Making Profits for a Purpose

Saturday, October 3, 2009

CAMBRIDGE – Backed by a $50 million gift from a self-made billionaire, a young MIT center is betting Third World development will come not from governments but from profit-driven entrepreneurs who use technology to create jobs.

The center’s founder and director, Iqbal Z. Quadir, has set a powerful example for his students to follow. He built Grameenphone in his native Bangladesh from a cellphone start-up in the 1990s into a business serving more than 20 million subscribers. The company’s Village Phone program has set up more than 270,000 rural women in small businesses selling phone calls. Grameenphone, now valued at more than $3 billion, goes public next week with an initial public offering in Bangladesh.

Quadir won’t benefit. He sold his interest five years ago, and plunged into creating his entrepreneurship center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship holds its second annual conference at MIT today with speakers including Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

The heart of the Legatum Center is its fellows, who must already be enrolled in a graduate program at MIT to be eligible for a fellowship. Many are earning MBA degrees at the Sloan School of Management; others are scientists and engineers. The center enlisted its second crop of 16 graduate student-fellows this fall, each armed with an idea for launching a Third World business they hope might become another Grameenphone.

“We want to be the Silicon Valley for the poor world – here in Cambridge,’’ Quadir said in an interview.

From 2001 to 2005, Quadir taught courses at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government on how technologies can transform poor countries. But the entrepreneurial, inventive bent of MIT has been an even better fit for a man who distrusts the ability of governments to deliver jobs and wealth to the poor.

Source: Boston Globe (link opens in a new window)