Advice for entrepreneurs on alleviating poverty from the grassroots up.
In 1989 I traveled to Malawi, hoping to put my MBA and engineering skills to work as a Peace Corps volunteer. Over the course of two years I was tasked with advising some of poorest people in the world on how to enhance their business enterprises. The Peace Corps had always stressed that its volunteers would learn more than they would teach—and that was certainly true in my case. My Malawian colleagues were very smart and very creative, and though I’d come to help them and tell them what they should do to grow their businesses, beyond a little training in marketing, costing, or cash flow, they didn’t necessarily need me to tell them what they should do. The biggest impacts, I discovered, came from jointly innovating to create solutions that neither I, nor they, could have come up with or implemented on their own.
By the early millennium certain people, including my friend and advisor, Stuart Hart, started thinking about the role that profitable, scalable, impact enterprises could play in alleviating poverty. He and C.K. Prahalad wrote an influential article discussing the dormant entrepreneurial and commercial potential of the world’s 4 billion poorest people, who constitute the base of the economic pyramid. Their work highlighted an “invisible opportunity” to create a more inclusive capitalism and they called upon multinational corporations to reassess the assumptions they’d made about these markets as viable business prospects.
Today, the debate around the base of the pyramid has changed—we’re no longer asking Should we be doing this?, but rather, How can we do this better?