MBA Students Find a Divine Perspective on Global Poverty

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

God and Mammon are not generally seen in each other’s company, let alone in a business school classroom. But as more MBA students become interested in the potential for the private sector to foster growth in some of the poorest parts of the world, one student-led initiative has led to a most unusual alliance ? a partnership between Vanderbilt University’s business school students and its divinity students.

The unorthodox partnership ? the Project Pyramid Global Poverty Alleviation programme ? was launched last year at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management. The programme takes as its inspiration the work of Muhammad Yunus, the microfinance pioneer and a Vanderbilt graduate, and aims to give students the tools with which to create business plans that can help reduce poverty in the developing world.

The idea behind Project Pyramid was to give students the tools and knowledge with which to apply business solutions to poverty alleviation.

?Historically business has seen poverty-alleviation as charity,? says Rehan Choudhry, a secondyear Owen student. ?Our goal was to change that view ? to show that for-profit business can do good in the world.?

Last year, Mr Choudhry and Bobby Deneen, another MBA student, approached Bart Victor, professor of moral leadership at Owen, with the idea for the programme. ?I said if we could get 10 students, that would be fine,? says Prof Victor, who is now faculty adviser on Project Pyramid. ?We ended up in the first meeting in August with 70 students in the room; no one had any idea that there would be that many students interested.?

The interest by students such as Vanderbilt’s in finding busi ness solutions to poverty mirrors what is going on outside campus walls. For a start, the awarding of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Dr Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, has raised awareness of the role of microfinance.

Meanwhile, the work of academics CK Prahalad and Stuart Hart on ?bottom of the pyramid? strategies is encouraging business leaders to think differently about their operations in developing countries. Companies such as Unilever, Ericsson, TetraPak, Shell and SC Johnson have been devising commercial strategies to foster growth in some of the world’s poorest markets.

A report published in March revealed that those markets constitute a collective purchasing power of a $5,000bn market. The study ? produced by the International Finance Corporation, the private-sector arm of the World Bank Group, and the World Resources Institute ? argues that new business models can improve life for the 4bn people who live in relative poverty and for whom goods and services are often more expensive, lower in quality and hard to access.

Vanderbilt’s divinity students and Owen’s MBA students would agree. Yet in reaching such a conclusion, they first had to overcome a set of prejudices about each other’s ideas on the best way to tackle global poverty.

?The divinity school is traditionally very much a social justice school with links to the civilrights movement in the south,? says Prof Victor. ?And social justice and divinity in general have usually been very different from business, with a lot of suspicion that somehow we are just greedy money-grubbers.?

However, this soon changed. While in the first sessions the students were cautious about expressing their opinions, Erin Hoffman, a first-year Owen student who is taking the course, says that, ?by the third class, we had thrown all that behind us and were willing to say whatever we wanted, disagree in class and get some heated discussion going?.

In the process, the divinity students reassessed the view that charity and aid could solve all the world’s problems, while the MBA students questioned whether business alone was a solution.

?As business students, we also see that there’s a place for the aid,? says Mr Hoffman. ?You can’t have people stepping up as entrepreneurs if they’re not healthy and have no food or shelter. So there’s a case for both.?

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Source: Financial Times (link opens in a new window)