over the last four decades. I have a deep sense of respect for every individual and a highly positive dispensation. I believe that the word impossible does not exist. Many a times, when we would be ideating about something usually ahead of its time, people would be driven by the difficulty of implementation, which would be the very source of motivation from me. My motivations have also been for the growth of India, the positive image of India and the growth of the sector rather than individual growth. My contributions have been around this philosophy. Under the current government, the India story has really been strengthened, whether by the Atmanirbhar scheme or ease of doing business or policy change and the working pace of the entire government machinery has improved significantly, and I have no doubt that we will become the second largest economy of the world soon. This is my real motivation, and this is what drives me on an ongoing basis. No doubt that results matter, but if results don’t come adequately due to any reason, there is no reason for us to slack our efforts. During the COVID-19 period in 2020, when the entire world’s economy was in turmoil, we worked round the clock and held almost 200 seminars for our exporters.
Many students and young professionals today are interested in pursuing careers in trade promotion. What advice would you give to them on how to prepare for this field, both in terms of education and practical experience?
It is an encouraging sign that students wish to take up trade promotion as a career – this is undoubtedly a promising career which will give them global exposure. Education-wise, I believe doing a course in global trade from good institutions would be very useful. Equally important is people skills and adaptability. When you work in global environments you find so many differences and it is important to adapt quickly because no course will teach you about people skills and adaptability. Courses will tell you about trade treaties and barriers etc., but understanding the culture is usually self-learnt, and this is equally important.
How can young professionals succeed in the trade promotion industry and balance the needs of diverse stakeholders such as government agencies, industry associations, and businesses, while building consensus and achieving common goals?
I think success is determined by how you are wired from childhood for one and how you adapt to external environments for another. If you are positive and have conviction, then you have better chances of succeeding. Many times, what starts out as a diverse perspective of different shareholders can be converted into a collaborative “everyone has the same meta goal” thinking. See, if India wins then the government wins, the association wins, the exporter wins – so basically everyone wins when India wins. So, instead of narrow-casting the approach, I would encourage youngsters to think of India winning as that will dissolve all differences. The second approach has to be to accept another’s viewpoint however different it may be from yours. Just because it is different from your point of view does not make it wrong. This will help in consensus building to a large extent.
What advice would you give to young professionals who are interested in pursuing a career in the trade promotion industry?
I would like to advise youngsters around these three key points:
- Never compromise on your value systems which should be the basis around your career development.
- Keep the focus on learning and innovating and in your careers and be guided by that, not money alone.
- Anticipate the future and prepare for that in advance and never fear taking bold career steps around the future.