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Monday, July 21, 2008

Getting Involved in the Base of the Pyramid Movement - Part 1, My Story

By Moses Lee

Moses LeeI visited the slums of Nairobi in the summer of 2002. I remember being completely overwhelmed by the poor living conditions: large families cramped into little rooms, putrid refuse scattered throughout the neighborhood, young children left seemingly hopeless. I remember thinking to myself, what can possibly be done?

That summer, upon graduating from the BBA program at the University of Michigan's Business School, I was in Kenya on a service project with a small group from my local church.? For six weeks, a dozen of us taught English, science, and math in schools throughout Kenya.? But it was while visiting the slums that something in my heart and mind shifted.?? It was an epiphany of sorts ? similar to another epiphany I'd had the summer before, which led me to Nairobi in the first place.Just twelve months beforehand, I was in a posh tower in Manhattan, working as an investment banker for the largest financial services company in the world.? A brief snapshot of what my life looked like:
  • My associate set me down one day and told me the following: "This job takes sacrifice. Today I'm 33 years old, I don't have a girlfriend, my only friends are my relatives and I don't have a life. But guess what. I have a $250K salary and I can go to any bar in town and just wave my credit card in the air and get whatever I want. Join me."

  • I sat in on a meeting with a CEO from a major chemical company and the entire time he kept referring to me as "the numbers guy." I had clearly introduced myself to the CEO, and my name was in the book that he was looking at. Yet he didn't bother to call me by my first name. At the time, I didn't care what he called me. He could have called me "Mr. Squirrel" for all I cared. I was so enveloped by the banking world that human courtesy didn't mean anything to me.

  • One day I looked in the mirror and saw a horrible sight. My (normally straight) hair was starting to curl, the ring around the collar of my shirt had turned a dark brown color, my tie was stained with soy sauce, and the soles of my Kenneth Cole shoes were flapping around. I stood there and said, "You are the man, you banker you!"
Then one fateful New York day, I came home from work in the wee hours of the morning and completely broke down, crying out: There has got to be more to life than this!? It was this moment that drove me to Kenya the following summer.? And it was in Kenya that things started to click, and I began to ask the question to myself, how can I use my business education to address the problems that I'm seeing?
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After returning to the US from my trip to Kenya, I decided that the best way to defer my decision on what to do after graduation was to enroll in grad school.? So I became a graduate student instructor in accounting and picked up a master in accounting and a CPA.? To me, graduate school was a way to hold back and figure things out.? (Now, I am finding this education quite helpful.)

I had to find a job after grad school, but I knew that I did not want to go back to investment banking.? Because I wanted to stay in Michigan for various reasons (i.e., friends, family, my church), I ended up working for one of the Big Four accounting firms in the area.? But I knew this was not it for me in the long-run.

After a few years at the accounting firm, I decided to switch jobs and work for one of Detroit's automotive companies.? It was fun for a while, but I couldn't shake what I had seen in Nairobi.? Then, in the winter of 2006, I attended a conference in St. Louis though my church.? One of the sessions that I attended was on how to use market-based solutions to address poverty.? It was at this conference that I knew I had to leave my finance post at the automotive company to do something else. It just so happened at that same time, a position at the William Davidson Institute opened up.? And the rest is history.

A few years ago, I read an article about a couple of Harvard MBAs who started a company called Pura Vida. The company sells fair trade coffee beans through its website in the U.S., provides jobs for people in coffee-growing countries, and uses its profits to help local children and families. What struck me was what was said at the end of the article: "[They are] deploying core talents, which is oftentimes more valuable in terms of social value than writing a check. Anybody can write a check."

When I think about stewarding my gifts and talents in service to people, I am also compelled to do more than write a check. Like those two Harvard MBAs, I want to offer my core talents: my business acumen, my experience in the workplace, my passion for people. We've all heard the concept: don't just give a man a fish; rather, teach him how to fish. That's exactly what cutting edge BoP models attempt to do. These models champion a new way of thinking about and doing business in the world's poor markets - and it arguably brings about greater long term sustainability.

It's great that the world is now talking more than ever before about innovative ways to address some of the greatest social problems of today. And many are now choosing to use their talents for the good of society rather than just building a portfolio. ?

There are many of you out there with stories, similar or very different, on how you got involved with the BoP movement. What's yours?
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