Moses Lee

Professor Ted London on Bringing the BoP into the Classroom

Ted London is a Senior Research Fellow at the William Davidson Institute (WDI) and a faculty member at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. At WDI, he directs the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) Initiative, a program that champions innovative ways of thinking about more inclusive forms of capitalism. At Ross, he teaches an MBA elective entitled, “Business Strategies for the Base of the Pyramid.” The course integrates concepts of strategy, international business, non-profit management, and poverty alleviation to stimulate the leadership skills and competitive imagination needed to create BoP ventures.

To enhance student learning in the classroom, Professor London has developed a series of unique case studies. I recently interviewed Professor London to talk about these materials as well as his experiences teaching the subject.

Question: Today, BoP curriculum is becoming more mainstream in business school education. Why do you think this is the case?

Ted London: I believe that there are two main factors behind this. The first originates from showing interest in this area from the for-profit sector. Corporations are looking at the intersection of business strategy and poverty alleviation in new ways. Complementing this trend is a growing number of students entering business school programs who want to do more with their career and reach communities usually left untouched by the traditional business world. These two drivers have really sparked conversation on BoP in business schools, and I see this interest continuing to grow.

Question: You currently teach the course Business Strategies for the Base of the Pyramid at the Ross School of Business. Can you describe the design of this course and the key lessons that you hope students take away from it?

Ted London: The big idea of this course is to provide a balanced view of the opportunities and challenges associated with BoP ventures. The class is not specifically designed to motivate students to undertake these ventures as it is to make them deeply understand the implications of such enterprises, both positive and negative. The course itself is case-study based, which is intended to elicit attention to key issues and tensions within this space and to get students to think beyond the typical question of “is this venture good or bad” and instead focus on “can we make this venture better.” As a result, we aim to analyze these ventures in terms of how they can maximize the positive aspects of their business while mitigating the negative. After those measures are taken, then we can take a step back and ask if that venture is worth undertaking. Using this type of approach we canhave a much more robust debate about the quality of BoP ventures.

Question: You have done a lot of research on the topic of impact assessment. How do you incorporate this issue into your course?

Ted London: Within my class in particular, I want students to have a deep understanding of what is happening on-the-ground within the communities that these ventures operate. As a result, we move away from a one-dimensional views of impact. Impact is multi-dimensional in terms of the people who are impacted as well as the various types of outcomes they experience. We commit a great deal of time to answer these questions.

Question: You have been teaching this class for a number of years. What do you enjoy most about it?

Ted London: There really are two aspects. The first is the diversity and enthusiasm of students. Although my class is primarily filled with business school students, there are many from other academic disciplines and perspectives. This diversity fuels our discussions and analyses in class. Secondly, the topic itself is emerging and developing. This means that each year we are able to have cutting edge discussions on current developments. In these circumstances, the class often focuses on questions that really do not have clear answers, which provides me the opportunity to constantly learn as well.

Question: You have written most of the cases that you use in your course. For faculty members looking to integrate BoP teaching material for the first time into an existing course, which cases do you suggest they start with?

Ted London: As I developed these cases, I tried to create a portfolio of topics that create a holistic perspective for this domain. However, to answer the question, it is important for a faculty member to understand the entry point for this material in order to select the most effective case study. For example I wrote a case called CEMEX’s Patrimonio Hoy which focuses on how a company can develop a market entry strategy at the BoP. This case would work well in specific areas such as international strategy and new market entry. On the other hand, we also have a great case on Hindustan Lever’s Shakti initiative which tackles the issues of both impact assessment and BoP venture scale. Other cases cater to different purposes. In the end, it depends on the focus of the course that will ultimately dictate the case study that proves to be most effective.

Question: Many faculty members are trying to design courses on the BoP. What are some ’best practices’ that you can recommend to them?

Ted London: The real challenge in teaching this topic is attempting to bring the BoP into the classroom. This is ambitious because it is difficult to have a class try to analyze a business in a context that may not have experienced. To do this, professors should be asking themselves: “how do I make something so distant, alive for my students?” Part of the answer certainly lies in the use of case-studies, but, many of our cases are also linked to richer media sources such as corresponding videos. These clips allow students to see ventures in action as well as understand the people behind them. We also use simulations as an effective way to engage our students. For example we created a simulation called Targeting Malaria that centers on a venture that sells bed-nets. I also invite guest speakers to share their expertise and highlight the latest challenges they are facing in developing BoP ventures. It is through these avenues as well as others that I try to bring the BoP into the classroom.