Rob Katz

BoP Conference Report: Be Patient, Stay Longer, Come Back

This past weekend, 100+ attendees convened in Ann Arbor, Michigan for “Creating a Shared Roadmap: Collaboratively Advancing the Base of the Pyramid Community.” Despite the tortured title – one only an academic could love! – the 3-day event was incredibly vibrant and merits a quick report-out here on NextBillion.

We went to Michigan to work with 10 co-authors, who are working on a volume marking the 10-year anniversary of the original “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” white paper (later published by strategy+business, then turned into a book by CK Prahalad). Unfortunately, CK could not join us for the weekend, but many BoP-sector heavyweights were in attendance – Stu Hart, Al Hammond, Ted London, Mark Milstein – the list is long, so I’ll simply point you to the authors’ and the attendees’ list and you can judge for yourself. Personally, it was a great group to be part of, and the discussions lived up to my pre-conference expectations (high).

The title of this post is a quote from Ted London, who gave a great conference-opening keynote address. While discussing how to build better ventures with the base of the pyramid – and measure their impact – he adroitly mixed academic theory and real-world practice. In doing so, he reminded the audience that, at the end of the day, we are all working with real low-income communities.

To do this successfully – whether as a funder, implementer or advisor – Ted urged us all to “be patient, stay longer and come back”. After all, many low-income communities have seen this all before – well-meaning businessmen, governments and non-profits seeking to work with and for them. Why should they trust those of us espousing market-based approaches to poverty alleviation? They shouldn’t – and we as a sector must earn that trust. Kudos to Ted for not forgetting the key point here – and starting the conference off on the right foot.

I’ve been asked by the conference organizers not to delve too deeply into the actual content discussions over the weekend, as we came together to work on a book (stay tuned for its publication in 2010!) and we’re trying to respect the publisher. You’ll have to take my word that it was fantastic to have a mix of academics, practitioners, NGOs, funders, governments, multilaterals and large companies talking about where we’ve been since the original “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” white paper was released – and where we’re going from here.

I heard more this weekend about design, local companies, failure (not often discussed in polite BoP circles!), scale (and lack thereof), listening and trust than I have at any other BoP-focused meeting I’ve attended. I have high hopes that the forthcoming book will be a worthy companion to The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid and Capitalism at the Crossroads (and hopefully one that builds on The Next 4 Billion as well).

In addition to the planned conference activities, I managed to grab an hour with Aneel Karnani, a noted critic of BoP theory. We had a very productive discussion around the role of employment (central to poverty alleviation, by anyone’s measure) and the importance of discussing failure within the growing BoP community. I couldn’t agree more, and am happy to report that Aneel will be publishing a new paper soon, which we’ll be sure to review here on-site.

Thanks again to the organizers – Ted London and Stu Hart, the conference co-chairs in particular – and to the fine people at Zingerman’s Deli for keeping me well-fed. Hope I’ll see the maize and blue hues of Ann Arbor again soon!