From Iowa to India: The Importance of Entrepreneurship in Promoting Human Dignity
My grandfather was a farmer from Farley, Iowa, but in many ways he was also an entrepreneur. He experimented with innovative farming techniques, calculated and assumed financial risks in unpredictable environments and, most importantly, created value-added products for his customers. Like any effective executive, he managed multiple streams of revenue, aligned short-term objectives with steadfast goals, and grounded his decision-making in sustainability, which prioritizes long-term profitability. His land was both a business and a source of livelihood for himself and his community. It provided income and employment, food and shelter, stability and prosperity. Indeed, this is the impact and importance of entrepreneurship: It is, at its core, dignifying.
From Rural to Urban
But more recently, for farmers in both the U.S. and India, the narrative has been quite different. Water wars, climate change and debilitating debt due to stagnant crop prices have made their profession less about dignity and more about survival. Farming, it seems, has become a bad business. Many farmers are being forced to abandon their rural communities in search of “greyer pastures” in growing urban centers. In India alone, these urban centers are expected to grow by 250 million residents during the next 20 years. Rural Indians are moving into cities for work, the lure of modern conveniences, or simply to be closer to fellow migrant family members. Considering that India will also have the largest millennial workforce in the world by 2027, we must ask: How will cities sustain their residents’ need for fresh food, clean water, waste management and gainful employment? Government funds are already being stretched thin by increasing demands on transportation infrastructure, an expanding energy grid and other public services. National or international aid organizations may provide relief for society’s most destitute, but that still leaves a large middle class searching for economic stability—as well as lingering concerns regarding environmental sustainability and community cohesion.
Addressing these concerns is the primary purpose of Poornatha—the Madurai-based social enterprise with which I partnered as a WDI Global Impact Fellow this past summer. The mission of Poornatha is to foster socio-economic vibrancy and entrepreneurial resilience that contributes to cultural preservation and community-building throughout India. In collaboration with the Michigan Academy for the Development of Entrepreneurs (MADE) and the William Davidson Institute (WDI)* at the University of Michigan, we began an effort to co-design a scalable, transferable, affordable coaching curriculum for entrepreneurs in emerging economies. The goal of this program is to equip and empower entrepreneurs as values-centered, data-driven decision-makers who build enduringly successful businesses that strengthen their local communities. Over the course of 10 weeks, the team of four coaches and I interviewed two dozen entrepreneurs in Madurai to identify their most salient needs as business leaders. What were their most pressing skill or knowledge gaps? What were their specific market opportunities or business growth goals? What were the core values of their organizations? These conversations informed what is now an entrepreneurship education program for leaders of family-owned businesses, featuring training in cash flow analysis, marketing and brand management, leadership development and, most importantly, sustainable strategic decision-making.
INNOVATING FOR IMPACT
Madurai has been an ideal test site for this program. Located in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Madurai is both a holy site and a gritty industrial center nicknamed “The Temple City” and “The City that Never Sleeps.” Reminiscent of an American Rust Belt metropolis, it is home to rubber factories and sand mines, raw material distributors and textile manufacturers—and an engaged entrepreneurship network grappling with an influx of residents from surrounding rural communities. Though many business owners in the Poornatha Network are simply trying to provide sustenance for their families while navigating complex competitive markets, most also acknowledge and advocate for business practices that promote economic, environmental and social well-being. The challenge, of course, is identifying and incorporating these win-win-win solutions into traditional businesses models.
Entrepreneurship in India is primarily associated with local job-creation rather than scalable innovation. This focus does indeed promote human dignity by fostering local socio-economic vibrancy, but it also bypasses another important contribution of business to society: the creation of new products or services that address pressing human and/or environmental needs. It is these eco-innovations that will transform markets and enable local entrepreneurs to apply—and benefit from—the “both/and” triple-bottom-line approach to decision-making.
My grandfather lived on the same piece of land nearly his entire life. For his 80th birthday party, the list of attendees was so long that our family had to rent City Hall for the reception. He was a hometown hero—a food grower, a job provider and a respected cornerstone of his community. He was, in my mind, a triple-bottom-line entrepreneur who lived with dignity by cultivating the dignity within those around him. Though this permanence of place may be a luxury for most farmers, rural residents, small business owners and urbanites living in India today, Poornatha hopes that this new entrepreneurship education program will nurture a business ecosystem that promotes socio-economic vibrancy, sustainability and, most importantly, human dignity throughout Tamil Nadu and beyond.
Chris Owen is a dual-degree student at the Ross School of Business and the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.
*Note: NextBillion is an initiative of The William Davidson Institute.
Image: Market in Madurai, India (via Francisco Anzola)