nina henning

Remembering CK Prahalad – A Legacy of Moral Leadership

I am one of the thousands of students who had the privilege of learning from Professor CK Prahalad, and it is with great sadness that I join so many others in paying tribute to him and his legacy.

Six years ago I was living in Kathmandu, Nepal, managing a fair trade herbal products company, when a friend recommended that I read a book called “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.” This was my introduction to CK’s brilliant mind and his willingness to engage his students in the process of researching and writing the content for his groundbreaking book. The now widely-accepted concepts introduced in his book – primarily the opportunity to achieve both profits and societal improvement through enterprise development focused on the world’s poor as consumers – struck a chord with me and played a big role in my decision a few years later to pursue my MBA at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

In 2007, I found myself in CK’s classroom for the first time and quickly came to realize that his agenda for his students was much broader than teaching us about the “bottom of the pyramid.” He was determined to give us enduring lessons about moral leadership, more compelling than anything I’ve ever heard in a business ethics course. He told us that “leadership is about having a point of view about the future, and leadership is about hope.”

I had the good fortune of returning to CK’s classroom as his teaching assistant in 2008, and the few minutes of time that I spent with him before each class allowed me to get to know a little bit more about CK than he had time to share in the classroom – about his devotion to his family, his incredibly demanding travel schedule and work ethic, and some of the issues that were near and dear to his heart in the final years of his career and life, including the role of environmental sustainability as a key driver of innovation and his passion for shaping a successful path forward for India’s economy.

The highlight of my graduate school career was the opportunity to have CK as my advisor for the development of a case study about the Jaipur Rugs company, which would ultimately be published in the 5th anniversary edition of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.”

It was during this process that I really witnessed the genius of CK’s mind – his ability to distill complex processes into just a few words that captured the essence of the innovation or the opportunity. I believe this is what made him such an invaluable asset to the numerous Fortune 500 companies that he advised.

In addition to the intellectual rigor he brought to the Jaipur Rugs project, he also brought an ethical rigor. He told me time and again that we had to write an “honest analysis” – one that did not sugarcoat the tough issues that invariably arise when considering the Indian carpet industry, such as labor practices and wages.

I spent two weeks in India with three of my classmates, conducting the research for this case with a mandate from CK to be humble, to listen and to ask a lot of questions. The Jaipur Rugs company has 40,000 individuals integrated into its business model, scattered across seven states in north India. CK urged us to start our research by travelling to some of the rural areas and speaking with the artisans and field staff and, importantly, to hold off on speaking in depth to the senior management team until later in the process. He wanted us to take a bottom-up approach to understanding how the company was able to produce “world class” quality carpets within a highly decentralized system of operations.

From the start, CK warned us that by agreeing to write this case with him, we were committing to a minimum one-year process of writing and revising. He placed high demands on us (and all of his students) and we responded, largely because of the trust, respect and attentiveness that he gave us in return.

I am very grateful that CK’s passion for and commitment to teaching remained intact as his star steadily rose to the highest ranks of management and innovation thinking. I last saw CK during a visit to his home in San Diego two months ago — he continued to be a mentor to me as I launched into my post-graduate school career and I never considered that he would be gone so soon and so suddenly. I can’t help but wonder what other significant contributions he would have made to the world if he’d had another 20 years. But with his death, it is up to those of us who have been inspired by Professor Prahalad to carry on his legacy of moral leadership.